Monday, May 12, 2014

Spontaneous or Sustainable Generosity?

It must have been a heady and exciting time to be a follower of Jesus in Jerusalem during those early weeks after the Resurrection.  Rumor that Jesus was alive spread like soft butter on hotcakes.  The Apostles, fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit, could not stop preaching and teaching and healing.  Already thousands of people had been converted and baptized.  No one knew exactly what the future held, but certainly it included the Risen Christ inaugurating some kind of kingdom on earth in the very near future.  Everything would be much clearer then, but in the mean time, the disciples felt compelled to convert as many people as possible.

During this exhilarating period, the last thing any one was thinking about was long-term planning, probably because no one believed there would be a long term.  The faithful were living day-to-day and moment-to-moment.  Given their mindset, it is easy to understand their attitude around material possessions.  It was springtime in Jerusalem and most certainly there would be no need again for winter coats.  Whatever Jesus was going to do, certainly it would happen well before the weather turned cold.  Why not sell your coats and give the money to the poor?  In fact, why not sell just about everything you have and give it to the poor?  What better way could there be to prepare for Jesus’ immanent return?  Surely his words spoken long ago now echoed in their heads and generated an enthusiastic urgency: “Take no extra coat and no extra sandals no extra bag with you as you go to the do the work of an evangelist.” 

A kind of spontaneous generosity swept through the ranks.  Listen again to what we heard moments ago from the reading from the Book of Acts:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

What an amazing time that must have been.  No one seemed to have a care in the world as they waited for the Risen Christ to do something.  It was as if everyone was on a retreat together – worshiping, praying, sharing meals, relaxing, being filled with a sense of well-being and good will.  Earning a living?  Not a problem.  Paying the bills?  That won’t be necessary ever again.  Maxing out the credit card?  That won’t be a problem when Jesus’ new order arrives.

Think about what a great time we could have here at St. Paul’s if we all went home, liquidated our assets, sold our property and possessions, and simply decided to hang out together.  Think about how many other people would join our fellowship if we opened it up to them.  Think about the response we would get it we spread the word that there was a free cookout tonight at 5:00.  Think about the response we would get if we invited everyone back for breakfast (with bacon) in the morning.  Heck, if we all could live off the accumulated wealth we through into the pot and invited everyone to join our ranks, I’ll bet folks would even be willing to kick back for an hour or two each day and listen to me teach and preach.  And if – if – I could toss in some miraculous healings for good affect, well, we would be a going concern!

I am sure you see the fatal flaw in this plan.  No, it is not that no one here would liquidate everything to fund a wonderful communal experience.  The fatal flaw is that each and every one of us would wonder what would happen when the money ran out.  That is not something that was on the minds of the Apostles and all those early converts.

In short order, believers were selling everything they had and giving it to the disciples.  At the end of Acts 4 we read for the first time about a follower named Barnabas.  He sells a field he owns and lays the proceeds as the feet of the Jerusalem Apostles.  From there he will eventually accompany the yet-to-be-converted Paul on missionary journeys around the Mediterranean.  They will found Christian churches in various communities and nurture them from infancy, though growing pains, and into viability.  And Barnabas was just one of many converts who gave away everything gratefully and joyfully.

But, as we turn the page to the 5th chapter of the Book of Acts, we encounter Ananias and Sapphira, and husband and wife recently baptized.  They wanted to follow the example of others and so they sold everything they had.  But for reasons unspecified, when Ananias comes before Peter to make his offering, he holds back some of the proceeds.  Peter, perceiving what is going on, proclaims that Satan has entered into Ananias’ heart and the next thing you know the reluctant giver is stricken dead.  When his wife comes to check out what has happened, she too attempts to conceal that they did not give every penny they had and dies on the spot.  In what might be one of the most understated verses in the bible, after this takes place Scripture records “great fear fell among all the believers.”  You can be sure it led to a dramatic uptick of generous and abundant giving. 

You may suspect that another shoe is about to drop and you are right.  Here it comes.  Jesus does not return in a way that inaugurates a new order.  Eventually (and more quickly than many would suspect) the assets collected by the Apostles ran out.  Jesus’ followers were broke.  The bible doesn’t say much about this, but it does record that a great famine comes over Palestine and that this puts the church in Jerusalem in dire straights.  St. Paul initiates a great undertaking by trying to raise funds from all the churches he has founded to supply relief for the suffering.  Most of his New Testament letters in one way or another implore believes to respond as they are able. 

Out of all of this, I want to lift up a tension we all live with: the tension between spontaneous (and perhaps lavish) generosity verses what I want to call sustainable generosity. 

You can scarcely go through a week without being compelled to make an act of spontaneous generosity: “Would you like to round up your change to help cause X?”, “Can you please do something to help me with my light bill?”, or a placard that reads “Homeless and need money for food.”  Spontaneous generosity typically presents us with a single, immediate way to meet a need that generally we know little or nothing about.  It plays on a particular emotion – not righteous indignation about a situation we find abhorrent, or passionate support for a worthy cause, but just straight, plain guilt.  Spontaneous generosity never addresses the problem, it only puts a Band-Aid on the need, assuaging – temporarily – our sense of guilt that we have more than we need when confronted by a person who has such obvious need.  That is not always a bad thing, but is there a better way?

What does sustainable generosity look like?  Well, first off, it looks like me giving in a way that does not exhaust my personal resources.  It allows me to take care of my basic needs in a way that the early Church model failed to do.  Second, it looks like me being generous.  I can take care of my ‘needs’ and even many of my ‘wants’ in a manner that still leaves me with significant resources to share with others.  The biblical model of the tithe suggests that 10% is a good benchmark.  Sustainable generosity is never born of guilt.  It is born of obedience to Christ’s call to care for others.  It is born of a belief in justice and in equity for all people.  And it is born in a belief that I can, through the power of my actions and the appropriation of my resources, make the world a more just place for every person.

I think about the Haitian mother of four who will receive a micro-finance grant from our Lenten offering.  I think about how she will use that money to purchase sheep and a weaving loom.  I think about how she will create products that she can sell at market and how that money will help her to provide food, medicine, and education for her children.  And, because in that society, a little bit goes a long way, she will be able to reach out in love and concern for her neighbors in material ways she could not before.  I think about her and how little it cost you and me to make it happen and I want to hit the reset button.  I want to say we have only dipped our toe in the water and in doing so discovered that the water feels nice.  Let’s keep going.  What’s next?  How do we begin to bring the idea and methodology of sustainable generosity to downtown Suffolk?

Bill and Ginger Rodgers have figured out one thing.  They helped to initiate a program where children with learning challenges can read to therapy dogs.  What a great idea!  In fact, it was such a great idea that when they launched the program absolutely no one came to benefit from it.  They talked to the library and got nowhere.  They talked to the school board and – shockingly – got nowhere.  But here is the greatest shock of all… they and their partners did not give up and finally they are starting to make some inroads.  Don’t I remember a fantastic preacher in this very pulpit once saying “God can’t make much use of quitters!”?   I think I do.

Today we observe two calendar events.  Liturgically, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday.  Our collect and lessons focus of the image of Jesus as shepherd in our lives.  Today is also Mothers’ Day.  Shepherds and mothers are wonderful images of sustainable generosity, don’t you think.  They teach us much about how to care for self while being constantly oriented toward the care of others.  They remind us through their roles in life that living for self alone is no way to live.  They embody the words of St. Francis’ Prayer that it is in giving we receive. 

Let’s spend some time in thought and conversation thinking about the difference between spontaneous generosity and sustainable generosity and how we might move from one to the other in our lives.