In our council meetings, as we have looked at the budget for 2016, we have this mix of hope and despair. On the one hand, we spent Advent saying “All will be well.” So for the past few years we have forecasted deficit budgets and every year the deficit has been smaller than predicted. Every year we make it through. So we look at the budget thinking, shouldn’t that hope shape our discussion more than the fear of predicting an unbalanced budget?
But then there is the reality that even though the deficits aren’t as big as predicted, they are deficits. We are slowly but surely working through our assets. We are slowly but surely getting to a point of difficult decisions, and that reality can make hope difficult to embrace. Remember, “All will be well” does not mean everything will go the way you want it. It means that no matter how things go, in God’s love, all will be well.
I think that the phrase that I am challenging you to think about and encounter over these next few weeks applies. “You are perfect as you are…and you can improve a little.” We always get through, often by doing a little bit less each year. And we should be grateful that we always manage to make it through (you are perfect just as you are). And yet we shouldn’t be satisfied just to make it through. If we are serious about being the church; doing ministry, we need to support it.
So continuing on the discussion of growth, I want to talk about growth in terms of generosity. To be clear, this is not a money sermon, but it a generosity sermon. It is a sermon that will seek to help you see something that I think you already know; that our culture already knows. As long as we see value and truth in the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, we know this. Greed is not good. Greed and grasping devour us. Greed separates us from others. As Scrooge stares at his lonely tombstone and considers Tiny Tim’s empty place at the table of the Cratchit house in the vision of the ghost of Christmas future, he sees the endgame of greed, of endless grasping, the belief that the money and things we own can sustain us.
But Scrooge wakes up and it is Christmas morning and he is buying the biggest goose and giving things away. Generosity, as Dickens tells the tale, is joyful. I have heard it said that the key to happiness is generosity. In preparation for this sermon, I did a search of the words sad and generous. The first result was a typo where someone meant to type “said” but accidentally put in sad. Many of the other top results were obituaries that said something like, “He was such a kind and generous person. So sad to hear he has passed.” Now I could try to sell you the idea that if you give more to the church it will make you happy, but that would be inappropriate. I suspect that in the church we have created too strong a link between generosity and support of the organization. Supporting the organization may be a part of one’s generosity, but generosity has much more to do with how you see the world in the light of the gospel. Generosity is living in a world where enough is plenty and water turns into wine.
One of the things I noticed when I moved to New England is that people complain more than I remember people complaining in other places I have lived. It’s not that no one complains in other places; it’s just that I often find myself listening to people tell me what is wrong with a situation, place or event; people that I don’t even know. It is almost as though people are walking around assuming that something is wrong and that their job is to figure out what that something is and tell the world. We are walking around the party waiting for the wine to run out so we can tell people that the foolish host has run out of wine.
I think that one of the greatest disciplines that we can take on to become generous people would be to rediscover the power of the compliment over the complaint. I will give you that challenge. Try to compliment at least one person every day, acknowledge the job well done, point out the kind act, give thanks for the kind word. I had to give a blood test for a physical last week so I went to lab and the technician asked if one of the students in training could take my sample. I was a little hesitant but said okay. And she did a fine job, as a good a job as you can do jabbing someone with a needle, but she only had to jab me once and took the samples quickly. So I said something like, “I think you did that well.” And she smiled and said, “Thank you” and we made this little connection over a blood test, a job for which one probably does not receive many thanks, that I hope made both of our days a little bit better.
Generosity is what happens when you start to see what is right with world as opposed to dwelling on what is wrong with it. When you walk around with a generous vision suddenly the container of water is filled with the best wine. This isn’t just a Pollyanna, “I’ve found another reason to be glad today” kind of vision but a hint at the different way of looking at the world to which the gospel beckons us.
In the story of water turned into wine, the world is confused by this generous vision. The steward speaks to bridegroom saying, “You aren’t doing it right. Usually the host puts the good stuff out first and saves the inferior for when the guests don’t care what they are drinking, but you have saved the best for last.” You aren’t doing it right. There are rules about how generous we are supposed to be. You can find all sorts of tools to help calculate a proper tip in any situation. For most people, they give enough so they don’t come off as cheap (usually between 15 and 20% depending on the situation) but they also don’t give more than they feel they “need” to. In church giving, the level of giving is also something that we have learned. You will hear people talk about determining their fair share (which is usually, if you were to divide up the budget, $20-30 per person each week). I have even witnessed a mother tell her grown son not to put $20 in on a Sunday he was visiting (not here) because “that’s too much.”
At the same time, one of the sad things about the secrecy that we build around giving is the fact that in every congregation I have been in, there are people who are giving far more than their “fair share” and it’s often not the people that you think it would be. You hear about someone giving $100 a week and you think you know who that is, because you might base it on income or lifestyle, but in every congregation there are people who by cultural standards, are giving too much, challenging themselves to give and enjoying the fact that they get to give. They are generous people and we have to give thanks to God for them because we don’t allow ourselves to thank them. They are not looking to be recognized but we are also not looking to be challenged by their example.
And generosity is a challenge, whether it is generosity of wealth, generosity of time or generosity of vision. We have learned too many lessons that tell us that generosity is something to put off until you have obtained a certain level of wealth or success. We have learned too many lessons that tell us that people should earn our favor and then we can be generous. Yet this should not be so hard for us as Christians, especially as Lutheran Christians who start from the place of saying we have done nothing to earn God’s favor and yet God has continued to show us generosity. We have been blessed with life; we have been blessed with love; we have been blessed with hope, and yet we have not done anything that merits that blessing.
As God has been generous with us, so we are challenged and invited to grow in generosity toward others. Giving to the church can be a good way to start and challenge yourself, but, if for some reason you feel like you have been generous enough here, then I encourage you to give somewhere else. Support hunger relief through the Falmouth service center. Support the new initiative working with homeless members of the Falmouth community. Support the children in our schools. Support efforts to work for peace and justice. Support kind acts and kind words. Seek to grow in generosity; to be a blessing to others as God has blessed you.