Text: Luke 2:22-40
Receiving is not easy for me. By nature and profession, I am a giver. Giving is what I do best—whether it is giving of myself to another or to a cause; or giving comfort or my time or my resources to people in need; or just giving something tangible to someone I love. Beyond my own proclivity to be a giver, it would be so that I pastor a church full of givers. It is, in part, why I love you people so much. You see a need and you give—of your self, and of your time, and of your resources.
For many of us givers, receiving makes us uncomfortable, even a bit itchy. I don’t exactly know why that is but I’m sure there is a diagnosis for this condition. The psychologists, therapists, and counselors in the room are probably diagnosing as I speak. Maybe receiving makes us feel out of control. Or maybe we don’t feel worthy of receiving something good. Or it is possible that receiving leaves us feeling obligated to something or someone else in a way that we don’t like. But for many of us, receiving graciously is a challenge.
This time of year highlights for me this tension between being an enthusiastic giver and a reluctant receiver. I enjoy nothing more than giving my family presents at Christmas. Along about July I start thinking about what Christmas gift I can give that will delight the special people in my life. If possible, I like to follow a theme in my gift giving. This year I wanted to give Karla and my girls a gift that would carry special meaning to them. To Nora, I gave an old bubble gum can that was my grandmothers that I played with as a child. It was the can that my grandmother kept her snuff in—Dental Sweet snuff. While Nora never met her great-grandmother, she has heard the colorful stories of her; and now she possess a piece of her—a bubble gum can and two unopened cans of snuff. To Jasmine, I gave a paper weight that has sat on my desk for the last 25 years. It is inscribed with the saying: “Most of the time things get more difficult before they get better.” It has served as a reminder to me over many years to never give up—that difficult times do get better. And last, I gave Karla pictures. I hired a photographer to go to Karla’s family farm in Roxboro and take pictures of all the old work buildings, the stable, the tobacco barns, the potting shed, the tenant house, and the main house. I know how dear those places and structures are to her. And knowing I find comfort in pictures of special places that hold meaning in my life, I thought Karla might as well. All of this to tell you how much I love giving.
But when it comes my time to receive the gifts that others have thoughtfully chosen for me, everything inside of me seizes up. I feel uncomfortable and I somehow finagle my way into being the last one to open presents on Christmas morning. And even then, I will often try and distract attention to something else in the room so as not to be the focus. Maybe that old adage of , “It is better to give than to receive” which is by the way is biblical, is so imprinted in my psyche that receiving just feels wrong, or at the least uncomfortable. That is why this text from Luke that continues the birth narrative of Jesus, and introduces two new participants—Anna and Simeon—caught my attention. Let me explain.
The Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church commemorate Anna the Prophetess as a saint: Anna the prophet, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; Anna who was very old, who had lived with her husband only seven years after her marriage and then was widowed until she was eighty-four; Anna who never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. When a woman is mentioned by name in the biblical text it is important to know them. It is this Anna, along with Simeon, that the Eastern Orthodox Church has named a “God Receiver.” That is right, both Anna and Simeon are literally named God Receivers in the Eastern Orthodox Church. They are the two who received Jesus when Mary and Joseph took their month and a half old baby to the Temple to be dedicated in order to fulfill their religious obligations.
And so, on the eve of a new year, Anna and Simeon have this “receiver adverse” pastor thinking about what it means to be a God Receiver. I have spent most of my life, like many of you, being a what I would consider a God giver or God bearer; meaning I have tried to share God’s love and bear witness to God’s love and grace in the world as best I am able. I even chose this God bearing/God giving as my profession. So to pause on the eve of ushering in a new year and consider what it might mean for me and us to be God Receivers seems like an important thing to think about.
But before I get too far down this road, I need to ground my thoughts on this God Receiving idea in a theological position that has integrity for me. It is important for me to acknowledge that I do not believe that God and Jesus are the same being. While I do not dismiss for others the “three-in-one” theological affirmation, it is not an affirmation that I hold. In other words, I do not hold to a Trinitarian doctrine. I do not believe that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are one God. I believe that God alone is supreme and that Jesus and the Holy Spirit reveal most clearly the ground of being that is God. So when I identify Anna and Simeon as being God Receivers when receiving Jesus in the Temple, it is my belief that they received Emmanuel, “God with us.” They received God incarnate in the infant Jesus. Now this may seem unimportant, like I am parsing words and meaning, but it is for me a significant theological distinction.
This leads me to the other theological affirmation that I ground the possibility of us being a God Receivers in. For those of you who know me and have listened to even a few of my sermons, you know that I believe that we, too, just like Jesus, are the incarnation of God. We, too, are the “God with us” part of our faith story. While I affirm and trust in God to act in history through mystery and transcendence, my faith is grounded in the understanding that God has entrusted us, humanity, to be God’s presence in the world. We are God’s hands. We are God’s feet. We are God’s voice. We are God’s heart. This is the gift God gave to us at that moment of creation and original blessing. This is what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. Pope Francis said it this way: “God never gives someone a gift they are not capable of receiving. If God gives us the gift of Christmas, it is because we all have the ability to understand and receive it.” We are the very presence of God in this world.
And so, with these theological foundations, what does it mean for us to be God Receivers in this world? How might our work in this world be reoriented if we saw ourselves not just as God-givers or God-bearers, but also those who receive God like Anna and Simeon? And how might the thought of being God Receivers shape differently our work, our mission in 2018?
I lean on an image, a metaphor if you will, that a mentor of mine would often use with me. Mahan Siler would often say to me, “Nancy, if the well goes dry you have nothing to give. How are you filling up the well?” Like most of Mahan’s teachings, this question would first annoy me and only later would resonate. You can’t give if there is nothing to give. Mahan’s image of a dry well would remind me of another teaching from a Henry Nouwen book. You have heard it before: the story of the young student going to the Zen master to learn Zen. The Zen master begins pouring the student a cup of tea. The cup begins to overflow until the tea is spilling onto the floor. In frustration and exasperation the student says to the teacher, “Stop can’t you see the cup is overflowing.” To which the Zen master says, “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty.”
And so there are these two somewhat competing images. A dry well out of which there is nothing to give. And an overflowing cup that has no space to receive. They beg the question: How do we give if there is nothing to give and how do we receive if we are so full all of the time?
I am wondering if being God Receivers means that we must first empty our cups—our hearts and minds and souls—in order to be ready to fill the well and to receive God—God’s blessings and goodness—at the beginning of each new day of this new year. We can be so full and yet so empty. The past 364 days has our cups overflowing with anxiety and worry; lost hopes and dreams as to who we long to be as a nation. Our cups are full with confusion and chaos of what is true and what is fake. Our cups are full of long days and nights fighting for justice in a sea of injustice. Our cups are overflowing; and yet, for many of us, the well is dry. And maybe, just maybe, what Anna and Simeon are reminding us of is that we need to empty out so that we can receive God in this present moment, for this new day, and this new year. And that means sitting still and listening—two intentions that givers are often not proficient in doing. But being a God Receiver requires such intention. Remember what the text said about Anna: “She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and praying night and day.” Anna was emptying her cup in order to fill the well. It is what made her a God Receiver.
The other thing I am wondering about as to what makes us God Receivers is our ability and willingness to accept the gift that we, too, are the incarnation of God. Pope Francis said, “God never gives someone a gift they are not capable of receiving.” God created us in the image and likeness of God. We are not God, but we are “God with us.” Metaphorically we are God’s hands and feet and voice and heart. If the world is to know justice-love in 2018, we must be it. If the world is to know in the coming new year that light overcomes darkness, then we must be the light. If the world is to experience in 2018 that goodness and blessing comes in the morning, then we must be that goodness and blessing at the rising of each new day. If, in the year that lies before us, the world is to receive God’s hope, peace, joy, and love then we must become more comfortable being God Receivers.
In 2018 may our willingness to be God Receivers increase our ability to be God Givers!