Monday, December 14, 2015

Thoughts on Giving for Giving Tree Sunday 2015

Yesterday, December 13th, was the annual Giving Tree service at the congregation I am privileged to serve, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.  Our congregation teams up with social workers in the local school systems to identify families that need a little extra help in this holiday season.  We take their requests for gifts -- toys, clothes, food, etc. -- and make up anonymous gift cards which we then hang on a wooden "tree."  (There are also cards made for people within our own congregational community who are in need.)  Members are then encouraged to pick up a card (or two, or three), to buy and wrap the gift(s), and to bring them to church on ... you guessed it ... Giving Tree Sunday.  It is a really wonderful, truly multi-generational service.  This is the text of the reflection I offered.  As always, you can listen to the podcast if you prefer.  [One note:  a little bit earlier in the service we'd sung the Malvina Reynolds song, "Magic Penny."]

This is going to be one of those hang-in-there-with-me-for-a-moment sermons.  So … hang in there with me for a moment.
It has been said, often by me I think, that there are three kinds of people in the world:  those who are good with math and those who aren’t.  That tells you what kind of person I am.  So I want to quote a technical definition of the mathematical function of “subtraction” that I found on the internet:
Subtraction is a mathematical operation that represents the operation of removing objects from a collection. It is signified by the minus sign (−). For example, in the picture on the right, there are 5 − 2 apples—meaning 5 apples with 2 taken away, which is a total of 3 apples. Therefore, 5 − 2 = 3. Besides counting fruits, subtraction can also represent combining other physical and abstract quantities using different kinds of objects including negative numbers, fractions, irrational numbers, vectors, decimals, functions, and matrices.
[…] It is anticommutative … [and it] is not associative.
I also found a cartoon posted by someone who takes random tweets and pairs them with panels from Peanuts cartoons.  It’s great.  My favorite, I think, has Lucy sitting at her desk at school, holding up a sheet of paper, and saying, “Only in math problems can you buy 60 cantaloupe and no one asks what the [heck] is wrong with you.”  You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?
We are conditioned to think … let me rephrase that … to know that when you take some things from a group of things you end up having less of those things in the original group.  But Malvina Reynolds, good Unitarian Universalist that she was, seems to want to think for herself even when talking about something as set-in-stone as mathematical truths.  “Love is something [that] when you give it away … you end up having more.” 
So how does that work?  Well, let’s look at another idea from mathematics:  infinity.  I’m not going to give you a technical definition this time, but let’s just say that “infinity” is the same as “never ending” or “limitless.”  There is no limit, no end point, to something that is infinite.
So if I go faux Lucy one better and have an infinite number of cantaloupe, and I give 60 to you, how many do I have left?  I still have an infinite number.  Weird, isn’t it?  And no matter how many of my infinite stash of cantaloupe I give to you, and no matter how many people I give cantaloupe to, I will always have an infinite number of them left.  There’s just no way to diminish an infinite amount.
So maybe we can understand Ms. Reynolds to mean that love is infinite, that it’s never ending, that it’s always, and in all ways, is limitless.  So when I gave all my love to my wife, I still had a limitless well of love when our boys came along so that I was able to give all my love to them, too. 
But wait a minute.  She didn’t write that when you give away love you don’t have any less of it, she said – and we all just sang – that you end up having more.  So how does that work?  Well, I think it works in two ways.
First, let’s take what we’ve been saying about infinity and apply it to the smaller, more finite word problem we’re more used to.  If I have five cookies, and I give you two, and I apply the rules of infinitude, then after this transaction I still have five cookies.  I have five, I give you two, and I still have five.  Yet that means that I somehow have magically gotten another two cookies to replace the two I gave to you.  Because I had five, I gave you two, and now I still have five, which means that there are now 7 cookies in play.  And if I keep doing that, keep giving cookies away from my magical, infinite stash, there will keep being more and more and more until they “roll all over the floor” (to be eaten by our dogs, I guess).
But there’s something else cool about love, though.  When I give love away I not only end up with the same amount of love I started with, that’d be cool enough, but I end up with more. It’s like this: if I have five loves, and I give you two, I end up with seven.  Giving love generates more love.  It ups the ante.  And that’s where the magic comes in. 

Actually, it turns out that magic is not needed!  Between the two services, one of our youth worked out the equation:
- nL = nL  
That is, Infinity minus the number of Loves equals Infinity to the power of the number of Loves.  In other words, it’s not additive, it’s exponential!
Now I’m going to use technical language again, so get ready.  In addition to the infinite amount of love that I have, that you have, that everyone has, there’s an infiniter amount of love that rewards us, if you will, whenever we give some of our love away.  Our Universalist ancestors famously said that “God is love,” which said the other way ‘round means that, ultimately, love is what God is.  So our infinite pools of love are fed and sustained by that infiniter pool of love, and Love sure likes to be passed around.
Now those other two kinds of folks – those that are good with math and … those other ones, whoever they are – have been wincing and biting their lips this whole time because this isn’t good mathematical theory.  But it is good theology.  And it just happens to be true.
Love is something that when you give it away you end up having more.  So in this season when so many of us are so focused on giving, let’s make sure that along with all the things we give we make sure to give our love, too.  Because this world sure does need love these days.  And magic pennies, of course.  You can never have too many of those.
Pax tecum,


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