This is a sermon delivered by Rev. Mark Ward to his congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville, on March 21, 2010. We felt that many congregations would find it helpful especially since many are currently in the midst of their annual budget drives….
Rev. Mark Ward’s Stewardship Sermon
The story is told that the Japanese Zen master Nan-in once received a visit from a professor from a famous university. The professor said he heard much about the practice of Zen and was interested to know more about it. Nan-in nodded, and so the professor launched into his questions: what were its origins, who were its teachers, were there many schools, and so on, in rapid fire.
As the professor went on, Nan-in rose, walked over to his tea pot and gestured to ask if the visitor wanted tea. Amid his questions, the professor nodded, “Yes.” And so Nan-in took two tea cups and set them down on a tray, then brought over the tea pot.
As Nan-in served the tea, he poured the professor’s cup full and kept pouring. The professor watched the tea overflowing onto the tray and then finally called out, “It’s overfull. No more will go in.”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of opinions. How can I teach you Zen until you empty your cup?”
From you I receive, to you I give.
Together we share. And from this we live.
Each Sunday as they end their gathering time downstairs before going to their classes our children sing those words together. They help reinforce an ethic of reciprocity that is central to our understanding of how we live in community, both in this congregation and in the larger world. Reciprocity is the grease that makes community work. We give, knowing that we will receive, and we receive knowing that we will give.
It is has a practical dimension, since in sharing we all benefit. But it also has deeper consequences. For in sharing with another person, I acknowledge that that person is a subject of my concern: she or he matters to me.
And this goes both ways. In giving to another, I demonstrate that this person has value in my eyes, that she or he is worthy of sharing something of myself. In receiving from another, I acknowledge that I am not entirely self-sustaining. I need others. In receiving from you, I make myself vulnerable in a way.
I accept that I am a person in need and that in some way you can meet that need. Whether or not I actually need or want the tie or the toaster that you give me, I accept that simply in the giving, in sharing something of yourself with me you have given me something of value. By accepting your gesture, I accept that you have value, you have a bearing on my life.
It is true, though, as Frank, our worship associate, suggested, that in our culture we give far more attention to the act of giving than receiving. In part, it may have to do with the fact that giving gifts enhances our standing with others – it marks us as generous people – while receiving seems to mark us somehow as incomplete.
As much as anything, though, I suspect that our preference for giving over receiving is likely due in large part to the Bible’s influence on our discussion of moral duty. The passage comes in the Book of Acts, chapter 20, verse 35, in which Paul is giving his valedictory speech to the elders of the church of Ephesus, his last address before he is arrested in Jerusalem. It goes like this: “You know for yourselves that I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions. In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
I’m guessing that whether or not you grew up in a Bible-quoting household or spent much time with scripture, you have heard that final passage quoted. It is the punctuation point to many a charitable campaign, reinforcing as it does the sense of obligation that we have for each other, especially, in Paul’s words, “the weak,” those who through whatever circumstances are unable to see to their own care.
An unfortunate aspect of Paul’s phrasing is that while it raises up the act of giving, it diminishes the act of receiving. Likely, his intent was to tell his followers that, rather than amass goods solely for yourself, it’s better to share, especially with those who have less than you. Perhaps it would have been more toward the point if he’d said, “it is more blessed to give than to hoard.”
For in truth, giving and receiving are simply two dimensions of being in relationship, and, if those relationships are to deepen and grow, they are roles that trade back and forth. At times we are in a position to give to others; at times we need to be open to receiving. Unwillingness to participate in either pole of that relationship threatens it. Once we start hoarding – our goods, our time, our attention – keeping everything we have to ourselves, we signal to others that they’re no longer subjects of our care or concern. Equally, if we refuse gifts that we are given or accept them with sullen resignation, we communicate to the givers that they don’t matter to us.
Appreciative giving and receiving, though, strengthen relationship as well as our own sense of worth and well-being. The Bible touches on this elsewhere, in the Book of Luke, in Jesus’ so-called Sermon on the Plain“Do not judge, and you will not be judged,” he says, “do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put in your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
This brief passage in many ways distills the wisdom of reciprocity that is needed for living in relationship. Living in this way, we act in light of the consequences our actions will bring with another. We see in that person a peer, someone worthy of our concern, and we owe them the same duty that we expect for ourselves.
Our giving will not only benefit the other, it will benefit us as well, not only because of the prospects of receiving gifts ourselves but by reinforcing the relationship that we have with that person. The more widely we practice it in the circle of people with whom we come into contact, the more widely it redounds to our benefit, and the more widely and deeply the web of relationship is woven.
From you I receive to you I give,
Together we share, and from this we live.
OK, but we’re still missing something. While this gospel of giving may certainly be satisfying and theologically rich, we are awaiting a companion gospel of receiving. And receiving is definitely different. While giving is an affirmative act, receiving is more of a response, not so much a gesture full of active intention as opening ourselves to what may come.
Few of us are very good at receiving. Sometimes we’re caught off guard and are unsure how to react. Other times we’re embarrassed by the attention. We may be calibrating in our minds how we ought to respond: How do we feel about this person and how will he or she expect us to react? Is the gift something we want, or despise? Is this person imputing an intimacy that we don’t feel? Or is our pulse racing with the discovery of an offered intimacy we had hoped for?
Like the professor interviewing the Zen master, our minds are so full of competing scripts, all running at the same time, that we can hardly focus on the gift or the giver.
In the end, the path of receiving is mostly about emptying: emptying ourselves of assumptions and self-centered scripts, including those in which we paint ourselves as unworthy, so that we are able to receive the gesture, the gift that is given with gratitude and compassion.
Of course, it’s also true that the uneasiness that we feel at receiving isn’t always a product of just our own discomfort. Sometimes it’s the circumstances of the gift-giving itself. Some of us have experienced the relative who loads it on at gift-giving time, showering us with a mountain of goods and expecting effusive thanks in return. Or we may experience the headless re-gifter, who perfunctorily passes along gifts he or she received from elsewhere, sometimes with gift tags to others still attached, that they simply want to clear out of their homes.
In a culture that struggles with intimacy, we sometimes mistakenly use giving as a proxy for the person-to-person caring that we are either too frightened or too busy to make time for. Or, even worse, it can be destructive of our relationships: sowing the seeds of guilt or fostering dishonesty and sham displays.
I must confess that I am only a recent convert to all the new bells and whistles of cell phones. Not long ago, my wife, Debbie, offered to program my phone with some kind of a ring tone other than the dull, old telephone bell that I had used as a default. I decided to choose a song that could serve as a mantra of sorts and also happens to be among my favorites: It’s James Taylor’s, “Shower the People.” Gifts are fine, and I try to be a creative and attentive gift-giver, but, as JT says, “better to shower the people you love with love.”
So, it is incumbent on me also to try to be a creative and attentive receiver. And I try to do that by letting go of expectation and being present to the person who is doing the giving, seeing the gift as a gesture of care, something that could draw us closer, help us get to know each other better, weave deeper the web of relationship.
If we empty our cups before the tea is poured into them, we are better able to take in what is given. We are, each of us, incomplete, in need, and there is so much that the world offers if we would put ourselves in the posture to receive it.
Still, it remains true that receiving is one of the most difficult spiritual disciplines to learn. For it requires letting go: letting go of our need to direct our lives and control outcomes, letting go of the inner scripts we use to orient ourselves, and simply accepting what comes. This isn’t easy and becomes especially hard when we live with a sense of fear, suspicion or guilt.
In the last year I’ve seen members of this congregation who have lost jobs or otherwise confronted economic troubles struggle with having to ask for help. It is the dark side of an American dream that declares that we should all be able to make our own way in the world without anyone else’s assistance.
That way of thinking is a fantasy, and a dangerous one. None of us makes it on our own. Each of us owes what success we have had to a network of love and support that has made possible the opportunities we have been given. The truth is that we need each other, not a one of us can be spared, and the only way we can succeed, individually, as a people, as a species is in the giving and receiving that works to our common benefit.
It is in communities of trust, like this one, where we can build that ethic, places where we are accepted for who we are, people of inherent worth and dignity, linked indissolubly with all things, places where we can teach and learn the first tentative steps toward living open-hearted and fully-attentive, receiving each other’s gifts of insight and wisdom, of care and concern, and not least of all, this blooming, buzzing world of which we are a part.
Annie Dillard, in the reading you heard earlier, invites us to consider how it would be to experience the world fully receiving what it has to give to us. The flight of Canada geese over a fall marsh is a pedestrian event in the larger scheme of things, but in the moment, if attended to, it opens a vista to the heart of things.
“Not only does something come if you wait,” Dillard wrote, “but it pours over you like a waterfall, like a tidal wave. You wait in all naturalness without expectation or hope, emptied, translucent, and that which comes rocks and topples you.”
In a sense, that waterfall is in each one of us, each moment of our lives, deeper than we can ever fathom. It helps us see something precious in all that is around us, wherever we look, wherever we step, if we are in a posture to receive it.