Practices of Fruitful Living: “Extravagant Generosity”

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Luke 16:19-31
Acts 4:32-37
2 Corinthians 9:6-12

A New York Times article asked a question this past week that got me thinking:

“WHAT makes some men miserly and others generous?

What motivated Bill Gates, for example, to make more than $28 billion in philanthropic gifts while many of his billionaire peers kept relatively tightfisted control over their personal fortunes?

New evidence reveals a surprising answer. The mere presence of female family members — even infants — can be enough to nudge men in the generous direction.

Having siblings, especially female siblings seems to make a difference…”

Sort of interesting.

Today, as we think about extravagant generosity I want to rephrase that question in terms of faith.

“What makes some Christians miserly and others generous?”

I remind you of something I shared with you in another sermon:  waiters and waitresses report that the worst tips come after church services on Sunday.

Some give out Bible messages rather than a tip. There was a waitress who served a 10 person table who were all jolly and joyful after a Sunday night service… who left a $1.00 tip on a $92.00 bill.

Then there is my friend Bill Walluf an elder in a friends’ church who teaches Sunday School and helps lead worship… who is led to be  very generous with tips… more than the 20%…  he is eager to help waiters and waitresses who work hard to make ends meet.

And while I don’t know what any of you tip… I know so many of you are very generous with your time… and sharing your gifts and your money. You support the church… and I see you support so many good causes in the community as an expression of your faith.

So, “What makes some Christians miserly and other Christians generous?”

The texts we read today raise the same question for me.

The parable Jesus tells about the Rich Man and Lazarus is a story of a miserly person of faith. 

Eugene Peterson in the message version describes the Rich Man this way: “There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption…”

Many of you know the rest of the story… we may not like it, but we know it.

Lazarus, a poor man comes begging for help.. He just wanted the scraps from the man’s table… but no help came from the rich man. The rich man apparently can’t spare a dime for Lazarus. They both die. Rich man goes to hell and Lazarus goes to heaven… The Rich man suffering in hell sees Abraham in the distance (see, he is a person of faith) and begs for mercy… or at least to warn his brothers…”

Abraham answers, “They have Moses and the prophets… they should listen to them…”  And even if someone rises from the dead to speak to them… it won’t matter. They won’t listen!

Why was the Rich man- a person of faith… who read his Scriptures faithfully and I even assumed prayed… “Why was he such a miserly person?”

On the other hand, when I read the story of the first Christians in Acts… it is a beautiful picture of generosity…

There we find them meeting together, eating together, reading, praying and worshipping together… They seemed to be of one heart and mind…

Again Peterson describes them this way:  “They didn’t even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, ‘That’s mine; you can’t have it.’They shared everything…And so it turned out that not a person among them was needy. Those who owned fields or houses sold them and brought the price of the sale to the apostles and made an offering of it. The apostles then distributed it according to each person’s need.   Joseph, called by the apostles Barnabas (which means ‘Son of Comfort’), a Levite born in Cyprus, sold a field that he owned, brought the money and made an offering of it…”

Here we have people of faith and wealth (they own property after all) ready to share with one another and all in need… talk about generosity…

But let me tell you one more story about extravagant generosity. And I could tell you several—Jesus lifting up the Widow for her generosity for example.

But I want to bring to mind the Christians Paul knew in Macedonia: they were poor… they were suffering and yet as Paul was raising money for those in need in Jerusalem, these Macedonians (to quote Paul) overflowed in a wealth of Generosity on their part.”

It reminds me of a story told by Don Shriver – a Presbyterian minister who had been president of a seminary in New York.  He was staring at a plaque on the wall. It was a simply plaque from the mayor of Hartford, Connecticut thanking the people for their contribution of $35.00 for the hungry and homeless of Hartford.

But when he saw that plaque, Donald Shriver was not in Hartford. In fact, he wasn’t anywhere in North America.He was in South Africa, worshipping in a small church in Tembisa, a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

And as he worshipped there, he wondered what it could have meant for this congregation of poor people to send money to help the homeless on another continent.

After the service, he climbed into the back of the van filled with other people to be taken to the place he would stay for the night. As the van made its rounds, dropping people off, he slowly began to understand which part of town HE was heading for. The van had long sense lift the middle class district. Now they were navigating the dirt streets lined with what could only be called informal housing, built by new arrivals from the countryside from scrap materials.

Soon he arrived at the home of Daniel and Angel, and found that Daniel had built quite a sturdy house made from packing crates and small trees.

It was clear that Angel had worked most of the day to prepare the meal she served: a whole stewed chicken, summer vegetables and cookies, along with the bottles of soda made with pure water.

This was the very best food available at a cost that stretched and strained Daniel and Angel’s budget incredibly. (Who knows what sacrifices they made to offer hospitality)Later Daniel and Angel gave Donald Shriver their bedroom with clean sheets, three pillows, a candle, a bowl of warm water and a new bar of soap.

By candlelight, he opened his Bible and found 2 Corinthians 8: the text he often used to preach stewardship sermons back in the US. Tonight, the passage read like this to him:

“We must tell you, friends, about the grace of generosity which God has given to our congregations in Tembisa. The troubles they have been through have tried them hard, yet in all this they have shown themselves so exuberantly happy that from the depths of  their poverty they have shown themselves lavishly open-handed.”

Which returns me to my question:

“What makes some Christians miserly and other Christians generous—even extravagantly generous?”

To be honest, I’m not sure I know the complete answer but the New York times article lead me to an answer for us. The NYTimes article suggested that there was an effect that females had on males that created something of a generous heart and spirit.

Could it be, that for Christians, there was something about the effect the relationship people had with Christ  that did the same thing? Paul says that the Macedonians gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us… Could it be that there was something about their relationship with God in Christ that transformed their hearts and lives?…Extravagant generosity of heart and spirit that led to their sharing was an outward sign of an inward faith in Christ? That a healthy relationship with Christ cultivated within them a generous spirit?

It looks that way to me.

Again and again I bear witness to you that some of the most generous Christians I know are those whose lives are clearly grounded in Jesus Christ. That somewhere on their journey of faith, they have heard the call of Christ to trust and to share…

Generosity is an outward sign of a deep, mature and trusting faith… is it not?

Now I can’t speak for you, but let me tell you that for me, this does not come easy. It is truly a spiritual practice.

I assume you hear the voices I hear in my head sometimes telling me to hold a little back… voices of fear that say, that if I give, there may not be enough for what I want or need…So,  (I tell myself) “I will be generous when I can afford to be.” Ever hear those voices? I have. Still do.

I hear other voices that I’m not proud to tell you about… the voices of greed or maybe a nice way to say it, the voice that says I don’t have enough and I need more in order to be happy.

Funny thing, many of those voices come to me from advertisements and the culture around me and even peer pressure.  So, (I tell myself) “After I reach my comfortable lifestyle, I’ll be able to be generous.”

Of course the problem is that this is what someone called a receding goal.

We never have enough. In a study people were asked, “How much money do they need to earn to be happy?”

You know the funny thing. People at every income level said the same thing. It didn’t matter if you earned $10,000, $100,000, or $1 million dollars… They all said that if they could only earn about 20% more than they presently do, then they would be happy.

Yes, I’ve heard that voice too! Have you?

But over time, I hear another voice… or a chorus of voices from Jesus to Paul…to St. Francis… to Calvin and many others… reminding me that happiness is not in my stuff… but in my relationships… especially in a trusting relationship with God.

I have heard Jesus say, “Do not worry about your life… trust the one who cares for the bird and flowers to care for you…”

I heard Paul say today: “that this most generous God who gives seed to the farmer that becomes bread for your meals is more than extravagant enough with you. He gives you something you can then give away, which grows into full-formed lives, robust in God, wealthy in every way, so that you can be generous in every way”  (2 Corinthians 9:11, the Message)

So what is the difference between a miserly Christian and a generous Christian?

Perhaps it is about trust… and whose voice we are hearing.

So, the question that separates the miserly from the generous may be this:

Who are we going to listen to? Those voices of fear and greed and anxiety that fill my heart and head? Perhaps that is the voice the Rich Man heard as he ignored Lazarus. Or the same voice the Rich Man heard who spent his whole life building bigger barns only to die on the day of his retirement… learning the hard way that life is more than what you accumulate…

Are those the voices we are going to listen to?

Or (will we hear)  the voice of the one who has been so generous with us… who invites us to find joy by trusting in him… to find joy where the Macedonians found joy— knowing that through their generosity, they were able to relieve suffering, to share in the ministry of Jesus of loving God and neighbor…

Whose voice will we listen to? Truth is, in order to hear the voice of Jesus and Paul…and the other spiritual giants, I will always need some help. I’m guessing you do to.

So, today, I want to close in prayer [1]– in a way that asks God for the help we need. This will be a prayer that comes in the form of a litany– where you will keep your eyes open because you’ll need to see my hand signal for the response.

The response is this: “Gracious God, give us generous hearts”

Let us pray:

Extravagantly generous God give us generous hearts to share whatever gift it is that you have given to us.
Gracious God, give us generous hearts.

To acknowledge you as the giver of all good gifts…
Gracious God, give us generous hearts.

To give without counting the cost…
Gracious God, give us generous hearts.

To share without expecting something in return…
Gracious God, give us generous hearts.

To be wise in the way of caring for ourselves and others…
Gracious God, give us generous hearts.
To hold all of our treasures and values with open hands…
Gracious God, give us generous hearts.

To have gospel priorities and to align our life, love and time in their light…
Gracious God, give us generous hearts.
To be gracious and unbegrudging in our giving…
Gracious God, give us generous hearts.

To recognize the abundance of blessings in each passing day…
Gracious God, give us generous hearts.

To know the freedom that comes with true extravagant generosity.
Gracious God, give us generous hearts.

To fall more deeply in love with the God of all generosity so that our hearts are strong enough to give away freely whatever is asked.
Gracious God, give us generous hearts.

Loving God, who so generously lavishes our lives with goodness, create in our hearts a deep center of gratitude, a center that grows so strong in its thanksgiving that sharing freely of our treasures becomes the norm and the pattern of our existence. Remind us often of how much you cherish us, of how abundantly you have offered gifts to us, especially in the hours of our greatest need. May we always be grateful for your reaching into our lives with surprises of joy, growth, and unearned love. Amen.

 


[1] Prayer from Joyce Rupp

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