The Value of Generosity
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Crazy Grace”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
October 27, 2019
Luke 21: 1-4
1He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2 he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4 for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
“The value of generosity,” … does generosity have any value in our culture today? We do not seem to value it much if at all going by too many headlines, movies, and political opinions. We seem to be lacking a generosity of spirit in relation to one another and in terms of actual charity. While the so-called “World War 2” generation gave billions to charity, my generation, the “baby-boomers” and succeeding generations have fallen far short of that mark. So does generosity have any value? To me there seems to be both a subjective and an objective response to that question.
Our Scripture lesson gives us a remarkable example of generosity. But there is more to the story than appears at first glance if you don’t understand the times this widow was living in, and take seriously the words of Jesus about her. The Scripture tells us Jesus sees a widow – remember that in Jesus’ time that meant someone with no family to support her financially, not only no husband, but no children or other family willing to care for her. He sees her put a coin in the offering box at the Temple and remarks that she gave her last coin. This sounds like it might be said as a commendation. And when Jesus adds that she gave the last coin she had to live on, that sounds like he is exaggerating to make a point, but perhaps he isn’t. Perhaps she is giving her actual last coin she had to live on and is going home to die? And in the very next passage, when the disciples comment on how beautiful the Temple is, Jesus responds that it won’t be long until not a stone of it will be left standing one upon the other. Such a comment puts her sacrifice in a light that asks the question, was her act one of generosity or of resignation? Is Jesus’ comment a commendation on her act or a criticism of a religious system that demanded a person’s last coin, leaving them to die, while not doing a thing to help her? That is what many of the Biblical prophets said about the Temple and its priests in the years before Jesus.
All that said, all those questions raised, don’t seem to help my case in appealing to you to give your money to the church, does it? The Finance and Facility Core Ministry members are right now thinking I have lost my mind and maybe it’s time to declare the pulpit vacant and find a better preacher! But many of the same critiques of religion can be and have been made about the Church - large “C” - today. You have televangelists that go on air declaring their need, not for one private jet – they already have one - but for a second private jet. You have the political declarations supporting specific candidates of the Catholic Church and the Fundamentalist-Evangelical churches that plainly violate the laws of our nation. You have churches that have lost their way and do little to serve their communities.
I can say all this without fear, because we do serve our community, far beyond the size of our congregation or budget, in ways that demonstrate your generosity. I can say it because, even though I will follow the Biblical prophets and continue to speak critically of governments based on sound Biblical demands, but I will not speak for any partisan candidate. I can say this because I might have a nice car, but I certainly don’t come before you demanding money for any jet, let alone a second one. OK, that’s an easy one, but you get my point, right? One reason I still believe in generosity is because of you.
Your giving has made a tremendous difference in our community. Boys who are at risk receive gift cards that remind them to be generous to others. Families that have no house have safe places to stay because of your generosity, and once they find permanent housing the example you set inspires them to give back to Family Promise as volunteers. Hundreds of teens who commit silly, nonviolent acts have been diverted from a lifetime criminal record and jail time because you stood up to our Sheriff and State Attorney and demanded that they give these children civil citations instead of arrest records. The teens learned a different way to live their lives and in gratitude they become contributing citizens who reach their potential instead of criminals who benefit the “for-profit” prison system but no one else. In so doing you have saved the city over $2.2 million dollars in just one year.
These are some of the objective ways I believe the value of generosity is important. So while I believe that my giving and your giving are important I would never presume to stand up here and suggest the widow’s actions are a model for us to copy I will say – we can all do more together. Right now I am going to speak about the internal needs of the church, even though those aren’t the most important or most obvious. Many of you give and give – time and money. But the problem is that it is many of the same people. I have said this before, but I want to challenge those of you who have not stepped up to help with the things that help us do all the things we do as a church. We don’t pay a janitor to clean the church or do set up of tables and chairs. Right now two men – Rich and Herman- show up every Monday and do 90% of the “fix-it,” “set-it-ups,” and general custodial duties. We used to have a lot more, but most of those folks have died or moved away and we need more of you to step up and come in, even if it isn’t every week. We have a Worship Core Ministry that was intended to help make sure our worship was creative, fresh, inspiring, faithful, authentic and meaningful but we haven’t been able to get anyone to serve on it for years now! Come on, there isn’t anyone who cares about our worship that isn’t already serving on one or more of our Core Ministries? We have a Membership Growth Core Ministry that is charged with helping care for the people who are already here, and help us find ways to draw more people here and welcome them when we do. We haven’t been able to get anyone to serve on that Core Ministry for years. No one cares about caring for our current members or about helping find and welcome new members? We have even tried asking people to serve for 3 or 4 months in a rotating way but we can’t get anyone. So an extra “kudos” to those of you who ARE serving on our Mission, Faith Formation and Fellowship, and our Finance and Facility Core Ministries, many of whom do double duty and also serve on our Council. As the Bible verse says, “I am too proud to beg and too weak to dig,” but can I get anyone to step forward as a steward of our church’s mission and ministry and help in these ways? Later in the Gospel of Luke, [22: 24- 26], Jesus gives the definition of greatness – one that is the complete opposite of certain current definitions of greatness – when the disciples were in a dispute “as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25But Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.’” We need those who are wanting to be great in Christ’s eyes by serving to help us serve others.
I believe in the value of generosity too, because I know that there is much that we still need to do as a community of faith, to serve our community in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior. We live in a community that is the murder capital of Florida – again! Gun violence and crime are a real problem but there are solutions, if we work together. The Duval County jail is the largest “mental health” care provide in our county, sadly. That means the care is little more than giving them whatever medications sedate them so that they are easier to handle. It doesn’t mean treatment in the sense of increasing their well-being. This too can change if we work together to press for better solutions. For a single mother with two children the average cost of renting a 2 bedroom apartment in Jacksonville would require her to work 80 hours a week at current minimum wage just to pay rent. By the way, Jacksonville is more expensive than 73% of the state when it comes to rental housing. These are issues we are going to vote on tomorrow night at our Community Problems Assembly. Will you be there to make a difference? This is another way to be generous – to care about the needs of others even when it isn’t “our problem.”
Micah’s Backpack helps school children who face food insecurity on the weekend when there is no free lunch. We are already feeding almost 150 children here in the Arlington area but I am told that is less than half those in need. Micah’s Backpack has a goal of feeding at least 200 by 2020. Your generosity has made it possible to feed those we are feeding. We could do more if more of us were able to increase our generosity. Family Promise is increasing the ways it serves those at risk of being “houseless” before they lose their current housing. Your generosity makes this possible. They are being proactive as well as reactive to the need for affordable housing.
So objectively the value of generosity is the difference between life and death for some people, the difference between homelessness and hunger for others or a safe place to live and the sure knowledge that the next meal is coming. The objective value of generosity is measurable in lives, and in quality of lives for many. Many of you live at or near the poverty line, so I am not saying this to make you or those who give a lot to the church feel guilty. I never believe in guilt as a value in motivating generosity. But the reason I call this “stewardship growth emphasis season” is I believe our faith challenges us to ask ourselves how we are doing
Let me share a subjective personal perspective on this. For a lot of my life I always thought everyone else had more than me and I am still tempted to think that I never have enough. But a while back I made a decision that I wanted to feel generous. Now, Tammy and I have always tithed 10% of our income since we’ve been married. But I try hard to find ways to say yes when someone asks for what you may say is a rather selfish reason – I want to feel like I am a generous person. Now that doesn’t mean I go around throwing hundred dollar bills at every person who asks. I still have to be a good steward – a wise manager of what God has given me – but I take the approach that I WANT to give if I can and what I can when I can. I don’t say this is supposed to be your attitude. I am just sharing one subjective reason why I value generosity. Each of us has to decide how we value generosity.
Let me close by saying a word of reminder about God’s generosity. It seems to me a lot of people act like they think God “has it in” for them. That God is “out to get them,” to cause them to suffer – for reasons they think they deserve it, or for no reason at all in their minds – but I believe the testimony of the Bible is that, instead, God has “a thing” for us, as we sometimes say about two lovers. Think about it. This incredible creation filled with beauty and bounty for our lives is a gift from God. Our lives, filled with blessings of love, opportunities to make meaningful lives, is a gift from God. When we are spiritually in need God longs to fill our souls, heal our hearts, strengthen our faltering spirits. When we have done wrong, instead of seeking to punish us, as far too many preachers have preached over the years, God isn’t waiting to smite us, God is waiting to forgive us, to help us turn away from whatever we have done wrong and begin again down the right path. That’s the generosity of our God. That’s the way God values generosity. How do you value generosity? How can you grow as a steward of God’s generosity? These are the questions I invite you to ask yourself, as I ask myself, too. AMEN.