October 25, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE GENEROUS HEART
This is the ninth year in a row that this church has followed a detailed plan for our annual financial campaign called Consecration Sunday. It was developed by a man named Herb Miller. Herb has been around awhile. I have quite a few books that he either wrote or edited. As I started on this sermon, it occurred to me that Herb must be getting up in years. I wondered how he was doing. So I googled his name and I learned that Herb Miller passed away two years ago.
I read his obituary. This was a man who grew up on a farm in Central Illinois. He was a pastor who served a series of small churches. He became a popular author and an international authority on church health and effectiveness. The obituary did not mention Herb Miller’s net worth when he died. But no matter how much money he made and how much money he left behind, this was a rich man. Because he was a generous man. And he leveraged his own generosity to help others become generous.
It is widely accepted that how rich you are is determined by how much money you have. You might say this is conventional wisdom. That just means most people believe it.
According to conventional wisdom, it is a simple matter of math. The more money you have, the richer you are. If you give some of your money away, you aren’t as rich as you were before you gave that money away.
To illustrate, I went to the bank this week so I could have these three stacks of bills as a visual aid. First we have this stack of ten $1 bills. If I give $1 away, I have $9 left. If I don’t give any away, I have $10 left. So I’m richer if I don’t give. I’m poorer if I do give. It’s just a numbers thing. Giving a dollar away is 10%. That’s a tithe. But it’s a dollar. Giving a dollar away is no big deal.
Next we have this stack of ten $10 bills. Ten times ten equals a hundred. That’s not a small amount of money. So I might think twice before I part with a ten dollar bill. It was a lot easier giving the dollar away.
Finally, the stack of bills that I’ve been nervous about all morning. This is ten $100 bills. That’s a thousand dollars. There are a lot of things I could do with a thousand dollars. And if I give one of these away, there are a lot of things I could have done with it. So even though it’s still giving away the exact same 10%, I’m going to have to think this one over. See how money plays with your mind?
Conventional wisdom is, “Make as much as you can and keep as much as you make, because the more you give, the less you have, and the less you give, the more you have.” So if you have $10 and you give away $1, you have $9 left. And if you have $10 and you give away nothing, you have $10 left. $10 is more than $9. Everyone with me so far?
In other words, conventional wisdom is that keeping is a better way to get rich than giving.
But there is another way to look at this. We might call it unconventional wisdom. It is counterintuitive. It doesn’t make sense to math nerds. But it does make sense to a lot of people and no one ever has talked about this with more clarity than Jesus. Here is what he said:
Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give, will be the measure you get back (Luke 6:38).
I want you to notice, this is not a command. Jesus did give commands. Love God and love neighbor, for example. But this is not one of those. This is just an observation on the way life works. The way life works disproves conventional wisdom. It’s counterintuitive. It doesn’t make sense. The math nerds won’t like it. But it really works. You can prove it for yourself. Being rich is not just a numbers thing. When you give, it will be given to you.
Jesus said it clearly, but Jesus is not the only one in the Bible who has this unconventional take on giving. It’s in the Book of Proverbs:
One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed (11:24).
Again, it’s not a command. It’s a claim. It’s something you can test. Try being generous and see you don’t prosper. It shouldn’t work that way, but for some strange reason it does.
People before Jesus saw this; Jesus saw this; and people after Jesus saw this. People like Paul the Apostle:
Remember this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work . . . You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God (II Corinthians 9:6-8,11).
Paul says, don’t think of generosity in terms of having or losing. That’s conventional wisdom. Think of generosity in terms of sowing and reaping.
We live in a part of the world where that shouldn’t be hard to understand. Even though the housing developments keep intruding on the farm land, there is still lot of farming that goes on around here. I am thankful for farmers, because I like to eat. It is hard work. And no matter how hard you work, you are at the mercy of a lot of factors beyond your control. But what it all comes down to is a miracle from God. You put a seed in the ground and you water it and the sun shines on it and it grows.
Herb Miller learned about this miracle on the Illinois farm he grew up on. Maybe that’s why this unconventional wisdom we are talking about today made sense to him.
There was probably a time at the dawn of civilization when people were surviving by gathering up grains and seeds and eating them. Or they would gather more than they could eat today so they would have something left for tomorrow. But one of the huge moments in history was when somebody did something that make no sense at all. This person took a valuable seed and put it in the ground. Now it was gone. What a waste of a perfectly good seed! But it wasn’t a waste. It was the discovery of one of the great principles of the universe. When you sow, you reap. When you let go of something, you get more back than what you had in the first place.
God says it works that way with generosity too. Take some of your money – the Bible suggests 10% – and sow it. Give it away. It sounds crazy. I know it does. But put it to the test. That’s in the Bible too (Malachi 3:10). See if you don’t reap more than you sow.
I have recently read a book called The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose. It’s written by a Notre Dame sociologist named Christian Smith. It’s a comprehensive study on how generosity or lack thereof affects people. He used the best tools of social science to reach this conclusion:
Generosity is paradoxical. Those who give, receive back in turn. By spending ourselves for others’ well-being, we enhance our own standing. In letting go of some of what we own, we better secure our own lives. By giving ourselves away, we ourselves move toward flourishing. This is not only a philosophical or religious teaching; it is a sociological fact.
The generosity principle can also be stated in the negative. By grasping onto what we currently have, we lose out on better goods that we might have gained. In holding onto what we possess, we diminish its long-term value to us. By always protecting ourselves against future uncertainties and misfortunes, we are affected in ways that make us more anxious about uncertainties and vulnerable to future misfortunes. In short, by failing to care for others, we do not properly take care of ourselves (page 1).
You don’t have to believe the Bible. You don’t have to believe in God. This study demonstrates with solid empirical research that conventional wisdom is wrong. Unconventional wisdom is right. Generous people get more than they give.
And it’s not just generosity with money. This study also covers volunteering, caring for others, giving blood, even organ donations. And it measures the effect on happiness, physical health, purposeful living, and personal growth. It turns out Jesus knew what he was talking about. Imagine that. “Give and it will be given to you.”
We read today from the second book in the Bible. Those of you who are memorizing the books of the Bible I hope have gotten to Exodus by now. The scripture we read is the story of an ungenerous heart.
Now there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply and, if war befall us, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens; and they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Ramses (1:8-11).
Christian Smith discovered in that book that generosity frees us from what he calls “maladaptive self-absorption.” Ungenerous people tend to be stuck on themselves. I would say that Pharaoh is the poster boy for maladaptive self-absorption. All he can think about is himself.
“I have to have more slaves so I can have more bricks so I can have more storage units so I can keep more grain so I can hoard more wealth.”
“How much do you have?”
“How much do you need?’
Pharaoh is the richest guy in Egypt and yet he’s the most financially insecure guy in Egypt! He is miserable over what he might lose. He is living a miserable life. And by the way, it’s no coincidence that “miserable” and “miser” come from the same root.
Another conclusion in that Christian Smith book is that ungenerous people tend to have relationship problems. They care too much about themselves and not enough about others. And so Pharaoh does not seem the least interested in how Moses and his people are doing. He doesn’t say, “How can I help you? What do you need? How can I serve you better as your Pharaoh?” What he’s interested in is more bricks. How can he motivate these people to make more bricks? He has an idea.
That same day Pharaoh commanded the task-masters of the people and their foremen, “You shall no longer give the people straw to make their bricks, as heretofore; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before . . . they are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the people” (5:6-9).
That’s the problem. They are lazy. They need to work harder. Have you ever noticed how people with much tend to say that people with little are lazy? People with an ungenerous heart have a distorted view of other people.
Another thing in this same book is that there seems to be a connection between an ungenerous heart and anxiety. Now lots of people have issues with anxiety, even extremely generous people. And we have been through an anxiety-creating year if ever there was one! In fact, even Ben Franklin is looking worried these days. (See Featured Image) If you are looking like that too, it doesn’t mean you aren’t generous. But here’s the connection: If money is the source of my security, then money will be the source of my anxiety. Whether I have it or not. You think people with a lot of money don’t worry about money? Think again. We live in the most affluent age in human history and at the same time, people are experiencing off the charts levels of financial anxiety.
Christian Smith says, “Practicing generosity requires and reinforces the perception of living in a world of abundance and blessing.” You see, without a doubt we live in a world of abundance and blessing. That is true regardless of how much money you have or don’t have. But if you trust in your money more than you trust in God you will live in a very different kind of a world. Your world will not be one of abundance and blessing. Your world will be one of scarcity and fear. And you will hold tight to every single dollar, because it’s a scary world out there.
It’s a lot less scary with a generous heart. It’s a lot less scary when your trust is in the One who cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and who promises to care for you.
I’m going to close with a story one of you sent me. The subject line is “true story.” I’ll let you decide. But even if this story isn’t entirely true, it should be. Because this is how the world God created was made to work.
Mr. Honda broke open the wooden wall of his house in a Japanese suburb. As he was tearing down the walls, to his surprise, he found a lizard stuck to the wall with a nail hammered into one of his feet. Japanese houses normally have a hollow space between the wooden walls. The nail must have been hammered in from outside and struck one of the lizard’s feet. The lizard was still alive.
As he stares at the lizard, he experiences a mixture of emotions – curiosity, amazement, sadness, and sympathy. Mr. Honda’s first thought flashes back to the days when he was fighting in the Second World War. Then prisoners of war were kept in cages and he had always felt sadness at seeing fellow human beings, stripped of their freedom and dignity, confined to a single spot without choice, just like the lizard.
The house was five years old. That means the lizard had been there, nailed between those two walls for five long years. But how was that possible? In a dark wall partition for five years without moving? How could any living creature survive that long?
Mr. Honda stopped his work and observed the lizard. He puzzled over this mystery. Just then another lizard appeared, with food in its mouth. Mr. Honda was stunned and deeply touched. He had his answer. The lizard that was stuck by that nail was being fed by another lizard!
One lizard had given away his own food so that another lizard would not starve. Over and over and over again. For five long years, untiringly, without giving up, the one gave so the other could live.
From that moment on Mr. Honda’s perspective of life was totally changed. If a lizard can show love, hope, and generosity, we human beings surely should be able to do better.
This is a rare treat for me to get to preach on Consecration Sunday. The way Herb Miller designed the program, we’re supposed to have a guest preacher today. And we’ve had some great guest preachers over the last eight years. But in this year, when everything is different, it just seemed like the year to share my own heart about giving.
Normally this would be the time I take out this card and explain it to you, and then you would fill it out and bring it up to the altar. This year you will be getting your card in the mail. But the idea behind it is the same every year. Not conventional wisdom. Not the idea that giving makes you less rich. But the unconventional wisdom of Jesus, who said, “Give, and it will be given to you.”
It’s not a command. It’s a claim. You can test it. I hope you will. And I know many of you have. This is an exceedingly generous church. It’s the paradox of the generous heart. The more you give, the more you have, and the more God’s work gets done.
God, we all have hearts that could be more generous. We all are born with a tendency to hold on tight to what we have and not let go. It comes from fear; it comes from selfishness; it comes from anxiety. It comes from a failure to see that we live in a world of abundance and blessing. We live in a world where little birds are fed by a Heavenly Father and lilies come up with a beauty that takes our breath away. So God, teach us to open our hearts. Give us hearts like the heart of Jesus. And may we know the greatest joy – the joy of giving. In his name, Amen.