Delivered on November 18th, 2012 by Sherman Hesselgrave
1 Kings 17:8-16
Walter Brueggemann, “Giver of All Good Gifts: On reading 1 & 2 Kings,” from Prayers for a Privileged People.
“…but this woman, out of her poverty, put in everything—
all she had to live on.”
“Stir us by your spirit beyond fearful accumulation
toward outrageous generosity.”
I’d like you to think back to your childhood for a moment.
What did you learn about money from your parents?
Or was money something that was never discussed in your presence?
When I think back on my own experience, I remember money being an occasional source of tension between my parents. They both grew up during the Depression: my mother, on a ranch in Montana; and my father, in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. On the farm, everything was paid by cash. If you wanted something expensive, you saved up for it. In the city, you could pay by cash, or you could put it on account, and pay it off over time. It doesn’t require much imagination to see how this could lead to a clash of cultures within the household. “Honey, guess what? I bought a new car today.”
I have a friend, whose father was the manager of a bank in Pittsburgh. During his university summer breaks, he would work at the bank. One day, my friend’s father told him he wanted him to come into his office and observe a meeting. An out-of-work steel mill worker had applied for a loan to pay for medical bills for a family member, and the bank manager—a devout Lutheran—wanted his son to learn an important lesson. The manager told the mill worker that the bank could not give him a loan, as he had no collateral. But then, the manager took out his personal cheque book, and wrote the man a cheque for the amount needed. Outrageous generosity.
The word ‘generous’ has an interesting etymology. It enters the English language from the French and Latin, meaning originally ‘of noble birth,’ which then becomes ‘characteristic of noble birth, magnanimous.’ The One Percent of an earlier age seem to have had better public relations.
The parish where I was ordained a priest had as one of its parish mottos, “Never resist a generous impulse.” I have tried to incorporate it in the DNA of my ministry wherever I have been. The biblical standard of generosity is modeled not only by God, but by the widow in today’s gospel reading. (And I doubt very much that she was of noble birth.) Generosity is not necessarily about dollar amounts as much as it is about proportion. As Jesus observed: “The truth is, this poor widow has given more than all the others. For they gave out of their abundance; but this woman, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.”
Long ago, I was on the Stewardship Commission of a far-away diocese. I was facilitating a Bible study during one of my first consultations. There were about 80 parishioners seated at round tables. They had been discussing Malachi 3:10:
“Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.”
This was back in the days when you could still talk about tithing (that is, ten percent) as a standard or goal for proportional giving in church. (Peter Misiaszek, the Director of Stewardship Development for the diocese, told us at the Stewardship workshop a couple weeks ago that, in the Diocese of Toronto, the current level of giving is 1.3%. Hitting 2% would be a major coup.) So, back to my story. After the table discussions, I took questions. One fellow in his 20s stood up, and in an angry voice, protested, “God can’t expect a single mom to give ten percent of her income. That would be a form of child abuse!” After he sat down, a woman raised her hand. This is what she had to say to the group: “I’m Connie, and I recently moved back to this community. I’m a single mom. When I was going through my divorce, I hadn’t been to church for a long time, and my best friend, who is a Baptist, told me I needed to do two things: Go back to church; and start tithing. So I started going to church again. But tithing seemed a little scary. Ten percent seemed like a lot of money to me, so I decided to give nine percent, and see what happened. You know what? My daughter and I have managed just fine.” She sat down. Silence. It was remarkable how the story of her leap of faith instantly neutralized the fearful outburst that prompted its telling. The parish of St John the Evangelist increased their giving by 10% that year, and a few years later, not surprisingly, the bishop appointed Connie as the Chair of the diocesan Stewardship Commission. OutRAGEOUS generosity.
I don’t have a citation, but someone told me long ago that there was a study that showed that giving away between 8 and 12 percent of one’s income (without attaching any strings) had a way of liberating one from the power money has over us. Without that discipline of giving a meaningful portion away, we are more likely to orient ourselves toward attitudes of scarcity (and fears of not having enough) rather than seeing the abundance all around us. I’m pretty sure you can remember moments when giving a gift brought joy and delight not only to the recipient, but also to you, the giver. That, too, is outrageous generosity.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” How many hundreds of times have we prayed those words? In the original Greek of the New Testament, there is a word in this petition that occurs ONLY in this phrase. And so scholars can’t say for sure if we are praying for bread “for today,” “for the coming day,” or “for the bread that is necessary for existence.” Whichever way you read it, it is not the language of security guaranteed by RRSPs, stock portfolios, and pension plans. Compared to what most people who have lived on this planet have had to live on, we live like nobility, far beyond the daily bread we pray for.
Jesus invites all of us to live into that spirit of generosity modeled for us today by the widow in the temple, who put her existence into God’s hands by giving all she had—not a tithe—not ten percent—but one hundred percent of her trust and her treasure. And also by the other widow in today’s readings, the widow of Zarephath, who shared, not her last coin, but her and her son’s last meal, in an act of sacrificial hospitality that ends with a note of resurrection. Jesus turns to widows and orphans, those with the least power and social position in the world of his time, to open our eyes to the values of God’s reign in the world.
A couple weeks ago I wrote the last cheque for my share of my daughter’s university education. It was a great relief for two reasons. One, she is now earning a living for herself. And two, it means I will be able to increase my giving to others, including to Holy Trinity, and that feels very good. Everywhere I go, I run into people who comment on the remarkable things this parish community has accomplished. We all know that those accomplishments happened only because of enormous dedication, determination, and sacrifice. The giants on whose shoulders we stand have held the bar high, showing us that one can be both generous AND have enough left over, as in the miracle of the loaves and fishes. We are in the position to model outrageous generosity for the next generation, and in so doing, bring hope, light, and justice to children yet unborn.