Thomas Leinbach
Congregational Church of Brookfield

Gifts and Forgetfulness

Rugged individualism is, in point of fact, a myth. But as myths go, this one's pretty durable. For in so many ways it seems true. With gumption, hard work and a vision, we seem to be able to do just about anything. Personal empires are built on this premise. And, so it seems, countries as well.

But on closer inspection, I wonder just how true this is. Let's take personal empires as a start. Bill Gates, the current paradigm of rugged individualism, not, that is to say, the Marlboro Man/cowboy stereotype of old, but the updated version, with eye glasses, calculator wrist watches and pencil-filled shirt pockets. At one point, before the stock market crash a few years ago, Gates was said to be worth some $90 billion! And he did it, so the myth goes, by sheer dint of gumption, hard work and vision.

A college drop-out, with a grand idea of being a part of the then emerging computer, technological revolution, he started from virtually nothing, way out on the left coast, in Seattle, far from the centers of power, wealth and business know-how. And just as many of our ancestors, who came through Ellis Island with the belief that in America, if you work hard and put your mind to it, you can become anything, he has succeeded even beyond reasonable expectation, to the point where, like the Rockefellers and the J.P. Morgans before him, a whole, vast nation, if not world, has been transformed, financially, socially, culturally - never to be the same again. He followed his own path, broke established rules, thumbed his nose at convention - and sits on top of the heap. Chalk another one up for American individualism!

But as I said, I wonder if other facts betray a reality quite different. For instance, did you ever stop to wonder where Bill got all his know-how? Well, for one thing, he is the product of an educational system with roots back into antiquity, to ancient Greece, at the very least. This educational system has been refined and altered, incorporating along the way the investigative insights of the Enlightenment and scientific inquiry. The technological expertise that Gates possesses is not simply the product of a lone individual discovering all by himself the properties of physical science. He stands on the shoulders of generation upon generation of individuals whose hard work, genius and discovery made his knowledge possible. Every pioneer is heavily dependent on those who came before, on a tradition he or she did not invent, much less take credit for. The received knowledge and wisdom is purely a gift. The pioneer simply finds a way to advance the truths implicit in that received tradition. One cannot ever stand completely outside of it. And one is wholly dependent upon it, whether he or she is willing to admit it or not.

Let me ask you further: would Bill Gates be where his is today if he had been born and reared in, say, Haiti or Somalia? Would his gifts of intelligence and creativity blossom amid their economic and cultural conditions? Isn't, in fact, his very independent drive itself a product of a national ethos that rewards independent thought and entrepreneurial creativity? And isn't he, furthermore, dependent on the whole history of evolving political and economic theory and practice that has evolved into the American experience? Isn't his whole ability to use his knowledge and know-how shaped and fitted to a system of sophisticated market capitalism, banking and market distribution? Did he all by himself create these from nothing? Isn't he, rather, greatly dependent on a system we may well believe he has succeeded without, or even in spite of? At best, he has simply learned well to use a system already in place, to use creatively and advantageously what has generously been given him.

To take it to a more basic level, what about his background? One cannot discount, it seems to me, his upbringing. From what I know, he was born into a well-to-do, prominent family in Seattle, and given all the advantages, including an education at pricey, elite Harvard College. One of my best friend's fathers, in contradistinction, graduated at the top of his high school class. But because the Depression was on and his family could not afford to send their oldest child to college, he was sent out to work, to help support the family. Because of life circumstances, any real chance of pursuing a career in science or technology, for example, was gone. Not that his life necessarily would have been any better, mind you, but certainly his life circumstances were limited, in ways beyond his control, whether he would have wished it otherwise or not. Does Gates, then, deserve all the credit for the successes of his family or the obstacles and hardships such a family helped him to avoid? Or the positive opportunities it availed him? And isn't that something more life a gift?

I suppose we could even consider the man himself, now approaching middle age, the powerful co-founder and head of Microsoft, a billionaire many times over, strong, independent, and able to live a life the rest of us might only dream about.

Yet, getting down to basics, didn't he start out, like any baby, as a helpless, vulnerable infant requiring constant diaper changes and continual feedings? And just like all babies, didn't he require physical, spiritual and emotional support growing up? It is a known fact that babies denied physical touch, for instance, will die, as surely as if they had never been fed! All of us, no matter how strong or independent, are wholly dependent on our upbringing, on the love and support and strength of our parents, regardless of how well or poorly they may have done their job. We are wholly dependent on the roof that was placed over our heads, the food that was put on our table, and the loving care we received without our having lifted a finger. None of us, therefore, can properly view any of our accomplishments or successes as solely our doing. They are, to a large and perhaps surprising degree, pure gift. (And I haven't even mentioned the ways in which as we age, we undoubtedly will need to lean more and more on those around us for sustenance and strength.)

Yet how easy it is to forget this. I once read a blurb in a theological journal that talked about how people tend to remember sermons. As a preacher, you discover early on that what you've labored over hour upon hour can quickly and easily be forgotten, by your hearers, and even yourself, sometimes almost as soon as it is out of your mouth! (Though, I'll admit, this can be one of life's greatest blessings!)

In any event, the journal asked if it wasn't the case that we usually forget most of what we hear in a sermon. But then it asks: just how well do we remember any of the thousands of meals we ever ate? Can you remember, for instance, what you had for dinner on September 23rd of last year? Or even what you had last Wednesday night? Yet what would your life be like if you had not had what you now cannot even remember? Isn't your very health, in a manner of speaking, wholly dependent, at least in part, on the sustenance and strength you derived from a single meal eaten long ago, eaten perhaps quite absent-mindedly and without any particular sense of importance or appreciation?

"When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them," Moses tells his people, "and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…" This is said in the wilderness, to those whom the Lord has rescued from slavery and to whom the Promised Land is to be given, a "good land," Moses assures them, "a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper." And as if to sum up his thoughts, he says, "You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you." Gift, sheer gift.

I once did a children's sermon in which the children were asked whether they liked baseball. Together we tried to figure out where the various elements of the game come from. First of all, where does the ball come from? Well, it comes from a store. But where does the store get it? A factory. Where does the factory get the materials that go into making the baseball, such as the cowhide, the string, the rubber core and the stitching? After some discussion, we agreed that rubber, for instance, comes from a rubber tree. But where does a rubber tree come from? Well, from a seed. How? You plant it into the ground. Where does the ground come from? From God. Where does the sun and rain come from, without which there could be no growth? Again, the answer was God.

By now, you get the point. We came to agree that everything is from God - the baseball, the bat, the players, even the television cameras that bring the game into our homes. So if everything is from God, why then do we give God so little thought in our everyday living? And why is it that we're so prone to congratulate ourselves for what we have or what we've accomplished?

Moses invites the people to recognize that everything they have or ever will have comes from God - precisely the same message. "Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God," he tells them. "Do not say to yourself, 'My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.' But remember the Lord you God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth…"

Not just power, might and wealth, not just knowledge, intelligence and wisdom, not just figs trees and pomegranates, wheat and barley, not just the soil, the sun, the air and the seed, nor even a simple baseball and bat, but life itself, precious, mysterious and awesome - it all comes from God! And love…the very essence of Creation.

"Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God," Moses thus reminds us, as if we need to be told. And yet how much we do need to be told, to be reminded that the people we care about and who care about us are all from this same source of life, to be reminded that as we consider our annual pledge, it is God and God alone who has supplied us with the abundance we know, who has given us the powers and abilities to take this world given us, and to use it to create a kind of wealth that is provision for all God's children.

In remembering, then, truly remembering, that absolutely everyone and everything is a gift from God, we then cannot help but be grateful and be filled with a spirit of gratitude. For we are in no way the rugged individuals we fancy ourselves to be, as much and as hard as we might try to make it so, but we are, instead, wholly dependent creatures by nature, dependent on God and interdependent with all those people and things God has given us.

In Luke's story of Jesus' healing of the lepers, we read that only one leper returns to thank Jesus for being healed - only one out of the ten. And yet, that seems almost a good ratio given the way we generally live our lives. It sometimes takes a special moment or event, it seems, to jog our memory. And even then, how much of our blessings do we actually credit to the Lord our God, the one whom we are to take care not to forget?

At Stewardship time, we are reminded that life is pure gift and that, properly speaking, our whole life should be all about giving. But it's not just about the financial health of our church, you see, it's the whole meaning of life. Amen