Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 2, 2006 delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, at Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
“Open Your Hand”
I’d like to say a few words about generosity. It’s a topic that made headlines this week when Warren E. Buffett announced that he would give 31 billion dollars to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the foundation’s effort to find cures for the world’s 20 leading fatal diseases — including a vaccine for HIV/AIDS — and to ensure that every American has a chance at a decent education. I’ve been trying to imagine what it might be like to have $31 billion – to experience that sense of fullness, wealth, abundance, and plenty – and then to give the money away so that it could go to work in the world to heal the sick and to bring life and hope to the poorest of the poor. I don’t know what Warren Buffett has been feeling this week but what I want to imagine he’s feeling is joy. I imagine him sensing a fresh sense of connection with the poor – and actually with the whole human race – for he has stepped beyond the bounds of his own small self, past that tendency to hoard and hold back and look out for Number 1, and has opened his hands to share himself and his possessions with those in need.
As far as I know it’s unlikely that any of us in this room has had – or ever will have — $31 billion to give away. But generosity is a powerful energy and it seems increasingly clear to me that one of the best ways to navigate these turbulent times, when so many people are so justifiably anxious about so many things, is to cultivate a spirit of generosity within ourselves, our community, and in our country as a whole.
Generosity is obviously a basic value of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it runs like a thread through three of today’s four readings. The passage from Deuteronomy is an extended meditation on the importance of giving generously to the poor. “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
The psalm picks up the theme, declaring that “Light shines in the darkness for the upright; the righteous are merciful and full of compassion. It is good for them to be generous in lending and to manage their affairs with justice They have given freely to the poor, and their righteousness stands fast for ever; they will hold up their head with honor” [Psalm 112:4-5, 9].
The whole eighth chapter of Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians is an appeal to be generous to the church in Jerusalem, and in the excerpt that we heard this morning, Paul praises the churches of Macedonia for their exemplary generosity. “ During a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means” [2 Cor 8:2-3]. Paul goes on to say, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” [2 Cor 8:13-14]. And then Paul remembers from the Book of Exodus how God provided just the right amount of manna every day to feed the people in the wilderness, and he adds, “As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little'” [2 Cor 8:15].
I’d like to say 3 things about generosity.
1) True generosity begins with God. Even if we’ve worked very hard for every penny we own, everything we have – everything that is – is ultimately a gift from God: this breath, this moment in time and whatever moments we have until we die, our capacity to think and feel and remember and hope, the family and friends we’ve been given to love, the whole living breathing planet with its goldfinches and cougars, its foxes and salmon and birch trees – all of it is gift.
The generosity of the Creator flows into the generosity of the Redeemer, who in the act of self-emptying that we call the Incarnation, came down from heaven to become one of us, and gave himself to us on the cross so that we might share in his divine life. Here is how Paul puts it in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians: “ You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich [that is, equal to God], yet for your sakes he became poor [that is, human], so that by his poverty you might become rich” [2 Cor 8:9].
God is infinitely generous, and acts of Christian generosity spring from the grateful awareness of how much we’ve been given. At the same time, remembering the generosity of God can be a wonderful antidote to compulsive giving, the temptation to think that we have to give and give and give without asking for anything in return. As Henri Nouwen pointed out, “We may think that this is a sign of generosity or even heroism. But it might be little else than a proud attitude that says: ‘I don’t need help from others. I only want to give.'” (1) Knowing that generosity begins with God gives us grateful hearts and the humility to recognize that yes, we too, need to receive. Giving without receiving is like breathing out without breathing in. We won’t last long.
So that’s the first point: true generosity begins with God.
Here’s the second.
2) Authentic generosity expresses kinship. The root of the word “generosity” is the Latin word “genus,” which means “race, kind, or kin.” To be generous is to make others kin. This is a very different notion of generosity than what we might call patronage or noblesse oblige, in which a powerful person or group of people deigns to share a little of its abundance with the poor and dispossessed but does not experience, or want to experience, any direct contact with the poor. Giving in this spirit can actually function as a power play, in which the rich congratulate themselves on their supposed generosity, while the poor remain dependent and disempowered.
True generosity, it seems to me, expresses kinship. It recognizes that rich and poor alike are the beloved children of God, equally human and equally worthy of respect. Human societies tend to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a few and to relegate the poor to the margins, but a religious vision of our kinship with one another calls us to a generosity that inspires us to struggle for social and economic justice and not to settle for giving charity and handouts. And if generosity is all about kinship, maybe in this time of ecological devastation we’re ready to expand our notions of kin to include not just our two-legged relatives but also the four-legged kind, those with fins and those with wings.
Here on the brink the Fourth of July, I want to lift up some of the new social movements that are calling our country back to a vision of mutual generosity and interconnectedness. I think, for instance, of Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, a Christian progressive community in Washington, who just a few days ago launched what he calls “A Covenant for a New America,” whose goal is to overcome poverty with religious commitment and political leadership.
As Jim Wallis puts is, “Poverty is not a family value! If the gospel that we preach does not ‘bring good news to the poor,’ well then, it is simply not the gospel of Jesus Christ – and it is about time that we said that.” [www.sojo.net]
I think, also, of Rabbi Michael Lerner, founding editor-publisher of the liberal interfaith magazine Tikkun, who is forming a national interfaith initiative, The Network of Spiritual Progressives, whose goal, among other things, is to create a New Bottom Line for American society. The Old Bottom Line in this country, says The Network of Spiritual Progressives, is materialism and selfishness. The New Bottom Line that the Network wants to be build is “love, caring, generosity, kindness, ethical and ecological sensitivity, and awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation.” No small vision there!
And here’s my last point:
3) Generosity may be one of the key spiritual practices that can keep us sane and connected with Spirit in a time of turbulence and anxiety. Generosity has the power to ward off despair. I remember the response of some of you who came with me on Wednesday – almost 50 of you! – to watch Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” Many of us were shaken by the powerful images of melting glaciers and drowning polar bears, of disrupted seasonal cycles and intensifying droughts and storms. Is it too late to save the precious web of life that our species is so wantonly destroying? As Al Gore pointed out, when it comes to the ecological catastrophe already upon us, it can be easy to move directly from denial to despair.
I wonder if generosity is a practice that can guide our actions and help heal that despair. Skipping one car trip a week can be an act of generosity. So can deciding to walk or carpool or to ride a bike. Buying locally grown food can be an act of generosity, since the average bite of food travels something like a thousand miles – releasing who knows how many pounds of carbon along the way – before it reaches our lips. Replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents can be an act of generosity, as can reducing the use of our clothes dryer or air conditioner.
I do not know whether our individual and corporate acts of generosity will be enough to stop the most catastrophic effects of climate change, but I do know that when we are generous, we become a living sign of hope. When despair comes calling, I invite us to go back to point #1: true generosity begins with God. And so we turn to God and notice the gifts of the moment. We recall our belovedness to God in Christ and the power of the cross and resurrection. We let ourselves fill up again with the presence of the Holy Spirit and discover within ourselves an interior abundance and sense of plenty. What God has given each one of us is much more precious than billions of dollars!
We can also remember point #2: generosity expresses kinship, our connection to each other and to all beings. We are not alone.
Our gratefulness to God and our awareness of connection to all beings can help us re-connect with the flow of divine love. Generosity becomes possible again. And with every act of generosity, a little more love becomes visible in the world.
I am no easy optimist when it comes to solving climate change or any of the other daunting issues that beset us, but I do put my trust in the creative, redeeming, and sustaining love of God. In the words of the American poet, W.S. Merwin, “On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree.”
(1) Henri Nouwen, Bread for The Journey (HarperCollins, 1997)