Sunday Morning Worship @ Wesley Memorial- 11/5

“Generous Living”
Mark 12: 28-34

A few years ago, in a Bible study at the Wesley Foundation, we came across the perfect passage of scripture for a stewardship Sunday. I’ve been saving it up for just such an occasion. It comes from Acts, that wonderful New Testament book highlighting how the early Christians practiced their faith in every day life and decisions. Acts tells us, for example, that the early apostles sold their private possessions and property and gave the proceeds to the community gathered in Christ’s name, redistributing it to each according to his or her need (Acts 4: 33-37). Allow me to give you a taste of the text we found in our study a few years back. I’m reading from Acts, chapter 5 (Acts 5: 1-11):
NRS Act 5:1 But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property;
2 with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
3 “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?
4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!”
5 Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it.
6 The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.
7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.
8 Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.”
9 Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.”
10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.
11 And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.

Well. If I had chosen a text other than one of the lectionary texts for today, that’s the one I would have used. Truth be told, perhaps that is the sort of sermon you may be expecting to hear during the month of our stewardship campaign. I’m not sure anyone has ever used that one, but it certainly would make an impression, huh? Give now or fall over dead. Look, we have biblical precedent! And, truth be told, perhaps this sort of brutal honesty has a place in a church stewardship campaign.
We seem to go through cycles of popular “approaches” to this topic, reinventing ourselves and our schpeels along the lines of public radio pledge drives…You listen all year. We, out of our sense of propriety and good taste, come to you only once a year, to ask quite politely, that you to pay for what you have already used. What is a weekly worship service worth to you? How about those welcome picnics and potlucks? Astounding choir music? Opportunities to serve the community in outreach? You know how much you listen, worship, serve, enjoy…give generously.
After too many of these guilt-laced, passive-aggressive messages, brutal honesty starts to look less brutal.
But I like the passage we really have today, the one from Mark. “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…[and] You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12: 30-31).
Money may not be the first thing to mind when you read it, but I hope today we might deepen our understanding of our call to stewardship as broader than just our financial giving. But we can start there.
As you know, there are folks who don’t really like to mix Jesus and money. Rather, they don’t like to mix any conversation about belief in Jesus making demands on our money. These folks are happy to preach and live a “prosperity gospel,” where the role of human beings is to have personal faith in Jesus Christ and the consequent role of God is to make these same human beings very wealthy for all their trouble. But these same folks – and some of the rest of us – can have a hard time with the things Jesus actually said and did about money and its proper use in religious life. Take the book of Mark, up until our passage. Jesus leaves a virtual “money trail” in his wake.
In just chapter 11 and chapter 12 up until our passage begins, Jesus curses the fig tree for failing to produce its fruit when asked (11:12), clears money changers from the temple (11:15), revisits the cursed fig tree (11:20), tells the parable of the wicked tenants who refuse to give their landlord his share of their vineyard profits (12:1), and talks with the disciples about the difference between paying taxes to Caesar and making offerings to God (12:13). Just after our passage, Jesus praises the poor widow who gives everything she had at the offering plate (12: 41).
This is not a prosperity gospel. It’s a generosity gospel. Whether the fig tree is in season or not, Jesus expects its generous offering of fruit. People who worship and pay taxes surely have concerns and transactions with money, but when they come to God’s house and are focused on this instead of God, their hearts are not open enough for prayer – they are unable to give to God what belongs to God. Tenants who use someone else’s land for their own profit are asked to give back a percentage of that profit in return. A poor widow – the one everyone else is supposed to be taking care of in her distress – freely gives her last cent to God at the house of worship. Jesus leaves a trail in his wake through these pages of Mark, each story with some riff on the same refrain. It’s a generosity gospel.

I have a friend who is well off financially. This has not always been the case but he works now in a lucrative profession and has risen to some prominence within the field. We were musing together one time about money and the gospel of Christ, wondering about personal and social responsibility. He said something that is so “un-American” that I must warn you before I say it. Are you ready? He said that each year when his taxes are due, his accountant comes to him before they are paid to review. The accountant’s other motive is to whittle down my friend’s tax bill with write-offs. Every year, my friend looks at the figures and the work his accountant has done, looks at the list of suggestions the accountant has for wiggling free of taxes on this or that, then my friend tells the accountant to pay the whole bill. I think this is when the accountant takes his sedatives.
Here’s the way my friend sees it: It is a fluke of the world that he makes the amount of money he makes. It is a fluke of the world that there are others struggling to make ends meet. He wants to be generous with the gifts and talents and blessings and money he has been given. He just happens to be the one who has it, which means it is now his responsibility to pass it along.
I know another person, a college student who, needless to say, is not yet rolling in the dough. But he had a summer job this year and it paid his bills and it allowed him to put a little aside in the bank for this year of classes. This student had been feeling called to tithe for a few years, but kept finding excuses – a particularly easy thing to do on a student budget…or any budget. But this year he decided to tithe his summer earnings to the church. Ten percent of his summer job salary given to the church before the semester began.
I don’t know if everyone who makes a substantial salary would consider a hefty tax bill to be the best way to redistribute that cash. I don’t know if even our most regular donors – students or not – are giving tithes. What I do know is that when I look at the lives of these two men, I see what they believe. I see who they are. In them, I encounter generous lives.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…[and] You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I did not mention it before but my wealthy friend also does regular pro bono work, leads the children’s church activities in his congregation, and regularly stops to talk and buy handcrafts from the homeless woman in the subway station. I also did not tell you that the student I know is passionate about care – stewardship – for all of creation and he has been changing light bulbs and people’s minds about how to live ecologically. He is active at the Wesley Foundation, this church, and his home church. I meant it when I said that stewardship is not all about the money. It is about how we live, how we order our lives. What do people see when they see your life?
We often remind ourselves that we are made in the image of God. The God whose imprint we bear is the God whose love is so generous a Trinity does not contain it. Generous creativity and the love of God spilled forth into the chaos at creation, bringing into being the sublime and the subtle, all that is. God’s generous heart led wayfaring people through raging seas, broken promises, desolate deserts, and into the promised land. God’s generosity overflowed in the life and death of Jesus, the Infinite choosing finitude so that we could learn to love as we were made to love. We are made in this image. The capacity for and drive to be generous with our lives is at the core of our being. It’s the stuff we’re made of.
Rabbi Michael Lerner writes, “‘You shall love the Lord your God’ means that God should become beloved through you. When people witness the lives of those who serve God, they should see them as so decent and pleasing that they are drawn to love God through this encounter.” And: “‘Love your neighbor as yourself’…[is] not just about inner feelings but about our relationship to property: ‘What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.”*
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…[and] You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
What do people see when they see your life?
The scribe who approaches Jesus stands out from all the other scribes. Unlike the Sadducees who, previous to our passage, had been trying to snare Jesus in a discussion about marriage, death, and divorce laws…unlike the other scribes who tend to be looking for Jesus to slip up on his recitation of Jewish law…Unlike all the rest, this scribe approaches Jesus with a genuine question. He’s been standing over to the side, listening to Jesus talk, noting that Jesus seems to be on the right track. So the scribe takes a chance, lets down his guard, decides to ask genuinely.
And you know how Jesus responds. He hears the real question and meets the scribe’s spirit of openness with his own. Jesus tells him: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…[and] You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
“Aaaah, that is right, indeed,” replies the scribe. “That’s exactly it! Love God with all your heart and understanding and strength – and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s exactly it, and more important than burnt offering and sacrifices” (Mark 12: 32-33).
Jesus responds again to the scribe’s generosity with his own. “You know, you aren’t far from the kingdom of God” (v.34).
Jesus and the scribe embody the very generosity of spirit – of life – they are talking about. There is no one-up-manship. No one is trying to prove anything to a stubborn debate partner. Through their conversation, they love God and each other. They are being generous with one another.
We are given into this world and into each other’s lives for this purpose: to love with all that we have. To boldly bear the image of the God who created us and calls us to be the family who gathers at this table. To move through our lives with open hands, not clenching what we already have, but hoping to extend our hands in service and invitation to others.
What do people see when they see your life?
Stewardship is about more than how much money you offer to your church. But let me say clearly that it is also about the money you offer to your church. If the generous image of God in you is evident in your relationships, your work habits, your vocation, your care for creation, your worship, and your service, then your commitments shine and resounds. But if generosity flows forth through your life only until it comes to money – and then it slows to a trickle…If, when it comes to money, generosity becomes occasional rather than your normal state of being, then this, too, says a lot about your commitments and priorities. We love God and neighbor in many ways, individually and as the Body of Christ.
Some of those ways are through the ministries we can only enact and fund in community. One of those is close to my heart: The Wesley Foundation. Part of Wesley Memorial’s annual budget is a direct gift to the campus ministry here and part of Wesley Memorial’s apportionments go to campus ministry conference-wide. We, your neighbors, thank you for this generous congregational commitment. We suffer, individually, communally, and theologically when we consider stewardship to be only about the numbers. It’s about loving God and neighbor.
Can someone tell by how you spend your time and money and affection who you are? Stewardship is about how we live, how we order our lives. It is about recognizing that everything and everybody and everywhere in our lives – down to the very core image of that God who created us – comes from God. There is not anything we can do, ultimately, to hold onto it or hoard it. Friends, time, health, money – none of it. This is the nature and the beauty and the confoundedness of Gift. Our job is to receive and to share.
It can take a while to figure this out. It can take longer to develop the practices we are called to in order to live it out. But this is it. This is why we are here, for God’s sake!
It is all one glorious calling. Love of God and neighbor is one same generous love pouring forth from deep within us because we can’t help it. The way a child instinctively offers you a lick of her ice cream when she sees you without one. Living generous lives is not so much a decision as a yielding. It’s like Jesus and the scribe, responding in turn with the same generosity they recognize in the other. It’s a deep acknowledgement of and assent to the movement of the Spirit already at work in our lives. What do people see when they see your life?

Thanks be to God!

© 2006 Deborah Lewis

* Michael Lerner, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2006), p. 249; 84.