Sunday, November 07, 1999


Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: 1 John 3: 1-3

Prayer: O Lord, give us an appetite for the fruit of your Spirit, we pray. We ask today, especially, for a taste of Generosity—surprising, spacious, seductive Generosity. Amen

Stewardship Sunday Morning…

"But I don't want to go…"
"You have to go. Come on. Get out of bed, and get dressed."
"I don't want to go to church today…"
"You have to go. Get dressed. Come downstairs. Polish your shoes."
"Do I have to go every week?"
"This is Sunday and Sunday is church. You are going to be late, hurry up and eat your eggs, they're getting cold."
"My friends aren't going today—I know they're going on a trip.
"But you have to go. Come on, out the door."
"Why do I have to go?
"Because. You're the preacher!"

So one can feel, especially in the first year or two of ministry. No seminary prepares any preacher for Stewardship Sunday. (Some people who teach in seminaries do so precisely in order to avoid Stewardship Sundays!) You have to learn, if you do learn, on the job. And what do you learn?

"I look back 20 years at that church. There were children in every nook and cranny growing up with God. The youth were loud and proud. Our Sunday school classes spilled out beyond any hope of fitting the already large building. My class met in the boiler room. I can still sing the songs, "I've got the love of Jesus down in my heart.." I can feel the hand of one older woman who sat next to us—she wore a hat with a bow—slipping candy into my pocket during the sermon. Once, in the winter, my parents and others slept outside in tents—I don't know why. I can smell the greens at Christmas and the flowers at Easter. A boy from the north side came to my prom, and of course we were married at that altar. I have my 3rd grade Bible over here on the shelf, and here is a photo of my aunt, at the women's bazaar."

Over time, you learn to love this day, almost more than any other. We savor, today, what the Scripture names as the Spirit's fruit—goodness, or, perhaps better rendered, "generosity", goodness that does some good, generative goodness, AGATHOSUNE, generosity.

This is the day, either literally or figuratively, in which the material world is invaded, assaulted, attacked, by Another Reality. The beachhead of this invasion is unmistakable, as real and sacrificial and human and costly -- and victorious-- as Normandy.

Tom Brokaw has written about the Greatest Generation. Tom Hanks has starred in Saving Private Ryan. But that kind of beachhead, won against frightful gunfire and destructive opposition, is also visible every November even in the lowliest church and even in the poorest parish. It goes simply by the name of generosity, and generosity is a surprising interloper, a fruit of God's Spirit, a visitation from Another Reality. With the enemy fire raining down, Generosity marches on.

Into the teeth of congenital selfishness, cultural stinginess, communal exclusiveness, and congregational sanctimoniousness, Generosity marches on.

Into the terror of rational question, too, Generosity advances. "You can't give like that now, you're just getting started. You shouldn't do that, you have little mouths to feed. Now is not the time, you are paying a mortgage. How can you give with kids in college? Better save now, your hair is receding and so is your bank balance. Your teeth are decaying and so is your portfolio. Your stomach is growing and so is your debt. Your eyesight is fading and so are your options. You'll need resources as you get older." Against all that, Generosity moves forward, into the teeth of the gale, the fierce enemy fire from hidden outposts.

But what is the character of the fruit of the spirit known as Generosity? How shall we know its taste in this season of spiritual harvest?

An Apocalyptic Moment

Last month I did have a Sunday off—what a luxury. We were in Phoenix, with sunshine and 100 degrees. I got up late, skipped breakfast, went to a church service someone else had prepared, ate lunch, and then headed out to see if I could get into a major league football game—Cardinals and Giants. I have followed the Giants since YA Tittle and Del Shoefner and Frank Gifford, but never have seen them live. So I got to the stadium, worried about a ticket. Scalpers had some--$100 dollars. No thank you. At last, the ticket booth, with a little crowd gathered. I stood and waited in line. Suddenly a Phoenix fan appeared, dressed in Cardinals hat, Cardinals shirt, Cardinals socks, Cardinals Buttons. He was a burly bloke, and not overly tidy in his attire. He also was quite a large person. He wore a beverage Container on his back that had a tube running to his mouth. His Cardinal hat was shaped like a bird, and had wings that moved up and down "in flight" as he walked. He wore size 13 Converse sneakers. He stood in the ticket area and said, "I have two $50 tickets that I want to give away. I don't want them sold, I want to give them away."

No one moved. No one spoke.

"I have free tickets here. Two of them. They're on the 30-yard line, 18 rows up. I want to give them away."

I don't know why, exactly, but no one moved or spoke. We couldn't believe it. "There must be something wrong—a catch."

Finally, exasperated, Mr. Cardinal slammed his tickets on the counter, and said to the taker—you give them away, at which point yours truly, not born yesterday, said, "Well, I appreciate your generosity-thanks for the tickets. May the best team win as long as its New York."

But we don't really appreciate generosity. We don't expect it so we don't see it. It stomps up to us and bites us and we still don't see it.

I was given a place at the table, a seat at the banquet, a ticket to the game—space, entrance, inclusion.

So armed, I walked to the turnstile and realized I had two tickets but only needed one. So, I walked over to a group nearby and said, "Listen, I have a free ticket here. I don't want it scalped. Who would like it?"

Guess what? Dead silence. "Hey. This is legitimate. This was given to me-it's yours for free." Nothing.

I turned to leave, when an older man said "OK, OK, I don't know what your angle is, buddy, but hand it over." Which I did.

So on a 100 degree Sunday off in the southwest I was given a free ticket, and also, as the game progressed, and my mind wandered, an apocalyptic insight into the nature of the fruit of the spirit known as goodness, generosity, in three particulars.

Generosity surprises us. Generosity makes space for others, especially for the stranger, the outsider, the other. Generosity seduces us, at last, into offering our own generous gifts.

A. Generosity Surprises Us

For Instance…

An elderly couple who met at Depauw University in 1926, but who never graduated, decided to leave that school their whole life savings, $128 million dollars. 75 students a year will attend that school with full scholarships.

Surprising generosity. A person visits our office and late that week mails in a check for $3,000 to be used "as you see fit". Surprising generosity.

A woman who does not attend our church is inspired by the work of the Dining Center and leaves that ministry a quarter of a million dollars. Surprising generosity. May her tribe increase.

A family needs a place to stay for a summer trip and, hearing the need, a brother in Christ provides a home for the visit. Surprising generosity.

A president is defeated at the polls after only one term, but goes on to live a faith both public and private, the Carter center thrives. Surprising generosity.

Someone is saved from psychic hell through the pastoral care of their church, and chooses to endow the expense of pastoral ministry. Surprising future generosity.

It is in the nature of the spirit to take us somewhat by surprise, and nourish us generously. So the Scripture teaches us.

I have to wonder whether some of difficulties we face in our denomination are due to the eclipse of vision by mission. We get so caught up in what we are doing that we lose sight of the great vision God has designed!

Psalm 33: The earth is full of the HESED (generous goodness) of the Lord.

Romans 15: You also are full of generosity.

Galatians 6:10: Let us be generous to all, especially to those of the household of faith.

Colossians 1:10: Be fruitful in every good work.

2 Cor 9: "The Lord loves a cheerful giver."

Romans 12: "Let love be genuine."

Matthew 6: "If anyone asks for your coat, give him your cloak as well. If he asks you to go one mile, go a second too."

Galatians 6: "Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ."

Or think of Jesus' parables of sowing and reaping, of mustard seeds exploding from tiny to great, of talents used and underused, of dishonest but generous stewards and of that haunting and joyous refrain, may it reach our ears at heaven's door! "Well done though generous and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a little, we will set you over much. Enter into the joy of the master." How frightful, daunting, awesome, profound is our charge in this life to minister to one another so that we are ready to hear such a sentence pronounced: "…well done, thou generous and faithful servant.."

If we have savored generous surprise, then we may also sense that this form of the Spirit's fruit makes space for others.

B. Generosity Makes Space for Others

Look at Asbury First, flourishing because of the surprising generosity of hundreds of faithful people, who want the world to be a better place, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who understand that as the seedbed for wonder, morality, and future generosity, the church has a prior claim on our giving.

Let me push you a little here. I know it is appealing to give to many particular causes and special projects. But it is Another Reality, the fruit of God's own spirit known as goodness, which ultimately feeds all giving, and to which the church alone bears full witness. I think we run the risk of taking our church for granted. It will prevail into the new millenium only to the degree that another generation of young adults learns and chooses to reflect divine generosity with some of the human variety.

One day a veteran faithful member of our church commented to me about our ministry. In conclusion she said, and the words carried a depth of meaning perhaps even beyond her intention, "We don't want anyone left behind."

But that's it! No one is to be left behind, left out, left off the list, left outside. Not at least for those of us who worship the Jesus Christ of the manger, the wilderness, the borrowed upper room, the cross, and the empty tomb! Jesus lived and died "outside", to remind us on the religious inside of those still outside. So that all might have space, have a seat, have a place at the table. You and I have had seven courses of faith, when others lack even the appetizer. "We don't want anyone left behind."

Asbury First's current growth and future health are fed by Generosity, goodness that does good. Generosity makes space, in this church, for those who are not yet inside. Why? Why more? Why grow? Because God is generous, and we believe in God. Because the need of the county is great, and we care about that need. Because the future health of this congregation depends on our becoming, over a decade, welcoming, inviting and generous, and we love this church. Because when our own generosity is quickened, faith is less a dull habit and more an acute fever.

Amid surprise and extra space, the Spirit can seduce you, even on a Stewardship Sunday.

C. Generosity Seduces Us

For we learn over time. Sometimes the best gift you can give somebody is the opportunity for them to give themselves. That is what this sermon is about. We are trying today, in this season of spiritual harvest, to feast upon the fruit of the spirit known as Generosity. And the best gift you can receive is the chance to give of yourself.

A while ago friends were going on a trip and needed someone to watch their children. I heard the request and did what you would have done. I referred the idea to the spiritual leader of our home. Jan said sure. I wondered a little about it, but the day came and all of a sudden, we had again multiple teenage voices in our home. And what a treat they were, what a joyful presence, what a gift!

But if our friends had not had the courage and taken the risk of asking, of giving us the real gift of a chance to give, we would have missed a little bit of heaven.

So in that vein I am going to ask you to give today. This church can prosper if you will generously support it. It's entirely up to you. I invite you to give, to pledge, to pledge strongly and to tithe. I am aware that this is a very personal decision. And not everyone likes to hear, let alone preach a stewardship sermon. One wag said, "It's not that he preaches so badly about money, it's that he preaches about it at all!"

But the world is not going to be healed by token pledges and convenient giving. This is a giving church. It needs to become a generous one. That is your opportunity today. "Ask not what your church can do for you. Ask what you can do for your church."

Remember your forebears. These are the people of whom Diognetus wrote in the year 130ad

They display to us their wonderful and paradoxical way of life.

They dwell in their own countries, but merely as sojourners.
Every foreign land is to them their native country.
And yet their land of birth is a land of strangers.
They marry and beget children, but they do not destroy their offspring.
They have a common table, but not a common bed.
They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.
They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.
When reviled, they bless.
When insulted, they show honor.
When punished, they rejoice.
What the soul is to the body, they are to the world.
What salt is to earth and light is to world, are you to this country, to this region.

The church stays open for people on whom almost all other doors have closed. For the poor. For the irascible. For the loony. For the difficult. You are sitting in the most open, and generously vulnerable public space in this county.

As Lorraine Hansberry wrote,

"When do think is the time to love somebody most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain't through learning, because that ain't the time at all. It's when he's at his lowest and can't believe in himself 'cause the world done whipped him so".

The mission may be the bit and bridle, but the great steed, the real horseflesh of life is found in vision, a vision of a healed and loving world, where there is space, real quality space, for all. We dare not let the moon of mission eclipse the sun of vision.

Now we sing

Take my life and let it be
Consecrated Lord to thee

We might better sing:

Take my life and let it be
Shaped by Generosity.

Jane Addams' Warning

In closing, maybe we need to remember the young woman from Rockford Illinois, Jane Addams. She grew up 130 years ago, in a time and place unfriendly, even hostile, to the leadership that women might provide. But somehow she discovered her mission in life. And with determination she traveled to the windy city and set up Hull House, the most far-reaching experiment in social reform that American cities had ever seen. Hull House was born out of a social vision, and nurtured through the generosity of one determined woman. Addams believed fervently that we are responsible for what happens in the world. So Hull House, a place of feminine community and exciting spiritual energy, was born. Addams organized female labor unions. She lobbied for a state office to inspect factories for safety. She built public playgrounds and staged concerts and cared for immigrants. She became politically active and gained a national following on the lecture circuit. She is perhaps the most passionate and most effective advocate for the poor that our country has ever seen.

Addams wrote: "The blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation must be made universal if they are to be permanent. The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in midair, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life."

Yet it was a Rochesterian who, for me, explained once the puzzle of Jane Addams' fruitful generosity. This was the historian Christopher Lasch. Several times in the 1980's I thought of driving over here to visit him. But I never took the time, and as you know, he died seven years ago. Lasch said of Addams, "Like so many reformers before her, she had discovered some part of herself which, released, freed the rest."

Is there a part of your soul ready today to be released, that then will free the rest of you?

I wonder, frankly, whether for some of us that part is our stewardship life, our financial generosity.

Is that part of you, the wallet area part, ready to be released today, and in so doing, to free up the rest?

I think with real happiness over the years of men who have, just for example, taken up the practice of tithing, and in so releasing themselves, have found the rest of their lives unleashed for God.

Is there, as there was for Jane Addams, some small part of your soul ready to be released today, which then will free up the rest of you?

Deep, real life change comes from apocalyptic insight and cataclysmic experience. "All who enter the kingdom of heaven enter it violently".

A sensual experience can reorient a life (Pablo Picasso). A religious experience can reorient a life (Ignatius of Loyola). A patriotic experience can reorient a life (John McCain). A near death experience can reorient a life (Christopher Reeves).

Sex, religion, nation, death all can produce such a cataclysmic release. All sticks of existential dynamite. Money is another. And today is Stewardship Sunday. "...oh we keep the rest for another day, yet knowing how way leads onto way…" I wonder about the verve and youthful zest of your lower wallet area? I wonder what condition your condition is in?

Is there a part of your soul which, once released, would free up the rest? A catalytic experience or moment? Is it possible, that such an experience is waiting for you, metaphorically speaking, in the lobby outside your bank? Not in sex, or religion or nation or peril, but in…generosity?

Meryl Streep is reminding us that music brings structure, focus and discipline to life. So does tithing, and moreso.

Maybe we can know, in the surpise of Generosity, in the space provided by Generosity, in the seductive attraction of Generosity, what made a man of God out of John Wesley, and helped him to live on a mere 60lbs sterling year by year for his whole adult life, and in the process build a cross continental movement for good, of which we are heirs and debtors. Go, tithers and future tithers, and live his motto:

Do all the good you can
At all the times you can
In all the ways you can
In all the places you can
To all the people you can
As long as ever you can

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