What does it mean to take up the cross and follow Jesus? What does it mean to lose your life only to gain it? What does it mean say ‘no’ to ourselves? How in the world does any of this tie into the theme of generosity? Those are several questions I hope you will ponder today as we look at what it means to be generous, and what the fruits of generosity actually look like.
Generosity – we like the sound of that. We like being thought of as generous, because the opposite is being known as stingy which is not an attractive quality at all to have. We think of misers and cheapskates – we think of thieves and low-life scum. In spite of how good being thought of as generous sounds, often we fall on the other end of the spectrum. We are surrounded by this need for more – often consumed by the passion for something other than what we have. Stinginess and greed often go hand in hand. Perhaps we have fallen into the trap of thinking the world owes us and we need to nab everything we can while we can.
Yet innately in each of us is this need to be generous. We as human beings were not put into silos but into community. There are directives throughout scripture of how communities have cared for one another through the good and lean years. We have seen this as well during historic periods of trial in our own history. Friday marked the anniversary of 9/11. I will venture to say many of you can tell me exactly where you were and what you were doing on that day. While we watched the horrors unfold, we also watched heroes emerge. We watched while firefighters, police, and ordinary citizens ran into the burning and crumbling buildings to help others escape. We heard about a small group of persons aboard a plane take charge, yet suffered loss as the plane crashed in Pennsylvania which many believe was headed for the White House. We saw generosity being played out on the screen and on the ground, where thousands lined up to donate blood in order to be a tangible aid to those in need. We yearned to be generous, and the fruit of that came with saved lives, a strong resolve, and a sense of hope in the midst of tragedy. When we lose ourselves only to gain life we are in fact giving a bit of our talents and gifts to help meet the needs of others.
There was an article written by Ann A. Michel, associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership Development. She notes there are nine ways generosity leads to healthier and more purposeful living.
- Generosity fosters positive emotions that promote happiness and health.
- Generosity triggers the chemical systems in our brains that reduce stress and suppress pain.
- Generosity promotes our sense of personal agency and self-efficacy.
- Generosity provides us with positive, meaningful social roles and self-identities.
- Generosity reduces our tendency toward maladaptive self-absorption.
- Generosity reinforces our perception of abundance and blessing.
- Generosity expands our social networks and relational ties.
- Generosity expands our intellectual and emotional horizons by exposing us to the needs of others.
- Generosity is associated with a more active lifestyle.
Doesn’t that all sound great? Wouldn’t we all like to live less stressful lives, have a more positive image of ourselves, and be associated with a more active lifestyle? I think most of us would agree we want all that. Yet there are barriers to our generosity. There are things holding us back from enjoy these fruits. There are things ‘weighing us down,’ preventing us from experiencing a closer walk with God.
I spent quite a bit of time driving back and forth to Baltimore to visit Mary G. when she was at Johns Hopkins, and many of you probably make that regular commute. What struck me was the number of persons standing on the side of the road or in the medians holding up signs asking for help. Many ignored them. My first instinct was to question whether or not their need was sincere. My second instinct was fear – if I handed them money what would stop them from trying to steal what I had left? Of all the people who have lived, I think Mother Teresa is one who served as the face of generosity. She put it this way:
People are often unreasonable and self-centered, forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives, be kind anyway.
If you are honest, people may cheat you, be honest anyway.
If you find happiness, people may be jealous, be happy anyway.
The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow, do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough, give your best anyway.
For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
It is not our job to judge others but to be generous with what God has given us. We can go through life being suspicious of everyone, holding tight to our money and possessions but in the end, everything belongs to God. We are challenged to be good stewards of the gifts and talents we have received. As we are a blessing to others we will receive the blessings of a renewed spirit, a bit of hidden joy, a reduction in stress, and a boost to our self-esteem.
Many of you have been following the stories concerning the Syrian refugees who are fleeing the war-torn region to reside in other countries. I was impressed by Germany’s response to welcome with open arms those who had been shuffled around, denied access to some places, treated like criminals and nuisances. I recall just after Hurricane Katrina hit, one of the first cities to open its doors to those stranded by natural disaster was the city of Houston, who placed no limit on the number of folks they would welcome. These acts of generosity were changing lives, giving hope in the midst of disaster. Can we do the same? Can we see the needs around us and try to ease the burden for others who are struggling, the widows and orphans among us?
We as a church are diligent in making our community a better place for having the church as a part of it. Outside groups are utilizing our space for much-needed community services. Our funds assist our neighbors near and far. Even our ‘leftovers’ such as yard sale donations and old bikes collected to be distributed all around the world are making a difference in people’s lives. Yet our message of hope goes much further than donated bikes and use of the fellowship hall. The light of Jesus Christ is shining out through our generous nature. We are standing as an entity against the mainstream of consumerism and greed. We are living as Jesus taught us to live – seeking ways to deepen our faith, while sharing God’s love through our care for others.
Perhaps you are not interested in deepening your faith. Maybe you are afraid that if you draw closer to God, God will put you to work. Here’s the good news – work is not a bad thing. Work is healthy for us on every level. I have heard many a retired person note they work harder now then when they held a paying job. We are all blessed with gifts and talents – no one is exempt. Part of honing our generous nature is to be willing to work at the tasks God is calling us to do. Part of taking up our cross and following Jesus is recognizing that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Are you willing to go beyond saying you live a Christian life to actually living that out?
John Wesley noted this whole thing about generosity in three parts: earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. First, Wesley says that we should earn all we can. By that he means being good workers with a good work ethic, taking one’s job seriously so as to earn a fair wage for a valuable day’s work. It means to work hard and not be afraid to put one’s full effort into every job.
Second, we are to save all we can. If the recent economic downturn or correction has taught us anything, it has shown us the need and value of saving for hard times. Dave Ramsey, the author of Financial Peace University, reminds us that too many of us are not saving at all, and this is a dangerous state to live in, especially when a crisis hits. Wage earners are learning just how quickly their lifestyle can change when faced with layoffs and work slow-downs, wage cuts and depleted benefits. We need to be cautious with spending, particularly if our spending is on things that will simply create more ‘stuff.’
Our generous nature is honed when we learn and adhere to the third principle John Wesley presents: give all you can. Give not because you have to but because you recognize greater needs around you. Give so that others can see the light of Christ in you. Surprise someone with kindness, because today’s world is anything but kind.
Today we kicked off our stewardship campaign. You’ll note the pledge cards and box in the lobby. Knowing our budget limits and concentrating on meeting the needs of the community while sharing the gospel message is essential for us as a church to continue to change lives for Jesus Christ. Consider pledging to Mayo UMC. Consider supporting the church with your gifts, along with your prayers, presence, talents, and witness. Let us work side-by-side to help transform this neighborhood as we deepen our faith in almighty God. Amen.