by Pastor Lisa Caine
March 30, 2014
“The Gift of Love”
Matthew 25:31-46 and James 2:14-17
This is the last Sunday that we will be focusing on Holy Habits, those practices that assist us in developing a continual awareness and expression of our love for God and for one another. John Wesley advocated daily reading of scripture and prayer and weekly fasting as means to spiritual formation. And he was also a believer in giving. One of his mottos was “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”
By “gain all you can,” he meant we should work hard, do our best, and always try to do better tomorrow than today. But at the same time, we should not put our physical or spiritual health at risk by becoming workaholics; nor should we do anything that would harm ourselves or our neighbors in any way. By “save all you can,” he did not mean to stash extra money away in the bank. In fact, he thought that money just stuck away like that was the equivalent of throwing it away. He wrote, a person cannot “properly be said to save anything if he only lays it up. You may as well throw your money into the sea as bury it in the earth . . . Not to use is effectually to throw it away.” Thus, when he counseled “save all you can,” he meant that we should not be wasteful in our use of our money and that we should adopt a simplified life-style.[i]
He believed that money used rightly “is an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends,” and he wrote, “In the hands of his children it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked. It gives to the traveler and the stranger where to lay his head. By it we may supply the place of a husband to the widow, and a father to the fatherless, we may be a defense for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, of ease to them that are in pain. It may be as eyes to the blind, as feet to the lame; yea, a lifter up from the gates of death.” That is why he counseled, “give all you can,” saying “Employ whatever God has entrusted you with in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree.” “Give all you have and all you are.”[ii]
Generosity then, as a holy habit means much more than sending an occasional contribution to a benevolent or philanthropic organization, more than gathering up a bag full of old clothes now and again and dropping it off at the Goodwill collection truck, more than giving an hour or two once in awhile for a worthy cause – as good all of those things are. But, generosity as a holy habit fosters holiness of mind and spirit and is an inner disposition to love and grace that springs from our awareness of and gratitude for God’s generosity towards us.
In the reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that when the day of judgment finally comes, it will be our generosity, our love for one another that will be of the utmost importance because it is through sharing, through love that we are most likely to encounter God both in others and in ourselves. It is through our loving gift of ourselves to others that we experience the nearness of God, both in our being and in our doing. We most nearly resemble God when we love generously and we are most nearly in proximity to God when we love without reserve.
This kind of generosity is a holy habit that brings about our transformation as well as the transformation of the person for whom it is intended. It invites us to step out of our own comfort zones, and to experience the world through someone else’s eyes. It is a kind of active empathy, a recognition of and feeling of someone’s oain, and then a motivation to lessen it, to do something about it. It is something then that becomes second nature; it is the lens through which we then see the world continually.
This kind of generosity does not arise from pity or sympathy; it is not condescending, looking down on needy people, feeling sorry for “them” as opposed to “us,” “those kind of people,” as opposed to “our kind of people.” It is not thinking, “there but for the grace of God go I;” and it is definitely not having a check list of good deeds to fulfill in order to keep our place with the sheep is secure,” because that would be using people and situations for our own reward, which is exactly contrary to Jesus’ teaching.
Unfortunately, try as we might, It is easy to become oblivious to the needs of others. We spend so much of our time taking care of ourselves, meeting our own or our family’s physical and emotional. And all too easily that busyness can lead to self-centeredness, so that we can become unaware of what is going on all around us.
I remember hearing Walter Bruggeman speak about how quickly our self-centered preoccupation with providing not only for our own needs, but for all of our assorted wants and desires as well, can lead to a kind of amnesia, a forgetting about the source of all of our many gifts. If we’re not careful, we begin to think we’ve done it all ourselves, completely by ourselves. And that amnesia then leads to a kind of arrogance, a feeling that we deserve all we have, and a sense of pride in our accomplishments and in our possessions, as well as a belief that God is on our side, blessing whatever it is that we are doing. Forgetting the source of our blessings and assuming that who we are and what we do are more important and valuable than anything or anybody else, lead to alienation and isolation from one another, from our community, and from the world.
That isolation is encouraged in our society, as our culture urges us to claim the identity of “consumer.” It pushes us to believe satisfaction comes from the accumulation and preservation of material goods, and we are told that such behavior is even patriotic because our country’s success is based on our buying power. We are lured into believing in a kind of social Darwinism which approves the survival of the industrious, hardworking and task-oriented fittest, and condones the decline of the unfit, unprofitable, under-or unemployed weak because they are “worth-less,”[iii] and not therefore worthy of assistance.
But if we want to develop a life of continual awareness of God in our midst, then our primary identity cannot be as buyers or consumers. Wesley calls us to identify ourselves instead as stewards, short term managers of property that belongs to God.[iv] In that way we can lose the myopic and lethal illusion that “it’s all about me.” You know, those goats in Matthew’s parable were not condemned because they did terrible things; they were condemned because they did nothing. So wrapped up in themselves, they became blind to the world around them. They were oblivious to the hungry and the thirsty; the sick and imprisoned were out of sight and out of mind. They bore the stranger no malice, they just didn’t see any relationship between him and them.
The spiritual habit of generosity develops in us awareness of the other person, it causes us to think about that person before we think about ourselves, to have their needs at the forefront of our minds rather than our own. To make someone or something else our first priority, rather than a casual afterthought. And in so doing, we encounter the holy in our lives in ways we might otherwise have never known. Matthew makes it clear that when we care for the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned, we are caring for God and we are creating a space for a holy encounter that can change us as much as it can change the other person. And we are transformed when we can see “at least a speck of God in everyone” we meet.[v]
Generosity as a spiritual discipline comes out of community and kinship. Jesus doesn’t call us to be gift givers and social workers – as helpful as those persons are – he calls us to be brothers and sisters. He calls us into relationship with one another, even when that relationship is unlikely or momentary. And it may be that out of that relationship, after giving ourselves and after seeing another person whole and loving them as a brother or a sister in Christ, that we then choose to do something – give our money, share our possessions, offer our time.
We are called to be conduits of God’s generosity, thereby making tangible to others the gifts that have been given to us. And when you get right down to it, tangibility is at the heart of our Christian faith, for that is exactly what incarnation is. God becoming tangible to us in Jesus Christ—becoming flesh, and dwelling among us. In love God gave God’s self to the world. And we show our love for God by sharing that love with others. As our epistle reading from James states it, “faith by itself if it has no works [if it is not made tangible by giving] is dead.”
God comes near to us in god’s tangible gift of love. And we come near to God in our tangible gifts to others. Generosity is our gift of love to God whether we know it or not. The sheep had no idea of the God hidden in the ones they helped or of the God hidden in them while they were helping.[vi] “Lord, when was it that we saw you,” they ask. And Jesus answers, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these . . . you did it to me.” As we live a generous life, we draw near to God and to one another, and we understand truly that when we do, we no longer say “there but for the grace of God, go I,” but instead truly understand and live into the mystery that there by the grace of God, goes God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] James Harnish, Simple Rules for Money, 2009, 39.
[iii] Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, 2007, 189-224.
[iv] Harnish, 60.
[v] Laura Tyler Wright, Giving: The Sacred Art, 2008, 102.
[vi] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 1960, 129.