The year is 1985. I’m eight years old, my brother is six, and it’s Christmas morning. We live in a small village on the west coast of Borneo where my parents were missionaries for over a decade. It’s early in the morning. My dad is filming (probably the most definitively 80s thing about this scene is how large the shoulder-mounted video camera was.) He’s narrating the events transpiring before him, his voice is deep and groggy with sleep. My mom sits in her bathrobe over her nightgown in a chair off to the side, clutching a mug of coffee like it’s the most important thing she owns. Chris, my brother, and I are levitating with excitement. Behind us the fake Christmas tree (kudos to my parents for bringing that over with them) is lit up and gifts are scattered beneath it.
I have only fleeting memories of some of the gifts we received that or any Christmas in Indonesia – a book about flying for my brother, chapstick and gum in our stockings, astronaut Barbie for me (it was the 80s). But I have a lasting, vivid memory of one present. It was given to my brother and me together – not usually a welcome scenario, but in this case we didn’t care – and it was one of many of these gifts we received over the years for Christmas and birthdays. It was a gift “from the kitchen,” which meant it was a gift from our nanny/housekeeper Afa, an Indonesia woman who lived with and helped take care of us and the household. Though its contents varied, the “gift from the kitchen” was always an unwrapped box stuffed to the gills with an assortment of items – a bag of rice, a cluster of bananas or a durian, a string of date candies, a few of the plastic fold-up hangers that came with every box of Rinso laundry detergent, a made-up board game drawn on a piece of paper – and we adored it. We thought it was funny and we felt so loved by it. It was Afa in a gift, and it Afa’s love for us in a gift.
As I began thinking about what I would share this morning and about what we as a family would pledge to give to Grace this year, I reflected on the gifts I’ve received over my lifetime. There have been many, but the gift from the kitchen is especially etched into my memory, so I want to use it to talk about a couple of ways we are thinking about giving this year.
Afa’s gift from the kitchen was a reflection of what she had – the full bounty of the kitchen – and it was also a reflection of what she had to give. Day in and day out, she helped feed us, clothe us, keep us clean…she gave so much to our family. And what she gave in the gift represented that; it was, as Father Martin wrote in a letter I hope you all received and read a few weeks ago, a gift that was proportional to what she gave otherwise.
There was something revolutionary in that letter from Father Martin…the idea of giving proportional to spending. When you hear church and giving and money, what word comes to mind? Tithe? I suspect that would be at or near the top of the list if we polled everyone here. Tithing is a concept we are all familiar with, if also a bit anxious about. It speaks to the portion of our income we give, and it establishes a baseline of 10%. But how often do we look at the proportionality of our giving not from the perspective of what we have or what we earn, but from the perspective of what we spend? What we earn doesn’t necessarily say something about our values, but it’s impossible to deny that what we spend says everything about what we value.
We are tempted, cajoled every day, sometimes every hour, to spend our money in a particular way. On the internet, ads pop up that are directed right at me –Suzy Jeffreys, my particular interests. I get coupons in the mail to buy one get one free of something I don’t need one, let alone two, of. These requests are not all consumerist; this time of year nonprofit organizations doing good work in our community and the world make their case for year-end donations. And technological advances have made it so easy to separate us from our money. We sign up for free trials that turn into life-long subscriptions, we set up automatic renewals for services, I can’t think of the last time I had to have cash to buy something. The exchange – of money for a product or a service – is detached; swiping a card means we don’t feel the loss of resources….at least not right in that moment. It’s not realistic to expect that every time we buy something we would carefully consider how this particular purchase reflects our values or doesn’t. That’s why we create budgets, because they give us a framework that does reflect our values…and, ideally, we act within that framework. As we prepare our pledge cards a bit later in the service, I encourage all of us to think about how our pledge fits into how we spend our money in the world.
Second, as thrilled as we were to receive the gift from the kitchen, Afa’s happiness surpassed ours. She loved watching us pull items out and laugh at them. She’d watch expectantly, smile and scoop us up for a hug. The impact of giving on Afa was an increase of joy in her. That’s a pretty common experience of giving. The giver is happy because she is an intimate part of someone else’s experience of joy. Giving to the church should certainly bring us joy, but we should be actively pursuing the possibility that it will have a deeper, more complex impact as well.
A dear friend of mine teased out some of the potential complexity of giving several years ago when she was named the beneficiary of her mother’s retirement fund and came into a few thousand dollars when her mother died. She decided that every day for a month, she would give a $100 bill to an individual she came across in her daily life and that she would write about it. Why? Because, as she wrote, “More than usual, I’ve been thinking about money and the role it plays in my life. My mother lived with a deeply held conviction that life was defined by scarcity and want. She taught me to be frugal, and modest in my desires. I consider myself a generous person and make it a priority to give to causes I care about. Yet I worry one day that I am not giving enough away, and the next that I might not have enough for myself and my family. This project is about making a difference and about exploring my money and giving issues.” There were straightforward interactions between giver and recipient that were marked by gratitude and surprise, and there were complicated ones that stretched and challenged my friend’s thinking about generosity and deservedness. At the end of the month, she wrote, “I struggle with my own brokenness. Miserliness was etched into my DNA long before I had anything to say about it. It’s not a fatal mutation; I see that now. And it needn’t keep me from living a full and generous life, although that will always be hard work.”
There is no doubt this practice – and, though short-lived, it was a practice, something she did consistently every day – changed her, because she went into it seeking change. She actively plumbed the depths of her heart and mind looking for insight and ways to shift her thinking. She didn’t wait to see what would happen; she took the initiative to explore her fears and discomfort and to reflect on her growth.
There is another encouragement here for us as we consider our pledges to Grace. Rather than expect that giving will make us feel good and leave it at that, let’s stretch. Let’s identify ways that we hope our giving will change us, and then let’s pursue those actively. If you tend to focus on scarcity, that might mean giving a bit more each month as the year progresses and observing in yourself how it feels to give more than you thought you could. If you would like giving to become a regular habit, maybe that means breaking your pledge up into weekly amounts and bringing your gift physically to church each week to place in the offertory. Whatever it is, the idea is that giving can and should be active, not simply a passive depletion of our bank account and not even just an activity that makes us feel good, but an intentional choice to be changed.
Even as we work to make our giving to Grace proportionate to our other giving in the world, as we work to connect how we give to how we grow as individual Christians, we know that there is something deeper going on when we give to the church, something that separates it even from our other charitable giving. Our readings from the Word this morning point to this in speaking about the Kingdom of God. We heard Jesus say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world.” In Psalm 132, the psalmist moves from describing both a physical resting place for the ark of the covenant and the throne upon which David and his descendants will sit to speaking of an eternal kingdom – a “resting place forever” for the Lord. Our gifts to Grace build the church physically, yes…they enable our clergy and staff, our Vestry, our congregants to minister in the world, near and far. But even more so our gifts to the church reflect the economy of the Kingdom of God, which is starkly different than the economy of the world.
Theologian William Cavanagh writes, “In a capitalist economy, the recipient is passive and the giver experiences giving as a removal of property. In the divine economy of gift, the giver is in the gift, goes with the gift.” This is never more clearly demonstrated than in the eternal giving of the Son and the Holy Spirit, what we will speak of in the creed in a few moments…when we say, of Jesus Christ, “eternally begotten of the Father” and, of the Holy Spirit, “who proceeds from the Father and Son.” Inherent in the triune God is the gift of being, and we mirror this gift in many ways, one of which is through our own giving of ourselves and our resources. In doing this we are, as we heard spoken in the reading from Revelation, “made to be a kingdom.”
A bit later during the service you will have an opportunity to pledge your gift to Grace for 2016. You should have received a pledge card from the ushers on the way in today; if you didn’t the ushers will have them during the offertory, so indicate at that time that you need one. If you consider yourself a member, regular attendee or friend of Grace, please take some time to consider your gift and fill out the card. Then, after the usher brings forward the offertory to the altar and returns to the back of the sanctuary, please walk forward when you’re ready and place your pledge card in the bowl at the altar. If you are visiting for the first, second or tenth time…if you are a visitor or guest today, welcome. We hope you’ll join us after the service for our Consecration Sunday lunch (more on that later) but we are not asking you to pledge or give to the parish.
Many years have passed since our last gift from the kitchen, almost 30 years actually. A month ago my brother Chris and his wife Lacy had their first baby. They live in Alabama now, and they got an email shortly after Leo was born saying that Afa had brought a gift for Chris to an American doctor in the village to send back to the States. I cannot tell you how much I’m hoping it’s a gift from the kitchen, a gift that will carry Afa with it across the ocean…as we will carry ourselves with our gifts this morning.