Giving and Receiving
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 24, 2002
Deuteronomy 24:17-22 Leave the gleanings for the poor
Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.
When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.
John 4:31-38 One sows and another reaps
Meanwhile his disciples urged him, "Rabbi, eat something."
But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about."
Then his disciples said to each other, "Could someone have brought him food?"
Jesus said, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Do you not say, 'Four months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying 'One sows and another reaps' is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor."
Arcana Coelestia #4459 Spiritual poverty and wealth
In heaven, those who are least are the greatest, those who are humble are the most highly honored, and those who are poor and needy are rich and affluent. . . .
People are called poor and needy in heaven when they believe in their heart, with feeling, that nothing that they have comes from themselves, none their knowledge or wisdom comes from themselves, and none of their power comes from themselves. In heaven, people like this are wealthy and have an abundance. The Lord gives them total wealth because they are wiser and richer than others. They live in magnificent palaces, and dwell among all the treasure troves of heaven's wealth.
The saying 'One sows and another reaps' is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor. (John 4:37, 38)
One of the most powerful and enduring fictions of human society is the idea that we can own things. A large part of our legal, civil, and social system is based on property ownership and the right to possess what is "ours." And in this society, our sense of self-worth tends to be heavily bound up in how much money we make, and what we can afford to buy and own. What sort of a house (or apartment) do we live in? Do we own it or rent it? What kind of car do we drive? How nice are the clothes we wear? We even have phrases like our "net worth," which is the dollar value of everything we own minus everything we owe.
How much are you worth? Can it be counted in dollars? And more fundamentally, do any of us really own anything?
Of course, legally we can and do own things. The law says that if I hold title to a piece of property, then I own it, and I can generally do with it what I wish. If I decide to sell it, the money is mine, and I can use it to buy something else, which I will then own. So in one sense, it's obvious that we can own things.
And yet, civil law itself is simply an agreement among people that we are going to treat certain things in certain ways. We human beings of this society have written laws saying that if I hold a particular officially sanctioned piece of paper, and it is registered with the county (or perhaps the state), this gives me an exclusive right to use and benefit from the property or other items described on the piece of paper. And since almost everyone in our society agrees to abide by the laws giving me that right, we all maintain together the persuasion that we own this or that piece of property. We all agree on it, therefore it must be true. And as long as we do generally agree on this system, it does provide some framework for sorting things out among ourselves--whether justly or unjustly.
However, it is good to keep in mind that this business of possessions and property ownership is not an ultimate reality of the universe, or a God-given right, but simply a human system that we have agreed upon for our own purposes. In an ultimate sense, we really don't own anything. We simply have a limited level of outward control over certain things that we call our own.
That control is tenuous at best. If our employment situation changes, or the laws change, or disaster strikes, or we ourselves die or become incapacitated, then all our sense of ownership can be very quickly wiped out, and we can suddenly have little or nothing that we can call our own. Things pass into our hands and pass out of our hands, and our control over that is far more limited than we like to think. Ownership is a fleeting thing.
In earlier millennia, when legal systems weren't so well developed, and human civilization was much simpler than it is today, the sense of personal ownership was not such a central aspect of society. (And this is still true in some so-called "primitive societies" today.) In Old Testament times, when the Israelites moved into and conquered the Holy Land, though it was at times referred to as a "possession," it was also carefully pointed out that the land was an "inheritance"--in other words, a gift--from the Lord. The land itself could not be sold; only the use of it could be sold for a certain time period. Every fifty years, any land that had been "sold" was to revert back to the original family whose inheritance it was.
David, the Psalmist, summed up when he wrote, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it" (Psalm 24:1). And this brings us to the reality of the situation, beyond all human laws, agreements, and commonly held fictions. The fact is, none of this is really ours. It is all the Lord's. The Lord God made the entire universe and everything in it--including us. And while we imagine that we own things for a shorter or longer time, God in fact owns everything, rules everything, and even keeps everything in existence moment by moment, from eternity to eternity.
We don't own anything. Everything we have is a gift from God. And the things we have are not the sort of gift that God gives to us, and then it is ours. They are the sort of gift that God is continually giving us, like water running out of a faucet, which would be gone if the flow were cut off at the source. We think material things are so solid, so permanent, so real. We can grasp them; they are solid, stable, dependable. And yet, all these seemingly solid things are made of trillions upon trillions of tiny little atoms that have practically no substance to them, but are mostly infinitesimally small particles--or perhaps just waves--zipping around and creating force fields that we feel as solid matter. If the energy behind them were taken away, if their motion were stopped, they would instantly collapse into nothing--and that seemingly solid pew that you are sitting on would simply vanish.
The energy behind them is God's love. The reason your pew--and my pulpit--are not vanishing right now is that the Lord wants them to be here, and is continually creating and sustaining them for us. They are permanent, not because matter is permanent--for matter is evanescent and fleeting, made mostly of empty space. Your pew and my pulpit are still here because the Lord wants them to be. This church, and the grass and flowers and streets and buildings, the sky and earth, the sun and stars, and everything else in this world have a sense of permanence about them because the Lord's will is permanent and eternal, and the Lord continually creates everything in the world around us as a pure gift of love.
And here we are, thinking that we own things. That they are ours.
The sooner we realize that we that we own nothing; that we are nothing on our own; that everything we have and everything we are is a pure gift of God, given to us continually, moment by moment, out of pure, tender, infinite, eternal divine love, the sooner we will see our real place in this universe--and the sooner we will gain the happiness, joy, and deep inner peace that the Lord wishes to give us now and forever.
No matter what human law and custom says we own, no matter what we vainly think is "ours," we are all the recipients of fantastic, incredible gifts from the Lord. Forget the house and the car--as nice and even necessary as those may be. Take a look at the world around us. Take a look at the trees, the flowers, the sky, the clouds, the sun, moon, and stars, the wonders of a single tiny insect flying by, and of the entire universe as far as our largest telescopes can reach. All of it is a gift to us from God.
Consider our own bodies, so incredibly intricate and complex that even our most advanced science has barely begun to understand the most basic aspects of its function. We walk around in it all day, and rarely stop to think that we are a walking, talking miracle--a miracle of human form and function designed by a loving God. Our own bodies are an incredible gift from God.
And then there are all the people around us. Just look around here in this church for a moment. This is a church full of miracles. People of all ages. Children, young people, adults, elders. Every one of us is a miracle, and we have been given to each other through the love and grace of God. Consider your own family. Perhaps we don't always get along with everyone in our family. But every member of our family is a miracle given to us by God. The same goes for our community. Then consider that there are billions of these human miracles inhabiting this earth. And every one of them is unique--different from every other.
Yes, the entire world of nature and the entire world of human society has been given to us as a huge, incredible gift from the vast love of God. None of it is our own. Yet all of it is given to us to enjoy, to learn from, to share with, to grow into. Everything around us, both what we think of as good and what we think of as bad, is God's free gift, given to us for our pleasure and enjoyment, for our learning and growth--and if we will appreciate it and use it well, for our eternal good.
Once we understand and accept this (and we resist it with every fiber of our being!), we realize that we have all received far, far more than we have ever given. Everything we have and everything we are, everything we have experienced, learned, or felt has been a gift from God--even those that came through others. As the Apostle John said, "From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another" (John 1:16).
This is what Thanksgiving is all about. It is all about recognizing all of our wonderful gifts; all of our wonderful blessings from the Lord, and being thankful for them. No matter what we have suffered and what we have lost, we have all been given far more than we have ever given in return. Even the beloved things and people we have lost were gifts from God--and the more precious the gift, the harder its loss. Yet these treasured possessions, these dear loved ones, have enriched our lives, and continue to enrich our lives with so many blessings!
We have all received blessing after blessing. And the Lord asks something in return. Just as the Lord has given everything to us, we are to give everything to one another. Wealth and poverty mean nothing in the eternal scheme of things. But what we do with what we have--whether it is much or little--will stay with us eternally. We have freely received a wondrous wealth of gifts, material and spiritual, human and divine. Now it is our turn to give ourselves as a living gift of love and service, of help and support to one another.
We like to think of ourselves as the farmer harvesting the field, and generously leaving the gleanings for those poorer than ourselves. Yet we ourselves are the gleaners, receiving the generosity of God's harvest. And once we realize that we are poor and needy, that we have nothing of our own, then we will finally be prepared to be truly rich. Because true riches are not riches of the world, but riches of the spirit. They are the riches of love and understanding, of joy and inner peace.
The Lord has done all the hard work for us. We have only to go around and reap what he has sown--and do it with humble thanksgiving for God's grace and love. And in return, we are simply asked to show to others the same generosity of love, understanding, and kindness that God has so richly given to us as an eternal blessing. Amen.