Extravagant Generosity Day 23: Luke 6:20-22

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. (NRSV)

This isn’t how we would have written this.

These words from Luke are his account of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” where he taught about what the kingdom of God truly looked like. When we read them, we are immediately uncomfortable by them and would wish that they had been watered down or not included in Luke’s gospel. To be honest, we wished Jesus hadn’t said these words at all.

What we would much rather of heard was this:

Blessed are you who have a home, a car, and a good job, for you who are rich will truly enter the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who have more food than you could ever eat, for you will be honored.

Blessed are you who have no time to connect to the pains of other, because your schedule and agenda is valued.

Blessed are you when you are famous, popular, and well liked, because you have truly followed God’s kingdom.

Jesus doesn’t say any of these things.

We wish he did. Why? Because they would have been much easier to swallow than his words from Luke 6:20-22. What Jesus does, here, is to change the game. No longer would the rich and powerful be considered worthy simply because of their position in life. Jesus’ kingdom, truly the kingdom of God, would be welcomed to all people. No one would be left out.

In fact, those who we often ignore, criticize, look down upon, and shelter ourselves from are the ones Jesus says is blessed. This is not what we would want, but it is truly what God desires. God desires for the church to reflect this. The church should be a place that is open to everyone. It should not matter how much you make, what you look like, or where you came from. All that matters is that you love God and seek to live in community with each other. If you desire that then the doors of God’s kingdom are swung wide open for you.

Are you living into this? How do you view the poor? The hungry? The depressed? The forgotten? The hated? The rejected? The outcast? Are you welcoming them into the church? Or are you keeping the doors of the kingdom shut to them?

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Extravagant Generosity Day 16: Romans 12:1-2

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (NIV)

Ever thought of your life as a living sacrifice?

My guess is that few of us have ever thought that each day was a living sacrifice. We are more likely to think about our lives in terms of what we want or what makes us richer. Yet, Paul writes that our lives should be lived as a living sacrifice.

What is Paul getting at?

Paul’s basic thinking, here, is that every day is a moment to live not for ourselves, but for others. As followers of Christ we are called to live lives that are sacrificial in nature. We do this in the same way that Jesus lived sacrificial, by reaching out to others and considering his life not as important as the lives of others.

What does this mean for us? First, we live in recognition that we are servants of the Lord. Everything we do and seek to be should be directed in response to what God has done in our lives. Second, we must find ways to reach out and to serve others and to consider them more important than ourselves.

To live for others means we are willing to make some big sacrifices. It may mean that we give more money to our local church. It may mean that we spend less time on our own wants, but spend more time building relationships with other people who are not like us. It may even be that we put aside our desires, so that a greater desire would be made known in and through us.

It’s not easy to live sacrificially, but when we do we will see something great. That is the blessings of God pouring out into our lives and the lives of those who we are trying to connect with.

Giving is the greatest form of sacrifice and it takes on so many different forms, whether our money, our times, or even our entire selves. How are you willing to live sacrificially, today, so that others may know God’s love more deeply?

Extravagant Generosity Day 10: Matthew 22:15-22

15 Then the Pharisees met together to plot how to trap Jesus into saying something for which he could be arrested. 16 They sent some of their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to meet with him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know how honest you are. You teach the way of God truthfully. You are impartial and don’t play favorites. 17 Now tell us what you think about this: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” 18 But Jesus knew their evil motives. “You hypocrites!” he said. “Why are you trying to trap me? 19 Here, show me the coin used for the tax.” When they handed him a Roman coin, 20 he asked, “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. “Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” 22 His reply amazed them, and they went away.

Jesus knew what the Pharisees wanted. They wanted to trap him so they could convince others he was someone not worth following.

The trap centered on the issue of taxes to the Roman government and whether it was right to pay them. If Jesus said it was not right then the Pharisees would accuse him of starting a rebellion against the Roman government. On the other hand, if Jesus said it was right the Pharisees would say Jesus wanted the Romans to remain in power.

Jesus had to be careful with how he approached this question. The way he answered it, however, shows us much about what it means to give today. He says we are to “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”

What does Jesus mean? Jesus truly connects us to a deeper truth. Everything belongs to God, because God was the one who first provided us with the very things that we use and enjoy. The way we give, then, should reflect this fact that everything we have is truly the Lord’s and we are his stewards.

This is another passage where we are faced with the challenge to remember that what we have is not our own. It is truly God’s and we are simply the caretakers of these resources. We give in response to who truly owns our finances. We give in response to the fact that what we have is really God’s.

As we are challenged, once again, to recognize that we are not the provider of our things it begs the question to ask if whether or not this message has truly found a place in the depths of our souls? Do we truly see that everything we have is not ours, but God’s?

Extravagant Generosity Day 9: Mark 12:41-44

41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

One of my favorite things to do is to people watch. It is something I picked up from watching my grandfather spend afternoons on the front porch watching the cars drive by. There is something fascinating about watching people, looking around, and seeing what different people do with the life they lead.

When I read this selection from Mark 12:41-44, I cannot help but picture Jesus simply watching the people go by. He is sitting in the Temple where the various offerings were collected. We don’t know how long Jesus sat there observing the scene, but we do know that what he saw left a lasting imprint on him and gave him something to discuss with his disciples both then and now.

What he saw were two very different ideas of giving. Some gave out of his wealth and others, especially one particular widow, gave out of her poverty. Obviously, the rich givers gave more than his poor widow, but Jesus says it was the widow who gave the most on this particular day.

This is very interesting, and let’s be honest peculiar to our way of thinking. Our mindset is to believe that those who give more are more generous. We gravitate ourselves to those who have more, and lean on them for support and financial backing. But, Jesus doesn’t applaud the rich giver. He values what the woman in poverty gave.

Why is that? Jesus looks deep within her heart and reminds us of something very important. Giving isn’t about the amount that we give, but about the relationship attached to the giving. The widowed woman gave out of her relationship with the Lord and her desire for her gifts, what little they may have been, to be used to glorify God and serve others. That is true giving. That is giving based on a deep love and a transformed heart.

That is a giving that, I hope, inspires us today. Giving should never be about giving more financially than the next person or about doing what is expecting. Giving should be about a heart experience that expresses our love of the Lord and with each other. Some will be able to give more. Some will be able to give much less. But a generous giver will be willing to give whatever they can, in what ways they can, so that others might be blessed by it.

How does your relationship with the Lord influence your giving? For the widowed woman, her relationship with God defined her life and willingness to give. What about you?

Extravagant Generosity Day 7: 2 Corinthians 9:6-9

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 at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.”

The Christmas shopping season is around the corner. It’s not a time I enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Christmas season for what it means (Jesus’s birth and the incarnation of God). However, I do not enjoy the extracurricular activities that are tied to the season, such as the shopping, the feeling you have to buy a gift for everyone you know, and the image of fruit cakes at your local grocer.

What I really do not enjoy about the season is that it brings out the worse in us all. A season that is tied to hope and joy, so often brings out our aggression to buy the last item on our list. A season that is about peace often is about the anger that comes with not finding a close parking space or having to deal with a long line in the store. There is nothing cheerful about the ways we give during the Christmas season.

All of these comes to mind when we look at the words Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 9:7. Let’s be honest, the image of a “cheerful giver” is one that we can easily roll our eyes to, because of what we experience during these busy times. Yet, Paul might be onto something when he calls us to be cheerful in our giving. What does he mean by this? I think Paul is expressing the idea that giving comes out of our relationship with the Lord. That is what makes giving cheerful.

Cheerful giving is about giving in response to what God has done in us. It is a life of responding to what God has done in us, for us, and through us, so that we might be a blessing to others. When we see giving as a response to what God has done, it becomes a natural outflow and part of our daily lives. No longer does it become a compulsory or frustrating act, but an act where we are actively seeking to love others, because we have experienced a love that is beyond all measure.

Everyday is a chance to cheerfully give to others, whether it is our lives, our possessions, or even our time. How might you be able to give cheerfully to someone today?

Sunday’s Sermon: Living Generously

One day, a Salvation Army volunteer stood at a street corner ringing his bell right next to a big red kettle. It was the first day of the Salvation Army kettle drive. The volunteer was hopeful that the people who were out shopping would respond generously and get the campaign off to a good start.

Most of his shift was just like any other. People passed by. Some gave. Others acted as if he was not there. He was used to it. He had spent 15 years on that corner. He had seen it all.

Except, he had never seen what would soon take place. Two separate acts of giving would leave him confused and puzzled.

First, there was this unusual donation by these two men. Before they donated, the volunteer could hear them having an intense discussion. They were arguing about who could give the most. He could tell these were two rich men. They dressed well and carried huge wads of cash with them. Once they reached the kettle, they started competing with one another by donating bill after bill. This went on for some time and a crowd started to form around the kettle. It only made them give more. The volunteer enjoyed the show. He estimated they contributed more than $1,000 in their “competition.” Money, he knew, that the organization could use it to serve others.

Moments later another person approached the kettle. She was different. She was dressed in old clothes. Her jacket had holes in it. Her pants were dirty. The volunteer knew her. She was a homeless woman who often begged for money on that same corner. He assumed she was going to ask for money and he was going to give her enough money so she could eat.

When she arrived at the kettle, her hands were tightly clinched. She was holding something. Looking at the volunteer, she slowly opened her hands to reveal two pennies. It was all she had. The homeless woman never asked for lunch money. Instead, she placed both pennies in the kettle and walked away.

The volunteer stood was puzzled and in disbelief. He wondered, “What could make someone who has nothing be so generous?”

It is a question we may be asking as well. What makes someone be generous? When we think of generosity our thoughts might turn to the Christmas season. We define generosity as giving a gift to someone. At its basic level this is correct. But, what if generosity is more than about giving a gift? What if generosity was a way of life?

These questions come out of our Gospel reading today from Mark 12:38-44. Jesus is making one of his final public appearances in the Temple court before his arrest. As he is teaching, he notices people donating money. It was likely for an offering to support the Temple’s activities. He sees some rich people giving a large offering. He also sees a widow who gave all she had – two coins – to the fund. Jesus draws a contrast between these two acts by saying it was the widow who gave the biggest gift. Why did Jesus say this? Wasn’t it the rich person who gave the largest gift?

Our basic instinct is like our Salvation Army volunteer. We believe it was the rich who gave the biggest gift. Their donation would have the biggest financial impact. Jesus does not tell us how much they gave, only that it was more than the widow’s gift. So, why is hers the biggest?

Jesus is not focusing on the amount that was given, but on something much deeper. He is looking at their motivation for giving.

It is likely that the rich gave to the Temple offering because it was a religious requirement. This likely centered on the idea of the tithe. Deuteronomy 14:22-23 says a tenth of all crops were to be set aside and brought to the place of worship. In other words, a tenth of what we have is to be given back to the Lord as an act of worship in praise of what God has done in our lives.

Jesus isn’t concern about how much they gave or that they are following the command to tithe. Instead, Jesus is looking in their heart and showing their motivation. Their only concern was to do what was expected. It was a budgeted exercise of looking at what one hand and making a proper gift. In being driven by expectations, Jesus shows that their giving was outwardly focused on what they had to do to be considered a “good person.”

Giving that is outwardly motivated is based on a few assumptions. One assumption is that we own our money. I worked hard for it and I have earned it. Another assumption is that we can choose when we give. If it is my money, I can decide when I want to give and how much I can give. Giving becomes defined as something we do after everything else has been paid.

For the most part, I think this defines how many of us look at giving. We see giving as a choice. We look at our budgets, examine our resources, and decide if we can give, regardless if it is to the church, our families, or even a charitable organization. This attitude says generosity is something we can turn on or off based on our choices. Regardless of our choice, we likely see giving as a one-time activity that is separated from everything else that we do.

What if our acts of generosity could be deeper? What if giving was not a one-time event, but a way of life? What if our giving was like the widow instead of the attitude of the rich?

Much like the homeless woman, the widow had two small coins that she gave to the Temple collection. It was all she had. We can assume she was in poverty. She shouldn’t have been. The Law required that the community care for their widows. Earlier in our passage, Jesus suggests this wasn’t happening. He says the religious leaders were cheating widows out of their property.

If she had so little then why did she give? Shouldn’t she have saved the money and cared for her needs? That is likely what we would have done. Jesus doesn’t answer these questions. Instead, he looks at her heart and sees why she gave. Jesus finds that her motivation was based on something much deeper than the rich givers had experienced. She gave because of her love of the Lord.

The widow lived generously by giving her entire life to the Lord. It was an act of faith. For her, living generously was a response to what God had done in her life. Her response was to give all she had to the Lord. This wasn’t simply a financial act of giving. The widow gave her entire self to the Lord and in response to God’s gifts shown to her.

That gift from the Lord is the gift of life. It is the gift of salvation from our sin through faith in Jesus Christ and recognition that Christ died for us on the cross. It is the hope of a transformed life in Jesus. The gift of salvation is given freely to those who believe in Jesus Christ.

The widow had a deep love of God and a faith that transformed her entire being. She wanted to share that with others. Because God had blessed her life, she wanted to bless others as well. In making her offering the widow wasn’t thinking about expectations. She was giving her entire self as an act of faith. It is possible she was guided by the words of Hosea 6:6. Here, the prophet tells us that the Lord desires our that we give our total devotion to the Lord and not simply focus on expectations of giving.

God desires that each of us live generously as a response to what the Lord has done for us. Each of us have been blessed in indescribable and amazing ways. Through faith in Christ, we are recipients of salvation and grace. It is the greatest blessing we could ever receive and we are called to share this with others. This is a daily sharing of ourselves in response to God’s love.

To live generously means we must allow God to change our assumptions about giving. We need to recognize that what we have is not ours, but God’s possessions. Our gifts, talents, money, and resources were given to us because of God’s love for us. We are called to be stewards or caretakers of God’s resources. The decisions we make are not about how best to use our money, but how best to care for what God has given us. Modern theologian Mirosvlav Volf writes that if our possessions were given to us by God then this should inspire us to live generously.

Living generously isn’t about one-time gifts, but about a way of life that blesses others. Though big and small ways, we seek to bless others because God has blessed us. Generous living changes the attitude of our giving from “this is what we do” to “this is who we are.” There are many ways we can live generously through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. Our generosity does not have to be a big financial gesture. The smallest gestures of a genuine heart can be used by God to bless others and help them to see God’s love in their lives.

We live in a time where living generously is uncommon. We are more driven by living for ourselves or our own desires than we are an idea that God loves us and therefore we should love others. Yet, if we live this way, I believe the world and our communities will see some amazing things.

Imagine the difference each of us in our two churches can make if we lived each day with the desire to be generous because God has been generous to us. Even though we are small in size, the difference we could make in our communities would be breathtaking and inspiring. It would be kingdom-oriented giving that would share the message of Christ’s love in real and lasting ways.

Perhaps, the words of the homeless woman might help us to see this more clearly.

Before she could walk far away, the volunteer had to stop her and ask why she gave. The homeless woman looked at him and smiled. She said, “My son, I have more than I could ever ask. I have faith in God. I have a warm place to lay my head at the shelter. I have food there. I am blessed and I am thankful. Even though I have little, I want to share what I have with others. Maybe they’ll know that God loves them too.”

What if the Church Took the Lead in Health Care Reform?

I should be doing my homework. I should be thinking about Hebrew, ethics, and pastoral counseling, but I can’t right now. My mind is too busy thinking of other things.

This evening, perhaps like many of you, I watched with anticipation what President Obama would discuss during his address to Congress on health care reform. I wanted to be convinced that Obama’s plan would provide the necessary aid and assistance for the millions of Americans without health insurance. Many people who have read this blog in its former form would have come to this site tonight expecting a critique of the President’s address. That will not happen tonight.

I want to offer a question, especially to my friends in vocational ministry currently and those of us who are in the process of ordination in our respective denominations. What if we took the lead in health care reform? What if the church, ecumenically, joined together and put our theological differences aside to provide financial aid to those who cannot afford basic medical care simply out of Holy Love and care for our fellow brothers and sisters? What if we took it upon ourselves to make sure that everyone had the opportunity to receive quality health care?

I’m convinced that there is a need for health care reform. Too many Americans are without care and too many people have to make the difficult decisions of whether or not to pay for insurance or put food on the table. A family should not have to face that question. I do not believe a government option would solve this problem. In all likelihood it would make care difficult to come by and would ultimately lead to longer wait times to receive treatment.

This is where the church comes in. If the church universal would work together within the framework of the current system to provide financial assistance to those in need? I don’t have all the answers of what this looks like. I offer it simply as a something to consider, as it is something that I am thinking through. I do believe that it would be a sacrifice, but it would be worth it to make sure that no child goes without medicine, no mother is without care, and no senior citizen had to worry about medicine costs.

But would it really be that big of a sacrifice? As Christians, we are already a generous set of individuals, families, churches, and organizations. I’m certain that Christians would work together on this as we have in providing care for families in Africa, homes for the homeless, and clothes for the naked.

So why are Christians not willing to take the lead on health care reform? Why are we willing to let government do that which we could do on a local level?

As I said, I don’t have all the answers, but this is something that will continue in my mind as the health care debate continues forward in the next few weeks and months.