Stewardship Resource

How to be an Indian giver

Sermon  Sermon
  • Author: Rev. David D. Miles was a pastor at Lamington Presbyterian Church in Bedminster, N.J.
  • Updated: 11/26/2008
  • Copyright: Rev. David D. Miles

A Thanksgiving Sermon

How do you view your possessions?  Are they a problem or an opportunity?  This sermon uses several illustrations to demonstrate how gifts that keep moving keep giving like Christ's love.

How to be an Indian Giver
Date: November 21, 1993
Author: Rev. David Miles

I don't know about you, but it is hard for me to believe that this week we celebrate thanksgiving

What is Thanksgiving going to look like for you?

  • Family and friends gathered around a table
  • A word of thanks given
  • A meal shared
  • And when it is all over something is renewed

It is a wonderful holiday, isn't it?

There is something so simple, so basic about it but quietly it seems to reorient our lives, as giving thanks reminds us that what we have is a gift.

Some of my fondest Thanksgiving memories are coming home from college for this holiday weekend, back from that whole new world that was opening up to me, back to the annual thanksgiving morning football game with my buddies, back to a woodpile of logs to be split, back to the same dining room table and a traditional meal, and those same people that still loved me.

There is something basic, so simple about it coming home for thanksgiving seemed to reorient me to where I came from, thanksgiving reminds us of where all we have comes from

Thanksgiving is an interesting holiday in that it is based on a rather nebulous picture -- of two very different groups of people.  The pilgrims and the Indians sharing a meal together

One thing they seem to have in common was their gratitude yet over time their thanksgiving turned from orientation to disorientation.

One of the things which caused a division between the Indians and the Puritans is that these two groups did not see eye to eye on what gratitude looked like.

Imagine that you are a Puritan and you come to an Indian Lodge and your hosts, wishing to make you feel welcome ask you to share a pipe of tobacco.  The pipe is carved from soft red stone, and was known to be a peace offering. As is the usual custom, your host gives you the pipe as you leave, and you are tickled pink.

Such a fine gift, you take it home and prominently display it on your mantelpiece.

Time passes by, and eventually members of the tribe come to your home and you suddenly notice that your guests are agitated upon seeing the pipe you tell them how much you appreciate the pipe and how glad you are to have it, but that only seems to make things worse.

Eventually, you find out that they are bothered that you still have the pipe and that the least you could do is offer them a smoke and send the pipe back home with them so you take the pipe down and give it back... and mumble something under your breath about INDIAN Givers

The puritans could not understand why they could not keep the gifts the Indians gave and from this very thing we get our phrase Indian giver

Yet the Indians acted this way, not because they simply did not want to part with the gift but because of how they understood a gift for them a gift is only a gift if it continues to be given

If you hold on to it, it becomes a possession, if you pass it on, it remains a gift and therefore to be truly grateful is not to keep the gift, but to keep the gift moving

A friend gave me a fascinating book by Lewis Hyde which is entitled "THE GIFT" and in it he traces this particular notion of gift from cultures around the world and throughout history.

One of the many places he finds this is with the Massim peoples who occupy the South Sea Islands near the eastern tip of New Guinea. The people of this island participate in something called the Kulu Exchange.

There are ceremonial gifts of armshells worn by men and necklaces worn by women that are given from one person to the next, island to island

People travel great distances just to deliver these gifts to someone on another island the necklaces move clockwise around the circle of islands the armshells move counterclockwise and it takes anywhere from 2 to 10 years for a gift to complete the journey

But it never stops they could never stop moving they would lose their value -- they would no longer be gifts.

Thinking about gift this way may sound a little strange to us in fact we would probably be offended to give someone a gift and then find that very gift in someone else's home.  We also would feel awkward if we received a gift that we knew had already been given.

The deluxe juicer - wedding gift

Our feelings about gifts are rooted in our strong sense of personal property ownership

Yet we know, at the same time, the true nature of a gift a gift cannot be bought it cannot be acquired through an act of the will it can only be given.

We talk this way all the time about someone who has a talent we might say "she has the gift."

A gift can certainly be perfected through an effort of the will, but no effort in the world can cause it to initially appear. It is simply given

Mozart composing on the harpsichord at age 4, he had a gift

Any true artist will attest to this: When something comes to the artist, it feels like a gift. "Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me," says D. H. Lawrence

And in the same way, most artists do not create simply for themselves but to share their gift, to keep it moving, to pass it around, if it stops, it is no longer a gift.

The word in the New Testament for gift is the Greek word: Charis which we often translate as grace

Something freely given or freely received Charis refers to both sides of the same act both the giving and thanksgiving

Therefore it would be natural that grace as gift would be met by grace as gratitude, Charis creates a relationship

We can go into a hardware store, and by a hammer, and leave without any relationship being created by the exchange, but when a gift is given a relationship is created or renewed and the give and take is one of freedom

It would be an unnatural relationship if a gift was given and there was no gratitude or if a gift was given in order to elicit gratitude

The giving and the thanksgiving, is all free, it is all grace, and the circle of grace, of giving and gratitude goes around and around and what goes around comes back around.

Last week one of our members gave me a wonderful little book called random acts of kindness

It is a collection of experiences people have had in which they have received kindness.

We have a phrase for this: What goes around comes around

And that is true of any gift, if it keeps moving like the necklaces and armshells in the Kulu exchange The gift keeps moving around, keeps touching lives, keeps alive

The apostle Paul had the same thing in mind when he wrote to the church in Corinth as I read earlier he said:

Each of you must give as you have made up your minds not reluctantly, or under compulsion For the only one who can give to God is one who gives cheerfully because it is given in the surpassing grace of God that he has given to you True giving is not pulling something out of nowhere it is taking what came as a gift and keeping it moving we know that it has to be given because it is a gift but that is not always easy for us

One of the reasons is it difficult to allow what we have to keep moving is that we get attached to what we have, it becomes a possession and when it is our possession it becomes hard to let it go.

Last night Carol and I were talking about this and she reminded me of something that happened to us when we were in Seminary

We had just been home to see my parents, and as we were leaving they slipped me two fifty dollar bills.

What is that for? I asked

Think of it as just a love gift.

Well, there was a Scottish couple who were are close friends at the seminary, and we lent them our car while we were away, and they kindly picked us up at the airport.

Our friend David is a diabetic and he told us of how he had lost one of his two injection pens,that he was dependent on to give himself insulin. And they were concerned because at $100 a piece they knew they didn't have the money to replace it. Without giving it much thought those two fifty dollar bills were in his hand

Now, I don't tell you this story because I want to impress you with my generosity, because frankly, I can't believe I did that.

I didn't know what overcame me. I'm not that kind of person. There are people out there who give what they have that freely, but I'm not one of them!

As Carol and I talked about it later, the only thing we could figure out about why giving that money seemed so easy, so effortless, was that we had not had a chance to get attached to the money yet, If I had gotten home and put it in the bank, or made some plans with it probably never would have gone for an insulin injector, I can tell you that

But as it rest there in my shirt pocket it wasn't a possession yet to us, it was still a gift it had to keep moving

That experience made me realize how tightly I usually hold on to what I have how little I think of what I have as a gift

It made me think about what my life would be like if I held all things more loosely if I saw all the things I had in life, not merely as possessions, but as gifts

The irony of it is that we often expend so much energy trying to secure and maintain something which is a gift something that is meant to be given

Recently a friend told me of an experience he had when looking for a parking space in a crowded parking lot in Philadelphia. He noticed two cars with their noses equally wedged into the opening of a space and neither one of them was about to budge. My friend eventually park his car, and was then walking by the scene to find the two people, out of their cars screaming at each other over their right to the space.

Then he look up and saw a sign in front of the space which read: No Parking

And it struck me of how true this is of my life, of all of our lives straining and struggling to hold on to things that aren't ours in the first place.

Yet there is a certain transforming power when one realizes that what one has is a gift

I had a professor at seminary who told us a story about when he was ordained

He was young and fresh out of seminary himself when he received his first call and having been a student he did have much money to his name Usually when you are ordained you are also what they call "ROBED" as someone puts you ministerial robe on you at the time of ordination

He could not afford a robe at that time, so he figured he would simply skip that part of the ceremony then just before his ordination service he found a box he opened it and found a brand new pulpit gown the note was from one of the other minister presiding in the service

It said: I was just like you when I started out, and someone did this for me. You don't need to thank me. But when you are established, do this for someone else someday.

To this day this gift keeps getting passed down

No one knows who started it, but the gift keeps on getting passed around, it never stops moving when one knows what they have is a gift, they look for a way to keep it moving, to keep it a gift.

It was during this very season that the people of Israel had a way of reminding themselves that what they had was a gift Eric read about it earlier in the OT lesson

When it was harvest time, the people were to take the first fruits of their harvest to the priest who was to raise it to the Lord and lamb would be offered up to God along with a grain offering and a wine offering and You shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears until that you have brought the offering to the Lord

This was their thanksgiving celebration as their offerings were raised up to God and the circle of offering was complete for God had given them, so they returned their gifts in their gratitude. This act by the people of Israel was not an act of paying their dues or a sacrifice to appease the easily angered gods. It was an acknowledgement that everything they had was a gift from God and as a gift -- they had to keep it moving and this was not drudgery, it was a festival!

It was their thanksgiving celebration which reoriented the, to who they were and where all they had came from. When we talk about giving to the church, or filling out pledge cards we are talking about the same thing

It is not an act of paying our dues or making a sacrifice to appease the church or God it is an acknowledgement that everything we have is a gift from God and we simply have to keep the gift moving it is what thanksgiving looks like.

What will thanksgiving look like for us? How will we celebrate this year? Maybe our celebration should begin right here.  What we are doing when we celebrate the Lord's Supper is an act of thanksgiving.

That is what Eucharist means -- to give thanks

This is what thanksgiving looks like

  • Family and friends gathered around a table
  • A word of thanks is given
  • A meal is shared
  • And when it is all over something is renewed

For what we remember here is that the gift of life we have from God the gift of love, life, we have in Christ that all we have is from our God and we leave this table knowing that the gift God has given to us had to keep moving it cannot stop for it is a gift.

Find More Stewardship Resources


Adam CopelandAdam Copeland serves as director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders.

Meet the new director