What Generosity Looks Like

“What Generosity Looks Like” 2 Corinthians 8:1-15

Generous. The Dictionary defines generous as “freely giving or sharing money and other valuable things; providing more than the amount that is needed or normal: abundant or ample; showing kindness and concern for others.”

So what does generosity look like? How do we know it when we see it?

In his book, 8 Habits of Love, Ed Bacon, and Episcopal priest, tells the story of his friend, Alton, who was a millionaire many times over. At a cocktail party, Alton told Ed that a few days before he had gone to his bank, withdrawn $500 in $10 bills, driven in his BMW to the part of town where the homeless slept and gave out all of the $10 bills to “the poor people.” He felt good about giving to the “downtrodden.”

Ed said that there was something about the way Alton was talking about his “generosity” that just didn’t feel right. Bacon writes: “Generosity is not charity, which is self-referential: donations are seen as ‘coming from me and/or mine. Volunteer service becomes piety, of which one feels proud…Actions motivated in this way conceal a meanness about whether or not the recipient is deserving. They also prevent us from engaging in such a way that people can help themselves- because the giving is more about us (and our “generosity”) than it is about them.”

A few months later, Ed met with Alton and gently explored that giving to the homeless might be more effective if the money went into supporting the homeless center which was a part of the church’s ministry, a ministry which sought to give those with needs the ability to help themselves. He then invited Alton to give 10% of his income to the church. To which Alton immediately replied that he couldn’t do that, and he gave a long list of excuses. He then said he would check with his financial planner to see how much he could give. A few weeks later, Alton, the multi-millionaire- told Ed that he would increase his pledge by $250, to $1,000.

What does generosity look like?

This is the question that the Apostle Paul is exploring in the passage we just read this morning. He writes to the church in Corinth and asks them to make a contribution to a collection they are taking for the poor in Jerusalem. The recipients of this offering are a bit unclear: they may be the Jerusalem poor in general, or the poor followers of Jesus among the small struggling church in Jerusalem, “the saints.” “Organized” giving was a religious practice among Jews: contributing to the upkeep of the temple or to the support of those who were impoverished was considered an expression of faithfulness. The collection for the poor in Jerusalem was also a way to find a common thread of unity between the Jewish and Gentile Christians, an ongoing issue of how to hold these very different communities of faith together in the unifying love of Jesus.

As Paul appeals to the church in Corinth to give to the poor in Jerusalem, he tells them about the generosity of the churches in Macedonia. Now, Paul is treading carefully here, because he does not want to shame the Corinthians into giving but rather he wants to inspire them to be generous. “What does generosity look like?” This is Paul’s rhetorical question to the Corinthian followers of Jesus. He says generosity looks like the Macedonian churches. Macedonia was an area that was especially hard hit by the economic policies of Rome. Surely the Corinthians had suffered economic blows, but not as badly as Macedonia had. And yet the Macedonian Christians had given to the collection for the poor in Jerusalem with a sense of joy and they had done so with more generosity than they could afford. A comparison for us would be to look at the cities that have been hit the hardest by our recent economic recession, with the greatest numbers of jobs lost and home foreclosures and finding that those people who have lost the most have given more to the poor than people who might not have gotten a raise but still are able to pay their mortgages.

This is what generosity looks like, Paul says: to not be bound up by fear about your life or your future and to be free enough to share what you have with joy and not resentment. The Macedonians had something that was an inspiration to others, they had a clear sense that money was not their God, and they completely trusted that God’s goodness for their lives was an endless resource. That kind of generosity is rooted in a belief in God’s abundance, not in a fearful belief about scarcity. Paul is asking the Corinthians to stretch themselves to give more than they think they are able. This kind of giving requires that we be more intentional about our budgeting and thoughtful about our values. And- most importantly-it requires a belief in God’s abundance.

Ed Bacon writes about the habit of generosity as being vital to living a life rooted in love. He suggests that gratitude is the key to being generous, and that in order to be grateful, we have to find ways to move beyond the fears that paralyze us. “Fear can lead us to live lives of self-absorption, in which we covet blessings instead of conferring them on others. We find we can’t let go, we assume the worst, we feel insecure, we act without thinking- or perhaps we do not act enough. It is hardly surprising that amid the pressure of day-to-day life and under the yoke of a fearful culture many of us struggle to open our hearts and be generous.” Bacon suggests that every act of generosity toward another is the same as giving a person a blessing.

He writes: “When we shrug off our negativity and insecurity, no longer covet and compete for what others have, and open our hearts to the dreams and values of others, we dwell in the spirit of Generosity. This enables us to approach the world from a loving, tolerant, open-minded place, which in turn infuses our interactions with energy that flows in both directions. Yes, Generosity means giving of our time, resources, and life force, but it also means giving people the benefit of the doubt, being able and willing to see the world from another’s perspective, and loosening the tight grip we keep on ourselves. It is about blessings others with our thoughts and deeds.” Ed Bacon gives us a lot to think about.

Perhaps you saw the news video this week on Upworthy, which highlighted the actions of a Middle School football team. Usually we don’t hear many good stories about middle school boys, an unsettling reality for the mother of a middle school girl. But this story was different. The Team, the Eagles, of Olivet, Michigan, conspired behind the backs of their coaches to do something special for Keith Orr, one of their team members who was differently abled. Keith may have had some learning difficulties, but his gift was that he hugged everyone, and they loved him for it. For weeks the team planned to get as close to the goal line as they could, intentionally stopping a few feet away from the goal line without scoring. On the next play, they gave the ball to Keith, completely surrounded him, and pushed him across the goal line where he scored his first touchdown. Keith and his family were thrilled, not only that he had scored a touchdown, but also that the team had been so kind to him.

But it seemed that the people who were the most surprised by the impact of this event were the boys who had planned and carried out their scheme. They wanted to prove that Keith really was a part of their team, because they loved him so much. Justas Miller said of Keith. “He went from being a nobody to making everyone’s day. He says it never crossed him mind to give Keith the glory. With tears streaming down his face while he talked about it, Justas said: “I went from caring only about myself and my friends to caring about everyone.”

The boys understood the value of making a touchdown, but more importantly they understood the importance of belonging. They were generous enough to make that happen.

In a culture that glorifies winning at any cost, these boys were willing to risk losing a game and tolerating the displeasure of their fans and coaches if it meant that they could contribute to the joy of someone they cared about. That is what generosity looks like.

Ed Bacon writes: “The more we give, the more vital our lives, the bigger our spirits, and the deeper our living. When people are on the receiving end of Generosity, it opens their hearts in a way that is deeply transformation and sends ripples of love outward into the universe.” (p. 2)

The church in Macedonia knew what generosity looked like, which made it easier for them to share out of their poverty to help those who had great needs. Generosity looked like a God who became vulnerable enough to enter fully into this human life, a Jesus who risked giving everything, even his life, to pour his heart and soul and body into a ministry of healing and transformation. And we know what generosity looks like as well. God has been kind to us, we have been loved by others, and there have been those who gave their time or attention or love or money to us when we had nothing. We cannot exist without the generosity of others.

And so we open our hands and hearts and minds, letting go of our clenched fists of fear- and discover what generosity looks like. AMEN.

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  • Pastor Meg Hess