Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Learning to Receive (A Lenten Homily)

This was delivered to the gathered community of saints last Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at the First United Methodist Church of San Angelo during their community Lenten worship service.  As always, it was a joy to worship with my brothers and sisters in Christ at FUMC. 

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 • Romans 5:12-19

My wife’s birthday is next week. That means I’ve got to get her a gift, which is a good thing, I enjoy giving her gifts. Plus, she likes receiving them. So it works well for us. Most of us like getting gifts from people we have a relationship with, people we know, people we like. But what about when you get a gift from someone you don’t like? Or perhaps someone you don’t know? What if the gift is from a stranger, and right out of the blue, for no apparent reason at all? And what if it’s a really nice gift, something you didn’t even know you wanted and certainly didn’t ask for, but now here it is, a absolutely wonderful gift from someone you really don’t know at all? Most of us, if we are honest, don’t like receiving gifts like that at all.

Why not? Well, for one, such gifts make us feel indebted to the person, which is fine if that person is our spouse, but not fine if that person is a stranger or worse yet, an enemy. Think about it, when you get surprised with a gift from some unknown person what is the first thing we do in response? If we can’t outright refuse the gift, we try to figure out a gift to give in return, not out of gratitude or friendship, but because we don’t want to feel guilty. We don’t want to be indebted to this person. The good Methodist bishop Will Willimon explains, “It may well be, as Jesus says, more blessed to give than receive. But it is more difficult to receive. Watch how people blush when given a compliment. Watch what you do when your teenage son comes home with a very expensive Christmas present from a girl he has dated only twice. ‘Now you take that expensive sweater right back and tell her that your parents won’t allow you to accept it. Every gift comes with a claim and you’re not ready for her claim upon you.”

Maybe that was Adam and Eve’s problem in the garden so long ago. They weren’t ready for the claim such an extravagant gift as creation would make upon their lives. Think about it. We get embarrassed when someone gives us a really expensive gift that we think we don’t deserve. God gave that first couple the world. He even set them up with a vocation in that world, government jobs taking care of the royal Gardens. That’s really the image that Eden is supposed to evoke. Eden wasn’t a garden like we think of garden. It wasn’t rows of vegetables. No, this was a garden like those that sit next to the King’s palace, like the gardens of Versailles, with its manicured lawns, exotic plants, flowing fountains, and reflecting pools.

Adam and Eve were given a royal estate, not simply to take care of but to fully enjoy. “You are free to eat to eat from any tree in the Garden,” God said, giving them almost free reign. I know, I know, God also gave them one tree they couldn’t eat from. But our solidarity with Adam and Eve reveals itself in the fact that we only want to talk about that tree – the prohibition. We, too, miss the vastness of God’s gift to them . . . Along with the gift of vocation they were given the gift of permission, of freedom. Eat from all these trees. Play in the fields. Swim in the canal. Sure, invite your friends over. God has given humanity an amazing gift – the gift of great freedom.

All we had to do was receive it. But here’s the thing with receiving – it has to be on the giver’s terms. Every gift, whether explicit or not, comes with prohibitions. When Alyson gave me her hand in marriage, that gift came with great permissions, but it also came with the explicit prohibition that I would take no other hand as long as we both shall live. And if I was to receive the permissions, I had to also receive the prohibitions.

We don’t exactly know what the tree of knowledge of good and evil represents. We don’t even know if God’s prohibition was for forever or just a matter of timing. One commentator notes that God may have simply been waiting for Adam and Eve to grow up a little before he let them taste of that tree. Doesn’t really matter, the point is, if Adam and Eve were going to receive this greatest of gifts, life with purpose, life with joy, they were also going to have to receive life with limitations. They could not have one without the other. God’s gift, like every gift, if received would make a claim on their lives.

We know the story. It was a claim they could not live underneath. They found it difficult to just receive. And so they took. They took the fruit, yes. But more than that, they took their lives into their own hands. They’d be in debt to know one, not even God. They soon found out that taking was not all it was cracked up to be. Adam learned that it would require the sweat of his brow to take food from the ground. Eve discovered that their children would quickly follow in their footsteps and take it right out of their parents. And the pattern was set. Cain took Able’s life. Jacob took Esau’s birthright and his blessing. David took Uriah’s wife. And on and on and on, right up until this day.

Taking what’s not ours is a part of who we are. A part of our birthright as children of Adam. St. Augustine, in his autobiography, Confessions, tells a story that we can probably all relate to. As a boy, he and some friends where walking down the road, when they came upon a neighbor’s pear tree. Now, he says, there was nothing particularly appealing about this tree. The fruit was no better than that of their own orchards. And yet, he says, he and his friends almost could not help but “shake and rob” this tree. They carried off a large load of pears, most of which they either threw at each other or fed to the hogs. At the time, he admits of his thievery, “It was foul, and I loved it. . . I did not desire to enjoy what I stole, but only the theft and the sin itself.” There was an excitement in it, a rush, a sense of power and freedom.

He pondered, later in life, why such sins were so enjoyable. Why he could not simply receive the gift of life and insisted upon taking that which he neither needed nor even especially wanted. He concludes, that in rebelling against God’s prohibitions, even in the face of God’s permissions, he sought “by gesture, to rebel against [God’s] law, even though I had no power to do so actually – so that even as a captive, I might produce a sort of counterfeit liberty. . . [and] a deluded sense of omnipotence.”

That is what every form of taking is – an attempt, even if only through gesture, through symbol, to declare our own omnipotence, to assert our own God likeness. When we take through force or simply glances (remember Jesus said these were the same) women or men who are not our spouses, or resources that were meant for others, we ignore the vastness of God’s gifts towards us. We take instead of simply receive. Just like Adam and Eve. But just like Adam and Eve, we realize, too lately, that our insistence on taking instead of receiving is our undoing. In the classic western movie Shenandoah, Jimmy Stewart stars as Charlie Anderson, a Virginian farmer trying to keep his family out of the Civil War. With his children gathered at the supper table and one empty place set for his dead wife, Charlie begins a litany the children have obviously have heard before: "Now your mother wanted all of you raised as good Christians, and I might not be able to do that thorny job as well as she could, but I can do a little something about your manners."

He gestures that they all should bow their heads and continues: "Lord, we cleared this land, we plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the harvest. We wouldn't be here, we wouldn't be eatin', if we hadn't done it all ourselves. We worked dog-boned hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for the food we're about to eat. Amen."

Through the course of the movie, we see one tragedy after another strike the Anderson clan: the youngest son is mistaken for a soldier and captured, another son and his wife are murdered, and a third son is shot by an over-zealous sentry. When we next see Mr. Anderson at the supper table, there are four more empty places as he begins his ritual prayer. But this time we hear his voice quiver and break as the awful realization comes upon him that he is not in control, that he is not the master of his own destiny. His voice trails off as he finishes the words "if we hadn't done it all ourselves." He stops, gets up, and walks away, a proud man, broken and stripped of his pride, knowing that he needs to turn to the Lord, but not yet ready to fall on his knees and ask for God's help.

It’s difficult to receive, not only God’s blessings, but also his forgiveness. We’ve so messed up the world with all our taking, we half expect God to take it out on us. We expect him to take us to task, or take us behind the shed for our trespasses. But Paul gives us an amazing word in the book of Romans, “15But the gift is not like the trespass. . . 17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

For all our taking, and taking, and taking, God is still in the giving business. And where our taking leads to there never being enough – the gift of God is not like the trespass of Adam - in God's graciousness there is always plenty. For the gift is the abundant provision of God’s grace in Jesus Christ – and for all who receive it, yes, receive with open hearts and hands, they shall be given righteousness and life. But this gift of salvation, of new creation, is like the first creation– it makes its claim on us. Christ’s claim, that we are no longer our own, but that we belong to him. Many, many cannot accept such a claim, but for those who receive him, for those who call on his name, he gives the right to be called, the children of God.

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