The Spiritual Practice of Generosity

 

St John’s 24th March 2019

Readings – Acts 20:31-38 and Matthew 6:19-24

A little girl was given two dollars by her Dad. He told her that should could do anything that she wanted with one and that the other was to be given to God on Sunday at church. The girls nodded in agreement and asked if she could go to the dairy. With visions of all that she could buy with her dollar, she happily skipped toward the dairy, holding tightly to the two, one-dollar coins in her hand. As she was skipping along, she tripped and fell and one of the dollars rolled into a storm drain at the curb. Picking herself up and dusting herself off, the little girl looked at the dollar still in her hand and then at the storm drain and said: “Well, Lord, there goes your dollar.”

This joke as silly as it is unveils a truth – many of us actually think like that little girl. It’s simply a default setting. Life in a consumer society revolves around what we produce and what we buy, and the more money you have in such a setting the better.

We are discipled by economics and marketing to hold tightly on to what we have. Don’t let it go.

Jesus said, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.”

These words still cut to the core of us don’t they.

This statement probes our hearts and examines our motives. What if we were to ask this question of where our treasure is and what that reveals about our hearts? What if we asked this question of our society?

What do we value collectively?

The Christian community is not immune to the economics of the world. After all, practically speaking it all makes sense.

Jesus tells us a story of a man who stores up all his harvest, his wealth, in a barn all for himself. In light of our commonly accepted economic model we would say to him: “Well done, how diligent, what a clever guy, seems practical and prudent.” Jesus calls him a fool.[1] It’s clear from the outset then that God’s economics and ours are often at odds.

In fact, greed is perhaps the most commonly ignored sin in Christian churches. We like to highlight all kinds of sins, often obsessing about the first 9 commandments, yet we often forget the 10th – “do not covet.”

We live in a world in which we are constantly actively invited to covet. We are actively invited to compare what we have with one another and to lust for more. We are invited by advertisers to put ourselves and what we need at the centre of the universe.

And Jesus in his most famous sermon says that in doing this we are only storing up treasure for it to succumb to decay and rust. The teacher in Ecclesiastes pointed out the futility of this when he says:

“Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”[2]

We are in the midst of the season of Lent. We have been looking together at spiritual practices that draw us into deeper relationship with God. Today we are exploring the spiritual practice of generosity. Traditionally Lent is a time of encouraging giving alms – of giving to the poor and the needy and the work of the church in proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed.

The Christian practice of giving is a practice that shakes up our assumptions about economics. It inverts our greed and turns our focus outward toward God and our neighbours.

Today I want to ask the question – why should we be generous, and more particularly why should we give money to God? Why is this practice of bringing offerings so important?

Many have critiqued the church for wanting people’s money and using it in unethical ways. Certainly, the past has its own examples – we may think of the indulgences of the 16th century in which masses of largely poor people were manipulated by the church to pay for spiritual favours.

But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give or that we shouldn’t talk about it. This certainly doesn’t undermine the Biblical reasons we should give, it is just simply another example of human folly and greed.

So why give? I want to highlight 3 reasons why giving generously is an essential spiritual practice.

1) Giving to God is an act of worship.

2) Giving to God reorients our hearts

3) Giving to God’s work brings transformation to society.

Firstly, Giving to God is an act of worship

“Were the whole realm of nature mine,

that were an offering far too small.

Love so amazing, so divine,

demands my soul, my life, my all”

When I survey the wondrous cross by Isaac Watts points us to the fact that God’s generosity in the gift of his Son Jesus is the basis for all of our generosity.

Giving is an appropriate response to God’s grace.

Right throughout the Bible God’s people were called to be give their best to God – to give their time, money, and talent to serving Him.

God doesn’t need our money, but when we are moved to worship God with all we’ve got, generosity with our cash is part of our worship.

Secondly, Giving to God reorients our hearts and aligns them toward God’s heart of compassion and love. It turns us outward.

In today’s reading Jesus talks about two kinds of eyes. They are translated as the healthy and the unhealthy eye in many of our English translations. According to some commentators another way we can translate it is the contrast between the “generous eye” and the “stingy eye”

We all know the difference between these two outlooks. One is exemplified in Ebeneezer Scrooge, calculating and mean. For the stingy eye there is never enough to go around. The stingy eye is quick to see the lack. The generous eye is different.

The generous eye knows that “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” We find blessing in giving. This is not the prosperity gospel version which makes the motivation for giving the idea of being blessed in return. Rather it is a reality that when we get caught up in God’s economics we are blessed beyond measure. Our gratitude increases and our love for God and others deepens. As we give our hearts are changed, our eyes see the world not through stinginess but rather through abundance.

Third, Giving to God’s work brings transformation to society.

- Christianity has a long history of generosity and giving and it has transformed the world.

In the ancient world Christians were generally admired for their generosity. In fact, one Roman Emperor Julian was thoroughly cheesed off that the Christians were so well known for this. He tried to set up a competing system of philanthropy throughout the Roman Empire that encouraged generosity through the government.

It didn’t quite catch on and Christians continued to become famous for their care of the poor, their sharing of resources and their social imagination which gave people hope.

-Giving reminds us we are all part of the work. It reinforces that it is all our responsibility to partner with God in his kingdom work in the world. The danger of institutions is that they can relocate the responsibility from all of us to a professional class of clergy or Christian workers.

1) Giving to God is an act of worship.

2) Giving to God reorients our hearts

3) Giving to God’s work brings transformation to society.

WHERE DO WE START?

So, how might we become more generous?

Jesus was incredibly practical about this. He invites us to begin with the practice. His famous sermon in Matthew invites us to be doers not just hearers of the Word. We can’t uproot the problem of greed and stinginess within ourselves, but we can start by giving and seeing how our hearts follow.

Pastor David Roseberry talking about greed says:

“But if I cannot uproot it … I can displace it. Why? Because if greed exists in the mind and the heart, it can be displaced by its positive counterpart, generosity. Indeed, as we will see, greed, or covetousness, is a vice, and generosity is the only way to displace it. The benefit of a virtue is that once it takes up residence in the human consciousness, it begins to effect change. It rearranges the furniture of our mental and emotional dwelling, and by the time it has finished its redecorating project, there is no room left for greed and covetousness.”[3]

So, it starts with simply taking up the regular practice of giving generously. This practice will steadily and surely push greed out of our hearts.

The Bible gives some tips on how to practice giving well.

The Bible invites us to give joyfully and it invites us to give sacrificially.

2 Corinthians 9:7 says – “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

Deuteronomy 26:1-2

"When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name."

In the context of a farming community, the crops would be ready at a certain point in the season. It would make sense to us to bring the harvest in and then decide how much you can give from the whole lot.

This isn’t what the people are called to do by God. Rather they are called to give the first fruits. This is bringing in the first part of the harvest without knowing how big it will be. The principle is not to give the surplus of what we have but to give sacrificially.

The principle is that giving will cost something, it is sacrificial, and it will change the way we live. As Timothy Keller puts it, its as if God says: “I don’t want you to give your leftovers, I want you to give your first overs.”[4]

It makes sense that Biblical generosity should cost us something and it should be a joyful action because the one we worship Jesus gave the costliest gift to us with joy – he secured our salvation with his very life.[5]

When we understand this deep within our hearts there is nothing, we can give that can fully express our gratitude and desire. That’s exactly the point – God’s grace is a gift. We aren’t compelled to give anything back, rather when we experience the gift of God’s great love for us in Jesus there is nothing that can stop it flowing out in our lives.

The spiritual practice of generosity is grounded first and foremost in this – “For God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son.” May we practice generosity as a loving response to God’s love for us and as we do may our hearts be changed that our love for God and our love for our neighbours will grow. Amen.

[1] Luke 12:13-21

[2] Ecclesiastes 2:10-11

[3] Roseberry, David. Giving Up: How Giving to God Renews Hearts, Changes Minds, And Empowers Ministry . New Vantage Books. Kindle Edition.

[4] This reflection from Deuteronomy is thanks to Timothy Keller’s sermon “Generosity in Scarcity: preaced on 14/11/2016 and can be found on podcast at: https://www.podbean.com/media/share/dir-hyr3e-1e2b32f - It’s well worth a listen.

[5] “For the joy set before him he endured the cross” (Hebrews 12)

 
Josh Taylor