Shaped for Generous Living
I Corinthians 16:1-4
Last Sunday I talked about us living in a new wilderness period. Like the Israelites long ago we find ourselves wandering in a strange land. The cultural shifts of the last few decades help us recognize this new wilderness. A group of eight New England pastors developed a list of some of these cultural shifts that have impacted the church. Listen.
Years ago – Every respectable and upwardly mobile citizen was expected to be in church on Sunday morning. Stores were closed on Sundays. And when someone moved into a new community, one of the first things they did was join a church.
Nowadays, society at large cares little if someone attends worship or not. Sunday is the second busiest shopping day of the week. And if someone decides to join a church, it is only after a long process of deliberation and church shopping.
Years ago the focus of church mission efforts was denominationally sponsored foreign missions. The authority of the pastor of a local church was widely recognized in the community, as well as within the local church. And the role of the laity was to help ministers do ministry.
Nowadays the focus of church mission outreach is “hands-on” efforts, often but not always in the local community. The authority of the pastor of a local church is recognized only within the church (and sometimes not even there).
And the role of the clergy is to equip laity for their ministry.
Years ago there were no youth sports on Sundays or Sunday mornings. And stewardship, at least for many, was like “paying dues.”
Now there’s youth soccer, football, hockey and skiing and more on Sundays, and the playing fields are busy on Sunday mornings. And today, stewardship means participation in a particular way of life.
I believe that these cultural shifts have changed the role of the church. In the past the church’s primary role was to teach and maintain the values and teachings of Christianity. Today the church’s role in shaping and forming people in the Christian faith has become increasingly more difficult. In addition to taking a back seat in the lives of many, the church also faces stiff competition, if not direct opposition with the values of American culture. Where Christianity values community and gratitude and generosity. Our culture pushes individualism, being a winner, and getting as much as one can.
Where Christianity calls us to reach out and care for the last, the lost, and the least, our culture ignores or demonizes them saying they are lazy, or illegal, or undeserving.
Some in the church have even gone so far as to promote civil religion, wrapping the cross in the American flag, and passing off these cultural values as Christian values. So we in the church have our work cut out for us. Today one of the Church’s primary roles is shaping people for generous living.
In our back yard in California we had a small orchard. We had an orange tree, an apricot tree, two cherry, two plum, and two peach trees. Each January my husband Ken spent hours in the yard pruning the trees. First he would examine each tree carefully, gazing at it, envisioning how the tree needed to grow and then making a mental picture of which limbs he would remove. I always feared that he had pruned the trees too much but Ken had learned from old time growers that if he didn’t prune boldly the trees would not be healthy and produce abundantly. If he didn’t remove enough branches the tree wouldn’t get enough light, branches would cross and rub each other and grow wildly. The fruit trees in our yard needed to be shaped carefully to be healthy and productive.
We in the church need to be shaped carefully to be healthy and productive. As followers of Jesus we are called for generous living. Jesus had been shaped in the Jewish tradition and knew well the call to be compassionate and generous.
Scripture made it clear to him that he was to care for the poor and those in need. In Leviticus 19 we find these words,
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.” (Leviticus 19:9~10)
And in Isaiah 58:10-11 it is written “Feed the hungry! Help those in trouble! Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you shall be as bright as day. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy you with all good things, and keep you healthy too; and you will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.”
These scriptures imply that generous people are happy and healthy because when we give freely, we do not deplete our resources, but replenish them like an “ever-flowing spring.”
In his article “Generous People” Chuck Gallozzi acknowledges that,
“The idea that the more we give, the more we will receive is a common theme in all religious traditions. And for good reason, it is based on common sense. After all, the more people we help, the larger the reservoir of possible allies in our time of need. The more people we lend a hand to, the greater our network of friends and willing assistants. If we wish to live life to the fullest, we will be generous, for as the Sanskrit Proverb says, ‘He who allows his day to pass by without practicing generosity and enjoying life’s pleasures is like a blacksmith’s bellows – he breathes but does not live.’”
Nancy Drummond is forever changed by one missed opportunity to live generously. She knows what its like to breathe and not live. She remembers the day clearly.
“Fog swirled lazily around glowing street lights. The bus was late again, and I had dinner reservations in exactly thirty-seven minutes. I stamped my feet to ward off the cold and vainly express my growing frustration.
As I scanned the park for some sign of the overdue bus, my eyes met hers. She was on a bench thirty feet away, but we were worlds apart. Stringy gray hair hung in dirty tassels around her face; my hair was tucked neatly beneath a hat. Her oversiazed sweatshirt was torn and stained; my spotless overcoat was buttoned over a tidy business suit. I quickly looked away, feeling a twinge of guilt at my modest affluence.
As the bus finally groaned to the curb, I glanced back toward the bench. Her bony body was stretched out ad draped with a few stray pages of newspaper, a futile barrier against a night that promised snow.
Buy her a blanket, the Spirit inwardly urged, directing my gaze to the department store across the street. Give a simple offering in Jesus’ name.
I will, I promised. Tomorrow. Right now I’m late for dinner.
I boarded the bus and the doors hissed closed. As the tattered figure with the newsprint blanket slid from view, I silently prayed God would send someone to help her.
But I sent you to help her, the Spirit whispered.
And I will, I reasoned. Tomorrow.
Dinner seemed endless. In speite of delicious food and sparkling conversation, I was miserable. God had asked me to offer mere moments of my life in service to someone in need and I had refused.
I consoled myself by stopping at the corner drugstore on my way home and buying the best blanket I could find. The meager, lightweight throw certainly offered more warmth than the newspaper. I picked out a hat and mittens too, determined to go the extra mile. Smiling, I imagined her gleeful delight when I presented my offering to her.
When morning finally arrived, I left a few minutes early. Rushing from the bus with the other commuters, I hurried to the bench – her bench. She was gone. My heart sank. Beside the bench was a ragged pile of snow-laced newspaper. I tore off a piece and shoved it regretfully into my pocket. I had missed my chance.
I never saw her again. My humble, hurried offering of blanket, hat, and mittens found its way to a shelter in remembrance of the nameless woman I had been too busy to help. But I still carry a scrap of her newsprint blanket. It is my constant reminder that I am commanded daily to present myself as a living sacrifice. I am called to love my neighbors – not tomorrow or when it’s convenient, but today, here, now, in Jesus’ name.”
No doubt, Nancy Drummond had been shaped by the church to live generously. Even so, she missed an opportunity, we all do. But the impulse was embedded somewhere deep within her. And that’s one of the most important roles of the church today – to plant the seeds of generosity in the hearts and minds of everyone we touch.
That’s why we have giving projects like the school backpacks and supplies we are collecting this month. That’s why we send our youth to workcamps each summer. That’s why we are always inviting you to offer your time, your talents, and your precious money for God’s work in the world. Here at UBBC we are constantly providing opportunities for you to practice generous living!
Chuck Gallozzi reminds us that generous living comes in many ways. He writes, “We don’t need money to be generous; we can be generous by giving recognition, attention, praise, kindness, and love. We can be generous in thought, word, and deed. We can donate our time, knowledge, and skills. We can offer our patience, understanding, and encouragement. We can be a font of hope, a haven of peace, an oasis of joy. Neither do we have to travel far to practice generosity. We can begin at home by giving moral support to our parents, spouse, children, and siblings. We can then extend our generosity to the workplace, our community, and the world at large.”
Throughout the month of October we are going to focus on Generous Living. You will be hearing stories of generosity each Sunday in worship. You will be invited to consider and reflect upon those people in your life who models and mentors of generosity. And you will be given the opportunity to respond generously with the gifts of your life. It is my prayer that God will shape our hearts and minds for generous living in these days.
Sermon by Bonnie Kline Smeltzer
University Baptist and Brethren Church
October 9, 2011