For the Children’s Story, I told “The Most Wonderful Gift,” a Turkish story about three brothers who look for gifts to bring a princess in hopes they will bring the best gift and thus win her hand in marriage. One brother finds a magic mirror that can see all over the world, the other a magic carpet, and the third a lemon that can cure any illness. While walking to the princess’ lands, they see in the mirror that the princess is dying. They use the carpet to take them there so the third brother can use the lemon to cure her. The story can be found in Tales Alive by Susan Milord.
For a reading, I used “The Gift” by David S. Blanchard, which is in a meditation volume called Listening for Our Song, edited by Margaret L. Beard and sold through the Unitarian Universalist Bookstore.
Sermon – On Receiving Gifts
You have probably heard that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And you may know that that sentence comes from the Book of Acts, and the Book of Acts was written by the evangelist Luke, who also wrote the Gospel of Luke. In the Book of Acts, Luke tells the story of Paul, who was that missionary who started all those Jesus-worshiping churches in the first century. Well, in this scene Luke is talking about how Paul was talking to other missionaries, and was telling them, “No, you don’t ask for money for what you’re doing, because remember what Jesus said: It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)
Well that piece of Scripture has been used and explored in various ways. It’s being used to encourage giving in congregations, for instance, during pledge drives, and it’s being used to tell the minister that no, you don’t need any more money, you’re giving, not receiving. In 1874, William Denton, in A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, wrote that when you give you, in effect, create points so others will help you out later. More recently, we maybe don’t like to think in terms waiting for our reward after our life is over, so in his book from 1831, Commentary on the Bible, commentator Adam Clarke writes: “A truly generous mind, in affluence, rejoices in opportunities to be good, and feels good in having those opportunities.”
In other words, we feel good right now when we give. We do. And giving is important. We just gave to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee this morning, which is something that matters because they help out people who are in a situation where they need some help. You know, one thing that has also come out of this sentence from Acts, and some other pieces of scripture, and our Calvinist and Puritan background, is this notion that we should be giving, we shouldn’t be receiving. We should have abundance, we shouldn’t be needy. If we need things, it means that somehow we failed or somehow we’re less than or inferior. There is a little bit of that in our culture, and sometimes this selflessness can also become a self righteousness.
So giving is a confusing thing in a way. Yes, it is good to give, but how much is too much? When is it also oppressive? A sign of lording over rather than working with, being in relationship. Now, it is also true that if we give someone has to receive. We can’t give unless there are people out there who can take what we have to offer. That’s something that I learned years ago when I was a nurse’s aide. I learned that the very act of being the one who receives can be a gift itself. I was taking care of a woman who was dying of cancer. She, by this time, was not able to do much for herself. I was bathing her and dressing her and brushing her hair and teeth, feeding her, that sort of thing, and I was young, and it seemed like a terrible thing to me to be taken care of in that way, and I was not only young, but I was also impetuous, and so I asked her, “You know, what’s it like for you? How do you deal with having to be taken care of like that?”
She answered me by saying, “Well, you know, I once was active and able to give, and that was wonderful. And I really liked being there. But now, I figure that it’s my turn to help you learn generosity, help you learn to care. I am able to receive so that you can give.”
And that changed my life.
David Blanchard, in his essay about the gift, talks about the difference between a present and a gift, that presents are objects that fill a need, a practical need. They are something that people want and hope for. But gifts are something deeper. He writes that “gifts are about things like love, respect, and affirmation.” By allowing me to give to her, so graciously and so unashamedly, this woman with cancer was offering me the gift of feeling good about myself, of learning to grow in many ways that I never would have otherwise. By receiving my gift of care-taking, she offered me a gift beyond measure.
Now Blanchard also talks about giving gifts in camouflage, behind a present or another way, because sometimes giving a gift is scary. We make ourselves vulnerable. We don’t know if the person’s going to want our gift. We don’t know if the person’s going to think it looks kind of like a lemon or a not very valuable pot holder. We don’t know if they will be able to look beneath the surface and see what’s really there. And that’s something else this woman who had cancer was able to do: she gave her gift totally openly, she was vulnerable, she was unable to disguise her neediness and her gift of receiving. And she openly, willing accepted my care. In a way, she did that unashamedly did, which taught me that receiving of gifts is a ministry, especially when we can do it so openly and without any sense of shame or that we don’t deserve it. Because it’s not easy to receive gifts. We sometimes do feel awkward. We sometimes do feel that if we’re getting, it means we’re not good enough to give.
So there’s that book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, written by Jon Kabat-Zinn, in which he talks about mindfulness. But there’s a section in which he writes about generosity. One of the things he says is that we should start giving to ourselves. “See if you can give yourself gifts that may be true blessings, such as self acceptance, or some time each day with no purpose. Practice feeling deserving enough to accept these gifts without obligation, to simply receive from yourself and from the universe.”
That’s sometimes an issue for some of us. We don’t feel we deserve to receive. We don’t deserve the incredible bounty that is out there. We may give and give to build up our self-esteem, to make ourselves feel holy, or maybe to please some imaginary parent in our head. Whatever it is, gifts can be hard to accept.
That’s something I have had to learn how to do: accept gifts. There have been times in my life when my family had very little money. We have always had someplace to sleep. We have always had a meal, though we have sometimes had to depend on the generosity of others, and we’ve lived on food stamps. But we have always had enough. We have always had one another. And we’ve had a car, we have computers, and warm showers, and pets. Our bodies are whole, our minds are clear, we all are educated. We have so much wealth, it’s an incredible lesson. And yet I’ve also been blessed to have had the experience of living on the edge. I understand the value of money in a different way. I empathize with people who are struggling. I had to become resourceful, and I’ve developed a faith that, even though things are tough, I know that in a real way, it will be all right, that I will be well, my family will be well, in the ways that matter. The other thing I’ve learned is how to receive. How to receive from friends, and family, and the government. You know, that sometimes is humbling. And it doesn’t make you any less of a person because of it.
And it doesn’t mean that you are poor and needy. One thing that William Denton wrote in 1876 was that the person who gives even temporal gifts receives for himself that spiritual blessing promised to those who give to the poor and needy. So I read that and I think, so there are the people who can give and the people who can’t. There are the poor and needy over here somewhere. But the reality is we’re all poor and needy sometimes. And everyone has gifts of some kind. What you have may change, what you need to receive may change, but none of us go through even one day without receiving gifts. We all have needs.
Another thing that I find fascinating about the fact that in the Scripture Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” is that Jesus didn’t have anything. He was a mendicant. He wandered around without a home, he wore some clothes, but maybe even they were given to him, who knows? And he didn’t eat unless someone gave him food. And yet he really enjoyed what he got. He liked to eat and drink wine. And there’s this story – there are two stories, actually, two different stories – about when he had oil spread on his feet and when oil was used to anoint his head. And these oils were expensive. In one of the stories they say, “How can you do this when you know the money for that oil could have been given to the poor.” You don’t deserve this is the connotation there. And Jesus said, “Yeah, I do deserve this. I do deserve to receive these gifts.” (Mark 14:3-9)
We all deserve to receive gifts.
Now you might think that Jesus gives a lot of love, he gives forgiveness, he gives grace and hope, and he stands up to the powers, and he’s willing to die for what he believes in. That’s a lot of giving. So, sure he deserves that expensive oil. But we don’t deserve that much. But it may not even be true that we don’t. And the other thing is, it’s not about keeping score. There’s not a balance sheet. When you give this much, you get to receive that much. No. It just flows. We deserve to receive.
Now, in what I’m saying, I’m kind of talking about material giving, in an overt way. Jesus, for instance, was given material things. Of course what he gave was not material. And Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about some of those non-material things that we can give. He says, “Share the fullness of your being, your best self, your enthusiasm, your vitality, your spirit, your trust, your openness, above all, your presence. Share it with yourself, with your family, with the world.”
All of us can share these things. All of us have at least a little bit of time to listen to someone, to be present to someone, to care, to show love. And because all of us can give these things, there’s got to be someone out there to receive them, and that is us, as well.
And yet receiving, to truly receive, as David Blanchard points out to us, is not that simple. When we truly receive, we need to take in the gift. We need to make it part of us. We need to hold it and treat it as sacred. A gift holds something of the heart, so if we’re going to accept that gift, that “something of the heart,” we must take it into our own heart.
Blanchard points out that seeing the potholder as not very useful and not very pretty is seeing it as a present. To look at it as a gift means to honor the love, care, and the vulnerability with which it was given. To receive takes effort, attention, and love. It may take looking at a gift in a new way, with eyes that see beneath the surface. And often the giver has no idea how much he or she has given. That was certainly true of the woman with cancer. I had no idea when I was in my early twenties how much she had given me. How could I have articulated that to her? I couldn’t possibly have. And yet, it’s all right. She didn’t have to know, because giving isn’t about getting anything in return. It’s just about giving. Whether the gift is material goods, or kindness, or gift of receiving, we give because it heals us, it feels good, and because without giving we cannot live. In “The Most Wonderful Gift,” that lemon that gave life, that lemon that is not very beautiful and maybe not as useful. Lemons have their place, but we can live without them. Well, that lemon was the most precious gift because it gave life.
All of our gifts give life in a way, because when we give, we are also giving love and happiness and community and friendship and kindnesses, and we can’t live without that kind of give and take that is relationship. We cannot live without sharing and receiving. Sharing ourselves and honoring the other. If there’s no one out there to accept our gifts, then we have no relationship. So it may be more blessed to give than to receive, and yet to receive itself is a gift. Amen.
First presented at the Vashon Island Unitarian Fellowship in Vashon Island, Washington on Dec 2007. Permission granted to use quotes from this sermon for non-commercial purposes, as long as proper attribution is made. Copyright 2010 Barbara E. Stevens.
Blanchard, David S., “The Gift,” Listening for Our Song: Collected Meditations, Vol. 4, ed. Margaret L. Beard, Boston: Skinner House, 2002, 40.
Clarke, Adam, Commentary on the Bible, 1831, sacred-texts.com, http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/cmt/clarke/act020.htm.
Denton, William, A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, first published 1874, Charleston, South Carolina: Nabu Press, 2010.
Roberts, Gayle, “Inspiring Gifts that Transform,” http://www.gayleroberts.com/blog/2006/12/where-ever-you-go-there-you-are.html.