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Exodus 35:4-5a, 21a, and 36:4-6
1 Chronicles 29:14, 17
Mark 6:34-44, from The Message
If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the news lately, chances are you’ve heard the Latin phrase “quid pro quo.”
As you know, congressional Democrats are charging that President Trump’s demand that the president of Ukraine investigate his personal political opponent when he had held up U.S. military aid to Ukraine was a clear quid pro quo. Even some members of the president’s own staff and the State Department have acknowledged as much, while the president continues to insist there was no quid pro quo.
So ubiquitous has the phrase become in the daily news roundup that National Public Radio devoted a full six minutes last week to the origins and evolution of the term. 1
It turns out that what began as an eloquent way of describing a simple exchange of one thing for another has come to mean something much more sinister: a shakedown issued by a powerful person to someone less powerful, a proposal that feels much more like a threat than a deal. “Do this for me, or else.”
All politics aside, in our commodity culture many exchanges of good and services, as well as requests for gifts and the giving of gifts, have come to feel like that.
So, I want to be very clear:
God’s love is not at all like that.
It is, instead, a free gift, poured out extravagantly and indiscriminately on everyone—the good and the bad, the deserving and the undeserving, the believers and the atheists, the wealthy and the poor, Republicans and Democrats, immigrants and citizens, the generous and the stingy, the just and the unjust. We can’t earn God’s love; it’s always there in equal measure for everyone. All we have to do is open our hearts to it.
The same goes for this church.
All the joys and friendship, belonging and love, meaning and purpose, spirituality and connection, support and song, children’s programming and adults’ inspiration are here for you whether or not you make an annual pledge or put anything at all in the offering plate. You don’t have to pay to play, as the saying goes; you don’t have to give in order to receive. Certainly not from God, and certainly not from this church.
As Mary Oliver said, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.”
That’s how it is with God’s love, and that’s how it is with this church.
And then there is the rest of the world and much of life, from the natural order of things to the marketplace and our relationships, from our own health to the well-being of the earth, from the vitality of our institutions to the size of our bank accounts: What we get out of it is a function of what we put in. There is a natural cycle of reciprocity: give and receive, sow and reap, take care of and enjoy, share and thrive.
I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, Seek first the things of God, and everything else will work out.
I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
This is in no way a quid pro quo, either the something-for-something kind or the you’d-better-do-this-or-you-won’t-get-that kind. Jesus is simply describing the way of the world.
Sure, you can think it’s too bad that there are only five loaves of bread and two fish for five thousand people, even as you sneak another bite of your sandwich. Or you can throw your peanut butter sandwich into the basket, grab a lobster roll when the basket comes back around, and then be so amazed at the 12 baskets of leftovers that you can’t wait for another opportunity to share what you have.
Sure, you can stay home and bemoan the sorry state of the world—and things will stay just the way they are, unless they get worse. Or you can get involved, give of your time and your energy—and meet new people, make new community, and feel your despair lift as you work with others for change and discover what it possible.
You can grouse about the high cost of health care and maybe even gripe about it on Facebook. Or you can make a small contribution to your Chicago-area UCC church and be part of wiping out more than $5 million in medical debt for some 6,000 families.
You can bring your children to Sunday School and youth group, enjoy the choir and Sunday worship and drop a little something in the collection plate, even as you wonder how long this church will be able to keep spending more than it takes in. Or you can give generously to support what is important to you, and marvel as our church enters its third year of sanctuary with Lucio Perez, give thanks that meals prepared in our kitchen feed close to 100 people three times a week, and never even know that Jessie’s House, the county’s only shelter for families, operates in what used to be the church parsonage, or that we give away more than $10,000 a year in gifts of peace, justice, and compassion to outside groups and almost $13,000 to the wider mission of the UCC. Or you can let your heart be stirred to give above and beyond what you thought you could—because you have seen God work through this church in ways you never could have imagined, and you want to be part of that.
The choice is yours. The choice is ours.
We can choose to be like the ancient Hebrews who, when invited by God to give of their talents and treasure for the building of even a temporary place of worship, opened their hearts. They were so excited to give their gold and silver and bronze and purple yarn and fine leather that they contributed more than was needed and finally had to be told to stop. We can be like the ancient Hebrews who, when invited to make contributions to support their priests and their families, gave so generously that the gifts were piled up in heaps. We can be like King David, who realized, even as he asked the people to give generously for the building of the temple, realized two important things: first, that since all things come from God, their freewill offering was nothing more that a returning of part of the gift, and, second, that it is a great honor and privilege to be able to give.
We can choose to be like the indigenous peoples Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about, who know that the “well-being of one is linked to the well-being of all,” who measure status not by how much they have but by how much they give away, and who design beautiful and joyful ceremonies to celebrate the giveaway. 2
“In a culture of gratitude,” Kimmerer says, “everyone knows that the gifts will follow the flow of reciprocity and flow back to you again. This time you give and next time you receive. Both the honor of giving and the humility of receiving are necessary halves of the equation. The grass in the ring is trodden down in a path from gratitude to reciprocity. We dance in a circle, not a line.” 3
Now, I want to be clear. I do not mean to discount your personal and family financial challenges in any way. We all have them, and they are real.
And . . . I believe that we live in a ready-made world, a world made of gifts, a world made for our sustenance and enjoyment, a world and a church that needs our gifts and our care so that it can continue to give.
And I believe that giving freely and joyfully can liberate us from our worries about money and our fears of not having enough. I believe it because I have experienced it. I believe that giving freely and generously to something bigger than ourselves, to a community and a mission that is dedicated to loving and healing the world, will pay us and the world back in ways we never could have imagined. I believe it because I have experienced it.
What I want for you and for all of us is the joy that comes from giving, the abundance that comes from sharing, and the new world that is made possible when we return even a portion of the gift we have received.
You may feel you don’t have enough financial stability to make a pledge to First Church Amherst for the coming year. Or you may have already decided how much you will pledge. I understand that.
And I invite you this morning to re-think those decisions, to re-pray your actions, to ask God to open your heart so that you might choose to give even more, that you might know more joy. And if giving feels like an obligation or a duty, I encourage you to do it anyway—and to be ready to be surprised when obligation turns to joy. And if giving more to the church than you ever have before feels scary, I encourage you to make that leap of faith, fully prepared to land in a world made of new possibilities and even greater joy.
There is no quid pro quo here. We will love you and your children whether or not you pledge. You belong to us and we belong to you, pledge or not. And so we will pray for you and visit you in the hospital and bring you food when you are sick. We will feed your soul and open your heart and give you strength for another day. We will open the door to your healing, we will stand beside you when things are hard, we will help you find meaning and purpose, we will weep with you, and we will rejoice with you.
And we will let you know that we need you, even as we hope and pray and give the very best for you.
So let each of us give generously and joyfully, that we might receive a good and generous measure of life and love, that we might know more fully this wonderful world made of gifts, that our cups and everyone’s cup might run over with love and hope and joy.
1 You can find the piece here: https://www.npr.org/2019/10/26/773506497/from-simple-exchange-to-shakedown-the-evolution-of-quid-pro-quo
2 In her beautiful and important book, “Braiding Sweetgrass,” published by Milkweed Editions in 2013.
3 “Braiding Sweetgrass,” p. 381.