Texts: Proverbs 22:8-9; James 2:14-18
We receive many different kinds of gifts in life. Some of them are heartwarming such as the plaster of Paris turtle-like figurine a second grader brings home from school to her mother. Some gifts are full of love if not much earthly value. Sweaters knitted by grandmothers fall into this category. And some gifts are just plain weird. One Christmas when I was a kid we were exchanging gifts with some extended family members when my mother opened up a package. She smiled and said “Oh My” the way you do when you are staring at something that defies description. She pulled out of the box a piece of canvas that had wooden handles on both ends. She held it up to show everyone in the room, still smiling and saying thank you to the gift giver, before hesitantly asking, “What is it?” The gift giver said proudly, “It’s a log tote. You put your logs in it when you are carrying wood in to build a fire.” I have to tell you, when you live in an apartment without a fire place, in the desert of West Texas where temperatures can still hit ninety degrees in the winter, the times you need a log tote can be counted on less than one hand.
But beyond the sweet and loving and weird things that we receive in life, there is another category of gifts. These are the extravagant gifts that come along rarely, but when they appear we are profoundly moved. I received one of these extravagant gifts this summer. It was the gift of time. Being granted a three-month sabbatical by the church allowed me time to reconnect to my family, to reconnect to myself, and to write about some things that have been stuck inside of me for a long time. The luxury of having days without deadlines was a balm to my soul. And when you receive an extravagant gift the words “thank you” never feel adequate, but even so, I thank you for the time I was granted this summer.
The virtue that inspires extravagant gifts is generosity. Our faith tradition teaches us that the Spirit of God is a generous Spirit who inspires us to share liberally with the rest of creation. The Bible speaks repeatedly of how this generosity flows to us and then through us. “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19) is one of the best illustrations of this truth.
All of which makes me wonder why our two scripture readings for this morning, and dozens of others like them, are even necessary. Proverbs 22 affirms that a good name is better than great riches; that the rich and poor are all the children of God; and that those who are generous will be blessed because they share their bread with the poor. James 2 includes words that infuriated the great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, but seem perfectly sensible to us. What good is it if we say we have faith but do nothing to help those who are destitute? This text contains one of the greatest one-liners in the Bible: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”
These teachings are the bread and butter of a progressive church like ours. We who affirm that the extravagance of God’s generous Spirit inspires us to live and give generously read such passages with the familiarity of an author reading her own autobiography. We know this; we teach this to our children and grandchildren; we claim the truths of such texts without reservation.
So why spend our time and energy looking at what we already believe? Because there is a great struggle that takes place inside each of us that challenges our ability to be as generous as we would like. Along with our conviction that we are to live and give generously as a reflection of the divine generosity we have been graced with, there is another truth that demands our attention. This competing truth is really more of an urgent need. It is, of course, self interest.
Our souls are in a daily struggle to figure out what we should keep and what we should give away. This is not a struggle between good and evil. Self interest is in its own way a gift. Who among us would last long if we did not take an interest in our own needs? At its most basic level self interest takes on the form of survival. We must secure food and shelter and other necessities to exist. But there are higher needs that self interest drives us to acquire: companionship; education; physical, emotional, and spiritual stimulation; laughter; rest; meaningful work and almost anything else of substance we can name is tinged with self interest. It’s not that these higher needs don’t also benefit others, but at some basic level we require these things in our lives in order to find fulfillment.
And, so, we live each day with these two truths rubbing against each other: our lives are a gift meant to be shared and our lives require enough self interest in order to be sustained. If we maintain a balance between these competing truths we can find fulfillment and help others find it as well. Except that history demonstrates we do a poor job of finding such a balance. Why? Because a simple question always enters the picture and swings the balance of our lives toward self interest and away from generosity. That question is “Will there be enough?”
Think of all the ways we can pose this question. If we give everyone healthcare will there be enough resources to keep the system the way we like it? If I give someone in the cafeteria part of my lunch will there be enough so that I’m not still hungry? If I agree to this commitment will there be enough time for me to do the other things I need to do? We are constantly calculating our resources—whether they be money, time, energy, or love—to see if we have enough for ourselves and enough to give away. Such calculations are an unavoidable part of life, but the question “Will there be enough?” usually leads to the conclusion that we better not chance it. The question itself holds a certain conservatism that causes us to avoid generosity.
Langdon Gilkey’s book, Shantung Compound, contains a striking story about what happens when people become too fixated on the question “Will there be enough?” Gilkey was an American teaching English in China when World War II began. When the Japanese invaded China, Gilkey and other expatriates working in Peking were sent to an internment camp. The prisoners included business people, professors, doctors, junkies, prostitutes, and a large number of Protestant missionaries and Catholic priests. Most of them would spend two-and-a-half years in the camp before being liberated at the war’s end.
Food in the camp was always scarce, but by the winter of 1944 desperation was setting in. The rations the Japanese provided were becoming so meager that people were losing weight alarmingly fast. Then, just as things were looking darkest, a miracle happened. A shipment of more than 1,500 American Red Cross parcels showed up at the camp. Each parcel contained enough food to feed a person for six weeks. And since there were almost exactly 1,500 people in the camp at that point, with 200 of them being Americans, everyone assumed that each person would receive one parcel. Everyone, that is, except some of the Americans in the camp who insisted that the parcels belonged to them since it was the American Red Cross that had sent them. The dispute over how the parcels should be distributed created turmoil in the camp and great enmity between the Americans and the rest of the prisoners. For days the parcels sat untouched, even as people’s hunger grew worse, because no resolution could be found to the argument about who should control the food.
Finally, Gilkey and a few other American leaders decided to talk to some of their countrymen and women. Surely, they thought, most could be persuaded that sharing the parcels with everyone was the right thing to do. They could not have been more wrong. One American missionary said that while he could care less personally how the parcels were distributed, the only moral thing to do was to let the Americans have them and then share them if they chose to do so. His argument was that requiring the food to be shared wasn’t moral, but if people volunteered to share that was the key. Gilkey was astounded that a missionary would present such an argument in the face of mass starvation. Other people were more forthright about their motives. They said that the seven parcels each American would receive would provide them enough food for months, and if they were required to give up any, they were afraid there would not be enough food to sustain them later.
Finally, the Japanese stepped in and resolved the dispute. Each person in the camp, including the Americans, was given one parcel only. The leftover parcels were shipped to another camp to feed hungry people there. For the only time in his captivity Gilkey felt his captors were the mediators of divine justice. Everyone received enough to get them through the winter and the crisis was abated.
The constant worry over whether or not we will have enough not only limits our generosity, it ignores one of the great truths our faith teaches us. We are recipients of extravagant gifts from God. I do not speak only of material gifts, though many of us have more than enough in that regard. The extravagance I speak of are the soulful gifts and talents that are poured into each life. There is a reservoir of goodness in every person, though most of us are blind to it, and this reservoir is meant to be shared with others. But we have to believe that is true, and tap into the depth of these extravagant gifts, before we feel the freedom to share. When we do this in families and relationships then love can flow more freely. When we do this as a society then justice can be done and those who ask for nothing more than one parcel to sustain them no longer have to beg for bread.
Will there be enough? Yes, but only if the extravagant gifts we have received flow through us to all of God’s good creation.