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The Culture of Generosity

by Bishop James Thomas

“And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian Churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.” 2 Corinthians 8:1-5 (NIV)

To share with you one person’s understanding of why we are here, I want to emphasize again Paul’s description of the culture of generosity. In this text, at the beginning of Second Corinthians 8, Paul is describing how some Christians are expressing their generosity to others.

In so many words, he says: “We must tell you friends about the grace of generosity that God has imparted to our congregations in Macedonia. They have been through hard trials. Yet, in all of this, they have been so exuberantly happy that, even from the depths of their poverty, they have been lavishly open handed.”

Consider, for a moment, the paradoxes that Paul describes: Severe ordeals, yet happiness; depths of poverty, yet generosity; poor themselves, but “pleading for the privilege of giving.” Let us think, also, of these passionate words. No half-hearted response to need and certainly no grudging giving. Rather, it is giving that comes with a passion which is born of Spiritual discipline. It is, no less, a focus upon the riches of Christ.

Because such generosity is so rare in any age or place, our task here is a daunting one; and that for several reasons. The economy of our nation is down but we are still a rich country. We have seen in recent days the headlines describing a culture of greed, but there are still idealistic people who give up lucrative careers to serve the poor. A part of our task is to encourage a continuing belief in the culture of generosity.

When one lives long enough, one discovers that in every age there are people who want to live in a culture of generosity. Sometimes, when goods and services are few, we are forced to be generous.

I grew up in South Carolina during the great depression of 1929. As a ten-year old I lived through a time when people who lived in town had a hard time finding bread to eat. As a boy, I saw my foster mother borrowing cups of grits and sugar across the back fence from a neighbor who happened to have had more food at that time than we did. That culture is almost unimaginable for people of this age but that, too, was a culture of generosity.

Perhaps that is why I understand what it means to have a passion to give and to share, little or much, what one has.

One great reason to do this is that there are so many needs in the world, so many agonizing needs. There is so much misery in the world that no one of us needs a litany of details. That certainly means that if we do not have the kind of generosity that the Macedonians had, the world will die for lack of it – We are called to be a culture of generosity that is fed from the fertile ground of biblical understanding of what it means to follow the example of our Lord, who, though he was rich, became poor for our salvation.Recently, I have been revisiting some biblical stories and passages that have become richer in meaning over my sixty years of preaching. In Mark’s gospel, Chapter 12, we read, in sequence, of Jesus’ denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees. Because they walk around in long robes and choose the best seats in the Synagogue, they are denounced. Also, because they devour widows’ houses and say long prayers, they will receive the greater condemnation. Mark 12:38-40 (NIV)

Then, in the very next series of verses, Jesus looks over and sees a poor widow. He says to his disciples: “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.” Mark 12:43-44 (NIV)

That is a strange sequence of verses. This widow has haunted me for sixty years. Why would a woman put all that she has into the offering? What will she have to live on? In our self-centered world, that is not logical. I have never preached on this text in sixty years nor have I heard anyone else preach on it. How do we fit this into our theology? How do we put enough passion into our understanding of the meaning of this text?

Our text emphasizes the fact that, in the culture of generosity, there are the poor who give to the poorer. Some of us are poor, at least relative to others. But we will share what we have with those who have less than we have. We look around and see all the needs that ought to be met, the diseases that ought to be healed, and the people who ought to be nurtured. We see the wants of life in an uncaring society and we wonder about preachers who have the nerve to preach in five hundred dollar suits covered by robes, when poverty is literally at the door of the church.

Look again at the poor widow and I begin to ask: “What is the lesson here? I tithe, as many Christians do, but what does it mean to put in all that one has? If one does that, how will one support his family? How can one trade in the Cadillac for an SUV? How can one do all of these things and still have money to give?

One answer to these questions comes to us from the culture of generosity. Some years ago, when I had responsibility for the stewardship of the Methodist Church for the Black Colleges, I received a letter from a woman, a retired missionary. She was very direct, as some missionaries can be. I had never met her but somehow she had fallen in love with one of our colleges that was in great need. In her letter she said: “Dr. Thomas, if the Board of Education plans to support and build this college, I will give my life savings of $50,000. If not, you will not hear from me again.” I could not visit her at that time but did ask the president of the college to do so. He did and her widow’s gift helped to save the college.

In the second place, there are some, who could be richer, who give generously to others. Note that I did not say “want to be rich” because that can be dangerously close to greed. On the most elemental human level, I want to be rich – at least enough to pay my bills and live a reasonably comfortable life. That, I think, is not sinful. But what of those who could be rich if they did not give so much away?

John Wesley could have been a rich man. In fact he said, in one place, that he had become rich by selling so many tracts.

“Having the desire to furnish poor people with cheaper and plenty books than any I’d seen, I wrote many small tracts, generally a penny a piece. And afterwards, several larger, some of these had such a sale as I’d never thought of. And by this means, I unawares became rich. But I never desired or endeavored after it. And now, that it has come upon me unawares, I lay up no treasures upon earth. I lay up nothing at all.” 1

This requires great sensitivity. I find it hard to be Wesley in this regard. And his practice of rising from bed so early is equally hard for me. When I visited England some years ago and looked at Wesley’s bed, I could not imagine sleeping in it. I thought to myself, “That short bed!“ No wonder he got up at 4 or 5 a.m. If I had to sleep in that bed, I’d probably prefer to sit up all night in a rocking chair. But putting aside this light diversion, the greater point is that Wesley could have been – was – rich. But, following his Lord, he gave generously to those in need.

Wesley understood, profoundly, the biblical grounds for stewardship. Our task is to lead people beyond the easy slogans, even scriptural ones, that are rarely translated into action.

You and I have seen the banners held up at some football games: John 3:16. Do the bearers of such banners even know the profound depths of that passage for John’s gospel? ‘God so LOVED the world, that God gave his only begotten Son—-’ Returning now to Paul’s passionate paradoxes, I’m a living testimony to the goodness of God. I’ve been trained in South Carolina to keep emotions very much under control, but the passion of stewardship must be understood because we are moved not only by thesis and proclamations, but by the depths of understanding and the tender conscience and the determination to give. I fantasize a bit. This is not altogether true, as you’ll discover. I went to church one day with fifty dollars in my pocket, but at what age I will not disclose. I carefully thought out my tithe and gave it. But in every church, especially Black churches, there’s a section called the ‘drive crazy’ section. One lady got up and started singing a solo. I had already given, but, as she sang, I said, “I think I’ll give ten dollars more.” It must’ve been fifty verses and I gave ten dollars more…and ten dollars more…and finally I turned my pockets inside out…and said, “You can have me!” This is about passion, not just asking people for money, it’s a matter of passion and a matter of laying before people the tremendous needs of the world, to say nothing of the nurture that each of us needs.

Our final emphasis is placed upon the power that moves us to such giving and the power that such giving generates. There are some rich people in the world who give generously to those in need.

Many years ago, when I was a student at Gammon Theological Seminary, I ran out of money completely. A woman in Connecticut, who wanted to remain anonymous sent some money to President (later Bishop) Willis J. King. In her letter, she simply said: “Give this money to a deserving student.” I may not have deserved the money but I surely needed it. She sent enough money to get me through the semester. And even though it was a strange thing, when I went east for further study, I began to look for that nameless woman in congregations of New York and Connecticut. I wanted to thank her for belonging to a culture of generosity.

Speaking with passion now, I do not know where I would be now without such earlier generosity that came my way. Some of us had to get through school by working hard and receiving the generosity of others. In college, I had three jobs, all of them in the kitchen and the dining room. But most of my schoolmates in the 1930’s worked as well. None of us could work enough to pay all of our bills. The difference came from people, from foundations, from others who gave and gave generously.

Again Wesley is our teacher. In a sermon “On Dress,” John Wesley relates a story of his own conscience on giving. 2

During one of his many travels and visits Wesley came in contact with a poor young girl. She lived in a home owned by the Methodists. As the girl came near, Wesley asked: “Is this little gown all you have to cover you in the wintertime?” When she answered in the affirmative, Wesley, who had just bought a picture frame for his room, relates his own struggle of conscience:

“It immediately struck me. Will not the Master say to me, “Well done good and faithful Steward,” thou hast adorned thy walls with the money that might have screened this poor, creature from the cold. O Justice! O Mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?”

About twenty years ago, I considered my own conscience in this matter. We visited Hong Kong, that city of infinite shopping opportunities. I took this as my chance to buy a number of beautiful custom-made shirts. After I picked up my shirts, I came to the edge of the city where I saw many very poor people living in caves dug out in the mountain sides. I did not have Wesley’s sensitivity then but hope I have more of it now. And so I now cry out with Wesley: “O Mercy! How much did these beautiful shirts bought for a fraction of what they would cost in the United States, take from these poor mountain dwellers?”

Such sensitivity and passion is not born in us. It must be nurtured, cultivated, strengthened by worship and by practice.


References

  1. From Wesley’s sermon “The Danger of Riches” The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 7, page 9. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan Publishing House 1872.
  2. From Wesley’s Sermon “On Dress” The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 7. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan Publishing House 1872