Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Gratitude, Generosity, and the Gospel

Gratitude, Generosity, and the Gospel
Preached Sept. 28, 2008

We ended up the last posting with generosity as evidence of having confidence in God.

A lot of what Jesus has to teach us has to do with being generous.

Remember that God loves us so much individually and as a church that Jesus poured out his love and his life to show us that love; Generosity is a characteristic of God.

Let’s look at generosity in Mark, and we’ll start with this puzzling little passage in chapter 8. “Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And Jesus warned them, ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.’” Unsurprisingly, they were baffled. Huh? What does he mean? Don’t buy bread from Pharisees or from Herod? They muttered to each other, “Is he saying this because we forgot to buy bread? Who was in charge of that, anyway?” Now this is very funny; it reminds me of when I was teaching my students in one class how to write papers, and then in the next class they took they said, “Oh, you want us to do that in this class, too?” NOOO, I said, just start over like you know nothing. Which is approximately what Jesus said, too. I find it hard to read what he said without hearing a tiny bit of sarcasm:

“What’s up with you? Why are you talking about literal bread? Where were you when I fed five thousand men and their wives and children with five loaves, and four thousand with seven loaves? Think I can’t make one loaf go for 13 people? Don’t you understand? Are you blind? Are you deaf? What is wrong with your memory? Is your heart closed to what I’ve been saying and doing right before your eyes?”

So what has Jesus been saying and doing right before their eyes? He has been illustrating how God takes the little we can give to him and makes it go far enough to meet the needs we are responding to. Our offering plus God’s blessing can satisfy the spiritually and physically needy.

Let’s look more closely at these stories. In Mark 6, Jesus is taking his disciples on a retreat. His cousin John the Baptist has died and the disciples have just returned from their first preaching mission. He wants to go away and rest awhile. It isn’t hard to see an analogy to church. We come to church partly to support each other through hard times and partly to debrief from our work for Jesus in the world. And when Jesus shows up at his retreat, there are crowds of needy people waiting for him. And his heart is moved with compassion because they are so hungry and lost. The disciples, practical folks, say, “Send them away so they can get something to eat.” Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”

Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy says that Jesus is the smartest person ever, so we can take what Jesus says as serious and good advice about how to live. I think Willard is right, so let’s pay attention to what Jesus says to do: “You give them something to eat.”

God is all-powerful and can do anything, and in the Old Testament, God rained down food on the wandering Israelites in the wilderness. But here, in the Kingdom, God’s Son says, “You give them something to eat.” “What?!” They say. “It will take several years’ worth of wages to buy food for this mob.” Jesus says, “Well, what do you have? Go and see.” Turns out they have five loaves and a couple of fish. Other gospels tell us a little child brought this to Jesus. Here in Mark, we have just the essentials. Jesus had the disciples get people to sit down in orderly groups, and he took the teeny tiny bit of food, thanked God for it, blessed it, passed it out, and everyone was satisfied. In fact, there were twelve baskets of leftovers.

This story teaches us a lot about generosity. One, God wants us to be generous. After all, God never stops giving, and his Son gave everything also. Two, pour out what you have, even if it’s small. God’s love is infinite, and it multiplies our gifts beyond our imagination. God can take the little bit we feel qualified to give and with it feed the hungry and save the lost.

It isn’t long until Jesus and his disciples replay the whole drama in the land of Gentiles. Mark 8 has them again with a large crowd with nothing to eat. This crowd has been hanging out with Jesus for three days, so if they had food, they’ve eaten it. Again Jesus is moved with compassion. He says, “I can’t send them home without food; they may faint on the way.” His disciples say, “This is the desert; what are we supposed to do about it?” (They may have thought, “We’re hungry, too, you know.”) Jesus says, again, “Well, what do you have?” Turns out they have seven loaves and a few small fish. Same thing happens as before. Orderly groups sitting down, Jesus blessing the food, disciples passing it around, lots of leftovers.

Last story I’ll tell: A rich young man shows up and asks Jesus what he can do to inherit eternal life. Jesus says to him, “You know the rules.” The young man says, “I’ve kept them since I was a kid.” Jesus looks at him and, Mark 10:21 says, “He loved him.” This is the same compassionate response Jesus had to the hungry crowds. When God sees hungry people, God wants to fill them up, whether the hunger is physical or spiritual. In this case, Jesus says, “you need to give away what you own.” Why might Jesus say that to him? I think it is because when we have things we call our own, whether those are abilities or things, we do not throw ourselves into God’s love wholeheartedly. Instead, God has to work very hard to push through the cares we have for our stuff in order for us to know God’s love.

I grew up in Burundi, Africa, and they do the offering differently there. People were living on about $31 per year on average, most on subsistence farms, and a lot was done on the barter system. The middle class was growing and were undoubtedly providing the main financial backing for the churches, but the working poor still dominated the numbers of attenders in church. Every Sunday, we took our offerings down to the plate in the front of the church, men, women, and children, and we put it in the plate. In the old days, offerings included chickens or produce, which is biblical, by the way. I always participated as a little kid; I liked having something to give to God and I liked being a part of the parade.

I was at the church business meeting this month, and it turns out First Friends here is spending more money than is being contributed in offerings. I’m working on earning an M.B.A., and this isn’t a good business model. I just mention it so that if you have been wondering whether the church needs your giving, the answer is yes, we do. The time-worn model is giving one/tenth of your income. And I like tithing because it is a discipline that helps us remember that God has given us everything we have and has plenty to meet our needs if we pry our sticky fingers off some of it and contribute it. Giving also helps us remember that God’s love for us is absolutely enough. We don’t give money to make God love us more; we give money because Jesus has asked us, “What do you have to give?” and some of us have money.

To the rich young man, Jesus asks, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God.” Then he asks for everything the young man calls his own. Do you believe God is good? If God is good, you can put everything you “own” into his hands. If God is good, you can give away yourself, your gifts, your money, your reputation, your rights—pour yourself out. Your generosity demonstrates that you believe God is good.

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