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In Giving We Receive

(This is the last in a sermon series on the prayer of St. Francis, "Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace.")

Luke 6:38 reads: “Give and it will be given to you: a full measure – packed down, shaken together and running over – will be poured into your lap. For the amount you measure out is the amount you’ll be given back.” This is probably where we get the line in St. Francis' prayer, "It is in giving that we receive."

The intent of these lines seems obvious to me, but I also realize that they could be a slippery slope for one who takes them literally. It could sound like when you give money or things that God will reward you in kind, and you will receive just as much money or stuff as you gave out.

Personally I believe these lines are talking about what we receive spiritually when we give with a pure heart, without expectations, strings attached, guilt or obligation. Giving purely is giving freely from your heart.

In the first church I was appointed to we had an unusual parishioner; his name was Donny. Donny had a lot of problems, he was not very old, perhaps in his 40s, but he was a war veteran with a fair amount of mental health issues. He didn’t have any family other than a foster mom who was getting up in years and did what she could for him, but it wasn't much. He tended to wear the same clothes week after week until they were falling apart, he was awfully thin, and he often didn’t smell too good.  He functioned fairly well with medication, but we could tell when he had gone off because he became rather incoherent.  Sometimes the police would pick him up wandering in the middle of the street.  But Donny was a gentle soul, and a faithful soul.  Church, and the friendships he made there meant the world to him.  We tried to help Donny out. We made sure he had rides to church, got him a bike one year, one family donated gift certificates for a restaurant he liked and we kept them in the office for him so that whenever he was really in need he could ask for one of those.

I learned a lot from Donny, but one of the greatest lessons I learned from him was about giving.  Donny didn’t have much to give, but it was very important for him to share what he had.  In fact, he was often trying to give people things and we often felt very bad taking them.  He would get sodas out of the machine at church and give one to me.  He would buy packs of gum and give the whole pack to one of the youth or to me.  Once, I was going through a rough time and Donny came to church with a little gold guardian angel pin for me.  But one of the things I remember most is that Donny always brought his offering envelope every week with $2 in it. Donny’s health got really bad for a while and we kept trying to encourage him to get help, but finally he ended up in in the psychiatric unit at the hospital.  He would call me from there and we would talk.  One of his biggest concerns was that he hadn’t been able to turn in his offering envelope.  I couldn’t believe it… no one else I’d ever known had worried about their offering while they were in the hospital. 

I believe Donny gave because it made him feel good. Because he gave purely with no guile, no agenda, nor any obligation, he was filled up inside.

There is so much we can give that has nothing to do with money: compassion, kindness, hope, joy, space, compliments, time, talents, care. Given freely, any of these things will not only be gifts to those we give them go, but they will feed our souls.

At the last church I was at we gave a presentation one Sunday about a capital fund appeal for a building expansion that we were about to embark upon.  After the presentation we opened it up to questions and someone asked the architects what was the least we could build.  Our poor architect was a little flabbergasted; he said he’d never had anyone ask that question before.  I myself am a bit taken aback by that concept – what is the least we can get away with? Really? I have to wonder if that is how that person goes through life... giving as little as possible and measuring the cost, instead of giving with an open, pure heart.

Kent Nerburn, in his book "Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace," tells a story about a time he was teaching a class in religious art at a seminary. The head of the school came to him and said that he had a student that he didn’t quite know what to do with. The young man wanted to juggle and have that be his ministry. Well, Kent didn’t know anything about juggling, but agreed to meet the young man.

Philip turned out to be a person filled with hope, possibilities and a dream. Kent told him that he couldn’t help him with the juggling, but he might be able to help him find out how his juggling could be a gift to the world.

The next week Kent pulled out the Beatitudes in the fifth chapter of Matthew. “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who are mourning… Blessed are those who are gentle…” and so on.

Kent said, “Read these. From now on, each week you will go out on the streets and juggle one of these blessings. You cannot speak, you cannot explain to anyone what you are doing. You must decide for yourself how and where you are to do this, and you must do it with a pure heart. At the end of each week we will get together, and you will tell me which Beatitude you juggled, how you did it, and what you have learned.”

Philip was thrilled with the thought of this new adventure and immediately agreed. For the next few weeks he went out into the city with his sack of red balls and tried to give voice to the Beatitudes through the silent testimony of his juggling. He juggled in nursing homes, at the jail, on the street and in people’s homes. His adventures were humorous, harrowing and heartbreaking. One man gave him his coat; in a group home for mentally disabled he was surrounded and hugged. One night he was beaten by a bunch of thugs and needed medical treatment. But still he persevered.

Finally the class was drawing to a close and he had only one Beatitude left… “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” He wasn’t quite sure how to find the poor in spirit and it seemed that he was getting a bit down cast and weary. But the next time they met, he was bursting with joy and had a glow that Kent hadn’t seen before. “You’ll never believe what happened,” he said to Kent. “I could hardly wait until today to tell you.

That week he had gone to the city hospital, figuring that people who were in a hospital were in low spirits. He walked through the front door juggling his collection of balls. No one paid any attention as he got on the elevator and went up to one of the floors. He stepped off the elevator and nodded to the people at the nursing station, juggling all the while.

“Can we help you?” a woman asked.

Philip just smiled and went on juggling.

“You aren’t allowed on this floor unless there is someone you’re visiting,” she said. “Who are you here to see?”

Philip said nothing and began juggling his way down the corridor toward the patient’s rooms.

She continued to call after him and he continued to not respond.

Finally she sounded an alarm. Orderlies came running from all directions and surrounded Philip.

“He must have gotten out of the psych ward somehow… sedate him and take him back up there.”

Philip was terrified. He had long since ceased carrying a wallet when he juggled because of the threat of robbery and beatings. And it was rapidly becoming clear that even if he broke the agreement not to speak and tell them what he was doing they weren’t going to believe him.

As he stood against the wall, surrounded, juggling in fear, an elderly man came out of his room in a hospital gown and said, “He’s here to see me. Come on in. I’ve been waiting for you.”

The orderlies looked confused, and the nurse with the hypodermic backed off as the gentleman led Philip into his room. Then he got back into bed and gestured for Philip to keep juggling.

For the next half hour Philip juggled like he never had in his life. The man lay there, propped up by his pillows, smiling, saying nothing, until Philip was done. Then he applauded.

Philip had never seen the man before, but he knew he had saved him from a very unpleasant situation.

“What did you learn?” Kent asked Philip when he was done with his story.

“The world is full of miracles. And sometimes we get more than we give.” 

When we take the chance and open ourselves to giving, miraculous things can occur. It’s not always easy, and it almost always involves risk. All we can be sure is that when we give with a pure heart, we make room for the Spirit to move and touch us deeply in the very act of giving. 

Happy Thanksgiving!