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Sunday, August 2, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.

A Gift Economy

Nanette Sawyer
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 17:1–7, 15

Matthew 14:13–21

When I was a child I did not like picking wild strawberries. I loved to eat them. But I did not like to pick them. I have memories of being seven or eight years old on a hot summer day out in the unmowed field behind our house.

The grass was taller than my knees, dry and spindly. And hidden deep in this mass of prairie-like weed grass were teeny tiny wild strawberries. They were about the size of green peas and maybe a little smaller.   

My siblings and I would be there, sometimes with our parents too, sweating in the summer sun, with little bugs buzzing around our heads, each of us trying to fill a plastic quart container with the tiny berries. It took a long time. Of course, we had to kneel down in the grass to get to the berries, and that led to more discomfort from the grass poking us. It was so unpleasant, but the berries were so delicious.

If you’ve never had wild strawberries, I’m sorry. They’re so, so sweet if you let them ripen—and messy juicy. We were trying to fill the quart containers so we could smash all those juicy berries with sugar and pour them over biscuits for strawberry shortcake.

These memories came flooding back to me as I was reading a book called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She grew up in upstate New York, as did I, and she tells a story about picking strawberries so her mom could make strawberry shortcake for her father on Father’s Day.

It took a while to fill the jars they were using, she said, “as more and more berries ended up in our mouths” (p. 24). I remember a similar message from my dad, who said, “We’ll never have strawberry shortcake if you keep eating the berries instead of putting them in the container.”
Collecting the berries was the gift that Kimmerer and her siblings offered, while preparing the crusty shortcakes and whipped cream was her mom’s gift to their dad. Kimmerer said, “As children raised by strawberries, we were probably unaware that the gift of berries was from the fields themselves, not from us. Our gift was time and attention and care and red-stained fingers” (pp. 24–25).

The berries were a gift, but not from the children. The children’s gift was the time and attention and care that they invested in their relationship with their father. And the red-stained fingers, the fact that they were willing to get red-stained fingers in the process, that was part of their gift, too.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is an active member of the Potawatomi nation, a leading researcher in the field of biology, and, more specifically, a botanist. She studies plants. She writes as a scientist but also as a poet, sharing indigenous ways of knowing. In writing about the gift of strawberries, she reflects on what it is that makes a gift, a gift.

If you buy something, for example, it’s not a gift. You acquire it by exchanging money for it. She gives the example of buying a pair of red and grey striped socks. Her relationship with the department store where she buys them is over as soon as she pays her money. They become her property, a commodity that is transferred from the store to her. She will not send a thank-you note to the department store.

But it would be different if her grandmother knitted her a pair of red and grey striped socks. Receiving the gift from her grandmother makes a bond between them, or, you could say, it reflects and strengthens a bond that is already there. She will send a thank-you note to her grandmother.

When she receives such a gift from her grandmother, it calls something out of her, too. There’s a response that’s expected, a response that also reflects and strengthens the relationship. Kimmerer explains, “A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward; you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present” (pp. 23–24). That is how you receive a gift.

Walking through a field of strawberries, she says, is to walk through a field of gifts. Receiving socks made for her by her grandmother is to receive a gift. “Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts, to give, to receive, and to reciprocate,” she writes. “The field gave to us, we gave to my dad, and we tried to give back to the strawberries” (p. 25).

She describes giving back to the strawberries as clearing away weeds to make it easier for the strawberry shoots to spread and root new plants that will fruit the next year. That would lead, of course, to more strawberries for her and her family, another gift from the land—a reciprocal and cyclical giving and receiving of gifts.

Through these stories Kimmerer is describing a gift economy. A gift economy sees the world as a gift in motion, that everything we have is a gift. And when we share our abundance, the gifts we give and receive grow in value the more we give and receive.

The process of giving and receiving creates and strengthens bonds between us. It reinforces how much we need each other and are connected to each other. And because of that connection, we have obligations to one another.

In the story of the feeding of the 5,000, I believe that Jesus was teaching his disciples to live in a gift economy. He told them to give the people something to eat rather than sending them away to buy something to eat. He invited his disciples to stay in relationship with the people rather than send them away. He taught the disciples to take personal responsibility for the well-being of the people—but not to do it on their own.

They had each other. They had him, Jesus. They had God and the gifts that God had provided—five loaves and two fish on this occasion.

Jesus gave the disciples an opportunity to serve, offering them a transformation of awareness as to what was possible. Even though they didn’t know how this was going to work, they trusted Jesus. They followed his lead and did not send the people away to purchase food. Instead they gave what they had, but they didn’t give these gifts to the hungry people right away. They gave them first to Jesus, who received them.

Jesus then gave them next to God, looking to heaven as he blessed and broke the bread, relying on God to be present in the blessing he gave. Jesus gave the food away again. But still he didn’t give it to the hungry people. He gave it back to the disciples one more time.

He needed them to distribute the food. They needed him to bless and break it. Finally the disciples distributed the food to the hungry crowds. This was a gift to the community that acknowledged the interconnection of the disciples and the crowds. It was a gift that came from a spirit of compassion and generosity.

This generous gift did not deplete the disciples as we might expect. On the contrary, they left with twelve baskets of broken leftovers. The value of the gift increased each time it was shared with reverence, received, and given again. This is what happens in a gift economy.

On the other hand, a commodity economy, or a private property economy, understands the relationships between people and things differently.

These two world views clashed in colonial America when the indigenous culture of the Native peoples operated as a gift economy, and the colonial culture operated based on the idea of private property.

Kimmerer explains it this way, “When gifts were given to the settlers by the Native inhabitants, the recipients understood that they were valuable and were intended to be retained.” From the perspective of private property, the value of the gift is the gift itself, so to hold on to the value, you hold onto the object. From the colonists’ perspective, it would be disrespectful to give the gift away.

“But,” Kimmerer goes on, “the indigenous people understood the value of the gift to be based in reciprocity and would be affronted if the gifts did not circulate back to them.”(p 27-28) To the Native peoples the value of the gift was in the sharing, in the relationship, not in the thing itself. The value of the gift was depleted if it went to one person and was no longer shared.

The Feeding of the 5,000 is a story about gift giving and sharing in an extravagant way. I am struck by how many times in this one short story the food is given. And through all this giving—from the disciples to Jesus to God, to Jesus, to the disciples, and finally to the crowds— through all this giving by the end of the story, the value of the gifts has grown.

It’s not just that they have more bread now than when they started. They also have a stronger community. They have people who are cared for, who are fed. They have a community of mutual support.

Some people believe that part of the miracle that happened in this story is that all the people being fed also began to share what they had. One person had a piece of bread in their pocket; another person had a hunk of cheese wrapped in a bag. Someone else had some dried fish, and so on and so on.

Out came a little bit here and a little bit there until they ended up with abundant leftovers. They had more than they knew and more than they needed.

This too is a beautiful possibility that demonstrates the idea of a gift economy. The more you give, the more you receive, and the greater the value of the gifts.

When we give gifts—whether they are gifts of time, attention, care, or red-stained strawberry fingertips—can we give those gifts to show that we belong to each other, that we need each other?

And can we receive gifts in that same spirit? It goes both ways. The belonging is shown in the giving, but it’s also shown in the receiving.

It’s a spiritual practice to look at the world as a collection of gifts meant to be shared. It is a spiritual practice to look for signs of God’s generous grace, to receive the gift of that grace fully, and then to share it again and again.

May we receive and give with generous grace. Amen.

Citations from Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions. Kindle Edition.