Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Bountiful Sowers, Bountiful Reapers

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  (II Corinthians 9:6)

St. Paul was many things, but "clear and to the point" was usually not one of them. So I love how this verse, written to the first-century Christians in Corinth, begins. Paul is, at least in this one instance, not in the midst of some long run-on sentence. He just hits the nail on the head. These words sound more like Jesus than Paul to my ear. Paul tends to prefer complex rhetoric, while Jesus loved agricultural metaphors: seeds being planted, grain being produced, the harvest being plentiful. It’s hard to argue with the metaphor here, unless you are talking about cucumbers or zucchini, which seem to be bountiful even when they are sparingly sown.

It’s not a particularly Christian truth, nor a matter of doctrine like the Trinity. It’s something any farmer can tell you, even an agnostic farmer. If you sow your seeds sparingly you will reap far less than if you sow those seeds more bountifully. It’s just how the world works. In the Old Testament, the writer of Ecclesiastes says something very similar: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back.” (Ecclesiastes 11:1) Or as your mother might have said, “what goes around comes around.” Because there is a kind of “karma” when it comes to giving. I don’t think that means to suggest we give so that we’ll get back even more or that giving comes with a money-back guarantee. Rather, it just seems that when you are around grateful people with open hands and hearts, the household and the neighborhood are healthier. It's better to live in a neighborhood where you can borrow a cup of sugar in a pinch than to live among grinches and tightwads with clenched fists. Life just seems to flow better where giving and thanksgiving unleash gratitude, and that is contagious. Paul goes on to write: 

You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints, but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.

When we hold onto our stuff and clutch it as if it were “our own”—then we find ourselves living increasingly in a world defined by fear. Alternatively, when we let go, when we open our hands and our hearts to the needs of others and sow bountifully, the world around us is changed. The Reign of God breaks in, as the world within us is changed as well. We begin to see things differently, through  new set of lenses. We see abundance. So make up your minds, Paul says. He refuses to beg, or to compel them to do this thing because as a pastor he knows that you can’t compel generosity or force people to share—not even two-year olds. Each of us must make up our own mind about how we will choose to live our lives and how we will relate to our stuff. 

What does all of this have to do with Pilgrims and Native Americans and turkey and football? Well, you can go through this holiday, if you choose without making any connections at all. Thanksgiving can be the purest of secular days and I don’t mean that as all bad. It is not like Christmas or Easter or Pentecost or All Saints Day. Everybody gets to eat turkey tomorrow and share in the bounty of the harvest: Christians and Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and agnostics can join together. Most of our tables will include a mix of Republicans, Independents, Democrats and those famous "undecideds" who would prefer not to discuss politics. 

It is not a particularly Christian day. And yet, this theme of giving and thanksgiving does take us to the very heart of the Christian faith. Meister Eckhart once said: “if the only prayer you ever say is thank you, it will be enough.” He knew that prayer is far more than asking God to do things, far more than confessing our sins. The journey of faith begins with gratitude. 

Back in the 1980s, the claim was famously made that greed is good. Well that was a lie and we are now reaping, thirty years later, the seeds that were sown then. Greed is not good. Generosity is good. Glad and generous hearts are good, because they produce thanksgiving and that ripples out to our neighbors and ultimately to God. And when those seeds are planted, not sparingly but bountifully—the world is good, and the harvest is indeed plentiful. 

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