October 23, 2016, First Presbyterian Church of Holt
Several years ago I worked with “Group Workcamps,” an organization that coordinates and runs home repair mission camps for youth groups around the country. These camps are usually housed in community schools, with the youth and their leaders going out each day to work on homes in the community. When I was working with a camp on an Arapaho Reservation in Wyoming we stayed in a school that had summer school while we were there. One of the summer school students came up to me one day while the youth were away and wanted to know what we were doing in her school. I explained that there were about 250 people staying in the school that were doing home repair in her community. She said, “Oh, so it’s like a job. They’re getting paid.” And I said, “No, actually they did fundraising in their homes and are paying to be here and to help.” She looked at me, head tilted to the side, and declared, “That’s weird,” and walked away.
It made me think. In a sense she was right. It is weird to travel perhaps hundreds of miles with a group of high schoolers to go and paint a house, or repair a porch, or build a wheelchair ramp. It is weird to sleep on an air mattress in a high school for a week when you could be comfortably at home in your own bed.
Thinking of this from the perspective of that girl from this neighborhood, it’s very possible that she can’t even imagine having enough money and free time to be able to give it away like that. When you are barely scraping by, mission work and financial giving is an uncomfortable and risky stretch.
All of the parts of this experience could be seen as very weird indeed on their own, but the point of that Workcamp experience was not sleeping on the floor or even really the home repair itself. The point was responding to God’s call to serve, giving what we had to give. Allowing youth to experience firsthand the joy and benefits of putting others before yourself, encouraging lifelong patterns of selflessness and generosity.
On the surface it seems like giving of our time and money is indeed quite weird. Why should others receive what we have worked for? Our money, our energy, our free time. Ours, ours, ours, mine, mine, mine. I’m reminded of the seagulls in Finding Nemo, “mine, mine, mine,” swooping and diving with crazed desire to be the one to eat that particular fish. They all want to claim it as theirs, devour it on their own.
We, however have a different understanding of “mine.”The money, energy, and even free time that we have are not ours to claim, but they are gifts given by God. We are stewards of what God has given us. Extending those gifts to others expands the reaches of God’s work here on earth, and enables those in need to see Christ’s hands and feet at work in the world. When we give as we can we are reflecting the image of God within us, our God of abundant love and generosity.
But it is not just those in need that experience the joy of this generosity, Matthew 25:37-46 tells us of how our giving honors and delights God’s own self. This passage reads: “the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This passage is rather explicit about the the benefits of caring for those in need, eternal life with God, as well as the penalty for ignoring those whom God has called you to care for, which is is eternal punishment. Read that to someone unfamiliar with church and they will really think you’re weird! Thankfully we don’t need to wait until our afterlife to experience the benefits of generosity.
Professor Christian Smith and Doctoral Candidate Hilary Davidson, both of the University of Notre Dame, wrote a book reflecting on these benefits, called “The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose.” It seems so nonsensical, giving what we have would seem to produce a deficit, but that seems to not be the case. In this book, Smith and Davidson wrote, “the results of generosity are often… unexpected, counterintuitive, win-win. Rather than generosity producing net losses, in general, the more generously people give of themselves, the more of many goods they receive in turn. Sometimes they receive more of the same kind of thing that they gave – money, time, attention, and so forth. But, more often and importantly, generous people tend to receive back goods that are often more valuable than those they gave: happiness, health, a sense of purpose, and personal growth.” This discovery came about through quite a bit of statistical analysis, proving empirically that increased generosity increases our likelihood of happiness, health, contentment, fulfillment, and feeling close to God.
“By grasping onto what we currently have,” Smith writes, “we lose out on better goods that we might have gained. In holding onto what we possess, we diminish its long-term value to us. By always protecting ourselves against future uncertainties and misfortunes, we are affected in ways that make us more anxious about uncertainties and vulnerable to future misfortunes. In short, by failing to care for others, we do not properly take care of ourselves. It is no coincidence that the word ‘miser’ is etymologically related to the word ‘miserable.’” It may seem then that generosity is the cure not the cause for financial anxiety and protective hoarding.
If you spend any time on Twitter you will have likely seen the hashtag blessed. For those unfamiliar with Twitter, hashtags are a word or phrase begun with the pound sign and function as way to provide a topic or category. The hashtag blessed is often filled with pictures celebrating material wealth or personal achievements. If we only used secular media as our guide for showing us the blessed life, we would think that the end game to life was to accumulate as much money, things, and accolades as we can.
In this last phrase of our passage today, “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” the word “blessed” in the original Greek is makarios. It doesn’t really translate fully but using the word blessed. Makar is the basic word for blessed, but makarios is more expansive, meaning supremely blessed, fortunate, or well off.
This type of “well off” is very different from that of Twitter’s #blessed, the blessedness coming from generosity is rooted in love, spurring a wealth of joy, compassion, hope, contentment, and interconnectivity.
When I look around this room I see a people who seek God’s blessedness. I’m not referring to any one’s bank account, but when I see all of you I see a supremely blessed, fortunate, and well-off crowd. I’ve seen you give prayer shawls and meals in times when life becomes complicated. I’ve seen you contribute to fundraisers enabling our youth to serve God in the wider world. I’ve seen you step up and speak to one another about the joy of giving what you can in the capital campaign, planned giving, and annual stewardship campaigns. Your generosity in the tangible things in life have in turn made you wealthy in intangible ways.
Proverbs 11:24-28 says, “Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water. The people curse those who hold back grain, but a blessing is on the head of those who sell it. Whoever diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to the one who searches for it. Those who trust in their riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like green leaves.”
If we live our lives to give to others, will it be considered weird? Yep. Will it be difficult? Probably. Will it be fulfilling? Without a doubt. Alleluia. Amen.