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Proverbs 11.24-25, 19.17, 21.26, 22.9, 28.25-27

Acts 20.28, 32-38

Getting Into The Spirit of Getting

Frist Sunday of Advent

“Dear Santa Claus, how have you been?  Did you have a nice summer?  How is your wife?  I have been extra good this year, so I have a long list of presents that I want.  Please note the size and color of each item, and send as many as possible.  If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself:  just send money.  How about tens and twenties?  All I want is what I have coming to me.  All I want is my fair share.”

If the words sound familiar, it is because they have been spoken every year since 1965 by Charlie Brown’s little sister Sally, as she writes her Christmas wish list to Santa Claus in the perennial favorite “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”  Peanuts creator Charles Schulz seems a gentle soul, but in truth he is more of a gentle iconoclast who has a keen sense of Christian theology.  So many of his comic strips are steeped in a kind of tacet spirituality that almost goes unnoticed.  But think about some of the scenes in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” like the one I just described.  Lucy at her psychiatrist booth after Charlie Brown drops his nickel into the can on her desk:  she shakes the coin-filled can with a greedy kind of joy exclaiming, “How I love the sound of clinking money!!  The beautiful sound of cold, hard cash!  Nickels, nickels, nickels! That beautiful sound of clinking nickels!”  Or as Charlie Brown is despairing of the lost meaning of Christmas, he catches Snoopy decorating his dog house with hundreds of sparkling lights, hoping to win the cash prize in the Christmas tree lighting contest.  Charlie Brown reads the flier Snoopy has handed him:  “Find the true meaning of Christmas?  Win money, money, money!  Spectacular super-colossal neighborhood lights and display contest?  Oh no, my own dog gone commercial, I can’t stand it!”  Of course, we all know how the tension resolves:  Linus reads the nativity story from Luke during the big Christmas pageant, the sad-looking Charlie Brown tree suddenly looks noble, and the cast breaks out in a heartfelt chorus of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”  But you don’t have to scratch very far below the surface to recognize Schulz’ latent critique of commercialism and capitalism at Christmas summed up nicely in the cartoon on the back of the morning bulletin:  “Christmas is getting all you can while the getting is good.”

Of course, we know that the season is more about giving more than getting, about rendering more than receiving, right?  The Bible is filled with admonitions to give:  give to those in need, give generously, give and do not withhold – we just finished a stewardship season chockablock with reasons to give to support our church.  Peg just read a veritable litany about giving from the book of the Proverbs for us.   “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer… a generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.  Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord and will be repaid in full… those who are generous are blessed... whoever trusts in the Lord will be enriched.  Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing.”  The church has long insisted that giving generously in the name of God is something to which all people of faith should aspire.

But did you notice something else going on in these proverbs?  They do not exactly smack of unalloyed altruism, do they?  There is always something in it for the giver.  What does the giver get for giving?  Let’s try it again with a different emphasis:  “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer… a generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.  Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord and will be repaid in full… those who are generous are blessed… whoever trusts in the Lord will be enriched.  Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing.”  Wait a minute.  I thought we were supposed to be sacrificially-minded in our giving, but the writer of the Proverbs appears to be suggesting that there is something in it for the giver as well, and that something is much more than some ineffable sense of spiritual satisfaction.  “Will grow all the richer… will be enriched… will be repaid in full… will lack nothing.”  “How I love the sound of clinking money!!  The beautiful sound of cold, hard cash!  Nickels, nickels, nickels! That beautiful sound of clinking nickels!”  Is it my imagination, or are Lucy, Sally and Snoopy on to something?  Something proverbial, perhaps?

This morning’s New Testament lesson from the book of the Acts follows immediately on the heels of a sermon Paul preached at the Ephesian church.  It was a farewell sermon, for Paul had stirred up the city to such an extent that he feared for his life and was forced to flee.  The Ephesians still had bitter memories of an earlier address where the apostle had been so direct and forceful with the gospel that he caused a riot.  Imagine.  Paul preached a sermon and a riot broke out!  I wonder what it would look like today if we took our sermons so seriously that we felt compelled to take to the streets and run the preacher right out of town!?  And still Paul won’t let up.  Just before this morning’s reading he said to the Ephesians, “I know that  after I am gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.  Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.”  Ouch.  Talk about burning your bridges on the way out of town!  No wonder the Ephesians rioted.  But just before he leaves, just before Paul leaves Ephesus, he reminds them of the need to continue building up the church.  He speaks of his own efforts and reminds them not to flag in their own.  And then we hear some familiar words:  “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”  The Lord Jesus himself said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.  Ah, how many times have we heard these words intoned from the pulpit just before the offering, as a way of encouraging generosity, and not incidentally, putting a little extra into the plate, right?  I mean if Jesus privileged giving over receiving, and Paul, who never met or heard Jesus, knew about it, then it must be pretty important, right?

You and I have heard little else in this Thanksgiving weekend, haven’t we?  Thursday, of course, was the day set aside for giving – specifically, giving thanks. Or have you noticed how certain commercials try to make you feel you’re being charitable by purchasing their products?  And this elongated weekend of giving has given us Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, tomorrow is cyber Monday, and what’s Tuesday?  That’s right, Giving Tuesday, when we are encouraged to keep the giving going.

However.  However.  Did you know that you can read the gospels from beginning to end, from Matthew 1.1 to John 21.25, and never once come across the place where Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive?”  Neither Matthew, Mark, Luke nor John contain these words.  Now we do know there are other lesser gospels that never made it into the Bible, though most of them post-date the apostle Paul.  As well, we know there were oral traditions that circulated about Jesus, stories told over and over again, that never appear in the Bible.  So yes, maybe Jesus did say it is better to give than receive, and maybe he didn’t.  It wouldn’t be the first time Paul fabricated a memory to make a point.  So maybe instead of being so fixated on giving this time of year, perhaps we should also consider the place of getting, or receiving, in the season of Advent.

After all, what is Advent but a time for preparing to receive the savior?  “Joy to the World!” we sing, “Let earth receive her King!”  Finding ourselves in a giving mood is a wonderful thing, because to whom much is given, much is expected.  But it is important to remember that this is the time of year when God gives us something, or someone, an unsurpassable gift.  On this first Sunday in Advent, I want to encourage us all to maintain the spirit of generosity, the spirit of giving from abundance, but also to consider the One whom we have been given.  Receiving is as much a blessing as giving.  This is the time of year when God says to us, “Hey you!  Yes, you!  Put down those Christmas cards for a minute.  Close your browser.  Put away your credit card.  Forget about your shopping list.  Your decorations can wait.  Turn off the television and the music.  (Oh, never mind that last, the music can stay…)  You’re looking for the perfect gift in all the wrong places.  Open your eyes,  Open your heart.  I have something to give you.  Receive it – accept it, and you will become an even greater giver.”

It is true that God loves a cheerful giver, and God also loves the thoughtful receiver who recognizes and appreciates and embraces the real gift of the season.  This first Sunday of Advent, we proclaim a Christ who is both given and received with enthusiasm, exuberance and joy.  Praise be to the Giver of every good gift.  God has blessed us, every one. 

Amen.

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