God's Generosity

Preacher: 
Don Alexander
Sermon Text: 

10/27/2019,  Proper 25 Year C

Don Alexander, Lay Preacher

See readings at the end of the sermon

Sermon:

to humanity.  From the human perspective, we are slowly and steadily discerning both God and God’s will for all human-kind.  In this instance, Did you notice that today’s readings all share a theme about God’s generosity?   In Sirach, we hear,  “Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford. For the Lord is the one who repays, and he will repay you sevenfold.”  And then in Timothy, Paul tells us, “...the Lord stood by me and gave me strength… ...I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom.”  And then in Luke, Jesus tells us the story of a Pharisee and a tax collector that went to the temple to pray and one of them returns home justified.

In all three instances we have examples of God’s generosity but they’re hardly identical stories of generosity.  Intriguingly, the theme develops from Sirach to Paul to Jesus.  For me, and perhaps you too, this development parallels my own personal spiritual journey. 

In Sirach we are urged to be as generous as we can afford.  Sirach suggests generosity is an obligation responding to God’s generosity - “give to the Most High as he has given to you” and it is also a quid pro quo, to use a term that’s been bandied about lately.  Whatever you give, God will repay sevenfold.  This passage lends itself to be understood in terms of earthly riches although, it can be understood in terms of spiritual gifts as well.

Both Paul and Jesus clearly express God’s generosity in terms of spiritual rewards.  In Paul’s case he explicitly says he has “kept the faith.” and in return the Lord will be faithful and reward him with a place in the heavenly kingdom.  Paul is moving from a ‘tit for tat’ transaction like we heard in Sirach, toward a relational transaction between faithful partners.  Paul loved the Lord and worked to bring the Kingdom of God, It is in this faithfulness that God returns Paul’s love. 

Jesus goes well beyond Paul’s understanding and sheds new light on God’s generosity.  In this case, a sinner is forgiven based on just a humble petition.  This parable beautifully illustrates the Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  The tax collector, who typically would have been a Jew working for the Roman occupation force, was considered by Jews to be a turncoat, working for the enemy.  Jewish tax collectors were not considered heroes.  They profited by over-charging and extorting excessive taxes from their Jewish neighbors.  This man came to the temple recognizing and owning his sinfulness and simply asked for mercy.  Contrary to expectations, Jesus says the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee.

Now if this were an isolated incident where Jesus made God out to be generous, I’d be skeptical that perhaps something else was intended here.  But this isn’t an isolated incident.  Time and again Jesus preached about the Father’s generosity; in the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the workers in the vineyard, and of the king who forgave a servant of a debt of 10,000 talents (about 200,000 YEARS of wages).

This kind of generosity makes me uncomfortable because it is unlike anything I’ve experienced in terms of human generosity.   Imagine getting a check from the bank or the IRS for 200,000 years of wages (more than 2.5 billion dollars at minimum wage). You know it would be a mistake.  But with God, it’s not a mistake. In some ways God seems like a crazy aunt or uncle who wants to bestow every possible gift on me - and you - even though we clearly don’t deserve it. That’s how much this crazy aunt or uncle loves us.  This is the God that our Jewish ancestors discerned and Jesus taught about.  I struggle to believe it’s true but that is what our scriptures teach.  It’s a message I need to take to heart and dwell on in my quiet moments.

And what about this development we see in God’s generosity in these passages?  Going from a quid pro quo to freely given, going from earthly to spiritual gifts, and from seven-fold to unimaginable generosity?  While Sirach was written less than 300 years before the completion of the Christian Scriptures he captures much of the sentiment of the Hebrew Scriptures of a God that wreaks earthly havoc on the Jews when they are unfaithful to the covenant of Abraham and blesses them generously when they return to God. 

I have often heard that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is an angry and jealous God and the God of the Christian Scriptures is a loving, forgiving, and generous God. I can see how people arrive at this conclusion. But has God changed or has our understanding of God changed?  There’s little doubt in my mind that God is unchanging and that what we’re seeing here is revelation.  Over about 1,800 years from the time of Abraham through Moses, David, the Prophets and culminating with Jesus, God is slowly revealing God’s self humanity slowly discerned God’s generosity.  We didn’t see it clearly, we confused parts of it but ultimately Jesus came and clarified God’s incredible generosity.

This pattern of community discernment continues in both Jewish and Christian circles today in the form of Jewish midrash and Christian councils, the Reformation, and theological development.  It mirrors individual discernment and is widely recognized as one of the ways the Holy Spirit guides the Church.  Our understanding of God grows both individually and communally.

When I look at my life I know I’ve grown spiritually over the years as I expect most, if not all of us have.  As I approach 70, I don’t pray like I did when I was 12.  When I was 12, I knew I could bend God’s will to mine through prayer.  My prayers now are usually to accept God’s will, not change it.  My prayers have unconsciously become more like Jesus’ prayers the night before he died.  “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Moreover, I’m not alone in my spiritual growth.  In the well known Merton prayer, Thomas Merton recognizes his imperfect understanding of God’s will and expressed his uncertainty that he truly was doing God’s will.  At the same time he trusted that his desire to do God’s will did in fact please God.  Mother Teresa said,

I use to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do.  I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength.  I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.

So how can we use these thoughts, reflections and ideas to guide us? Let me share my experience.  For starters, I no longer expect that my prayers and actions are part of some heavenly calculus that will change God’s will, or earn me either salvation or a seven-fold reward in heaven.  Like Paul and Mother Teresa, I do what I can to bring the kingdom of heaven on earth.  I try to act out of love, not instinct.  I regularly visit family and friends who are sick or alone out of love, not out of obligation.  I do my best to temper my anger at the injustice I see in the world around me and if I can counter an injustice I do so.  As examples, I informally adopted a young man from Guatemala and I’ve assisted him through the asylum process and worked with him to understand how life in the US works by advising him on many things such as employment, educational opportunities and even dating.  I also have chosen family in Mexico, some with serious health issues and I have supported them in a variety of ways.  These are opportunities that found me - I did not go looking for them.  When they presented themselves, I responded.  I did what I could  I also share my faith with others but realistically, I firmly believe actions speak louder than words.  My advice is to be open to the opportunities God presents to you - and respond.  Do what you can.

I trust these actions make the world a better place.  I believe these acts will build the kingdom but like Merton, I can’t be certain.  Like Mother Teresa, I know prayer changes me, and like Paul, I trust that by following the teachings of Jesus, I am being faithful to God and deepening our relationship.  I respond to opportunities as I encounter them. I don’t try to change the world I simply do what I can.  Even though we rarely see the effects of our actions, I trust, that collectively we not only make the world a kinder place, we are in fact bringing God’s Kingdom here on earth,

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Sirach 35:12-17

Give to the Most High as he has given to you,
and as generously as you can afford.

For the Lord is the one who repays,
and he will repay you sevenfold.

Do not offer him a bribe, for he will not accept it
and do not rely on a dishonest sacrifice;

for the Lord is the judge,
and with him there is no partiality.

He will not show partiality to the poor;
but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.

He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan,
or the widow when she pours out her complaint.

2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18

I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

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