First Mennonite Church
September 23, 2018
Developing a Generous Heart
At the heart of this passage is Paul’s invitation and challenge to the Corinthian church. He wants them to excel in their generosity just as they were doing in their faithfulness to the Lord, just as they were doing in knowledge, in their good Christian speech, and in their willingness to obey in all things. It seems from Paul’s experience and letters, one of the last areas of Christian life to conquer is in the area of generosity.
In my last sermon we saw two examples of generosity. These were the widow who gave two pennies and of the woman who poured on Jesus’ head an expensive perfume. According to Jesus’ analysis, the widow’s gift was all she had to live on and the expensive perfume the other woman gave was all she could give. Both stories of generosity challenge our hearts when it comes to giving.
In the Greco-Roman context where these incidents occurred, these acts of generosity were beyond amazing. Acts of generosity were regarded as the prerogative of wealthy people only. In the Roman world, the word generous, in Latin, clearly implied the nature of this virtue. Generosus, the Latin word for generous, referred to a person’s birth and it comes from the Greek: genesis. Thus, the generous were only born to the elite and aristocratic families. They had wealth and could act as patrons. They sponsored public works or works of art. The generous, because of their wealth, could commission the construction of theaters, parks, and public spaces. But contrary to the biblical definition of generosity, which is giving without expecting anything in return, the generous Roman citizens did not give without compensation in return for their gift. Those who acted as patrons were given special business concessions, political favor in the form of government positions, or had laws enacted to favor their causes or businesses. This type of generosity is not much different in the wider American context.
I also said that generosity has to do with more than giving away money. Generosity has to do with how we use our time, how we put our skills to work, how we relate to and treat others, and how we view and use our material resources. But, as often is the case, the degree of our generosity is reflected by giving of our time, by serving others, and by giving our money. Because of the prevailing view about money, that resource is the hardest to give away. If someone is generous with his or her time to serve others, if someone is considerate and understanding towards others, it is also very likely that such a person is also generous with money. If someone is only concerned with his or her schedule, if someone cannot tolerate the slightest inconvenience others can cause him or her, that person is also unlikely to give away money. Based on those facts, the most common expression of generosity is reflected in our financial giving.
Although it is said that America is the most generous country in world, according to a recent study reported in the magazine Relevant, only 10-25 per cent of people in a typical congregation give 10 per cent of their income either to the church and/or as charitable donation. According to that same report, if all Christians would give a tenth of their income, not only would the church have enough for its local ministries but there would also be enough to alleviate hunger and deaths from preventable diseases around the globe. If we would give a 10th of our income, the church would have enough to meet its needs for ministry, to pay its bills, to maintain its building, and to provide some kind of service to the community. In other words, we could do a whole lot if we all give more than we normally do. But why is the church always struggling with money? There can be various reasons: mismanagement, only a few in the church give to sustain the organization, investing in old and failing facilities, etc. But there is one particular reason churches often struggle financially: the failure to talk about money by the church leadership. Church leaders often hesitate to bring up in the open issues of finances to congregants. That reluctance is sometimes welcomed by congregants who also would prefer avoiding the topic. But that attitude only exacerbates the financial situation. For that reason today I want to share some practical approaches to becoming more generous, not only with our money but also with our time to serve others.
First, let us change the way we think and talk about money
The first and foremost problem church has about money is that it is considered to be a very private matter. There is secrecy surrounding money. People usually do not talk about how much they earn or owe. Not many people speak about money openly even with their adult children. It is for those reasons that some people within the church say, “Pastors should preach the gospel and stay away from talking about money.” But interestingly, Jesus spoke about material possessions and money more than he did about heaven and hell combined. Out of 39 parables he said, 11 were regarding wealth. So where did we learn money is a taboo subject? I have no apprehension about talking about money. But how can I be? Every year the amount of my salary is presented to you in the Annual Congregational Business meeting. Because we know and we claim that God is owner of our lives and everything we have, we should not regard money as a taboo subject. We should be honest and open about it, within the proper context, of course.
Again, let us change the way we look at money. When we get our paychecks, there are various things that come to mind. Among these is the most urgent bill we need to take care. Maybe it is a credit card purchase for which payment is almost due. We have groceries to buy; we have to pay utility and medical bills. Or we want to buy something we want for ourselves, etc. And of the rest, we put something into our savings account. And whatever is left we will guard with much fierceness, as a lion guards its kill. In the end, we reason, it is my money and I should do as I decide is best. So the idea of giving something that I have worked for and that is entirely mine is a hard pill to swallow. But here is the thing. We as Christians believe that “every good gift comes from above, from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). Don’t we? In that sense nothing we have is actually ours. Everything we have is a gift from God and we are simply administrators of it. In the religious language we say, we are stewards of God’s blessings. That check you and I get is a gift from God. God knows what we need, but amazingly he blesses us with more than what we need. Is it not so? Our giving to God and his purposes should be out of gratitude and with joy. Paul says, “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.” So how do we know we are giving the right portion to God and for the things God wants us to give?
In C. S. Lewis’ best-known book, Mere Christianity, he might answer for us that question.
I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe way is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities’ expenditures exclude them.
Each of us knows how our financial world looks. Each of us knows our possibilities and needs. But even in the middle of needs and struggles, we continue to trust in the provisions of God. Giving sacrificially means giving despite our needs, trusting that God will provide. God owns everything. We have only limited resources. When we get our check, that is all we have to live on. God, however, is the God of ALL good gifts. His resources never end. But when he gives us, he wants us to be channels of his grace, love, and care. We are only channels through which God’s blessings flow to our family, to our community, and to those who might suffered from natural disasters, as when we give to Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Disaster Services.
Another key to becoming more generous is by relating with people in need.
During the last three years we lived in Belize I worked teaching at the Latin American Anabaptist Seminary (SEMILLA). I was gone away from home for two or three weeks at a time every month. It was not the best situation for our family. Our children were young and Josue needed to attend a school in another town. Lilian would leave Jasmine and Madeleine with my parents and ride the bus with Josue every morning for him to attend school. (I must say that this school only had one classroom for deaf students of all ages. It was basically a daycare classroom for the deaf). Sometimes we paid a teenage boy to accompany Josue. After two years of doing that, I started to seriously consider the offer of a job at the seminary office in Guatemala. That job was being offered to me since the very start of my three years of work with the seminary. I went for the interview and was offered to be the academic dean of students. I was offered a salary enough to cover the basic cost of living. Then, I started exploring the implications of moving to Guatemala City. I found a house to rent, not far from the place of work. But then I started looking for a school for Josue. One of the office staff drove me around to various schools that had programs for special-needs children. None had one that used American Sign Language for deaf students. And that stopped the whole process.
But the point I want to make here is that for three years we lived on what I got for two or three weeks of work every month. As you can guess, religious workers, pastors or seminary teachers do not earn a lot of money. Yet for reasons Lilian nor I can tell, we seem to attract people to our home. These people, some elderly widows, mothers with babies, or our neighbors would stop by and share with us about their needs. Despite our very limited resources, we always had something to share with them.
So another key ingredient that can move us towards generosity is by exposing our heart to human suffering. It is hard to close our heart when we know someone who is in need. It is when we come face to face with the suffering of others that our heart will be able to respond generously. I have seen people in utmost poverty. One cannot but have compassion on them and help as much as one can. However, as often is the case, it is our nature to avoid people or places where misery and poverty are visible. There are poor people everywhere. We do not have to travel half way around the world to find them.
I should say that not only in Belize people approached us with their needs. Even here people approach us asking for help to pay medical bills, or to buy medications, gas, or groceries.
So let us grow generosity by giving a little more than we normally do, both to the church and to others in need. Put in your heart to help someone, if not every week at least every month. Start by doing little things. Be generous in your spirit by showing a little more kindness. Take time to speak to a homeless person. Be spontaneous in your giving. It is impossible for the one who is analytical to be generous. Pray that your gift of time, of yourself, and of your resources be used by God as his channel to bless others.
Let us hear Paul’s words again: Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. Amen.
 Mike Holmes, “What Would Happen If the Church Tithed?” Relevant, March 8, 2016.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 144-45