Sunday, December 15, 2013

Give More

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  This is part three in our series on the Advent Conspiracy.

For the past few weeks we’ve been talking about the Advent Conspiracy and its four pillars of worshipping fully, spending less, giving more and loving all.  I went out looking for this program, or at least something like it, because of a comment that was made after the Thanksgiving sermon I gave five years ago.  I can remember that I said one of the great ironies of Thanksgiving is that we give thanks for what we have, give thanks for God’s blessings in our lives, to basically say that what we have is good, and then we go out the next day to get all the things we just said we didn’t need.  I even made an accurate prediction that it was only a matter of time before stores were open on Thanksgiving, and lo it came to pass.  But in that message I said that there are really only two ways we can look at what we have.

The first is to say that we are not satisfied, that we need more stuff, and if that’s the case then we need to go get more stuff, and we should also try and examine why we feel that way, what purpose is the stuff serving in our lives, what is it trying to fill.  Or, we can say that we are satisfied with what we have, that we don’t need anything else, and if that is the case then we should stop accumulating, stop buying things we don’t truly need.  We need food, but we don’t need a bigger television, we need to put gas in the car, but we don’t need to buy a new car.  The problem is that while we might be able to stop getting more stuff for a little while, sooner or later we would go out and start accumulating again.  It’s somehow ingrained in us, and it’s certainly pushed on us, we are the most marketed to people in the history of the world, and as much as we might like to claim that we are immune to it, the simple truth is we are not.  We proved that last week when you all completed Alka Selzter’s famous commercial “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” which was broadcast in 1972.

I once had a couple tell me that they didn’t have a TV in their home for exactly that reason that they didn’t want to be constantly influenced by advertising to buy things they didn’t need, which sounds great, except for the fact that they drove a Jaguar.  So after I said you can either say your happy with your stuff or you’re not, Steve came up to me and said that he had more than enough stuff, that he didn’t need to get anything from Christmas and wondered what the church was doing about that.  Wasn’t there some program we could run so that instead of getting more presents that we could instead be sending that money that we were spending to some charities that we might designate so that we could help those who were truly in need.  I suspect that some of what drive Steve in asking this question was the fact that his youngest daughter was a victim of suicide a few years before, and so he had come to terms with what is truly important and what is not.

And so I went out to see what churches were doing, and found this, and at this time there were only a couple of hundred churches doing it, and I asked a few what they thought of the program, and I was told time and time again that it fundamentally changed Christmas for people, and what they also said was that while they thought that the kids might have a hard time thinking about getting less presents, or different types of presents, that the kids got it better than the adults did, that the kids understood that this was Jesus’ birthday, that the parents struggled much more than the kids did.  That’s been my experience as well, and I really think that a lot of that has to do with the fact that children still experience the miracle of Christmas, the magic of Christmas, they are still in awe and wonder about Christmas and everything that goes with it, and so they can understand doing Christmas in a fundamentally different way that’s not jaded or full of cynicism because their Christmas experiences don’t have that in it, it’s us as adults who have to recapture those moments, who have to recapture the wonder and awe and miracle and magic of Christmas.  Kids get it.  We are the ones who have to change.  I think that’s what Jesus was saying when he said that if you want to enter into the kingdom of heaven that you have to be like a child, we have to leave all that other stuff behind that we learn, that is forced onto us, that we have to leave all that behind to truly understand the mission and message of Christ, because it is counter-cultural, it is revolutionary, it is a conspiracy because it subverts what the culture says is important, what society says is important, what we are told to do and who we are told to be.  It does it as much in the 21st century as it did in the 1st century.

Last week I asked you to think about your favorite Christmas memories, and I said that I would guess that most of them had nothing to do with any gifts we had received.  But now I want you to think of gifts you have received.  I’m guessing that all of us have received a gift that we opened up and we thought “wow, you don’t know me at all,” or perhaps, “wow, you didn’t put any thought into this at all.”  It’s the ones that really pushes the idea that it’s the thought that counts.  These are the gifts that are given more out of obligation, because we think we have to give this present, than because we want to be giving this gift.  I’m guessing that all of us have probably given at least one of those gifts as well, and perhaps we’ll even give one this year, sometimes with the best of intentions.  I’d also ask how many of us have regifted something, although I’m guessing that few of us would be willing to admit it.  This year Americans will spend 602.1 billion dollars on Christmas expenditures this year, and according to the National Retail Federation, regifting is at an all-time high, and with so many gift cards, and the proverbial fruit cakes being given, it’s little wonder why.  So last week we also began talking about spending less on gifts, and today we talk about giving more, and some of you are probably saying to yourselves, “I thought that Pastor John was supposed be good at finances, good at math, but you can’t spend less and give more, that’s just bad math, those two things don’t add up.”  But they do.  But before we get into that, why is it that we give presents at Christmas?  Why do we do what we do?  I want you to turn to those around you and have a brief conversation about why we get and give gifts at Christmas….

So what were some of the reasons you discussed?  The magi gave gifts.  I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the magi, or the wise men today, because we’re going to cover them when we come to their story in a few weeks, except to say that they did indeed bring gifts.  And notice who they brings the gifts for, and to whom they give them.  They don’t get each other gifts.  Balthazar doesn’t say to Melchior, here’s a new camel for Christmas, or to Gaspar, here’s a new flat screen TV.  They give their gifts to Jesus, not to each other.  But they do play a role in why we give gifts.  What’s another reason?  God is a giver, that’s one you’ve heard me say before, we are made in the image of God, and God is a giver because God gave us Jesus, and so we too should be givers.  Any other reasons?  What about Santa Clause?  Although our modern, American understanding and conception about Santa has much more to do with Coca-Cola’s depiction of Santa and Clement Clarke Moore’s the Night before Christmas, there is a historic figure in the church who is?  St. Nicholas was a 4th century bishop in what is now modern day Turkey, which is why we have turkey for Christmas, who was known for giving gifts to those who were in need.  He also attended the first great council of the church, the council of Nicaea, from which we get the Nicene Creed, and was a defender of what we now consider orthodox Christianity.  We get the name Santa Claus from the Dutch word for Saint Nicholas, which was Sinterklaas, remembering that the Dutch has a strong presence in the early colonies, and New York was originally New Amsterdam, and so while Santa Claus may bring us presents at Christmas, he is really a follower of Jesus.

Does anyone know the difference between a gift and a present?  By definition, to give a present you actual have to be present, if you are not there then it is a gift.  I would like to change that definition, that giving a present can happen even if you are not there if the present represents your relationship with that person.  A present can be about your presence with that person, even if you are not there when they open it; it’s about giving of ourselves.  That’s what God was doing at Christmas.  God was giving of God’s self, in sending Jesus to us, Emmanuel.  Which means what?  God with us.  God’s presence with us.  But one of the problems with giving presence is that you are going to have to think about it, and it’s going to cost you.  Sometimes it’s a lot easier to simply go down to Target and wander the aisles until you find something and buy it and wrap it, then it is to think about the person and your relationship with them.  It also costs because it takes a risk, some people aren’t going to understand what you are doing and they are going to reject your present.  They are going to open it up and say something like “This looks like you made this,” and of course you did, and they might say “but I spent a lot of money on your gift,” but of course it only took them 2 minutes on Amazon.

Some people just aren’t going to get it, that’s the risk we take, and if we waited until everyone might understand what we are doing then we would wait forever.  God took a great risk as well, because lots of people didn’t understand what God was doing, lots of people still don’t understand what God is doing, and they rejected Jesus.  They rejected the greatest gift because they didn’t understand, and if God had waited and said that God would wait until everyone was ready and able to receive to Jesus, that no one would reject him, well we would still be waiting.  I’m sure that most of us have that gift that was made for us by a child that we treasure, not because they spent a lot of money on it, maybe even sometimes not because they spent a lot of time, but we treasure it because we know where it was coming from and that it was made for us.  It was relational.  It was a present and presence, so what if our gift giving looked like that?

And this isn’t about having to be artistic, sometimes it is, but not always, there are some of us we know we would burn down the house if we had to attach pasta to some cardboard with a glue gun.  But there are different ways of doing the same thing.  Rick McKinley, one of the cofounders of Advent Conspiracy, tells the story of a teenage boy who got his dad a bag of his favorite coffee, but coffee he didn’t normally buy because it was expensive.  And he gave it to his father with a note that said, you can only drink this coffee when we are sitting down together for us to talk.  That is a gift of presence, for both parties.  That is a gift in which he had to spend more, because it’s about spending less except when we have to spend more, does that make sense, but he spent more so that he could in turn give more.  Do you think that gift said “Dad, I love you” more than a new tie would have?  Or how about a father who gave his daughter, who was a senior in high school a blank journal, and he also gave himself one, with the request and the promise that they would write in it every day in this significant year of transition with her about to leave home for the first time to go to college, of overprotective parents, and what it means to let go, of becoming an adult and watching your child become an adult, and then they would exchange the journals the next Christmas.  That’s a gift about relationship. That’s a gift about presence, that’s a gift that cannot be found on a shelf, that takes some thought and some dedication.

Sometimes you might give a gift that doesn’t really give until years down the line.  Every year on Christmas Eve, Linda’s father read Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas to her and her sisters.  He died very suddenly the same week we found out that Linda was pregnant with Samantha, and so none of the girls ever got to participate in that tradition.  What if he had made a recording of that reading and given it to them as a gift?  That is something that would still be giving every year.  Is there something like that you could be doing?  Or how about the story of Savanah Day, a 14 year old who had brain surgery this week at Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital to alleviate a condition that causes spinal fluid on her brain.  When Savanah found out that she would still be in the hospital over Christmas, rather than bemoaning that fact, instead she and her two sisters went out and collected 4000 toys for the 500 other children who would also be in the hospital at Christmas.  'We're not going to have a Christmas,” Savanah said, “so we want to take Christmas to everyone that's not going to have a Christmas like us.”  What if we as a church took on a project like that, to bring Christmas to every child, or to everyone, who was in the hospital next year?  What proclamation of the good news might that bring?

And maybe some of that money that we are not spending on Christmas, what if we gave some of it away, or even decided to give some of it away as gifts by making a donation to a charity in someone’s name.  But, and this is the most important thing when it comes to any gift giving, it’s not about the giver, it’s about the receiver.  We often get these confused.  I’ve given gifts to Linda that were more about me then her, and I’ve certainly received gifts like that as well.  Linda and I know someone who cares nothing for other people except his family, and even that sometimes seems a stretch, so me making a gift in his name to Heifer Project, a program I believe in, is not about him, because he doesn’t care.  But he does have family in the military and so a gift to the wounded warrior project, which helps veterans who were injured in the service, would have some significance, and would be much more helpful than getting him another sweater or a can of shaving cream.

Christmas is about celebrating the incarnation, God made flesh, the birth of Jesus Emmanuel, God with us.  Christmas is about relationship, it’s about giving, it’s about presence and presents.  It’s about God with us, it’s about us with us.  It’s about being present, of giving more, for those we know and love and it’s about being present, of giving more, for those we don’t know.  We will spend 602 billion dollars on Christmas this year.  The number one killer of people in the world is lack of access to clean, running water, and according to UNESCO, it would take an investment of $10 billion dollars a year for ten years to make that water available to everyone in the world.  It would take $4.5 billion to rescue 1 million people in the world today who live in slavery, many of them sexual slaves.  It would take $6 billion to provide basic education to everyone in the world.  It would take $13 billion to provide basic health care and nutrition to everyone in the world, and yet we will spend 602 Billion dollars on Christmas this year.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” first Isaiah, and then Jesus say, “because it has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’s favor.”  Is our gift giving, is our celebration of Christmas, proclaiming the good news to anyone?  Is it helping the blind to receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hear, it is bring good news to the poor?  “The Spirit of the Lord us upon me, it is upon us.”  But the good news is not just about someone else, it’s about us to, for the angels say “Behold I bring you good news… for today in the city of David a savior has been born for you.  That is a personal gift, it is a present, it is presence, and it is relational.  That is the example that has been set for us for gift giving, for Christmas giving, it is about being relational, it is about being in relationship, it is about presents and it is about presence.  It is about worshipping fully the babe lying in a manger so that we can understand what it means to spend less so that we can truly understand what it means to give more.  I pray that it is so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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