Saturday, August 20, 2011

Gifts are for Sharing
Gen 45:1-15, Rom. 11:31; Mt. 15:21-28[1]
A few years ago, I wrote a Bible Study on sharing, and I asked the students to identify their most prized possession, and then begin to look for ways to give it away. At that time, mine was a classical guitar. It was a particularly nice guitar. I must confess that at the time, I wasn’t sure I could ever give that guitar away. But gifts are for sharing. Our granddaughter Avery and our nephew Eli—who are both three years old—are learning the concept of sharing. And of course, for them sharing is a matter of learning “mine” and “yours.” As you can imagine, they do a lot better with “mine” than they do with “yours.” The other day, however, as we were having breakfast with Eli’s family, we witnessed a blessed event—three-year-olds sharing toys. He had brought some of his sister Tyler’s rings with him, and of course Avery wanted to play with them too. When he offered to share a couple of them with her, she gave him a kiss!
Gifts are for sharing. When we receive a gift, it’s always more enjoyable if we can “share” it with someone. How many times have you found yourself in that position, just dying to tell someone? There is something to that—perhaps it points us in the direction of literally sharing our gifts, not just telling someone about it. That pattern of sharing gifts is built into the way God relates to us, and the way God calls us to relate to each other. When we truly know ourselves to be people who have been given grace and mercy, we will share it with those around us, extending grace and mercy even to those who are hard to like.
I think that’s what happened to Joseph—sold into slavery by brothers who hated him. Later elevated to the position of Pharaoh’s Prime Minister. And when famine struck their world and his brothers came to Egypt to buy grain for their families, Joseph recognized them! There they were, those brothers who hated him so, and he had the power of life or death over them and their wives and their children! And he extended to them kindness, and love, and generosity. I think Joseph had received the gift of God’s grace and mercy in his life, and so he shared that grace and mercy with his brothers by letting them off the hook for their past deeds.
We, like students of Scripture throughout the generations, have ample evidence that mercy is a gift that is meant to be shared.[2] And yet we, like Jesus’ own disciples, constantly have to re-learn the lesson that we who have received mercy must in turn extend that mercy to others. To some extent, I think that’s what is going on in our Gospel lesson. It has often been said that Jesus’ strange interaction with the Canaanite woman was a test of her faith.[3] But I would say that it was not the woman Jesus was testing, but rather the disciples. After showing them they could be channels of divine grace and mercy at the miraculous feeding of a vast multitude, when Jesus’ disciples encountered a person in need, they once again wanted to send her away.
I think that’s why Jesus utters the sentiments about being sent only to “the lost sheep of Israel” and not giving the children’s bread to dogs, sentiments that seem offensive to us because they are so out of character with what we see of Jesus elsewhere. I think it’s likely they were the very thoughts Jesus’ disciples were thinking as good reason for sending her away. Because she was a despised Gentile, she was beneath their mercy! But I think Jesus wants to teach them that no one is beneath their mercy.!
That situation is reversed in our lesson from St. Paul. One of the problems he was dealing with was the fact that a Jewish Messiah was largely rejected by his own people, while Gentiles were responding to him in faith. In a very real sense, that meant that Gentile believers faced the temptation to look down on people of Jewish faith. Still do, in fact. But Paul insisted that it was all a part of God’s plan to extend mercy to all people— as improbable and unimaginable as that is. St. Paul says it this way, “by the mercy shown to you they too may receive mercy” (Rom. 11:31).[4] Isn’t that always the way it is with God’s mercy? We receive it not to boast about it, or to show the world that we are God’s special favorites. We receive God’s mercy as a gift so that we will in turn share that mercy with others—all others.[5]
  Sharing is something that doesn’t come easy to me. Especially sharing a gift as dear to me as my classical guitar. I had played that guitar for hours during my seven-month severance from the Seminary. And I had played it again for hours when I adjusted to life on my own after my divorce. To me it was like an old friend, a faithful companion. At the time I wrote that Bible Study, the thought of giving it away was something I couldn’t fathom. At the time I had no idea to whom I would even give it. But I did give that guitar away—to my son Zach when he went off to school and needed a classical guitar. I enjoyed the gift of that guitar in some particularly difficult times of my life. And now Zach enjoys the gift of that guitar—and he plays it better than I ever did! Gifts are for sharing—especially the gift of mercy. We receive God’s mercy as a gift so that we will in turn share that mercy with others—all others. No ifs ands or buts. No discriminating. No exceptions. No exclusions. Gifts are for sharing, and so is mercy.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/14/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 189, where he points to the theme that “God responds to disobedience with mercy” as a thread that runs throughout Scripture.
[3] In fact, many suggest that the episode was actually a test for Jesus, one that convinced him to extend God’s salvation to Gentiles. Cf. Judith Gundry-Volf, “Spirit, Mercy and the Other,” Theology Today 51 (Jan 1995): 519-22.
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:303-4: he sums up Paul’s logic by saying, “God’s mercy would not be the present of the Gentiles if it were not the future of the Jews also.” The end result of this bewildering plan of God is that “everywhere we begin with human disobedience and everywhere we end with divine mercy—everywhere and for all.”
[5] Cf. Cynthia Jarvis, “Siding with Grace,” The Christian Century (July 31 2002) 20.

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