Tuesday, February 25, 2014

February 23, 2014 Having A Heart Like Jesus - A Life of Generosity

Luke 20:45-21:4

This morning, we continue our series Having A Heart Like Jesus, and as we do we come to A Life of Generosity.  Our Scripture reading comes from Luke 20:45 – 21:4 –

45 While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples,
46 “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.
47 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.
He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins.
“Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others.
All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

When I was in college one of my closest friends kept telling about a guy who played in a local band.  The band was called Zion and they had a keyboard player who was really talented.  We would follow them around to some of the local churches to hear them play, and Rich, the keyboard player was a really interesting guy.  I had never met anyone quite like him before.  He lived such a simple lifestyle and had almost no interest in possessions or money.  During the summer of 1977 he was the Youth Minister at First Christian Church in Kingsport, Tennessee.  One day a couple of us, not doing much of anything, decided let’s go see Rich.  First Christian in Kingsport, at that time, was a very traditional, formal church.  We were sitting in the sanctuary, waiting on Rich to come out from his office, when he walks in carrying his guitar, with no shoes, long hair, a worn-out tank top, and several days growth of a beard.  Even though we all looked kind of like that – it was the 70s, after all – I wondered, how does this go over at this church?  Rich’s talent was obvious, though, and he was a great songwriter.  He had written a song called Sing Your Praise to the Lord, which Amy grant recorded several years later.  Rich went on to write and record a number of albums, and one of his songs – Awesome God we’ve sung here at church on a number of occasions.  What most impressed me about Rich – even more than his musical ability – was his generosity.  I’m sure Rich generated a lot of money with his songs, but he gave away much of it.  He set up an organization to funnel his money into ministry projects and he was paid an annual salary of $25,000, when he could have kept the money and lived a very affluent lifestyle.  He was killed in an auto accident in 1997 sadly, and at the time of his death was living in a tiny cabin on an Indian reservation, teaching music to kids.  That’s a generous life.

We live in a day and age of big numbers.  I had never heard of WhatsApp and read the other morning the company sold for $16 billion dollars.  $16 billion dollars!  Someone won the lottery drawing this week that was worth $400 million dollars.  That’s not quite $16 billion, but imagine how drastically that kind of money would change life.  There are some Olympic athletes who, now that they have medals, will find a lot of money will be coming their way.

Compare those really large numbers with this – this is a mite, a small copper coin found in our Scripture text.  The woman in the story placed two of these in the offering.  It is worth only a fraction of one of these – a penny, but would you bother stopping, stooping down, and picking it up?

This is one of the most famous scenes in the gospels, a scene that teaches us about generosity.  Jesus is in the Temple and observes people placing their gifts into the Temple’s treasury.  In the midst of rich people offering their gifts, a poor widow comes along and puts in two very small copper coins.  Jesus singles her out as being a generous, faithful giver, because all these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.

Of the many interesting elements of this scene, one is that giving was observable in the Temple; giving was something done in full view of other people.  Within the Temple there were trumpet-shaped receptacles where people could place their offerings (this could be the origin of our saying don’t toot your own horn).  Some people, evidently, made quite a show of their giving.  Imagine if people watched while you gave your offering and responded according to the size of your gift.  The big gifts would get applause and cheers and the smaller ones would elicit little more than some whispers or indifference.

This poor woman, who probably stepped forward with some amount of trepidation because of being watched, had to compete with large gifts that were far beyond anything she could imagine.  By way of comparison, imagine standing in life between Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Why would Jesus single out a gift, especially one that was so small, at least in terms of the monetary value of the gift?  How could it be, as Jesus says, more than all the others (verse 3)? 

It wasn’t the amount of the gift, but the size of the gift.  In the math of God’s kingdom, amount and size are two different things.  The rich were giving large amounts, but they were not very sizeable, because they gave out of their surplus.  As large as the gifts were, they could have been even larger in terms of the amount.  The woman’s gift was tiny in terms of amount, but very substantial in terms of size, because it represented all she had to live on.  So generosity, in terms of our resources, is based upon our willingness to give something that is sizeable in relation to what we have. 

It was also a significant gift because of what Jesus says in the first part of our Scripture text, which comes from the previous chapter.  Remember this about the Bible – the chapter and verse divisions were not a part of the original writings; they came centuries later.  The first verses of our text are an important context.  In those verses Jesus talks about those who devour widows’ houses.  This poor woman represents just those people to whom Jesus referred.  She was the type of person who was continually victimized by those who were able to take advantage of those who were poor and lacking in power or influence.  And yet here she was, in the Temple, offering what she had.

It’s really an amazing example that the poor woman, a woman who was subject to the powers of the day, the powers that determined her economics and were without hesitation to make her difficult life even more difficult, would be willing to come into the Temple and offer all that she had.  It was a tremendous act not only of generosity but also of defiance and faith.  She was saying, in essence, nothing is going to stop me from giving of what I have, however meager my resources might have.  It was really an indictment of those who were giving larger gifts in terms of monetary amount, because she took such a risk in her giving.  I don’t know what those two coins would buy in her day, but it wouldn’t have been much; but it would have been something, and when you have very little, something is better than nothing.

Something moved this woman to give what she had.  I imagine she thought pretty hard about giving this gift.  For the rich givers that day, it was a different calculation, but for this woman, it was a decision to spend what could have purchased her food for the day, or paid for some other pressing need.  Why would someone give away what little she possessed?  There was no guarantee that it would not cause her difficulty to give that gift.  Some people, no doubt, would have thought it complete foolishness.
It was her generous spirit, I believe. 

Jesus always made things personal, and in this passage, he makes generosity very personal.  He put a face on generosity, as he sought to demonstrate generosity to his disciples.

The other evening we were sitting in a restaurant in Indianapolis for dinner.  A man approached our table with a flyer.  It was one of the fund-raising deals where you present a flyer and the restaurant will donate a percentage of the profits to a particular cause.  Often, it’s for bands, or sports teams, or a group raising money to take a trip.  This was for his 11-year-old grandson, who is suffering from cancer.  I asked how his grandson is doing and the grandfather said he had been through one round of treatments, had gone into remission, but the cancer has returned.  He said it didn’t look very good for his grandson.  One of his grandson’s knee joints has been replaced because of the cancer.  So here was a grandfather, approaching strangers in a restaurant, handing out flyers in the hopes of it doing something to help his 11-year-old grandson.  We just happened to be there at the particular moment that grandfather was there, and now I’m going to be wondering about that young boy, and what happens to him, and how that grandfather and the rest of the family are doing.  This grandfather put a face on a need, and that really sticks with us.

I like to think that the disciples and those present that day with Jesus thought about that poor widow for a long time.  Jesus put a face on generosity, so that when he said she put in all she had to live on (verse 4) it was just an academic statement.  All she had to live on.  I wonder what happened to her.  If it was all she had to live on there was nothing left for her rent, or her mortgage, or food, or anything else.  I wonder if those words – she put in all she had to live on – moved anyone to look after her, to be generous to her in her time of need.

It’s hard to be generous in this day and age, because we all feel the financial pressures of such an expensive age.  But remember that generosity is not measured in how much money is in our gift, but how much heart is in our gift.

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