Whee! We! Wee! All the Way Home: Generosity

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached June 26, 2011 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Isaiah 58: 1-11: "pour yourself out for the hungry ..."
Matthew 14:15-21: "you give them something to eat"
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Our first song this evening comes from folk singer- songwriter John Gorka. He got his start in a coffee house in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This song, Gravyland, appeared on his 1992 album Temporary Road. Let's try it.

If all my luck ran out tomorrow
I'd have to say that I have had my share
Enough to balance out the sorrow
Enough to say that I'm a little scared
'Cause this is not what I expected
I did not expect to feel this good
I always kept my heart protected
I crossed my fingers and I knocked on wood

[Chorus] All the rest is just like gravy on the table
And I'll pour and pass as long as I am able
And I know it takes some time to understand
Rules of behavior here in gravyland,
here in gravyland

Phillip Withem, of Logan, Ohio, won $5 million in the lottery a few weeks ago. Now, I know what I would do if someone handed me a massive check for $5 million - I'd start making my plans on what kind of mountain house to buy, what kind of car to upgrade to, and perhaps when to run out get that nice expensive guitar I've got my eye on. Phillip Withem is a different kind of guy, though. Even though he needs dialysis three times a week to stay alive, his own comfort was not his first thought when he got that check. Instead, Phillip, who once worked as a janitor at the local courthouse, will give a large part of his winnings away to charity, and to friends who have helped him during his illness.

"I'm going to help people because I love it," he said. "It makes me feel good, and I think that's what God put us here for."

The prophet Isaiah would agree with Phillip. In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures tonight, we find the prophet rebuking the people of Israel. They think they're doing all the right things to be righteous in God's eyes. They are fasting, they are denying themselves, sacrificing their own comfort to try to please God.

But, God says, while fasting and sacrifice are good things - they are only good when we do them for the right reason.

The Message translation of this passage makes it clear how angry it makes God when we fast just to look pious:

"The bottom line on your 'fast days' is profit.
You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do
won't get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I'm after:
a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
a fast day that I, God, would like?"

No, Isaiah tells the people - this is not the fasting God calls us to. Instead, the fast God calls us to is this: "to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am."

Later in the verse, Isaiah urges us to "pour yourself out for the hungry."

I imagine God says to Phillip Withem, "Here I am," because he truly understands the fast that God calls us to - a fast for generosity - a fast that breaks others out of their bondage, a fast that satisfies their hunger, a fast that clothes them and houses them. Instead of starving ourselves, God tells us to feed others - to pour ourselves out for the hungry.

"I'm going to help people because I love it," Phillip Withem said. "It makes me feel good, and I think that's what God put us here for."

Jubilants, Phillip Withem lives in God's country - a place called Gravyland, where money is fleeting, but generosity flows like gravy.

If all my luck ran out tomorrow
And I fell back to where I began
With a spirit poor and a need to borrow
I'll know that who I was is who I am

[Chorus]All the rest is just like gravy on the table
And I'll pour and pass as long as I am able
And I know it takes some time to understand
Rules of behavior here in gravyland,
here in gravyland

Generosity is just what we need to go Whee! We! Wee! all the way home. The "Whee!" or the ecstasy of life can be found in generosity. When we help others - whether it's giving money or time - we feel better, our own physical and mental well-being is improved. Researchers at Cornell University found that being generous can increase your energy, self-esteem and your sense of mastery over your life. It can also boost your immunity, and releases endorphins into your bloodstream - relaxing you and making you feel like saying "Whee! We! Wee!" all the way home.

Isaiah instinctively knew what these researchers spent time and money learning - generosity makes you stronger, healthier, and happier.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you pour yourself out to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

"Whee!" Generosity is part of the ecstasy of being alive - the ecstasy of being in the presence of the Holy. It is also part of the "We!" in our journey - because generosity also creates community. In the movie "Pay it Forward" a 12-year-old boy decides to change the world by doing three good deeds for people, who in turn do three good deeds, and so on and so on. It becomes a national movement - but could it really happen? Researchers at Harvard and UC San Diego say that it can.

The results of their study showed that when one person gave money in a "public-goods game" to help others, the recipients were more likely to give money away in the future. More and more people were involved in the experiment and the results were the same. In short, as one researcher said "You don't go back to being your 'old selfish self.'"

Once you start being generous then, you tend to stay that way. Removing the yoke from people, freeing them from their oppression and bondage, whether it's economic, spiritual, mental or what have you - not only liberates that person - it liberates you as well. Generosity generates community - a sense of "we-ness" as we open our hearts and our spirits to one another.

We begin to realize we're all in Gravyland - where it is our pleasure to pour and pass as long as we are able.

Breathe deeply.

If all my luck ran out tomorrow
And all of love is just a memory
You only miss me like an arrow
Or I am ashes in the darkening sea

[Chorus]All the rest is just like gravy on the table
And I'll pour and pass as long as I am able
And I know it takes some time to understand
Rules of behavior here in gravyland,
here in gravyland

If all my luck ran out tomorrow (repeat and fade)

I am living proof of all those studies that say "you can't go back to your old selfish self." I was once as selfish as they come. In many ways, I remain selfish, but I suspect we are all selfish in one or another or we wouldn't be human. But, I have always been very selfish in matters of money. I'll give you my time, my talent, my expertise, my sympathy, my company, even loan you my car, but don't ask me for money.

I know where this selfishness comes from, of course - it's my own fear of lack, of not having enough. If I give to you then there is less for me. If you take some of what I have then I have don't have as much as I had.

I had not yet learned the Holy principle that nothing is ours - that whatever it is we think we have belongs to the Holy - and if we don't use it in the way the Holy intends, we tend to lose it. By keeping a tight rein on my money, I never felt like I had enough. But, over the years, I have been encouraged by my incredibly generous wife to learn how to open up my life and become a channel of the Holy instead of a clogged drain.

The proof that I cannot go back to my old selfish self happened a little while back. Wanda decided to give some money to a friend of ours who was in need, and she didn't consult me about it first - she just wrote a check out of her generosity, and our checkbook. She told me about it later and I'm sure she was expecting the same old selfish reaction that I had given before.

"How could you? How will we live without that money? Where will we come up with money to cover what you gave away?"

Instead, my first and most immediate reaction was to say, "That's fine, dear. I'm glad we could help. I know it will come back to us tenfold."

Wanda and I were both stunned by that reaction - but this is where I have arrived. Whatever I give will return to me with blessings trailing behind them.

if you pour yourself out to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

Breathe deeply.

Our next song comes from country singer Reba McIntyre. She released her first solo album in 1977 and branched out into acting in the 1990s with a starring role in the film Tremors. She has gone on to starring in her own TV sitcom to add to the 41 million records she has sold in the United States and more than 56 million worldwide. This song "Secret of Giving" comes from her 1999 Christmas album by the same name. So, let's have a little Christmas in June and try it.

[Verse] In this life we all go through hard times,
When we struggle and pray for a lifeline
Just needing someone, To show us the way
[Verse] To you the glass might seem half empty,
But it's half full to those without any
So hold on to hope,
And try to have faith,
Oh, you've got to have faith

[Chorus] If there's just one secret to living, Whoever you are
It's learning the meaning of giving,
With an open heart/With an open heart

In our Jesus story, we find our guy out on the lake, trying to catch some meditation time, but as they were wont to do, the crowds followed him, so he came ashore and healed them. Afterwards, instead of going on their way, they all stayed - just hanging out by the lake with him. Imagine, about 5,000 men women and children, just chillin' with Jesus.

Later that night, the disciples came to him to tell him some shocking news - those 5,000 people are hungry - and they were probably getting grumpy and complaining to the disciples, but they didn't want to leave Jesus.

So, the disciples say to Jesus: "send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." The disciples didn't want to have to deal with all these cranky, hungry people and they knew they wouldn't go anywhere unless Jesus told them to.

Jesus, however, had a different plan in mind. He told them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat."

"You give them something to eat." The disciples couldn't believe what they were hearing. Had Jesus gone crazy? Why they only had five loaves of bread and two fish - all to feed 5,000 people? I imagine the disciples, other than feeling irritated, felt completely overwhelmed by this request. Feed 5,000 people, with such little resources? I imagine at this point they felt very "wee" - very small and insignificant. If they could feed the people, they would - but they didn't have enough.

Jesus knew, however, that when you step into your generosity, and "pay it forward," it begets generosity. So, those five loaves and two fishes fed the multitude. Now, this is a bona fide miracle - not because Jesus waved his hands and made food appear - but perhaps because of the "pay it forward" phenomenon. Perhaps there were people in the crowd with food - but they didn't want to bring it out lest they be forced to share it with the others around them. Then, they see these disciples of Jesus coming through the crowd giving from their place of lack, and they are moved, by genuine compassion and generosity, to share what they have. Imagine it, five thousand people moved to generosity by the one tiny, the one "wee-ful," act of the disciples handing out their meager supplies. This, to me, makes this story much more of a miracle than believing that Jesus waving his hand and creating food out of thin air.

Instead, what true miracles are made of are these small, "wee-ful" acts of kindness that get multiplied over and over and over again. This is the miracle of our "wee-ness" - the Holy can use even the smallest gesture of generosity to change the lives of many people - whether we know it or not.

As Aesop concludes in his fable The Lion and the Mouse: "No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted."

[Verse] If you offer the best part of yourself,
Even when you don't have anything else
Honest and true,
It'll come back to you,
Love comes back to you

[Chorus] If there's just one secret to living, Whoever you are
It's learning the meaning of giving,
With an open heart/With an open heart

How often, Jubilants, do we completely miss the meaning of giving, instead selfishly wondering like those disciples who will take care of us - and more importantly, who will take care of others so I don't have to?

Jesus tells us, just as he told the disciples, "you feed them," and not just feed them but "pour yourself out for the hungry," as Isaiah has told us.

How would it change the way you live if you learned the secret of giving - if you offered the best part of yourself, even if you don't have anything else? How would it change the way you live if you poured yourself out for the hungry?

Don't think the hungry are just those with empty bellies. There are hungry people all around us - hungering for comfort, hungering for joy, hungering for friendship, hungering for a smile, hungering to feel like they belong, hungering to feel the warmth of another person's touch. Jubilants, we are in the midst of a world starving for love, compassion, and connection.

"But," you might say, "I only have so many hours in the day, so much money in the bank, so much energy to give."

That's okay, because you're not in this alone. "We" are in this together, and when "we" make even the "wee-est" attempt to be generous - it cascades, it gains momentum, it grows and expands and feed the masses with basketfuls of blessings left over.

This is what it's like here in Gravyland - we have everything we need and much, much more. When we give, even out of our lack - and maybe especially out of our lack - God blesses it. Our light rises from the darkness, our gloom is turned to noonday joy, our needs are satisfied and our bones become strong. Generosity not only waters and grows those around us, but waters and grows us as well.

Even if our luck runs out tomorrow, Jubilants - we have had our share. So pour that gravy - and pass it around, because in that "wee" gesture we become a channel for the Holy's generosity and there will always be more than enough for us all.

When we trust in that, we can join together and go "Whee! We! Wee!" all the way home.

[Chorus] If there's just one secret to living, Whoever you are
It's learning the meaning of giving,
With an open heart/With an open heart

[Bridge] With your arms wide open, The world opens wide
And you'll believe it deep inside

[Chorus] That there's just one secret to living, Whoever you are
It's finding that true joy in giving,
With an open heart/With an open heart

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

Copyright by the author All Rights Reserved

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