The Grace of Generosity
Today we are broadcasting our worship service on Facebook. It is one of the most popular and profitable social media platforms in the world. At the top of that heap is YouTube. Coming in at number two worldwide is TikTok. More than one billion TikTok videos are downloaded and watched each day. One of those world-watchers is your preacher!
TikTok is a Chinese company that allows a person to post videos up to three minutes long. Almost all videos I have seen are recorded and posted by ordinary people telling stories. Some are stories of love and heartbreak; some are stories of good times or bad times. Quite a few are stories are evangelical Christians telling their journey out of the church; and another whole stream is ex-Mormons explaining how and why they gave up on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I find these fascinating, and frank, and sad.
I saw one video this week from a waitress, talking about her work in the food service industry. She said what we have heard before, that the worst shift to work is the Sunday after church shift. These Christian people, she said, come in and leave no tip or little tip. Often, they leave only a gospel track.
I’ve never attended a church leadership seminar that discussed the evangelist effect of not tipping a waitress. Can one Sunday of stinginess undue a thousand dollars of advertisement? Can the absence of generosity on Sunday afternoon blow up the impact of a year of spellbinding sermons? Or flipping the script: can a month of generosity in a public diner make up for small congregations, mediocre sermons, and strange doctrines?
“The godly are generous givers” this psalm declares. I want us to think about this and ask ourselves this question: is this gift of the spirit one that I have or one that I need to seek today?
Generosity is not included in the Paul’s list of the gifts of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Generosity is not mentioned on the day of Pentecost when the text says all the people were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke with strange tongues (Acts 2). Generosity is not mentioned in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20).
The place to find generosity is Jesus.
Not single word describes Jesus our Lord and Savior better than the word generous. Jesus was generous with his time. Remember when he was on his way to tend the daughter of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue. A nameless woman, a stranger, reached out and touched Jesus’ clothing. Jesus felt this touch; he allowed the desperation of this marginalized woman to interrupt his ministry to Jairus. He stopped. He sought her out. He engaged her in conversation. He listened to her. He responded to her appeal. He healed her sickness. Jesus was generous with his time, his sympathy, his power to help. (Luke 8:43ff)
Jesus commended the generosity of others: the woman who gave all she had to the common treasury; and the woman who broke open the alabaster flask of ointment and poured it on Jesus as a sweet-smelling perfume. Jesus said, “wherever the good news is preached throughout the world this woman’s deed of generosity and extravagance will be remembered and discussed” (Matthew 26: 7ff), and here we are discussing it today!
This is the rule of the spiritual life: generosity of spirit and action is the chief form of the imitation of Christ. It is not the stirring speech but the generous spirit; it is not the skillful playing or singing but the generous gift that meets a need and lifts a life; it is not the captivating testimony or the compelling defense of some doctrine, it is the generous act, pouring out time, attention, and affection upon somebody that needs a friend, needs a break, needs a savior.
Do you remember when Jesus was arrested? His lead disciple, the great and influential Simon Peter, forgot that Jesus was his friend. They arrested Jesus, mocked and kicked him, and took him away for trial. Simon Peter stood far away in the shadows, paralyzed with fear and self-interest. Simon Peter could have been generous with his courage, his loyalty, his energy but he was stingy; he was selfish; he wanted to save his own life. Three times he denied even knowing Jesus. If ever there was a time for Jesus to withhold grace, to squelch his disposition of empathy, to put the card of forgiveness back in his pocket, this was it. But no: Jesus looked beyond the immediate disappointment, the momentary failure, the passing mood and saw in Simon Peter the image of God, the purposes of God, the gospel plan for the ages. Simon Peter cursed his own fear and selfishness and wept bitter tears. But Jesus was already forgiving Simon Peter, already planning his renewal, already igniting that generosity of word and deed that transformed a weak and struggling apostate into the strong and influential apostle that led the Christian community for a generation
Jesus gave his life. All of it. Every moment, every talent, every drop of blood—Jesus gave it all for you and me. This body, this dying body I give to you, (if I can paraphrase the words of the Last Supper which we will celebrate in a few minutes). This is my blood which I pour out for you, for your redemption, for your life, for your salvation, for the renewal of all creation. I give it to you!
Freely you have received, freely give.
Generosity does not come easy to everybody. Years ago I read the book, Givers, Takers, and Other Kinds of Lovers. I have forgotten most of what was in the book but the title stuck with me because it helped me understand in one phrase how people are different and are different from their birth. Who know where these differences come from, but we all know how they play out. Some people give freely and easily; other people are careful, slow, cautious when it comes to gifts.
Some people give too much, too quickly. I recall the phone call from the mother of child in second grade with my middle son. “Do you know,” she asked, “your son is at school giving away his coin collection?” Years later, he won the heavy weight division of the Tough Man Contest and walked out with $1,000. By the time he got home, almost half of it was gone: given away to friends. That’s one reason he is poor today!
Some people, even though they are rich are too stingy. Isn’t this the message of The Christmas Carol? Today, years after it was written, we use that character’s name—Scrooge—as the bitter epithet for people able to give but don’t.
Two weeks ago, I placed on the back table a stack of the book I wrote and published almost 20 years ago. They are a collection of stories and essays I wrote when I first launched my media ministry, TheMeetingHouse. Most were published in public newspapers across the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Last Sunday, Charles Myers drew your attention to it and recommended page 164. I did not recall then, but I know now that is the piece I wrote about the Antiochian Orthodox Church near our home in Lexington, Kentucky. I visited there one Sunday, was struck by how event element of building and liturgy was so out of date, so unhip, so unsustainable in today’s trendy atmosphere. So, I wrote a satirical piece about all that. I am glad the Orthodox people found it funny; I hope you will as well.
But the piece I bring to your attention today is the first story in the book, the one with the opening line: “With both hands he carried a cardboard box.” It tells the story of a bedraggled man who came in off the street to my Sunday morning Bible Class and sat down in a padded pew in front of two of my best friends, John and Lindy. How these two men reacted to the smelly stranger reveals the difference between a generosity of spirit and a stinginess of spirit.
John gripped the front edge of the pew seat and pushed his polished leather shoes into the wooded floor and pushed himself as far away from the intruder as he good. He was thinking, “Doesn’t this man know how to dress when he comes into a church?” It was, in every respect, an act of judgment rather than grace, of rejection rather than hospitality. It was evidence of a great void in the interior space where God wants to fill with generosity.
Lindy was different. He pulled a Bible out of the pew rack, leaned forward and touched the stranger on the shoulder, welcomed him to church, and handed him the book from which we were reading. He wrapped all that warmth in a smile as wide as the sky. That is why I drove 900 miles there and back to preach the funeral of this wonderful and generous man.
From his generous heart, Lindy gave of his time, his energy, his money, his support, his affirmation, his hospitality, his good will to so many in Daviess County, Kentucky. Some of you are like that, and the rest of you aspire to be, I hope. It is the work of God in the heart and soul of each person. For some of us, generosity comes easier; for others of us, generosity is a struggle. The difference is precisely why Jesus told us not to judge, not to compare you to me or me to you.
The godly are generous givers, the Psalmist wrote, for our benefit. Those who are full of the spirit, who imitate the life and speech of Jesus, who open themselves to the mystery that is God are on the way to being generous givers: giving smiles and strength to those in need, giving cash and confident to those struggling to make it, giving opportunity and approval to those seeking to do the work of God, giving mercy and even forgiveness to those who stumble along the way.
I want to be a godly person, don’t you? I want to be a generous person, don’t you? I want to be a cheerful giver, don’t you?
Some giving, of course, goes into the offering plate. But remember that waitress on TikTok, that young woman who spoke from experience and with derision, drawing attention to all the supposedly godly people spilling out of church at Sunday noon, only to practice the opposite of generosity at the local eating establishment? Remember her?
I don’t want her talking about us that way. Every Sunday we go out to eat afterward worship. We invite everybody. I want us to eat well, talk long, listen deep, and give generously. I want every waiter and waitress in this city to get up on Sunday morning and say to whomever will listen, “I hope those Providence people come to my restaurant today!”