Generous God, Generous People

Our New Testament reading picks up where the passage last week left off. The Apostle Paul is writing to members of the new church he started in Corinth. He’s appealing to them to give to a collection he’s taking for the church in Jerusalem – for people they’ve never met, in a country not their own, and, in fact, for a church that wasn’t even sure Paul should be starting churches like these in Greek Gentile territory. It’s an appeal to generosity – based in the abundant generosity of God.

Listen for the Word of God to you this morning.2 Corinthians 9:6-15
(based on The Message)
The point is this: A stingy planter gets a stingy crop; a lavish planter gets a lavish crop. I want each of you to take plenty of time to think it over, and make up your own mind what you will give. Don’t give reluctantly or because of pressure. God loves it when the giver delights in the giving.

God can pour on the blessings in astonishing ways so that you’re ready for anything and everything, more than just ready to do what needs to be done. As the psalmist puts it,

He throws caution to the winds,
   giving to the needy in reckless abandon.
His righteousness
    never runs out, never wears out.

This most generous God is the one who gives seed to the farmer that becomes bread for your meals is more than extravagant 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, producing with us great praise to God.

This service you perform involves far more than helping meet the bare needs of poor Christians. It also produces abundant expressions of thanksgiving to God. This offering is a prod to live at your very best, showing your gratitude to God by being openly obedient to the Good News of Christ. You show your gratitude through your generous offerings to your needy brothers and sisters, and really toward everyone.

And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, moved by the extravagance of God in your lives. Thank God for this gift, his gift. No language can praise it enough!

* * * * *

I read about the oddest custom recently. Elizabeth Gilbert tells about it in her book Committed, her exploration of marriage customs from around the world. It’s a long story about why she was doing this research, but it eventually took her to a small village in Laos, where she met a young man named Keo. Keo was born very poor, “the youngest of seven children in a poor family in the poorest country in Southeast Asia.”

Keo was twenty-one and recently married, and he was more than willing to tell Elizabeth all about his wedding.

For one thing, he said, they invited 700 people to their wedding. Did all 700 come, Elizabeth asked? Oh, no! 1,000 people came! All their friends and all their cousins and all their friends’ cousins and all their cousins’ friends.

Really?! She asked. Oh, yes. The host must never turn anyone away.

And everybody brought money as a present. Everybody. It’s tradition. Every wedding is like that.

The night of the wedding, the couple stays up counting the cash. Each gift is carefully recorded. Not for thank-you-notes – that’s not part of the custom. It’s because eventually the couple will be asked to pay it forward. When the new couple gets on their feet, they will be invited to the weddings of these friends and cousins and friends’ cousins. Each and every gift will be returned in kind. Everyone will receive back the same gift that they gave, only with a little more added on. It’s their custom. It’s expected. It’s normal.

In a country of “extreme poverty and economic chaos,” Gilbert notes, the people have figured out a way to be generous with each other. A generosity so assumed and so proscribed that everyone – everyone – will start out on solid footing. And everyone – everyone – will be generous in return.

It’s like the economy Paul describes: “He gives you something you can then give away, which grows into full-formed lives, wealthy in every way, so that you can be generous in every way.” For Keo and his people, it’s simply a way of life.[1]

What makes people generous? It’s such a curious question. Is it cultural? Is it tradition? Does it feel good? Is it because people want to do good, to help others? Is it somehow related to being spiritual?

And why is it some people more generous than others? That’s really a curious question, I think.

Compared to people like Keo’s clan, we in America are not particularly generous. As sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson discovered, generosity is not our norm. The truth is, we tend to think of ourselves as more generous than we really are.

Using a host of survey methods, Smith and Davidson sought to quantify generosity in the U.S.  It wasn’t just about money, but a whole host of ways of giving. Besides financial giving to organizations, they looked at estate planning, generosity to those close by, volunteering, and even blood and organ donation.

 The authors concluded that “by almost any measure of generosity, the majority of Americans are crowded at the ungenerous end of the scale. As a reviewer notes,

For example, the authors’ survey indicates that only 2.7 percent of Americans give away 10 percent or more of their income, while 86.2 percent give less than 2 percent. This pattern persists… across all forms of generosity.

And yet, as Smith and Davidson discovered, there is also a strong correlation between generosity and well-being. Those who were consistently generous experienced a better sense of well-being, including “happiness, bodily health, purpose in living, avoidance of depression, and interest in personal growth… The more generous one is, the better off one is.”[2]

How is it Paul puts it? “A stingy planter gets a stingy crop; a lavish planter gets a lavish crop.”  It’s interesting, isn’t it?

Honestly, I’m less concerned with why some people are more generous than others, and more concerned about how each of us can become more generous ourselves. It’s not about comparing ourselves to others, it’s about growth, our own growth. As Paul says, “God can pour on the blessings in astonishing ways so that you’re ready for anything and everything, more than just ready to do what needs to be done.”

In our Bible study this week, we started out by remembering how and when we first learned that giving could make you happy. I immediately went back years ago to when I was a little girl. I had made my father a card – a birthday card, maybe, or for father’s day. I remember being in my parents’ bedroom, and discovering that my father had kept that card, tucked it away in the drawer next to his bed. It had never occurred to me before that something I gave could have meaning for someone else.

What a life-changing concept. I saw myself differently that day. I saw myself as someone who actually had something to give, something that really mattered to someone I loved. And it made me so happy.

I suspect that some people are generous because of tradition; it’s how they were raised. Or it’s cultural, like for Keo and his clan. And some are generous because they discover that it does bring them happiness, it affects their well-being.  And for others, being generous is deeply spiritual. It’s at the core of what it means to be Christian. It is the highest form of being united with God.

Last January I had the privilege of hearing a speaker named Karl Travis. He is a minister in a Presbyterian Church in Ft. Worth, Texas, and by all counts an amazing pastor. I was in Texas for a conference on Stewardship sponsored by the Presbyterian Church. I wanted to learn more about effective stewardship, and I expected to hear lots of how-to methods on how to get people to give money to the church. In other words, I expected to hear about fundraising.

But Karl Travis wasn’t what I expected at all.

Travis was pretty adamant. His goal is not about getting people to give to the church more in order to meet the budget. His goal, he quips, is to get people to tip better. He wants to make more generous people. Because to be Christian is to be generous.

He is not a fan of having a “stewardship sermon”. Having a once a year “Stewardship Sunday,” he says, is a lot like a flu shot. “I hate this as much as you do, I don’t want to talk about it, but the staff need raises, the Air Conditioner is out….” It makes pastors into sales clerks for the church. Even if it’s a great product, this kind of stewardship “campaign” always ends up being about the budget. It’s about guilt and obligation, not joy and generosity.

But we’ve got it all wrong, he says. Generosity is the place to start.

See, God’s generosity is decadent, it’s pervasive, it’s ubiquitous. It’s everywhere: from creation, to the Exodus, from Jesus’ birth to the resurrection, to the Spirit, to the church... It’s not just what God does, it’s who God is. And we are made in the image of God. We are made to be like God. It’s who we are at our most basic and highest self.

To connect to God’s generosity is to connect to your truest self. That’s what’s at stake here. It’s a whole lot bigger than a church’s budget. It’s our lives.

Human generosity is God’s seed, and its harvest is God’s generosity. The one grows right from the other. God’s work is in the world, with us. Not just by us, or for us, but with us.

Do you see the difference? This is important.

If we think our generosity is doing work for God, then when things get rough – and they will - we may end up discouraged and cynical. Why should I bother, especially if nobody else does?

Or if we think our generosity is a way to have blessings come back for us, then we’ve reduced it to something transactional. Give some, get some. It’s all barter and trade. But we’re still in charge here; we’ve really sacrificed nothing.

But if our generosity is acting with God, that’s a whole different story. Then it’s like accepting an invitation to a wedding, a celebration, a party, a feast. There’s something going on that’s bigger than we are. There’s something we get to be part of. We get to be part of God’s generous, generous core.

I feel like I should tell you something about this guy who was speaking, about Karl Travis. I had actually heard of Karl from a friend before I went to the conference. It was a few weeks before, when I was at my Moveable Feast study group gathering. My friend Bob Dunham had told me Karl’s story because he had gotten to know him when Karl was hospitalized near Bob’s church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for months.

See, Karl has this rare and challenging disease. He’s a 40-something athlete, the picture of health, an avid cyclist… until about three years ago when his body started throwing clots. He started forming pulmonary embolisms and suffered from deep-vein thrombosis. Nobody knows why. Last fall doctors performed what they felt was a necessary surgery, transplanting a vein for an artery. But the artery put clots in his foot, and his foot had to be amputated. He spent 17 days in the Cath lab and 56 days in the hospital. He’ll never ride a bike again. At the conference he could barely walk; it was the first time he was out of a wheelchair.

The thing is, he says, he has no fear. Just no fear at all. There are palpable ways God is present, he says, through all this. He has no desire to blame, to sue the doctors, to be angry. That’s God at work in him, he says. He could tolerate being in the hospital, tolerate the inactivity, tolerate knowing he will never ride again. That’s God, he says, that’s God’s generosity. When Karl was moved back to Texas, our friend Bob flew out to see him – Karl mentioned Bob specifically – and Karl got support from all quarters. He saw that as God at work, too, as God’s generosity.

Don’t talk about stewardship as if it’s about the church budget, he says. Please. Because it’s not. It’s about the lavish provision of Almighty God. Start with that. Then maybe you can talk about the budget as part of God’s work in the world.

Because God’s invitation to us – to us – to be a part of God’s generosity.

“Thank God for this gift, his gift. No language can praise it enough!”

Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church
Granville, Ohio

 

[1] Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed: A Love Story (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 137-141.

[2] Fred Kniss, review of The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose, Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, The Christian Century, April 15, 2015, 36-37.