Sabbath and Gift Economy

I am part of a very giving community. We share meals, vehicles, tools, financial resources, our homes, our skills. We watch each other’s kids, pick each other up and drop each other off at the airport, and share whatever else we might have to offer. Some have helped others pay a few months’ mortgage when finances got tight. I’m so aware of how rare and beautiful a thing this is.. Just recently, one of our friends spontaneously picked up a chicken coop and brought it to our house because we have a large yard and they knew we’ve been wanting to start keeping chickens. It’s a joint venture, we are providing the yard and the care, our friends are providing the chickens and the feed, and we get to split the profits (read: fresh eggs every morning!) I am often reminded of the book of Acts when I think about this beautiful community.

And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. 

  • Acts 4:34

But why live this way?

That’s my question and honestly the question of most people who look at me like I’m part of a commune when I talk about my neighborhood. What causes a community to be formed in this way? We are by no means the only group of people living this way, but it does seem rare.  We don’t look like the wider culture. And, believe me, it isn’t perfect—but it is beautiful.

Why would a group of people move beyond the transactional economy that the world says is the only one that works, and into a gift economy that reflects something that looks more like the kingdom? Is it “grace powerfully at work”? To be sure. Is it the genuine love that the group has for one another? Definitely. But I think there’s something else. I think perhaps that part of the reason a community forms in this way is because it practices resting together.

I was recently reflecting on a prayer written by Walter Brueggemann entitled: Giver of all Good Gifts, that caused me to consider the correlation between truly living a gift economy and Sabbath.

The prayer begins:

You are the God who feeds and nourishes.

       You are the God who assures that we have more than enough,

           and we do not doubt that

           you satisfy the desire of every living thing.

I was struck by this stanza. Not because it is so blazingly profound, but simply because it isn’t.  It is something that we, the people of God, as Brueggemann writes, do not doubt the truth of. And yet, how often do we (how often do I) live as if this isn’t true?  The prayer continues with these words:

Even in such an assurance, however,

           we scramble for more food.

           After we have filled all our baskets

                   with manna,

           we seek a surplus—

               enough education to plan ahead,

               enough power to protect our supply,

               enough oil to assure that protection.

If the first stanza struck me, this second one wrecked me. This is our story isn’t it? Collectively as a society, we are hoarders. The majority of us have way more than enough and yet we still want more. We must “plan for a rainy day” or “hedge our bets” or “prepare for the worst case scenario.” The reality is that most of the time, we say that we believe it is God who provides, but we live as if our provision rests squarely and solely on our shoulders. So we acquire more. We are guilty of collecting lifetimes of manna, more manna than we could ever consume, when the promise of God is enough for today. (Exodus 16:4, Matt. 6:11)

This is where the Sabbath comes in. Sabbath is stopping (the word shabbat literally means to stop). It is a ceasing of the incessant acquisition of goods, the continuous consumption of resources. In that stopping, we are given a gift; the reminder that we are not our own source and supply. The reminder that we are deeply known and deeply loved by the God of the universe.  Sabbath is not an excuse not to work but a command not to work; so that we might be reminded that we are more than our work and that our provision is from God and not from our labour alone.

Until we really believe that the first stanza of Brueggemann’s prayer is true, we will continue to live the second stanza.  Sabbath is an invitation to believe the truth of the first stanza so that we can then live into the rest of the prayer:

And in the midst of that

       comes your word,

       that we share bread and feed the hungry,

       even to the least and so to you.

    We mostly keep our bread for ourselves,

                     our neighbors,

                     and our friends.

    It does not occur to us often,

       to feed our enemies,

       to share your bounty with

           those who threaten us.

    We do not often remember to break vicious cycles

       of hostility

           by free bread,

           by free water,

           by free wine,

           by free milk,

    Until we remember that you are the giver of all good gifts,

                       ours to enjoy,

                       ours to share.

    Stir us by your spirit beyond fearful accumulation

       toward outrageous generosity,

        that giving bread to others

           makes for peace,

        that giving drink to others

           makes for justice,

        that giving and sharing opens the world

            and assures abundance for all.1

I believe that among many other things, Sabbath is a weekly reminder that, as the people of God, we live in a gift economy: an economy not driven by buying and selling or demanding and taking, but by freely giving to and receiving from one another without expectation of reciprocation or payback. It is a weekly reminder that God is indeed the giver of all good gifts and that we need not live as though that were not true. I also believe that this peace afforded to us by observing the Sabbath is meant to be shared with the world; it’s not ours to hoard.

Where do we begin? As a wise rabbi has often said, “It all starts with stopping.” The invitation of the Sabbath is to stop and remember that it was God who rescued the people of Israel from Egypt; to stop and remember that it was God who promised to provide enough manna for each day; to stop and remember that transactional economy and “looking out for number one” is not only fundamentally flawed, it is unnecessary when we recognize that in each moment of each day we are being cared for by a God who loves us beyond words.

Entering into a Sabbath rhythm is, at its core, an invitation to trust that the God who loves us will indeed care for us as promised. It is an invitation to step into a different way of being; a way that is marked by rest and freedom rather than bondage to acquisition and consumption. It is an invitation to live generously because we are reminded each week of how generous God is toward us.

If we learn to live from this place of rest and freedom, perhaps one day, sharing things like cars and homes and chickens will not be seen as exceptional but normal. In fact, we may even discover that when there is no need for competition for resources and power to maintain those resources, enemies will become friends, strangers will become family, opponents will become team members. Perhaps one day we will find ourselves living in a gift economy, not because we worked harder to make it happen but because we Sabbathed our way into it. I think that’s what’s happening in my community, as weird and imperfect as it is, and I want to share it.

– j

1“Giver of All Good Gifts” from Prayers for a Privileged People by Walter Brueggemann, 2008 Abingdon Press

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