Sixth Sunday of Thanksgiving
Last week we reflected upon what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Plain, which is found in Luke’s Gospel. A similar passage in Matthew’s Gospel is called the Sermon on the Mount. And this is that time during our church year when I get to preach the sermon on the “amount” . As many of you know, I’m fond of what I perceive to be clever titles for my sermons, and I think today’s is actually pretty good, but I resisted the temptation to use as today’s title one of those bulletin bloopers I came across recently. It seems that in his enthusiasm to invite others to follow his example, a Stewardship Committee Chair once titled his reflections, “I Upped Mine; Up Yours!” Kind of says it all, doesn’t it? Yet it’s difficult to hear what might be the genuine combination of witness and invitation to increased generosity in these words, given that we live in a culture all too adept at a much more dismissive and even mean-spirited use of these same last two words. As I used to point out during my years of running a shelter for homeless men whenever I was asked to speak about our ministry, one of the primary reasons for the seeming intractability of poverty, hunger, and homelessness in this the wealthiest country the world has ever known is our profoundly un-Biblical, yet often religiously sanctioned, rugged individualism, crassly stated as, “I’ve got mine; up yours!” Ouch—so much for community responsibility with and for each other. Yet it may well be that precisely as the voices of this “worldly wisdom” of unbridled greed and self-centered disregard for the plight of others become increasingly shrill within our society, the “foolish” alternative wisdom of unrestricted generosity and other-centered commitment to the common good becomes likewise that much more important and transformational.
I’ve long been fascinated by the quintessential description of the life of the early church as recounted in the first part of our reading from the Book of Acts this morning, wherein they had replaced the distance inherent in the possession of private property with the community which arises out of having “all things in common,” so that their collective resources were distributed to everyone according to need, not greed, in such a way that no one had too much, and “there was not a needy person among them.” But I had not previously noticed that immediately upon the heels of this utopian vision of the world as God intends, comes the odd but disturbingly familiar story of Ananias and Sapphira. Apparently even in the midst of some of the most extravagantly generous sharing the church has ever known, there were still those so possessed by their possessions that they found themselves unable to participate fully in the shared life of the community. One humorous way that this affliction has been diagnosed is as “cirrhosis of the giver, an acute condition that renders the patient’s hand immobile when she or he is called upon to move it in the direction of the wallet or purse and then to the offering plate.” Those experienced in treating this condition have observed that its symptoms appear to be less crippling in non-church settings such as restaurants, department stores, or while on vacation. Nevertheless, spiritual (as opposed to conventional) wisdom has it that the only real cure for this debilitating heart condition is to open one’s heart to the reckless generosity of God’s unlimited love. As the fatal heart attacks of Ananias and Sapphira reveal, left untreated, this serious spiritual dis-ease poses significant dangers to the health and well-being of both individual members of the faith community, and to the community itself.
Now my guess is that all of us are somewhere along this spectrum between full and unfettered sharing of all we have, and holding back, storing up, or otherwise spending more than is good for us, thereby limiting our freedom and ability to be as generous as we would like. Thus, perhaps one way to think of our yearly church stewardship campaign is as our annual heart check-up, or spiritual physical. Ensconced as we are within a society which confuses making a living with making a life, affluence with joy, and material wealth with spiritual health, tending to value profit more than people, and accumulating more than giving, how blessed we are to have this opportunity each year to assess what matters most to us, to prayerfully discern whether our hearts are opening in love toward others or constricting in fear for ourselves, to take inventory as to what our check books reveal about our spiritual priorities. The particular lens through which we have been invited to look into our hearts this year has been inspired by one of my favorite movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” As nearly everyone knows, when George Bailey finds himself in what appears to be an insurmountable financial crisis, he speculates that the world would be better off if he had never been born. (As an aside, one of the reasons that my birthday calls often include the line, “we’re so glad that you were born,” is my firm conviction that our world is better precisely because each of us was born!) But back to our story. George’s guardian angel grants George his wish, so that he can see and feel just what a difference his life has made to others, and to himself as well.
For some time now, our denomination has been inviting us to imagine that another world is possible, a world more like the peaceable kin-dom envisaged in our reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah. For our purposes today, both now and as part of our conversation following worship this morning, as well as during our prayerful discernment as to how much of our financial resources we feel called to pledge in support of the ministry of this faith community for the coming year, let’s try to imagine what our lives, and even our world, would be like if the Meriden Congregational Church had never been born. If the Meriden Congregational Church as we know it, both as a building and as a faith community, simply did not exist, what difference would its nonexistence make? What would be missing in our lives? How would this community, and even our world, be different without the physical and spiritual presence lo these past 220 years of the Meriden Congregational Church? Is it even possible for us fully to imagine such a world? And of course, more to the point, how would we feel about living in such a world? For George Bailey, the experience of seeing his world without himself in it is so powerful (“you see, George, you really did have a wonderful life”) that all his fear and dismay concerning his financial woes is transformed into a passionate plea to his guardian angel to “get me back, Clarence. I want to live. I want to live again!” In response to imagining life without our church, might we not have a similar experience with regard to this year’s stewardship appeal, moving us from whatever sense of burden we might feel concerning being asked for more money, to an impassioned paraphrase of George’s joyous affirmation—“bring it (our church) back, God. We want to give. We want to give again!” J For indeed, we truly do have a wonderful church!
So how are our hearts doing this year? Precisely because our culture’s obsession with money as that which defines our worth and taunts us with the delusion that we never have enough tends to infect us with a resistance to talking about money in church and a some times less than enthusiastic response to issues of stewardship, this annual spiritual tune-up is one of the greatest gifts our church offers us. Affirming the profoundly counter-cultural wisdom that we make a life more by what we give than by what we get, Jesus spoke about money and our relationship to it more than any other topic except for the kin-dom of God. Ever seeking to remind us of the boundless generosity at the heart of the God in whose image have each been created, Jesus repeatedly called his followers to the radical freedom and abundant joy of letting go and giving away, of losing the thing-oriented life which the world values in order to experience more fully the person/relationship/community-oriented life which matters to God. In this sense, therefore, every decision to give is both an expression of gratitude for all the ways in which we have been given unto, as well as a bold and joy-filled act of liberating resistance to the powers that would have us remain hard-hearted and close-fisted toward the needs of others, whether in pursuit of greater material comfort and/or out of fear for our own financial security.
Spiritually speaking, this notion that to know generosity is to know joy, or alternatively, no generosity, no joy, is not news, though it continues to have a hard time being fully embraced and lives within a world so myopically focused on consuming and accumulating. Yet similar wisdom is lately arising from the world of science as well, particularly in the form of what’s being called the “new cosmology.” As physicist Brian Swimme writes in his book, The Universe is a Green Dragon, “the ground of being is generosity. The ultimate source of al that is, the support and well of being, is Ultimate Generosity….It was out of the dynamic of cosmic celebration that we were created in the first place. We are to become celebration and generosity….We are Generosity-of-Being evolved into human form.” Wow—no wonder it feels so good to give, and is so good for us, and for our world, when we do so! Perhaps this is also why this is true regardless of one’s financial situation. For just as there is no more powerful antidote to the corrosive effects of greed upon those who have accumulated much than to indulge and honor our heart-felt desire to give away, perhaps nowhere better illustrated than that miserable old miser Ebenezer Scrooge turned lavish lover on Christmas morning, as he gleefully jumps up and down on his bed, so giddy has he become with the joy of his new-found generosity, so too do those who work with the deeply indebted often emphasize some form of giving away as part of any plan for recovering economic stability and a sense of their own spiritual and fiscal well-being.
And so here we are again within the life of our church, once more invited to assess both the importance of this faith community to our own faith journeys, as well as to reassess our own spiritual well-being and/or commitment to spiritual growth in light of how free we feel to embody our God-given generosity through our own giving priorities. For our family a transformative moment occurred some years ago when we shifted from first projecting our annual budget, and then discerning what level of pledging we might be able to afford, to first prayerfully discerning what level of pledging might most fully allow us to feel good and generous about our giving, and then seeking to budget around our remaining resources. Incredibly, even though our income had not changed, our level of pledging rose dramatically as a result of this discernment process. To be sure, fully embracing our family’s giving is an on-going journey for us, as illustrated recently when Erin asked me what I would do if I won a million dollars. With the ease of one for whom such an event seems highly unlikely, I casually replied that I would probably give most of it away. Aghast, our double minister daughter decried, “do you want to be poor all your life?” Hm, and where might she be getting the notion that we are “poor?” Yet another transformative moment for us, as we realized that to respond to spending requests by saying “we can’t afford that,” implies our hapless victim hood as folk of limited means. Thus, as a family we are now growing into owning that while we could afford to pay for more activities or purchase more “stuff” than we do, we nevertheless choose to limit this use of our resources so as to be able to be more generous in support our church’s ministry. For us this has become a way to be even more intentional about knowing and celebrating the joy of our generosity.
Therefore, rather than being a sermon on the “amount” that we should each give in support of our church’s ministry, may these reflections be a resource for us all in discerning what amount feels most faithful and generous for us this year. Only we can make this decision, but let us recall that we are not alone in doing so. For the One whose in whose heart there is a wideness of generosity yearning to be shared by each of us beckons us to know its joy yet more fully than ever before. To be sure, some of us may be experiencing financial circumstances that simply preclude increasing or even maintaining our pledge from last year. Times such as these remind us that it is not the size of the gift but the openness of our hearts that mattes to God, as well as affirming for us how blessed we are to be part of a community wherein the joy of generosity is shared by all of us regardless of the particular amount we are able to pledge ourselves. Yet despite the distance between our current reality and that of the early church sharing of all things in common, what steps can each of us take to move us even a little closer to such mutual commitment to the common good? For Susan and myself, an enriching spiritual discipline of generosity has been to settle upon an amount that feels good and manageable, and then to pray about and challenge ourselves to stretch yet a little further. Whether this is the year for any of us to increase our pledge significantly or slightly, whether this year’s challenge for us will be simply to maintain last year’s level of giving, or whether we will need to pledge less this year than last, may our reflections upon how much this church means to us inspire us “to give and give and give again” as we are able, and may each of us know anew the joy of our generosity both as individuals and as members of this wonderful church which we are so blessed to share with each other, and with all God’s people near and far.