How to Receive - thrive UMC Official Blog

How to Receive

Last week I had mentioned that the series we’re doing now was the result of a last-minute, surprise turn.  I had plans to go in one direction, but that changed when I noticed that not just some, but a whole lot of the people I was running into were presenting different flavors of what seemed to be a common sentiment.  And that sentiment, if we’re going to name to it, is called “over-commitment.”  Most of us know what I’m talking about, don’t we?

It happens like this: we go about our lives, meeting people, and we discover all of this great stuff happening in the world, and we go: ‘I want to be a part of that! And that! And that!  …and that!’ totally unaware that saying ‘yes’ to all that stuff will cost you every waking moment of the next six years of your life.  Or, what may be the case for most of us: we go out into the world feeling perfectly fine about our lives, and how much stuff we’re involved in, but then someone we know and care about asks us: ‘hey, there’s this thing [yada yada yada], would you…?

Which feels like someone popping out of the coffee table in front of a guest on Ellen –‘Ah! A new commitment! So unexpected!’ And you, you poor sucker –you we not prepared to say ‘no.’

Anyway, because of this all-too-common sense of over-committedness, we’re going in a new direction.  And instead of the experience of exile and focusing on your needed work in the world, we’re first going to talk about gardening. And all of this came out of a sermon I heard a week or so ago on the command to ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  And in this sermon, the emphasis was on the “as yourself” part, which I personally found really renewing and inspiring.

Now, I hope a lot of you have at least heard that phrase before: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus puts it right up there with “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind” as being the most important commandment(s) for our entire species.  In fact, Jesus says that if you fulfill those commandments, you’ve fulfilled all of them –all of the teachings and all of the prophets.  But, what some of you may not know is that Jesus did not write those commandments. Those commandments were already written in the Hebrew Bible, the lessons of which Jesus had been learning from a young age.  So I decided: ‘hey, let’s look at that commandment as Jesus would have been taught and studied it!’

So, please turn with me to what I know is everyone’s favorite book of the Bible: Leviticus.  We can find it there, in the 19th chapter.  But, to get a little bit of context for where this sacred commandment fits and where it comes from, let’s read just a little before and after this famous line.  Let’s start in verse 15, and read through, say verse 20.  If you have your bible or a bible app on your phone, I’d really encourage you to follow along in there, to see a different translation.  But the Common English Bible reads this way –it says:

15 You must not act unjustly in a legal case. Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly. 16 Do not go around slandering your people.[a] Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed;[b] I am the Lord. 17 You must not hate your fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your fellow Israelite strongly, so you don’t become responsible for his sin.[c] 18 You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.

19 You must keep my rules. Do not crossbreed your livestock, do not plant your field with two kinds of seed, and do not wear clothes made from two kinds of material. 20 If a man has sexual relations with a woman who is a slave engaged to another man, who hasn’t yet been released or given her freedom, there must be a punishment.[d] But they will not be put to death because she had not yet been freed.

And here we’ll pause, for just a moment.

Now, in case you missed it, in the span of only six verses, we have legal issues of justice, the love your neighbor line, stuff about farming and textiles, and finally a really unsettling bit about having sex with a slave.  Reading just this snippet, it’s not too hard to see why Jesus might single-out the ‘love-your-neighbor’ bit, is it?  Because the rest sounds, to our ears, completely random, almost to the point of schizophrenia, doesn’t it?  Like, what’s next, how not to cut your hair? Oh wait, that’s seven verses later, right after the part about ghosts.

I cannot make this stuff up.

Not only that, but doesn’t this depiction change how we picture neighbor-loving?  When Jesus talks about it, I at least, always had this sense that I should be doing things like being more cheerful and helpful, all the while dispensing hugs to everyone I meet.  But that is not what Leviticus is putting down at all!  Instead, Leviticus makes it sound like loving your neighbor is nothing more than the preferable alternative to hating them, holding grudges, and taking bloody revenge. Which, let’s be honest, while it’s definitely less romantic, it also hits a  little closer to home, doesn’t it? Because we don’t always have power over how we feel about someone; but we can decide to respond out of love and compassion, when our gut instinct is to go with hate and revenge. We’ll talk about that in greater depth in a later message.

But for now, the next order of business: cattle-breeding, crop planting, and textile-weaving.

Please tell me I wasn’t the only one who read that the first time and went: wait, what? What is going on here?

The Bible has these crazy juxtapositions all the time –and my experience has shown me that they are always invitations to a deeper wisdom. Because this is not just some randomly-assembled list of rules.  Far from it!  In fact, there is a profound, multi-dimensional lesson interwoven into the very fabric of the text here.  It blows my mind.

Check this out: really quickly, let’s jump back to the very opening of this chapter of Leviticus.  There we’ll see the thread emerge that ties this whole list together –the thread which remains invisible when we only read it a line at a time.  It says this:

19 The Lord said to Moses, Say to the whole community of the Israelites: You must be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy. Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must keep my sabbaths; I am the Lord your God. Do not turn to idols or make gods of cast metal for yourselves; I am the Lord your God.

“You must be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”  That’s what all of this is about –this thing that looks like just a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ is really instruction for becoming holy people –not as individuals, but holy together.  ‘Respect your parents and keep God’s Sabbaths,’ it says, ‘don’t seek help from idols or gods you make for yourselves; but I am the Lord your God.’

Now those kind of fit together, don’t they?  That stuff is all about who you can trust and where you should get your help, when you need it –starting even as a little child.  Because, look, your parents might not be perfect, but they’ve invested in you.  They are for you, just like the Lord who made you.  Respect them.  And keep the Sabbath, because that’s where you’ll learn the teachings and the wisdom of the community.  That’s how you’ll come to discern right from wrong; and it’s where you’ll be encouraged to find joy and cooperate to build a better way to live together.  Your parents and the communal venue of Sabbath –the one holy day each and every week- are where you’ll be raised up.

There’s a step one if I ever heard one!

Then, in the passage immediately following what we just read, it talks about sacrifices and when to eat.  And then it talks about how to harvest, in a way that’s sustainable.  Then, it tells you how not to harvest: for starters, don’t steal. Don’t glean what another planted and owns –because there are boundaries, right?  But always receive with justice and honesty.

Then it teaches how to deal honesty with those around you –your peers and equals.  Don’t hate them, or even ignore them. But rebuke them –correct them, or else you will be responsible for their sin!  Love them, as you love yourself (because we’re all in this together!  We’re all connected!).

Then, get this: it talks about planting!  Already it talked about the harvest; now, with the bit about cattle-breeding and sewing a single kind of seed to a field, it’s talking about planting.  Not because that’s the appropriate order for how to farm –but because that’s how the human experience goes.  Long before we are ever able to grow things for ourselves, let alone others, our first task is to receive.  Respecting our parents, keeping the Sabbath, worshiping God, sacrificing and harvesting –these are all instructions for how to receive properly.  As babies, that’s all we’re capable of: receive, receive, receive.   But only after we’ve done some growing up do we become able to give. Then we spend the rest of our lives learning to grow in our giving.  And tragically, some of us never make it that far.

Today we’re honoring Mother’s Day –and I want to ask all the moms out there –what happens to you when you experience too much whining, and complaining, and disobedience from your children? What about when they refuse to eat what you set before them? Emotionally, what does it do to you?

One day this past week, our son, Eli, was having what we call a listening problem.  He had foolishly decided not to do practically anything his mother had told him to do for almost an entire day, and after work Kristen conveys all of this to me in a single succinct statement: “I’m going to kill our son,” she tells me.

I turn to Eli and given him that look, like, “boy, you better learn how to receive instruction if you wanna grow up!” [And he looks back at me, wide-eyed and shrugging painfully to acknowledge: ‘yeah, I made a terrible mistake!”]  Now, of course Kristen wouldn’t literally kill him –but for every parent out there, I think we can all at least pause for a moment to acknowledge the practical applications of ancient ritual of child sacrifice, can’t we?  There’s something about household economies of emotion at work there –where when you throw one onto the burning coals, the rest of the kids get to see, first hand, what’s at stake. And what’s at stake is the very air in the room we breathe together. When someone repeatedly fails to receive the good gift, then eventually the giving will somehow no longer be worth it. And the consequence is death.

And this never stops being true, right moms?

Moms, as a category, are probably the best human example of self-giving that we have as a species.  Moms give their bodies, their energy, their time, their patience, their wisdom, their strength, and their resources to their kids.  And when their gifts are not received, there will be hell to pay one day –I don’t care who your mom is.  And the longer it takes for that day to come, the hotter the fire will be! But more than that, moms, we all need to remember that it’s vital for you to have your turn for receiving as well. Just because you grow to become a giver doesn’t mean you stop receiving –far from it!  In fact once you become responsible for someone else, it becomes even more essential for you to have people, and space, and generosity and love to be poured into you, just to keep you going.  And that’s why ‘respect your parents and keep the LORD’s Sabbaths’ go together.  Because it’s all connected in a kind of spiritual ecosystem.  Mother’s Day, once a year, is not nearly enough to even begin to maintain that.  You need something like a day every week. This is the deep and profound wisdom of the Bible. You need a community –a chance to build relationships, and to be taught, and to be built up, in order to sustain giving.  That means a day of no work. A day dedicated not to giving but to receiving –so that you can keep giving the best of yourself the rest of the week.

Now, to be honest, we, as a community, are all the way there yet.  We can’t help you do all that as we are right now.  But what we have is a start.  Even as a community, we’re still learning to receive from one another, the gifts that we have to share and exchange.  But little by little, we’re making progress, just as a child grows day by day.

Before we move on, I want to really quickly finish the outline of the 19th chapter of Leviticus, because I think it’s super important.  After it says ‘love your neighbor’ and talks about basic planting and farming, it has this thing about the slave.  We don’t have time to go into it all right now –because there are just layers and layers of stuff going on in that little gem; but just look at where it sits: once you begin giving, and the receiving never stops, things get complicated.  And we need boundaries and clarity, because at some point the lines of property, work, sex, family, and entitlement will intersect.  And it will take the work of the whole community to keep the peace.

Then, from there it goes into planting and not eating. Because the thought was that if you harvested from a young plant too soon it might weaken it –a lesson that is probably less true for plants than it is for people (again, the Bible is not a farming manual). So you have to let what you plant grow strong first before you receive from it.  And then it talks about keeping your appearance holy, and refraining from consulting the dead –because one day you have to stop relying on your elders!  Then it talks about your responsibility to your children, and then to your aging elders, and then to the stranger –or to those not like you in your land –whom it says, and I quote: “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God.” And then the chapter closes with just and honest economics, because your business dealings also contribute to your holiness.

Do you see what’s happening here?  Do you see where this is going, and the momentum it has?  It starts off with stuff for those who only receive, like babies –and then illustrates the difference between receiving and taking. Then it has this beautiful acknowledgment that your act of receiving does not happen in isolation, but that you have fellows and neighbors, whom you’re called not to hate or compete with, but to love. Then it goes on to seed-planting, the most basic and also the most self-serving form of giving.  And then it has boundaries for what you can call your own, and where those end.  And then it’s on to nurturing.  First your plants, then your image, then your kids, then your elderly parents, then the neighbors who are not like you.  And finally, it ends with honest business and metrics.

And all of it is an unfolding revelation for how to be a holy people.  It’s about receiving and giving and sharing and community and your appearance, and the dead, and property, and business….  In short, it’s about everything we do and are as people on this earth! Everything we attempt and touch and are a part of is an invitation to holiness.  And it’s all connected and intricately intertwined, and God has holy fingers in all of it.  From infancy, to maturity, to communal citizenship, and multi-directional nurturing, to death. Receive and grow in your giving –up and then out. For you shall be holy, as God is holy.

But that won’t happen without receiving.  The simple economic truth is that you can’t give what you don’t have.  You can’t love if you haven’t experienced it.  You can’t be an honest or good business person without an awareness of the impact your trade has on the larger community.  And you can’t have room in your heart for compassion for anybody else if you’ve already been sucked dry by all of your responsibilities and commitments that do nothing but take and take and take from you.

That’s why for the next month or so, we’re going to be talking about the gardens of our lives.  Because some of us, at least to hear people talk, oh, our gardens are so full! There’s so much stuff growing, that we’ve got branches and leaves sticking everywhere!  No one has more stuff in their gardens than we do!  But when the annual harvest comes, and we go to gather and weigh our produce: what do we have to share with our neighbors who are starving? We don’t receive just to have –that isn’t just, that isn’t good. That’s not what it means to be a holy people.  But we receive, always, in anticipation of giving.

Therefore, the simple question I have for all of you this morning, brothers and sisters, is how is your receiving going?  Are you making sure that you have time and people and wisdom that reliably pour into you?  If not, that’s a problem! You cannot be productive and generous if you aren’t situated to receive what you need, even as an adult.  And a necessary resource we need to be wise, effective givers and caretakers is wisdom. 

So this is the simple encouragement I have for all of you today: be open to be good receivers. Don’t worry or feel guilty about being selfish –because you are a self.  The response to receiving should not be guilt but ‘thank you.’  So may we be grateful for all of the givers in our lives, and all the ways we’ve received and been provided for –so that we might grow in our giving.

Let’s pray.