Sunday, October 10, 2021
Thoughts on Being Generous
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Oct. 10, 2021
There are so many places to start with this well-known story. Since we are heading into Stewardship season some of you are already getting nervous about what I am going to say. You can relax, at least for a little while.
The first thing that struck me is the man asks “what must I do to earn eternal life?” That should stop us right in our tracks. We do not earn eternal life. That is a gift of a generous and loving God and we call this grace. So put aside good works or gift giving as a way to store up points in St. Peter’s book at the pearly gates. That is not what I am going to dwell on this morning.
The rich man lived in a world where the good was rewarded and the bad was punished. This meant monetary success or success of any type is a sign of God’s favor. We should start with the fact that this is another of Jesus’ reversals of how the world and God were supposed to work.
In the ancient world, and in some respects in today’s world, people believe that a rich person is rich because God has blessed them as a good and righteous person. How many times have we heard in the Hebrew Scriptures that a person is favored by God and the proof is the material success that he or she attains? We heard that earlier this summer in the story of Solomon. Our Job story is the Jewish answer to this theology.
Jesus turned this upside and down and said no more business as usual. The rich man is told to give away the signs of God’s blessing in order to obtain salvation. This comes in part because the rich man thinks he is in control. Notice he asks, “Teacher, what must I do.” Stop right there. He asks what he must do. He wants to know how to earn salvation. In fact, I think he wanted Jesus to confirm that he had done all that is necessary for salvation. He wants confirmation that he has made it! His ticket is punched, and he is all set. Jesus however says wait a minute there is “one thing that you lack.”
Jesus teaches that salvation, grace, are gifts of a generous God and not something we earn. Earning grace, earning eternal life is as impossible for humans as giving away everything was for the rich man of our story.
This is not about money, but priorities. What are we holding onto that makes it difficult for us to enter the kingdom? This is a question of what is important in our lives. One of the things that Jesus is saying is important is that we be generous in our lives. This was an essential character of early Christian communities. Early Christians were in fact generous as we read that in the book of Acts. They were generous because they lived in a world that they viewed as one of abundance rather than one of scarcity. They were living in a world that they saw as blessed by a generous God.
Today North American churches exist in a society of abundance; however the fear of scarcity dominates most of our stewardship talk and action. What would it mean if we were to truly use generosity as a guiding value?
Generosity is giving to others beyond what is required or expected of us
- Generosity is providing someone with a value that is not part of a definite trade.
- Generosity is liberality in giving and a nobility of thought or behavior.
- Generosity is responding to God as creator of all that is, God has been and still is very generous to all of creation, sustaining life on our planet.
- Generosity was a distinguishing characteristic of those early Christians who followed the Way of Jesus.
- Generosity should be a core value for Christianity today.
Generosity: The rich young man is caught up in a cost benefit analysis. Is eternal life worth the cost that Jesus requests? When we look at giving no matter to what purpose as an economic exchange, in other words what am I getting for my money, we have moved out of the world of generosity and into the world of business. So, what does it mean to be generous?
Maybe this story of little Paulo will help make the point.
Almost 20 years ago I went with a group from St. David’s in Ashburn on a mission trip to Honduras. We traveled to the El Hogar orphanage in Tegucigalpa, the capital city. This was a home for boys from 5 to 18 years old. Some were true orphans, some were there because their parents or in most cases their mother could not afford to house and feed them any longer. There were a variety of reasons, all very sad that caused these boys to be placed in this facility run by the Episcopal Diocese. Our group had traveled down to help in the construction of a new shower facility for the new technical high school where the boys learned a trade like carpentry, electrician or metalworking.
We stayed at the facility for the boys in elementary school. Each night we would gather with the boys and read to them or listen to them read to us. Paulo had taken a special liking to one of the men in the group whose name was Tom. They would sit together every night for the week we were there and little Paulo would read Clifford the Big Red Dog in Spanish to Tom. After story time the boys would go back to the big dormitory where they slept 15 boys to a room.
Also on this trip was Sean O’Keefe, the head of NASA at the time. Sean was a member of St. David’s and was staying on after our mission trip to meet with scientists from Honduras to go over research done by the Space Shuttle on the rainforests of Honduras. Also down with this team was the only Hispanic astronaut that NASA had. Sean was able to arrange for this astronaut to come to the orphanage to talk to the boys. You can imagine the excitement of these 120 boys to have a real astronaut come and talk to them. Now the astronaut wanted to give the boys something to remember the visit. The headmaster suggested one gift that all the boys could use, but he said no, I want to give something to each of them. The headmaster said, “Well that is ok, but it must be the same gift for each. These boys really do not own anything” All of what they had fit in a 12 inch cubicle. They had a set of play clothes and a school uniform, one change of underwear and a pair of shoes. That’s it!
So the big day arrived and the astronaut came along with the American ambassador in a motorcade with police escort. Dressed in a jump suit he got out and talked to the boys in Spanish about what was like to go into space, showed them pictures of the crew in their space suits and a model of the space shuttle. The boys chorus sang for him, it was just a wonderful day. At the end he brought a big trash bag out of the trunk of the limo. In it he had a small astronaut toy for each of the 120 boys. They were thrilled beyond belief. I doubt if any of them had ever had his own toy. Most of the boys had been at the orphanage their entire lives.
That night was a special night for the boys as they happily chatted about the day’s big events. Most of them walked around with their little astronaut in their hands or in their jeans pocket. Paulo brought his to show Tom as they once again read Clifford the Big Red Dog.
A couple of days later we were having our breakfast before heading for the airport to return to DC. Paulo came up to Tom and slipped something into his hand. Tom opened the object wrapped in a tissue. It was Paulo’s little space man. He had written on it “por me amigo Tomas”, for my friend Tom.
This is generosity, simple and profound. This young boy understood in a way I hope we can grasp.
All that we have comes from God. St. Ignatius sums this up wonderfully in one of his most famous prayers and I would like to close with this.
Let us pray
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.