Rev. Scott Summerville

Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” These are good words to ponder in this week of giving and receiving.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” This is a notion that we officially subscribe to in Christian churches, but it is not necessarily one that is easy to understand or live by.

Ten days ago a most remarkable story came to light. With all the financial scandals and bankruptcies and economic bad news, it seemed like just one more sorry tale, but the story was not quite like any of the others. I am referring to the story of Bernard Madoff, the Wall Street wizard who personally stole $50 billion. He stole more money than has been stolen in all the bank robberies that have ever occurred in human history. If you took all the hundreds of thousands of men and women who are in prison for robbery and added up the value of everything they’ve stolen, is not likely that it would add up to anything close to $50 billion.

His friends are mystified. The thousands of people who depended upon him to protect and grow their assets are devastated. A number of significant charitable foundations will close their doors because they entrusted their funds Mr. Madoff. Libraries, concert halls, universities, hospitals and thousands of private investors will lose precious assets. Mr. Madoff has confessed his crime, but he has given not a hint as to why he did what he did. That is part of what makes this story so fascinating.

Why do some people who are highly successful in the affairs of this world take a turn in their lives in which they are seized by a passionate desire to give and to devote their lives to service? They contribute their time and resources to combat poverty and disease and hunger, or to promote education, religion, and the arts.

Look at Bill and Melinda Gates. When Bill Gates was in his garage mixing up computer parts and playing with software and when he was in the early days of building the Microsoft empire, do you think he was dreaming about curing AIDS or solving the educational crisis in this country? Probably not. But now he is.

Many extraordinary people have made their mark in the world and then realized that there are different ways to leave one’s mark in the world; they discover that deep within the human soul there is a need to give; it is a need that is stronger even than the need to achieve. Why did this particular human being, Mr. Madoff, embark on a very different path? After achieving the highest levels of success in business and finance, with more money than he could ever spend, he took his brilliant mind, his skill with people, and his knowledge of the intricacies of investing and finance, and he applied all these things to mass robbery. People from far and near fell all over one another to lay treasures at this his feet.

Perhaps when his story is told we will learn that he was just an exceptionally greedy person. But for the moment we must suspect some more complex explanation for his behavior. What is it that makes a person a giving person or one who takes?

It is more blessed to give than to receive…. So it says in the Good Book – but is that really the way it is?

You just got a big bonus! You got a raise! … Feels pretty good!

You just got a higher return on your investments! …. Feels pretty good!

You have just received an inheritance! … Uh… feels bad? No! Feels great! It appears that receiving feels pretty darn good. The joy of giving is less obvious and is not so easily explained.

I recall a time when our children were very young and our son was giving a gift to his sister; the first time he had ever consciously given a gift to someone else. He held the gift in his hands, placed the gift in his sister’s hands, and for a moment he seemed pleased; he was doing something that he was expected to do; he drew away his hands, then looked at the gift now held firmly in his sister’s hands, and he burst into bitter tears. He knew the concept of giving; new it was something he was supposed to want to, but the actual act of giving something away was unbearable.

Spiritual growth is marked by an expanding desire to give. One who is growing spiritually gives, not out of obligation or because it is expected of them, but because it is something they want to do, and in the act of giving they receive something.

When you are raising a family or when you have direct daily responsibilities to care for a loved one, perhaps an older parent, you are giving all the time; your role in life demands that you be giving, giving, and then giving some more, and it may not always be clear that you are receiving at the same time. For many people it is when they are a bit older and maybe the children are grown or they have become established in their work that they can see more clearly their need to give.

An individual stopped by my office last week; this person has recently retired. She was looking for work to do, not for pay, just because she needed to be doing something useful that involved other people. Most organizations are very happy to have our money and they may do very good things with our money, and giving our money is a very important way in which we give, but the giving of money alone does not satisfy the human need to give. Offering people the opportunity to give money is easy; offering the opportunity to give something nonmaterial is more difficult. I told this person who came inquiring that I did not have anything to offer her at the moment. But later that day I got a phone call from someone seeking volunteers at PS 15, right nearby. It was followed up by this e-mail:

Dear Reverend Summerville:
Thank you for the opportunity to tell you about our SMART program….. SMART (Students and Mature Adults Read Together) pairs mentors (age 55+) with students in the public schools who need help with their literacy skills. The volunteers, called mentors, work 1 on 1 with 1 or 2 students for 30 minutes each, once a week during the school year. SMART is currently in 24 schools in Yonkers and will open shortly at School 15, which is very close to Asbury Church. Certainly the kids benefit from the attention and the help, but I’ve never met a mentor who hasn’t told me they get more out of it than the kids! It would be wonderful if I could talk to anyone you know who may be interested in joining us.

So I’m passing this information along to the individual who came looking for something to do, and I hereby pass it along to you as well. I know that some of you are already involved in this work and take great satisfaction in doing it.

In this time of giving and receiving; as we come to the end of another year and ponder our lives — where we have been and where we are going — as we celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, as we face the many challenges of these times, there is still nothing more important than seeking out opportunities to give: our love, our knowledge, the wisdom of our experience, skills and talents we have acquired and developed, our material goods, and our prayers for the world.

In receiving we are blessed.
In giving we are doubly blessed.

May you be doubly blessed in this time.

Grace and peace to you.

(PS: Let me know, if you are interested in learning more about the SMART program.)