Junior, age 30, asked his mother for $1000. She said “no, you’ll just fritter it away.” He pouted, you never do anything for me. At that, she exploded. “Never do anything for you? I bore you in my womb for nine months. I nursed you for two years. I weaned you, fed you, clothed you, cared for you when you were sick. I drove you back and forth to school every day. I worked two jobs so that I could afford to get you the best education possible. I encouraged you when you graduated and let you live here with me rent free when you lost your job. That’s what I’ve done for you!” To which Junior shot back, “Yeah, but what have you done for me lately?” Human beings are really good at taking. In fact, we’re so good at it we can even think we’re owed something, that we’re entitled to have something which was meant to be a gift. That’s what seems to be happening in the gospel. Jesus has given the people of the town the gift of his healing presence. They wanted to claim that presence, they wanted to own him. “Everyone is looking for you.” Jesus instead chose to include a larger and larger circle of people to share with.
Think of the reverse – of people who are givers instead of takers. As our opening story illustrates, parents are givers. They make sacrifice after sacrifice to provide for their children, all of it freely given. When the child reaches adulthood, the parents don’t present a bill for the past twenty-one years. Parents give freely, without counting the cost. Or think of married couples. They must give up their individual lives in the interest of the deeper and wider life they have in common. This is a daily challenge that requires a lifetime to perfect. How about those who are in helping professions, like schoolteachers? They are not paid nearly what they are worth but they stay in the work because they are making a difference in the lives of young people. People who are the givers are the ones who make this world a better place,
How about Church-goers, are we givers or takers? On the one hand, we’re all takers in Church. We don’t do for God, God does for us. God wants to shower grace upon grace on each one of us. The problem arises, however, when we become passive, when we plop ourselves down and say, “Do me.” You probably have heard, as I have, people say that the reason they stopped coming to church was because “they weren’t getting anything out of it.” They seem to have an expectation that they would be given some kind of buzz, some kick out of Church. They go to the movies for entertainment, they go to the concert for enjoyment, they watch TV for delight – why go to Church? Here is the irony: in order to get something from Church you must give something to Church. Passive receiving might work when you seeking to be entertained but being Church requires active participation. God is the giver, but we must hold out our hands to receive the gift. What does that look like? How do we change into active participants so that we “get something out of it?”
First, awareness. I try to take a walk most days. (Not when it’s thirty below, but most days.) Sometimes when I’m thinking about something or worried over some issue I am oblivious to my surroundings. I could be on a treadmill for all the difference it makes. Other days, when my mind is clearer, I notice how wonderful it is to walk by the lake; I notice the ducks and geese that have managed to stay for the winter; I appreciate the change in the light as the sun sets. Awareness changes the walk from a chore to a joy. To receive God’s gift when we come to church demands awareness. We must become aware that all that we are, everything that has happened to us for good and for ill, is what God wishes to bless. We start off our service each Sunday by begging God for mercy because we are bringing ourselves just as we are into the presence of God. God is constantly with us but we are usually so wrapped up in ourselves that we don’t notice. Become aware of the color purple in a field, Alice Walker says, and God’s blessings will flow.
The second necessity for getting something out of Church is us, one another, the people assembled. We’re not passengers on the “L” hoping no one pays us any mind, keeping alert for the person who might be out to get us. We’re here because we belong together. Knowing that there are people that matter to me and that I matter to them opens up the possibility for God’s intervention in our lives. How lucky we are that we get to share see the whole spectrum of humanity from every “people, tongue and nation” in this community. If we slink in and out of Church without extending a word, a gesture, a kindness to the people around us how will God find the space to bless us! Seeing the people around us as precious, as icons of God in the world, will fill our hearts in unexpected ways.
Finally, to get something out of Church demands connecting what goes on in here with what is going on out there. In Church we don’t flee the world but strive to re-fashion the world as God intends it to be. We celebrate our African-American heritage because being Church requires healing the sin of racism. We reach out to the immigrant because we recognize in them the face of Christ. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless because there isn’t anyone out there who is not brother or sister or mother to me. Action to make the world a better place is like having the best slot machine ever. No matter what we put in, it pays off every time. That’s really how we get something out of it.