Given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA
December 24, 2010
I’m really excited about tomorrow morning. Aren’t you?
I try to live simply and not accumulate a lot of things I don’t need, but I admit I really love to see a gift bag with my name on it and a pretty ribbon on top. I love the surprise inside the tissue paper. I love getting stuff.
But I’m also a little nervous about how much I love it. I know that’s not what Christmas is supposed to be about.
Jesus never said a word about presents. They don’t appear in the Christmas story. The magi do bring gifts, but that isn’t even on Christmas, but twelve days later, when they complete their journey from the East. And of course, the presents are just for the newborn baby, not from everyone to everyone the way we give Christmas presents; and really, they’re the kind of gifts you bring to royalty to show your honor and homage, not the useful or fun thing you’d normally bring a baby, like a rattle. Still, somewhere along the line, presents became a big part of Christmas.
Of course, we’re supposed to give them, not just get them. And that’s a really fun part of Christmas too. Most of us find that it gets to be even more fun as we get older.
But is it really as much fun to give as to receive? We’re supposed to feel that way, but it’s not easy to live up to it. Especially when we’re thinking about all those goodies waiting for us tomorrow morning.
There’s a website I really like called PostSecret, where anyone who likes is invited to choose or create a postcard, write on it a secret they’ve never shared with anyone, and send it in. About twenty of these beautiful, creative, three-by-five-inch works of art are posted each week. In time for Christmas, one was posted that looked like a wrapped present and read, “I hate that Christmas makes me feel greedy.”
So I guess I’m not the only one.
And I know for sure that neither the religion Jesus followed—Judaism—nor the religion he inspired—Christianity—nor our religion—Unitarian Universalism—gives us permission to be greedy. They are united in their teaching that we should let go of all our desire to have things, let go of all our fear that we will not have enough, and just concentrate on the side of the giving-receiving equation that is in our control: that is, concentrate on giving.
If you think that that part of Christmas is challenging, just wait ‘til Jesus grows up. Then he starts to challenge us to get really generous and really fearless.
He says even if someone demands something from us that is ours, we should give it to them, and more. If they ask for our coat, we should give them the cloak we wear on top of it too. He says we’re not only supposed to love our friends, but also our enemies. He tells a rich young man who wants to know how to get to heaven that it’s very simple: all he has to do is give everything away. Yes, that simple!
Let’s imagine for a moment trying to live that way . . . giving and giving, giving it all away, without trying to receive or worrying about what will come back to us.
It can be done if we have one essential quality: trust. Trust that our needs will be taken care of. Giving makes us like a newborn baby far from his only home, utterly vulnerable, utterly dependent on the goodwill of those around him.
As a culture, we have a deep and growing fear of freeloaders. More and more, we arrange our politics, our economics, our whole social system, as if the worst thing that can happen is not that a family in genuine need will find themselves without a place to sleep, but that a family not in need will get a free night at the inn.
We are more worried about the welfare cheat than about the people who need our help and don’t get it. What kind of community does this give us? The kind where in the midst of plenty, 20,000 people experience homelessness each year, as they do in our county.
And what creates that other kind of community, where trust not only flourishes, but most of the time it turns out to be well-founded? Giving freely. Giving with no thought of being repaid.
Whereas clutching onto what we have, worrying that we will give more than we get, makes us trust people less. It drives us further into our own fortresses, walls and fences around each of us and our stuff.
Yes, sometimes someone will take advantage. But Jesus said not to worry about that. He even said to give to people who we know don’t wish us well. Just give. Not just give to the people we love, not just give presents—those are warmups for the other kind of giving.
Another rabbi, Moses ben-Maimon, known as Maimonides, told us some more about the kind of giving we’re working our way up to. And the kinds of giving he said were best are the kind we are doing here tonight.
He said there are lots of ways to give. In some, we give grudgingly. In some, we want to be thanked and recognized, maybe even made to feel like the recipient owes us something. These are not the best ways to give.
But one of the best ways to give is anonymously. The person we help doesn’t know who we are, so they can’t feel beholden; we don’t know who they are, so we can’t feel superior. That’s the kind of giving we just did with our offering. InnVision will help someone with our dollars and that person will be able to offer thanks only to an unknown angel, just as we will get nothing in exchange except the hope that we have helped an unknown Joseph, Mary, or Jesus in our midst.
The very best way to give, Maimonides says, is to help the recipient to not need our help anymore. InnVision does that kind of thing too, when it helps someone find a job. So does the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which will take the contents of our Guest at Your Table boxes and help people close to here and far away create more just communities where they and everyone can prosper.
The rich young man asked the grown Jesus, “How do I get to heaven?”
And he said, “Give.” Does that mean we go to heaven if we stop trying to receive and just give? Not exactly. It means that if we do that, heaven comes to us. By giving to our friends and our family members, yes—and then also giving to people we don’t even know, giving to people we don’t even like, giving to people who show no sign of giving to us, giving when we aren’t sure what we’re going to get back: we make heaven, right here. This is how we get to heaven.
A heavenly Christmas to you all.