Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
May 17, 2020
Texts: Isaiah 61:1–11; Luke 4:1–22
Christmas is usually the time most of us think about either giving or getting gifts, but the act and practice of gift giving is something that is important all year long. The reading from Isaiah, echoed by Jesus when he went to the synagogue in Nazareth, are both about a similar kind of gift: the promise of God to the poor, the brokenhearted, and to those of us who hope for justice.
We hear these words and think how nice they sound but bringing good news to the oppressed and binding up the brokenhearted are not easy tasks. When Jesus read from the scroll in the synagogue, he stopped after the verse “and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Isaiah did not stop there.
This long portion of Isaiah is actually part of the promise of the restoration of the kingdom and its people. It also contains warning: “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” This gift is actually bound up in a covenant, the relationship of God and God’s people.
Isaiah used the imagery used of a bridegroom and a bride, another example of a covenant in which both parties freely give to each other. So is our salvation in God also a covenant, one of freely giving, one to the other. As we freely give to God, so God freely gives to us often in unexpected ways.
The spirituality of giving is the practice of generosity built on the belief that there is an abundance of goodness to draw from. All of creation is an example of such abundance and generosity. We have been gifted by creation with more than we will ever need. It is only when we humans waste and/or destroy this abundance that we experience scarcity. Giving back to the Earth enables us to receive the precious gift of life over and over again.
During this time when we feel so closed in, there are many gifts we can give through sharing our thoughts and concerns with others. For those who have, like some persons I know, survived Covid-19 in its most fearsome forms, life itself has become a gift. We hope that we do not need to experience this kind of gift.
There are times that we think we are giving but we are actually receiving. When I was a student at Yale Divinity School, I took a course entitled Chronic and Terminal Illness. This was an interdisciplinary course held at the Medical School. The class was limited to fifty students, ten each from one of the five graduate schools participating: religion, medicine, public health, nursing, and law.
Dave Duncomb, the Medical School chaplain was the course coordinator. We met once a week for lectures and then broke into small groups of five each, one from each discipline. Each of us was assigned a “patient teacher.” Some of the patient teachers actually died during the course of the semester; others suffered from a chronic or debilitating but not terminal illness.
At the beginning of the semester, although we knew intellectually that the patients would teach us, we didn’t realize how much we would be given in our meagre attempts to give them support and counsel. I remember the med student who had a woman with breast cancer; he spent a good deal of time researching new techniques that might work for her – prolong her life, put her into remission. I found myself humbled by a young woman with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a disability that was beginning to destroy her incredible artistic abilities.
Irina gave me a gift of understanding my own limits. I could not heal her. There were times I felt as if I wasn’t even able to give her much comfort. I felt incredibly frustrated. Sometimes, the greatest gifts are those we don’t even expect. At the end of the semester, we had to terminate our relationship with our patient teacher; that was the most humbling act of all because it taught us that no matter how important we thought we might be to another person, we learned that it was not us who were essential to them, but their own inner resources, their own relationship to God and how the spirit of God was manifested in their lives.
Sometimes our gifts have a price, not in terms of money, but what such a gift might cost us. During World War II, many people who worked with Resistance movements or who sheltered Jews sent their children to live with relatives because they knew that if they were caught, the Germans would kill each and every member of the family. In fact, as an entire family was hanged, including the infants, those engaged in the Resistance understood that family separation was the price they would pay for their gift of service.
This past week a woman by the name of Cecile Roy-Tanguy died at the age of 101. She and her husband were part of the French Resistance to the Nazis. Every morning, she would walk with a fake flirtatious smile past Nazi soldiers in Paris, smiling as they wolf-whistled. What the soldiers did not know was that in the baby carriage she had grenades and ammunition and a light machine gun.
Separated physically from her husband Henri but not in love and spirit, she risked everything in order to defeat the Nazis. She knew what would happen to her if she were to be caught as a member of the Resistance, and she expected nothing in return for her actions to help free Paris from German occupation.
The real gift occurs when we give, expecting nothing in return. The real gift occurs when we share something that is essential to us. The Chippewa tribe of Wisconsin has an interesting custom. Once a year, the tribal elders empty out their houses of valuable items and place them on blankets where they then take seated positions. Members of the tribe then go from blanket to blanket, taking items they need or want. After all the members of the tribe have done this, then the members of the tribe go back to the elders seated at their blankets and give them gifts in return. This results in gifts of the heart to the elders, who end up receiving far more than they ever gave.
So it is with the gifts we give. The smallest gifts we sometimes give to others – those that we often think are small – simple acts of kindness, a gentle word, a small momento – give us in return a sense of inner peace, deep pleasure, a feeling of calm. Those are the gifts that we sometimes don’t expect and find ourselves utterly delighted by the sheer surprise of receiving them.
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that it is especially in unplanned events related to the real needs of others that a word from the eternal breaks in upon us, interrupts us, challenges us, and demands of us a decisive answer. And when we respond to the world breaking in on us, we give of ourselves and in return receive the inner peace and calm that only comes from God.
Let us come to God in prayer: During this time in our lives, O God, we ask for what we think are simple gifts: seeing our friends, sharing meals with them, but we know that these are not simple gifts. Help us to give gifts that will save lives in this time. In the name of the One who saves us, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.