Monday, November 12, 2012

Radical Generosity


Jesus watched people while they were putting money into the offering plates.  He noticed that rich people were tossing in large sums of cash.  By contrast, a poor widow emptied her savings by putting in two pennies.  What he says about the scene is what makes this such a memorable Bible story.
Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."  (Mark 12:43-44)
William Teulon Blandford Fletcher's "The Widow's Mite"

According to God’s way of assessing things, the poor widow has given more than the rich people. The story of the widow’s mite is about generosity.  It is only secondarily about money.  That’s right, giving money is a form of generosity, but only one form of a more fundamental Christian practice that pervades all of life.
Together we’re going to unpack Jesus’ lesson about generosity this morning.  We’ll begin by defining what generosity is.  Then we’ll explore how generosity expresses itself in various dimensions of life.  Finally, we’ll take a brief look at how generous congregations announce and advance the Kingdom of God.
Generous Hearts

The widow in Mark’s Gospel embodies generosity.  The key to understanding the nature of generosity is to understand in what sense she has given more than the rich people in the story.
Clearly the monetary value of her gift is less than the gifts of the rich.  They have given hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars.  The widow gave only two pennies.  Outwardly, her gift is less, not more.
However, God does not look at outward appearances alone.  Remember when God sent Samuel to find a new king to replace Saul.  When he arrived at Jesse’s house, Samuel was struck by how good looking and physically capable David’s older brothers were.  He took one look at Eliab and thought, “This has got to be the guy!”
And then God said to Samuel, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  (1 Samuel 16:7; NIV)
The defining element of the widow’s gift was not her open wallet but her open heart.  She held nothing back.  
Odilon Redon's "Sacred Heart"

Now here a couple of crucial considerations.  
The money was important to the widow.  Her physical sustenance depended on that money just like ours does.  It represented her rent.  Her grocery bill.  The cost of her medical prescriptions.  Utilities and bus fare.  She wasn’t careless about money or so otherworldly in her spirituality that money meant nothing to her.  On the contrary, the widow gave away something very valuable.
And yet, I imagine that she could give with such abandon because she understood the nature of her money in a more sophisticated way than did her richer peers.  The widow understood that, strictly speaking, we are all poor no matter how much we happen to have at our disposal.
Let me explain.  The widow was not only poor from an economic standpoint.  She was poor from a spiritual standpoint.  Paradoxically, spiritual poverty is the key to spiritual wealth.  That’s what Jesus was getting at in the Sermon on the Mount.  He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 5:3)
Any money or property or material comforts in her possession are not hers.  They are God’s, and she has them on loan.  Everything any of us have in our wallets or in our bank accounts or in our stock portfolios is in fact a portion of God’s treasure.  He has entrusted us with it so that we can invest it according to his purpose.
His purpose is clear.  God wants us to announce and to advance his Kingdom, and he has given us everything we have to invest in that cause.  Our most damaging myth is summarized in this phrase: “It’s mine because I earned it.”
That myth damages us because it prevents us from being generous.  We feel justified when we hold back, when instead God calls us to invest with abandon.  All of life is practice for our final act, the final act of giving everything back to God.  
It’s not just that you can’t take it with you. As the writer of Hebrews and St. Paul and Jesus himself remind us, Jesus will come again, and we will turn all of our accounts over to him.  To use John Ortberg’s phrase, when the game is over, it all goes back in the box.
Timothy Keller stresses that money is only one of the currencies of generosity.  In other words, generosity is most fundamentally about our heart.  A generous heart is self-giving.  Generous souls lose themselves in order to gain themselves.  But there are a variety of currencies in which generous hearts deal.  Generosity expresses itself in every aspect of our life.
The Currencies of Generosity
We can be generous with anything that is important to us.  Conversely, there are a number of currencies in which we can be miserly.  Money is one of those currencies, but only one.
For some people, our personal space is very valuable.  It is easy for us to write a check to house the homeless, feed the hungry, or clothe the ragged.  But we do not want to form a personal relationship with a homeless or impoverished person.  We may seem to be generous because we give money, but in fact we are holding back the very thing that is more important to us: emotional involvement.
Time holds some of our hearts captive.  We view our time as our own and dispense it according to our own agenda.  We too easily forget that God gives us all the time we have for his purposes.
Still others like to keep what you might call Personal Relationship Accounts. Some people owe us because of how much we’ve done for them.  Other people owe us because of what they have done to us.  We keep debts and grievances in our heart instead of letting them go and letting others simply be the beloved for us.
Sam Francis' "Heart Stone"

Most of us prize and guard our family space.  Generosity is called hospitality when we give away our family space, when we welcome someone else into our home.  Even though our family space is God’s and he has given it to us to give away, we are very selective about who gets into the door.  It is no coincidence that we routinely use phrases like “church home” and “parish family” and that we struggle with evangelism.
Generosity pervades our whole lives.  It is a spiritual posture that we can take in all that we do.  Generous people, and generous congregations, live to give.  Instead of approaching each situation with an eye to the advantages it holds for us or what’s in it for us, the generous among us look at how to invest themselves in each new situation in order to enlarge the Kingdom.
Living to Give
Precisely because generous congregations live to give, they announce and advance the Kingdom of God.  Let’s look at two specific ways that we do that.  We are committed to serving the poor and to welcoming the stranger.
Let’s look first at serving the poor.  Jesus famously said that we serve him when we serve the least of our brothers or sisters.  (Matthew 25:31-46)  But it is also clear that he meant for us to care for the poor up close and personal.  Elsewhere, Jesus also said to those who busied themselves with good works, “I never knew you.”  (Matthew 7:23)  In other words, “You never let yourself get personally involved.  You kept a safe distance.”  
Jesus challenges us to get personally involved in the lives of the poor.  Give money, yes.  But feed the hungry, teach the illiterate to read, share your knowledge about personal finances, and fix the single mother’s car.
Diego Rivera's "Night of the Poor"

He never said that we should feel guilty that others are poor, only that we should provide aid as we can.  He also never said to serve only the poor who got poor in some way that we find acceptable.  He told us to serve the poor simply because they are the poor.
When the world sees that we give without thought to return, that we care even when it will break our heart, that we find dignity and value in others that many would rather ignore, the world itself is turned at least a little on its ear.  The Kingdom of Heaven starts to get a foothold in a fallen world.
Now let’s consider welcoming the stranger.  As the writer of Hebrews teaches, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  (Hebrews 13:2)  The stranger is not just someone whose name is unfamiliar to us.  He or she is genuinely unlike us.  Strangers come from different social classes, different ethnic groups, and different political commitments.  They wear bow ties or tattoos, pearls or multiple piercings, designer originals or tattered consignment store cast offs .  They are just not like us.
Our congregations form a family space for us.  Jesus himself calls us to radical hospitality.  He wants us to give our family space to all comers, especially to the stranger.  The one who is not like us.  This is a challenge.  We bolt our doors and purchase alarm systems to protect us from strangers.
But imagine the message we send to the world when in the spaces of our parking lots passersby see the latest Mercedes alongside an ancient Ford next to a Harley Davidson.  We announce that we know that our God accepts all comers, and that we accept them in his name.  We feel safe with the stranger, because we all have a common friend.  And his name is Jesus.
He lived to give.  He gave his life for us so that we can live a whole new kind of life.  Eternal life.  A life dedicated to self-giving.  A radically generous life.  He gave his life so that we can live to give.
This sermon was preached at Holy Trinity, Sulphur, Louisiana.

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