Deuteronomy 15:1-11; 2Corinthians 8:1-15
Whenever Hope went to the farm and visit her grandmother, her Grandma would make delicious pork chops for dinner. They were Bishop Ward’s favorite meal—and she would look forward to them weeks in advance. There was a routine that happened every time she went. After grace her grandma would put two thin sliced pork chops on everyone’s plate. Bishop Ward, as a young girl, would polish them off in no time and just as she was wishing she had more, her Grandma, who had only eaten one porkchop in that same amount of time would push her plate away from her and say, “I am so full. I don’t think I could possibly eat my second porkchop. Hope, would you eat it for me?” and with a wide smile she would gladly oblige and eat a third porkchop. One day a man knocked at the door in the late afternoon asking if there was something they needed doing around the house. Grandma thought for a minute about any chores she had been saving for an opportunity like this and put the man to work, telling him that she would be glad to feed him for his time. This got Hope anxious. The porkchops were already thawing on the counter. In a time before microwaves, there wasn’t an option of defrosting more of them. When dinner time came Hope watched with wide eyes as her Grandma put two porkchops on each plate, except for her own and the strange man’s. The man was skinny and frail looking and for the first time Hope watched as someone else ate a porkchop faster than she could. She slowly ate her first porkchop and then, knowing what needed to be done, pushed her plate away from her. “I am so full,” she said, “Mister, would you be kind enough to eat my second pork chop?” and with a wide smile he polished it off.
It was one of the major lessons of generosity that influenced her own lifestyle of generosity. The usual term for it is stewardship-- the intentional practice of generosity in one's life. It's not something that just happens. It is a practiced act-- an intentional lifestyle-- a way of living that affects everyone. Much like forgiveness, it is something that we have to practice over and over again and it is only in the practice of it that we begin to see how incredible it can be.
We see the need for practice in our Scriptures this morning. The first one, from Deuteronomy, is a description of generosity from thousands of years ago. One of the main things that God wanted the Israelites to know, as they were learning how to be children of God instead of slaves, is God wanted them to understand what it was to have enough. You'd think God may have been more concerned with actually getting them some things since they were slaves and weren't used to having much, but God is actually more concerned with them knowing when enough is enough. God knows that we are a danger to ourselves and to others when we do not know when we have enough. So God tells the people that every seven years, whomever is indebted to them, is to be freed. And if you are in the sixth year and someone asks you for a loan, God says, don’t let that make your decision. They may not be able to pay you back in one year and will have to forgive the loan-- but do the right thing anyway.
Intentional acts to protect the poor. Intentional practices of generosity to remind us that everything we have is a gift. Practice. It's all about practicing what love looks like in action.
And a couple of thousand years later, people are still talking about it. Our passage from Corinthians-- this letter of Paul's to the people of Corinth-- gives us a glimpse into their own hesitancies when it comes to generosity. It was well known that the Jerusalem church was impoverished, so Paul is writing to the church in Corinth to encourage them to give what they said they were going to give-- to not delay in being generous, but instead to give cheerfully. He gently reminds them that they are good at a lot of other things— they excel in speech, in knowledge, in eagerness and in being loved. So he wants them to excel in being generous too. Extravagant generosity shapes us into a people we may not even know we can be— it allows God to work through us in unexpected ways.
When did you learn to practice generosity? Who taught you what it looks like to live a generous lifestyle? How is your own stewardship shaping your life?
In 2009, Bishop Sally Dyck challenged our Conference to raise a million dollars for Imagine No Malaria-- an effort across the United Methodist Church to decrease malaria in sub-Saharan African Many of us wondered how that was possible. We looked at our Minnesota United Methodist Conference that is mostly made up of small congregations, and we wondered what she was thinking. But we also got to work. And we took the challenge seriously. The whole United Methodist Church worked and worked to raise funds to support our United Methodist brothers and sisters in sub-Saharan Africa who were on the ground working on this issue- had been working on it already for decades and needed more resources to really make a dent in the disease. And by 2014, 5 years later, the Minnesota Annual Conference raised more than 2.8 million dollars-- leading the United Methodist Church around the world in giving. We have one of the smallest Conferences in the United Methodist Church here in Minnesota-- it is so so small, in fact, that we now share a Bishop with the Dakotas-- our Bishop has a two-point charge! And yet we raised more money and made a bigger impact on Imagine No Malaria than almost any other Conference. Is it because we had deep pockets? Well surely some of us did. But you know what I witnessed? I witnessed people coming together and being willing to change their own lives for the sake of their brothers and sisters in Africa. I saw small congregations, some of them for the first time ever-- choose to give away the funds from their harvest dinner rather than doing it to raise money for their own church budget. I saw other congregations create imaginative ways to raise funds in their community like having a 5k run so that their entire town knew they were the church that cared about curing malaria. I saw people having fun together around a shared cause that made a huge impact in the world-- an impact that most of us did not even get to see firsthand!
It is counter-cultural to give away what we have to people we'll never meet. It's crazy to think we did this during the worst part of the Great Recession-- this was in 2009! But what's even crazier, is that by giving of ourselves so abundantly, we became stronger, not weaker; more generous, not tired out; we began to realize that we do have something to offer the world-- and it's not just money-- it's ourselves.
You see it's not about what you don't have. It’s not about making excuses about why it is that others can be generous. It's about practicing generosity-- living out God's love-- with the things you do have. It's learning that God will do far more with our gifts when we give them away than we could ever do with them by keeping them for ourselves.
And it’s hard. It’s hard to let go of the myth that our stuff will make us happy. It’s hard to let go of the myth that if we just have this or that or do this or that we will be happy. It’s hard to let go of the lie that we can fill that God-shaped whole in our lives with something besides God. We’re afraid! We see people who do not have enough and we don’t want to be like that. What if we give it all up and God isn’t enough? What if we miss all of our stuff? What if something happens and we don’t have a cushion to keep us from suffering? These are real questions.
So why wouldn’t we want to create a community in which when we are suffering, people are generous to us; and when others are suffering, we are generous to them.
In Brian McLaren's book, We Make the Road by Walking, he talks about the uprising of stewardship in that early community of Jesus' followers-- how they learned to share their money to provide for the needs of those in the community who had little; how they learned to share their gifts when they realized that there were things that needed to be done and different people were good at preaching or teaching or caring for the widows or feeding the poor. They learned to share their food as they came around the table to eat bread and drink wine and remember all that Jesus taught them. And they learned how to share their power-- literally leveling the playing field as they embraced slaves into their community as eagerly as wealthy merchants; as they gave leadership roles to women as easily as they did to men; as they opened up their communities to Gentiles-- non-Jewish people who had once been considered outsiders and enemies. Stewardship is intentional. It is sustainable for all- not just some. And it depends entirely on trusting God enough to share what we have-- all of what we have-- so that the world can see God's love in action. Anyone can give to their family or to their friends, knowing that they'll get something in return. But God calls us to be generous with all that we have so that we can create justice; provide hope; and change the unfair systems in our world that can' t exist when we choose to put our trust in God rather than hoarding things for ourselves.
That is what we are called to. And it takes loads of practice-- I wish I was much better at it-- but that's also why I am part of a community of faith. By myself this would be impossible. But with all of you showing me what generosity looks like, modeling stewardship for me, teaching me time and again what it means to live out God's love, I might have a chance of building those same habits into my own life so that others around me can live.