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Aug 12, 2018

What's NOT Wrong?

Passage: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Speaker: Michael E. Karunas

Category: Gratitude

Do you have a special place?  A favorite place?  One you enjoy visiting again and again?  Or one you don’t get to often enough but wished you could?  I do.  I just got back from it.  It’s our family cottage on Crystal Lake.  I’ve been going there for over 40 years.  Amy for over 20.  It’s not important to share pictures from it because they wouldn’t mean as much to you as they do to me (that’s what makes our special places special to us).  But it’s enough for you to know that my favorite place is on the water – Crystal Lake.  It’s also noteworthy that there is a church campground just down the hill from where our cottage sits.  And there, right on the waters’ edge, is an outdoor worship space; with a few weather-beaten benches in front of a large cross, held upright by a pile of stones at its base.  As youth, my sisters and I attended camp there and every evening we worship there and watched the sun setting – over the water and behind the cross.


When I came back from a trip to the Holy Land 10 years ago, I brought back souvenirs.  One was a picture of the sun setting over the Sea of Galilee.  There happened to be a large cross planted on the shore outside our retreat house where we were staying.  The cross was in the foreground.  Sunset over the water in the background.  Much like that vespers area by our cottage in MI.  I gave the picture to one of my sisters who thanked me but then said, “That’s great, but why did you give me a picture of Crystal Lake!”  That’s how much we value our favorite places!  They are so holy and sacred to us, we think that Jesus walked on that ground!  God is everywhere in our favorite places – in everything we see, smell, touch, and hear.  And because of that, we only have to be there a few days (maybe even hours?) to have our lives put in perspective; to be reminded how blessed we are.  It’s hard to see that amid the busyness of our day-to-day lives.  There, it’s easy to be distracted, and we instead focus on what’s wrong with our lives; how many problems there are to fix.  But when we are in our favorite place, we have a clear sense of what’s not wrong; of how generous God is to us and of how much we have to be thankful for.  So… Do you have a favorite, special place? 

The Israelite's did.  We call it the Holy Land today.  They had been set free from slavery in Egypt and then began a long journey – 700 miles, on foot, through the desert.  It was hard.  Food and water were scarce.  They complained often (understandable).  But they were propelled forward by the assurance that God was leading them to a place where they could settle and put down roots.  It was to be a land of “milk and honey,” which meant that it would be a land of abundant harvests and agricultural prosperity.  And it is noteworthy that the first thing they did once they finally got there and were settled, was to establish an annual ritual.  Every year, after the spring harvest, they were to bring a tithe (10%) of that harvest to the priest as an expression of gratitude for what God had done for them. Then… they were to share that “first fruit” with the priests and the strangers also living in the land – the non-Jews; those unlike them.  Here’s how our reading today, Deuteronomy 26:1-11, describes it.

This ritual (bringing the first fruits to the priests, to share with them and the strangers among them) reminded the Israelite's that they were the recipients of generosity!  Five times in 11 verses we have this phrase: “The land, that the Lord your God is giving you,” to remind them that everything they possessed was a gift from God.  Their freedom from slavery?  Guidance along the journey through the desert?  The land itself in which to settle?  The food the land provided?  All gifts from God.  The people went out of their way to remember that God was generous toward them and that they were the recipients and beneficiaries of this great generosity.  And… not surprisingly, they were generous in return.  At the end of our reading, we see them sharing their harvest with the priests and with strangers.  I say “not surprisingly,” because that’s the way generosity works.  We can only really be generous with what we have when we see ourselves as having benefited from the generosity of others. 

Coincidentally, earlier this summer I read a book by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh called Peace is Every Step.  He shows that we can experience peace on every step of our life journey by thinking of generosity.  Too often, he says, we ask one another “What’s wrong?”  Granted, they may look like something’s wrong.  But the very question “What is wrong?” invites negativity into our mind and conversations.  We immediately direct all our attention to problems and pain.  We rarely, he goes on to say, ask one another “What’s not wrong?” which would invite us to see the gifts of life; the blessings – the grace that abounds among us.

It is easy to focus on what’s wrong – what’s wrong with my body; with the people in my life; with my job; with my church; with the world.  It’s easy to focus on problems and the things that aren’t working.  I’m not here to deny that such things are real.  The truth is, however, God’s gifts of grace are all around us – in the very body we inhabit, the very people in our lives, the very job we have, the very groups that demand our time.  And what if our first thought was not on “what’s wrong?” but rather on “what’s not wrong?”  Wouldn’t we inevitably be more generous in return? With everything we have?  Our time; our affection; our courtesy; our forgiveness? 

One of our church members, Dr. Barb Tyler, is an example of that.  Two years ago she established a scholarship at Central.  It is to be granted every year to a youth who was baptized and active in this church, and who now is receiving post-HS education.  But the beautiful thing about this scholarship is what she said was her motivation for doing this.  She said (my paraphrase): I received a scholarship when I was young and would not have been able to receive the education I did without it.  Who I became as a professional was possible – in part – due to someone else’s generosity.  I see myself has having been blessed in this way and in return, I want to make a similar blessing available to others. 

If we see ourselves as responsible for all our achievements in life – as though we earned it on our own – we will be far more protective of what we have.  Which will have the unfortunate side-effect of cutting ourselves off from others and from God.  That’s why generosity begins by seeing ourselves as recipients of God’s generosity - and the generosity of others – toward us.

We will be talking more about generosity this Fall.  But today we’d like to start hearing your stories of having benefited from the generosity of others toward you.  Barb Tyler has this kind of story.  So do the Israelite's (given to us in DT 26).  What about you?  We are handing out yellow slips of paper with this prompt: “I was the recipient of generosity when…”  And we’d like you to finish the sentence.  Write whatever you want.  It can be long or short.  Funny or serious.  It can be trivial or life-changingly significant.  We really want to hear from everyone.  Your name is optional, but I would really like to have your names because I may want to follow up with you and the story you have to tell.  And as you fill these out, I hope that you will give thought to “what’s not wrong” in your life – and give God thanks for the generosity shown to you.