02/06/22 “Love Languages: Gifts”

John 3:16

I haven’t asked Marc to take the love language quiz yet, but I’m pretty sure one of his primary languages is “gifts.” He’s a wonderful gift-giver. He likes shopping for gifts. He doesn’t spend a lot of time debating over this one or that one; if he sees something he wants to give, he just goes for it. He’s generous; the price tag is the last thing he looks at. He even likes wrapping presents! Every year, for my birthday and Christmas, he buys new wrapping paper and ribbons just to wrap my presents in.

He’s given me some amazing gifts over the years, but the one that I most remember is one he gave me while I was in seminary. Kindles had been out for a while, but I just couldn’t see the point of having one. Even though a Kindle sounded convenient, it also sounded like a waste of money. When they first came out, you had to buy all your Kindle books. I don’t buy many books. I rarely read books for pleasure a second time, so I borrow them from the library.

Then I read in the newspaper that the library was going to start lending Kindle books. I thought that was interesting and mentioned to Marc that that made having a Kindle make a lot more sense. But I still wasn’t thinking about buying one any time soon.

Soon after that, I arrived home after a long week at seminary. There on the counter was a package, beautifully wrapped in paper I didn’t recognize, complete with a fancy bow. I thought it might be a gift for Peyton, since she was getting married. When Marc got home, I asked him about it. “Oh, that’s for you,” he said. Inside was a Kindle. He said, “I just thought you ought to have one.” At least, those were the words he said out loud. The gift said so much more. The gift said, “I was thinking of you, and I love you.”

In his book, The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman says that gifts are “visual symbols of love.” To give someone a gift, he says, you have to be thinking about them. The love language of gifts speaks through objects that say, “She was thinking of me” or “He really knows me.” It doesn’t have to be expensive, or the latest thing, or even bought in a store. It just has to show that you have someone on your mind in a loving way.

Proof of this is a gift that Marc received from my mother. She was still living at home but Alzheimer’s was tightening its grip on her. We went back to my hometown to visit her, and it happened to be during New Phila’s annual “First Town Days” festival. We walked over to the festival, and Marc announced that he was hungry for funnel cake. But, surprisingly, there was no funnel cake to be had. Mom was so disappointed for Marc—way more disappointed than he was.

A few days after we got home, we got a strange package in our mail. It was a large yellow envelope, with greasy stains all over it. It was addressed to Marc, and it was from my mom. We gingerly opened it, and inside was…a funnel cake. That soggy, greasy, several-days-old pastry was a gift, and it showed that her love was stronger than her illness.

Are you one of those people who loves give a gift—loves seeing someone light up with the pleasure of knowing you had been thinking of them, that you cared enough to take the time to make or buy something just for them, no matter how small? Do you feel cherished when someone does the same for you? Or do you see gifts as just needless stuff and a waste of money? If our primary language is not gift-giving, we may think that presents are a rather shallow, materialistic way of showing love, and that we can make our love known in better ways.

Our attitudes towards gifts may be rooted in our childhood. Were gifts a source of delight, or were they a means of manipulation, or a way to show favoritism? Gift-giving and -receiving are also affected by our attitude towards money. If you’re a spender—someone who spends money easily—you may find it easier to give a gift than a saver—someone who doesn’t spend on themselves, let alone others.

If gifts aren’t your primary love language, and you want to get better at speaking it, Chapman has some suggestions. Write down a list of the gifts your loved ones have expressed excitement about in the past, whether they were from you or from someone else. That will give you some clues about what will delight them in the future. Ask others for help if you can’t come up with your own list. Don’t wait for a special occasion; a gift is meant to show someone you’re thinking of them with care and affection. And, remember that a gift doesn’t have to come from a fancy store or carry a hefty price tag. It can be as simple as the dandelion a small child proudly offers.

Or, Chapman says, we ourselves can be the gift. Our presence can be a present. When we are physically present for someone who loves or needs us, our bodies become a precious, visible sign of love.

We need to be fluent in the love language of gifts, because God speaks it to us and wants to hear it from us. As with all the other love languages, it was God who created it. God has spoken the love language of gift-giving from the creation story onward, and God is still speaking it today. It’s impossible to list all the gifts God gives us. We touched on some of them in the Call to Worship: birds and animals, food and water, mountains and hills, grass and trees, sun and moon. Even “wine to gladden the human heart, and oil to make the face shine” with joy. When it comes to listing all the material gifts God gives, we would just have to throw up our hands and quote the words of John, “If every one of them were written down, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

But, God also gave us the ultimate visible sign of love: the gift of God’s physical presence with us. God in human flesh and blood. God’s very self in the human form of Jesus—God’s only son.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Say that with me: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Say it again: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

We all have children in our lives whom we love, no matter how old you are. Try substituting your name for God’s in that verse, and substituting the name of that special child for the Son. Can you do it? I can’t even bring myself to fill in that blank with Peyton’s name. I can’t imagine having a love so great that I would give my child as a gift, to save even one life in I, let alone all of humanity. And yet, God did that.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that God sent Jesus for the purpose of dying. John says only that God gave his only Son in order that the world would be saved through him. It was human sin that nailed Jesus to the cross—the consequence of a world that refused to believe the Savior’s word and a Savior who refused to give in to the sin of that world. If the world had jumped on board with Jesus’ message, salvation might have come without that terrible ending. But, given humanity’s track record in accepting and following God’s will for the world, I can’t imagine that God thought Jesus had an easy road ahead of him. I can’t imagine offering anyone I love to travel that road.

And yet, God gave us that gift. Jesus was the ultimate expression of the love language of gifts. He was the visual symbol of God’s love for us. He was the evidence that God was thinking of us, that God knows us, that God loves us. Mountains and birds and good food to eat are wonderful gifts. But they can’t compare to the gift of God’s presence with us in Jesus.

The Son speaks the love language of gifts, just as his Father does. We’ve already seen how Jesus spoke the love languages of affirming words and of touch. He also spoke the love language of gifts. If we were asked to make a list of gifts Jesus gives us, we’d probably start out with intangible things like healing, strength, forgiveness, and so on. But, Jesus also gave us some that meet Chapman’s definition of gifts: visual symbols of love and a reminder that we are being thought of. We’ll receive two of them today at te Communion table.

Our psalm reminds us that food and drink are indeed gifts from God. They nourish our bodies. They form the centerpiece of many of our gatherings, from birthday parties to funeral luncheons. Sharing a meal together creates and strengthens relationships. God gives us food and drink because God loves us—all of us, soul and body. Food and drink are visible signs of God’s love and care for us.

But then Jesus gave them to us in a new way. He invested them with new meaning. Sitting around his own table with his friends, he took the bread that was there on the table. I wonder if, at first, no one noticed as Jesus helped himself to the bread. But then, I picture him pausing with the bread in his hands, looking around at his guests. As the table grows quiet, he lifts the bread and says a prayer of thanksgiving over it—a prayer of gratitude for the gift of food. He breaks the bread as his friends watch. And then he says something that probably sounded very strange that night in the upper room, in the hours before the betrayal, the arrest, the trial, and its terrible outcome. “This is my body, given for you.” Jesus, offering his own body as a gift to us—a physical, visible, literal gift of himself.

And then he takes the cup—that wine that was intended to gladden the human heart, as all good gifts do. And he says a prayer of gratitude for it, and then says what may have sounded stranger yet: “This is my blood, poured out for you and for many.” Jesus, offering his own blood as a gift to us—a physical, visible, literal gift of love.

This is not a one-time gift. Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, Jesus offers himself to us again, through the presence of his Spirit. Jesus is the gift who keeps on giving—giving himself to us over and over again.

How do we respond to such a gift? What can we offer to a God who speaks the love language of gift-giving with such eloquence and passion? There’s a hymn that asks that question: “What gift can we bring, what present, what token…what song can we offer in honor and praise?” What visible sign of our love can we give to a God who gives us everything, including God’s own self?

We often give money or gift cards to those we love. We do the same for God, in the form of our offerings to the church. We can’t buy God’s love, but our offerings do say something about our love for God. How much do we value the love God has for us and the gifts God has given us? If you ever wonder if your giving is a sufficient reflection of your gratitude, let me offer some suggestions.

If your income has increased over the years, has your giving increased, too? Or have you been giving the same amount for years? If there’s a point each year when your income goes up, make it a point to adjust your giving then, too. There are charts available online that are helpful for assessing our giving. You can either find your annual income and see what various percentages of giving would be. Or, you can find the amount you typically give and see what percentage that is.

Tithing—giving a tenth of our income—is the traditional standard for giving. I didn’t grow up in a tithing family, but Marc did. When we made our first budget as newlyweds, he insisted that we set aside ten percent of our income for giving. We had very little in the way of income, and a lot in the way of expenses. But we did it. We still do. A tenth of the salary you pay me comes back to Zion as my offering to the general fund.

But we also need to remember that tithing is intended to be a floor, not a ceiling. For Christians, and especially for Christians in the Methodist tradition, tithing is a standard we’re to aim for and then exceed. John Wesley encouraged the people called Methodists to “render unto God, not a tenth, not a third, not half, but all that is God’s.” We remember that Jesus didn’t give us 10% of himself, but 100%.

If you haven’t made any changes to your giving as your income has increased, or if you would like to work towards tithing, I have a suggestion. Figure out what percentage you are giving now, and move that up one percentage point. Each year, increase the percentage. You’ll find yourself tithing before you know it.

In addition to our gifts of money, we have so many other gifts to give. We give the things we make with our hands. We give food for the food pantry and flowers for the altar and more. We also offer intangible gifts that we’ll talk about in the coming weeks. But we also have our selves to offer. We are present for God in our worship and in our daily devotions. As Paul said, we “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” We make our bodies available to be temples of the Holy Spirit—to be the physical dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. As God gave us God’s physical presence in Jesus, we offer our presence to God.

The love language of gifts speaks through visual symbols. God speaks this language through the gifts of creation—the landscape around us, the sky above us, the produce of the land that sustains us and brings us joy. God speaks it through the gift of the Son—God in a human body, who gave us the gift of life by giving up that body—for us. Through the tangible elements of bread and cup, we receive that gift once again—the body and blood of the Son, given for us. At this table and every table, in this day and every day, God speaks to us in the love language of gifts and invites us to speak it, too. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young