A Generosity of Life
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I used to take the subway downtown to work every day from Yonge and Eglinton. At times some company would be putting on a promotion. They would have people standing outside the subway entrance giving away free samples –say Rice Krispy squares or bagels or something like this that would be completely appropriate at 8am. I would watch people stream by on the way to work and either completely ignore this free gift or if they were polite, wave it off. I was in fact one of the people waving it off. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or a Toronto thing specifically, but often we don’t like free stuff. Maybe we don’t trust it. Last week I asked how we feel when we hear someone say “Trust me!” I said my response is usually one of open scepticism. Perhaps when it comes to free stuff I would say my response is one of refusal – hopefully polite refusal! I wonder why this is.
Perhaps this is because we live in a quid pro quo world. We live in a meritocracy. We live in a world in which we very rarely get something for nothing. We live in a world in which we expect our rewards to be commensurate with our efforts, and we read opinion pieces and have opinions and ask questions about why professional athletes make more for one inning pitched than teachers make in an entire year. We live in a world where we expect effort to result in reward – whether it’s in school with good marks, work with a good salary or wise investment decisions with good profits.
We also live in a world in which people are often valued based on how much they produce and how much they consume. A world where people are reduced to resources – we don’t call them Human Resources departments for nothing. Animals get pulled into this whole thing too when we think of them as units of production. People are valued based on how they look. The underlying message is that how lovable you are is based on how you look. So we stand in the grocery store check-out line and see headlines like “Inside – 10 Worst Celebrity Beach Bodies!” Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in Star Wars in 1977 is “age-shamed” because General Organa, the character she plays in The Force Awakens doesn’t look as good and how dare she and after all it’s only been 38 years but the outcry is so great that Carrie Fisher has to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard to defend herself (and they say followers of Christ are crazy and it’s true we are called to be a peculiar people and if being a peculiar people puts out outside of this kind of insanity then let me be peculiar!).
In the midst of all this we’re talking about generosity. Our God is a generous God. We’re called and enabled to be formed into the image of God’s son by the power of God’s spirit. What might this mean for us? Let us look at God’s word this morning and hear what God might have to say to our hearts.
A Generous God
Any talk of generosity must start from what it means that God is generous. God’s generosity means that everything that we have, everything that we are, comes from God. From the beginning of scripture, God is shown to be a God who gives. In Genesis 1:29 we read “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” In Genesis 2:15 we read “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” The creation narrative was not given to us so that we could get into arguments about how long it took God to create everything, but so that we would know that all of these things we were tasked with looking after and caring for are God’s gift to us. The Biblical narrative ends not in a garden but in a city and there’s a river flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb and this river is flowing right through the middle of the street of the city and the tree of life is there producing fruit each month and its leaves are for healing, the healing of the nations and we have this wonderful invitation to this gift that goes “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” (Rev 22:17) This is how God gives friends, freely and without condition. In the middle we have a status being given to Abraham – a blessing to be the father of a nation by whom all the world will be blessed. We have a set of regulations being given by which this people might live in harmony with God and with one another. We have land being gifted and a king gifted and a line of prophets gifted to remind this people of their calling.
Then we come to God’s most perfect and precious gift. The one we celebrated not long ago. May the wonder of this gift stay with us friends as we head into this year. Paul put it like this to the Corinthians – “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Despite what some might tell you, God’s act of generosity in giving us his son was not so that we might become rich in stuff. Paul best described what God becoming poor means when he describes Christ humbling himself or emptying himself or pouring himself out and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. How can we ever get our minds around such a thing? Charles Wesley describes it in his great hymn “And Can It Be?” which expresses the wonder of this generous pouring out – “Emptied himself of all but love/And bled for Adam’s helpless race.” Amazing love indeed!
This is how God loves us friends. This is how generous God is with his love, with his grace, with his mercy. He pours it out on us. The result of God’s generosity is that we are brought back to him. The riches that Paul is talking about are not material success, but being connected to and relationship with and in fellowship with the author and upholder of all creation – in receiving the Holy Spirit which God has poured out (and there’s that image again) richly through the person of his son.
Yet we still wonder what we have to do to earn this favour. What do we have to do? Most of our experience has taught us that we need to do or be something to earn favour. One day a rich young ruler came to see Jesus. He had a lot going for him. He wanted to know what he needed to do in order to have eternal life. He felt he had done everything he had to do. He’d kept all the commandments. Jesus told him to do one more thing, to sell all his possessions. We read that the rich young ruler went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
What’s In This For Us?
Peter then speaks up. He wonders what’s in this for them. “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have.” What’s in this for us, in other words. We might wonder the same thing. A friend of mine often says she’s glad that the followers of Jesus in the Bible got so many things wrong, it makes her feel much better about her own efforts. We should all say that. It’s a normal question to ask. We’re used to a meritocracy after all. Your rewards are based on your talent, effort, intelligence, and good looks. This is the way the world works. These are the things we need to rely on. The question becomes “What’s in it for us?” In answer to this question Jesus tells a story.
It’s been estimated that there might have been around 18,000 men who would have been unemployed in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day. At harvest time extra hands would be needed to bring in grapes. As James Bryant describes in his book – “Each day men would go to the fields looking for work. If they failed to get hired, they went to the marketplace and chatted with one another, hoping to still get a chance to work.” These men did not live off savings. They had no social safety net to fall back on. Each day they were looking for their daily bread, and hoping to earn a daily wage, knowing that their continued existence and the existence of their families depended on this. The day would start at 6am, at which point this vineyard owner in Jesus’ story hires some workers and they agree to the daily wage, known as a denarius. At 9am the vineyard owner is in the marketplace noticing other workers standing idle, chitchatting. “You also go into the vineyard and I’ll pay you what is right. Same thing at noon, same thing at 3pm. At 5pm he’s out again and still there are workers. “Why are you standing idle all day?” “Because no one has hired us,” is the reply. In other words we need help. “You also go into the vineyard,” they’re told. The invitation to work in the owner’s vineyard is extended to all, no matter what time it is. All goes well until pay cheque time comes, and the ones who were hired first find out that everyone’s getting the same daily wage – in other words everyone is getting what they need. This offends their sense of fairness. “We’ve done so much more!” they say. “We’ve been out here in the sun all day working hard!”
The idea that we get from God what we deserve according to what we do is nothing new. The idea that “If you make this happen for me I’ll go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life!” is not new (and as a church growth strategy maybe that wouldn’t be so bad). Ancient Roman shrines often contained the words Do ut es – “I give in order that you may give.” Peter had given up a lot to follow Jesus – his home, his livelihood. He was a fisherman and used to transactional relationships with customers. I give you something you give me something in return. We’re all used to transactional relationships. What’s in this for us?
As with any parable there are multiple levels of meaning here. You could probably spend a four week sermon series on most parables (and don’t worry you don’t have to start looking at your watches). What I want to point out is what this story shows about God’s generosity. It’s not something that we earn. As one writer puts it – “The vineyard owner claims the right to pay his workers not on the basis of their merits but on the basis of his compassion.” It’s not about getting what we deserve, because none of us are deserving of grace based on anything we’ve done or could ever do. God has lavished his grace and love and mercy on us. Our relationship with God is based on a transaction the way we view transactional quid pro quo or commodified relationships. The purpose of God’s generosity was to bring us back to him, because we were standing in the marketplace needing help. The good and proper and fitting response to God’s generosity is for us to get down on our knees and thank him. The result is that we’re called and enabled to be a people that reflect his ways – including how generous he is, not begrudge them.
A Generous Life
So what does all this mean for us? What kind of life are called to as followers of God, who has acted so generously and acts so generously and will act so generously in things? Now you may be thinking “Oh he’s finally going to talk about money!” It is budget time after all and I’ve been doing this for almost 6 months now. I heard someone say recently that people often complain that churches are always asking for money. Is this the time I’m going to ask for money? We’ll talk about money, though it won’t involve me asking for it any more that last week’s sermon was all about “Trust me.”
For six weeks to start this year we’re looking at and reflecting on what God is like – God’s goodness, God’s faithfulness, God’s generosity, God’s love. We’re talking about how these traits interact and inform one another. We’re talking about how these traits were revealed in the person of Christ. To put a Trinitarian angle on this, there’s a thread running through this whole thing which is this – followers of Christ are enabled by the Holy Spirit to come ever more to reflect these traits. To come ever more to reflect God’s goodness and faithfulness and generosity and love and justice and grace and mercy and all the ideas and concepts that we use to try to get our minds around the idea of who God is. Paul summed them up very well when he called them the fruit of the Spirit! The thing about these traits, they’re not primarily about “We have to be these ways in order to follow Christ.” It’s that “We get to be these ways when we follow Christ.” As one writer puts it – “It’s not that we’ve got to be generous, – it’s that we get to be generous.” In becoming ever more aware of God’s generosity toward us, we come ever more to reflect this generosity. You can think of these as “Kingdom” behaviours. Following Christ is being caught up in the kingdom or reign of God inaugurated in the person of Christ – the messenger who was also the message! Accepting the invitation to be caught up in this great Kingdom project involves the invitation to leave ourselves open to hearing God’s voice and to come ever more to reflect God’s ways. I’m not going to tell you to give anything, but I invite all of us together to figure out what it means to ever more give ourselves to the one who gives us every good and perfect thing. A generosity of life which means being generous with mercy, being generous with grace, with kindness, with hospitality, with time, with gifts, with money.
Not because we’ve got to, but because we get to. I’m not going to stand up here and ask for money, or time, or tell you to use your gifts because you should. I’m going to say that the extent to which we at Blythwood are caught up in God’s kingdom plan – God’s reclamation plan, God’s peace bringing plan, God’s great salvation project – is going to depend on how we are coming to reflect God’s ways – God’s goodness and faithfulness and love and generosity and all the things that God is.
So friends as we reflect on God’s ways and invite God to show us his ways and teach us his paths, may we be ever more coming to reflect God’s generosity in all aspects – what I’m calling a generosity of life. One writer puts it like this: “When all is said and done, the followers of Christ ought to give generously because they delight in the hope made possible through Christ… If our hope ultimately rests neither in what we own, nor our wits, nor our feats, but in the reliable promises of our gracious God, then we can share gladly and liberally with those in need. Hope filled Christian are not preoccupied with possessing things but with being possessed by generosity of spirit.” May this be true for us all.