Sermons : Living the Faith: Old Virtues for a New Age- Generosity
Living the Faith, Old Virtues for a New Age- Generosity
Psalm 112, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
I don't want you to think it is a coincidence that my last sermon of the summer in this series on virtues is about generosity. It seemed like an obvious choice to me. I came here about 10 weeks ago as a stranger to most of you. And I feel that I will be leaving next Sunday as a sister and friend. Many of you have had me in your homes, taken me out for a meal, sent me a note of encouragement, or offered kind words and handshakes and hugs after worship. At times I have been overwhelmed by the generosity in this place. And I know I have been spoiled by all of you, and that the next church I do an internship in will most likely not measure up. So the first thing I want to say to all of you this morning is simply thank you. Thank you for your generosity of life and spirit, and for welcoming me here in this place.
As we begin to think about generosity this morning, I'm wondering what it is that makes us generous, and what keeps us from living generously. When it comes to the latter, perhaps the mounting pile of bills, a chronic health issue, preoccupation with our to do list, the recession, college tuition payments, the uncertainty of what giving to someone else might do to us. For each one of us in this room there is most likely a different answer. But more likely than not, worry or fear is probably at the root of these various reasons for not being generous. Unfortunately we are often more guided by our fear, which can leave us closed off, unwilling to be generous.
Our Psalm this morning offers us a reflection on fear and generosity. In Psalm 112 we are given a picture of a very confident group of people. "They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure, and steady." I don't know about you but I'm not sure if I would always describe myself that way. But earlier in the Psalm we are told, "happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments." Happiness is sometimes a word we shy away from, it seems too shallow or fleeting, temperamental. But here this happiness is the experience of being connected to God, of orienting our hearts and lives to reflect the purposes of God. This isn't a happiness that comes because of a lack of trials in life, but because of a lasting joy.
Psalm 112 goes on to describe those who are secure and find happiness in the Lord as a light, rising in the darkness. This security in God, this deep seated happiness, it pours forth as a light. It is an openness toward God and others that shines through an inner resilience and peace. And the product of this security, happiness, light, and openness is seen in the form of generosity. They "deal generously and lend...they have distributed freely, they have given to the poor."
Do these people sound familiar? They should. They are here, beside you. Look around. You will recognize them. I do, and I have only been here a few months. As we had our staff meeting this past week, someone shared a story of several of you who helped build a ramp onto a house of a church member. That many of you who gathered were also largely the same group who had just shortly returned from ASP. That many of you stayed long hours and went back again even later to make sure the job had been finished. This community knows about generosity. Author Parker Palmer has said, "The pathway from scarcity to abundance is called community." It is as a community that we can move into abundance.
In our 2 Corinthians text Paul seems to be moving his readers to consider this idea of abundance. The language in this passage may seem harsh at first, "the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly". But what I want us to hear today is the call from Paul to live a bountiful life. To sow and reap, and give, and love, and live bountifully.
The rest of the 2 Corinthians 9 passage just floods us with beautiful language about what can happen to a life lived in generosity. "Every blessing in abundance, always having enough of everything, share abundantly, every good work, multiply, increase, enriched, thanksgiving, overflows, surpassing grace, indescribable gift." The one who is secure and finds happiness in God will live a life of generosity; and the one who lives a life of generosity will live a bountiful life of abundance.
Now I realize that it doesn't always feel like this. And there are certainly brothers and sisters who have not lived a life of abundance. Paul tells us that we will be "enriched in every way for our great generosity," A starving mother gives the last bit of food to her child, she does not automatically receive more food. A retiree contributes beyond his means to a disaster fund does not receive an increase in pension. Just because I would like to give a million dollars to Massanetta Springs Camp and Conference center does not magically give me the resources to do so.
There is no guarantee that living an abundantly generous life will enrich us in any material way. Perhaps the enrichment is spiritual; maybe this is the glorifying God that Paul mentions. I don't pretend to know in what form our enrichment from generosity will come, but I think the most satisfactory thing in life is to have been able to give a large part of oneself to others. If we do that, we may just receive an enrichment that escapes our words.
One last note about our 2 Corinthians text today, the collection that Paul was taking up was for the Jewish church in Jerusalem. But the collection was coming from the Gentile Christians in Corinth. Many of the saints in Jerusalem had their doubts about Gentiles becoming Christian. Think: a Duke fan becoming a member of the Ram's Club. This generosity from the Gentile Christians to the church in Jerusalem truly was evidence of the surpassing grace of God, because through giving, the Gentiles were invited to make the ministry of the church their own. It is evidence to us today that unity can be possible through generosity.
Neville Ward was an English Methodist pastor, he points us toward the generous nature of Christ. He says, "Jesus found his identity in giving. There was nothing about Jesus that he wanted to keep. People who do not want to give think it is more blessed to give than to receive because giving is painful. There are others who actually sense the enjoyment of existence through giving, through spending and being spent. For these it is more blessed to give than to receive not because there is virtue in it but because there is happiness in it. Jesus was this kind of giver. He is the great sign to us that life need not be dreary, need not be saved, but can be, must be entirely spent. It is fear that makes us hold on to life or to what represents life's meaning for us. The cross marked the place in history where a superb victory over fear was won."
We have a tangible, tastable example of generosity this morning. The table is set, the bread and wine have been prepared. And I don't know about you, but I've never had communion when there wasn't enough. There is a bountiful feast set for us this morning. A feast for our souls. The abundant generosity of Christ has been given to us all, that we may take, eat, remember, and then go and give the abundant generosity of Christ to all.
In his book, Run with the Horses, Eugene Peterson tells how he saw some birds teaching their young to fly. Three young swallows were perched on a dead branch that stretched out over a lake. "One adult swallow got alongside the chicks and started shoving them out toward the end of the branch-pushing, pushing, pushing. The end one fell off. Somewhere between the branch and the water below, the wings started working and the fledgling was off on his own. Then the second one. The third one, however, was not to be bullied. At the last possible moment, his grip on the branch loosened just enough so that he swung downward, then tightened again, bulldog tenacious. The parent pecked at the desperately clinging talons until it was more painful for the chick to hang on than risk the insecurities of flying. The grip was released and the wings began pumping. The mature swallow knew what the chick did not-that it would fly-that there was no danger in making it do what it was designed to do." Peterson writes, "Birds have feet and can walk. Birds have talons and can grasp a branch securely. They can walk; they can cling. But flying is their characteristic action and not until they fly are they living at their best, gracefully and beautifully. Giving is what we do best. It is the air into which we were born. It is the action that was designed into us before our birth. Some people try desperately to hold on to themselves, to live for self. They look so bedraggled and pathetic doing it, hanging on to the dead branch of selfishness and self-centeredness, afraid to risk themselves on the untried wings of giving. Yet many people don't think they can live generously because they have never tried." We were created to live generously by giving generously of our time, talents and finances. We were meant to soar.
We were meant to soar. That's it! We were meant to soar! But we can't soar like we were created to if we are filled with fear, if we hold on tenaciously because we are afraid of letting go. But having been fortified and encouraged by those you see around us in this community, we know we can do it, when Christ nudges us to let go. We know we can. So that our hearts may be firm, secure, and steady in the Lord, our happiness and light will be shown in dealing generously with others, lending, distributing freely to all, and giving to the poor. May we sow and reap bountiful lives that are enriched and overflow with generosity. And thank you for teaching me more about generosity over the past 10 weeks, than I could have learned in a year of seminary classes. To God be the glory. Amen.
Bartlett, David Lyon, and Barbara Brown. Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008. p.321
Best, Ernest. Second Corinthians. Atlanta: J. Knox, 1987. p.85-87
Boring, Eugene M. The New Interpreter's Bible. Vol. 4, 10. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994. p.1136-1137, 129-132
Brueggemann, Walter, Beverly R. Gaventa, Charles B. Cousar, and James D. Newsome. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary, Based on the NRSV, Year A. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1995.
Manser, Martin H. The Westminster Collection of Christian Quotations. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001. p.388
Peterson, Eugene H., and Scott Hotaling. Excellence: Run with the Horses. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994.
Ward, Hannah, and Jennifer Wild. The Westminster Collection of Christian Meditation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000. p.320
 Texts for Preaching, p.130
 NIB, p.1136
 Feasting on the Word, p.321
 Texts for Preaching, p.131
 Interpretation, p.85, 87
 Christian Quotations, p.388
 NIB, p.131
 Christian Meditations, p.320
 Peterson, Run with Horses