The Hunger for Generosity

Read the rest of the Via Negativa: The Hunger Games sermon series

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost:

The jar of meal was not emptied. (1 Kings 17:8-16)
She out of her poverty has put in everything she had. (Mark 12:38-44)
Bestow your love, even on your enemies. (Rumi)

Our first song comes from singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant. The New York native describes herself as “a suicidal high school dropout” who worked at a health food store when she was 16 and had planned to be a special education teacher. She started singing with a band called Still Life in 1981. That band later changed its name to 10,000 Maniacs. After seven albums, she left the band in 1993 for a solo career. Today’s song comes from her second solo album, Ophelia. It’s called “Kind and Generous.”

You’ve been so kind and generous
I don’t know how you keep on giving
For your kindness, I’m in debt to you
For your selflessness, my admiration
For everything you’ve done, you know I’m bound
I’m bound to thank you for it

As many of you may remember, I am the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister. Many of you may not know that my dad divorced my mother when I was 9 years old.

The divorce was awful for everyone, of course, but it soured me on several things like religion, especially the Southern Baptist religion where a preacher could rail against divorce and then go and get one. It also soured me on marriage and made me deeply distrust preachers.

So, years later, you can see that God has a wicked sense of humor — as I stand here, a married preacher who teaches religion on the side.

But one of the other things I learned about God in the midst of this terrible, awful and tragic turn of events in the life of my family was this — God always satisfies our hunger for generosity just when we need it the most.

As a 9-year-old, my grasp on adult problems and realities was very limited. I knew dad was gone, that mom was sad and that things would be changing for us. I just didn’t realize how drastic those changes would be. My mother had been a stay-at-home mom, raising five kids while my father worked. She had never held down a job, going from college to marriage to motherhood in the span of a few short years after meeting my dad. Now she had to be the breadwinner for herself and her remaining two kids at home. The only job she could find at that time was at McDonald’s — and their pay hasn’t really improved all that much since the 1970s.

My dad was also unemployed — unable to find a job as a divorced Southern Baptist pastor — and was being supported by his new, rich second wife. So he was refusing to cough up any child support — which meant, in pretty short order, the house was foreclosed on and our little family moved into a government housing project. In a matter of months we went from solid, middle-class family to poverty stricken, living on government assistance. The American Dream in reverse.

An empty Christmas

That first Christmas though, that dad was gone we were still in the nice house — and my brother and I had our Christmas list of stuff all ready to go. We had hounded mom for this toy and that toy for months. Our mother was careful not to display her deep grief over the loss of her 25-year marriage to us kids. We still saw her as the cheery, hardworking woman she had always been. We had no idea at this point that my mother was broke.

As far as she was concerned, there would be no Christmas for us. No presents under the tree. No toys to play with on Christmas morning — just empty stockings and a barren tree.

Years later my mother told me that on that Christmas eve, after Doug and I had gone to bed, she laid herself out under the tree and sobbed. She had utterly failed as a wife and a mother. She could not keep her husband and she could not provide for her children. She was bereft with grief.

Early that morning, before we kids were awake, there was a knock at the door. There, my mother found several of our neighbors, bearing gifts. They had come together, and given from their generosity, to the family in their midst who had nothing. When Doug and I awoke that Christmas morning, we had presents — everything we had asked for and more — and we were none the wiser.

It wasn’t until just a few years ago that my mother told me that story — a story of amazing generosity — the outpouring of kindness from neighbors who didn’t want anyone waking up to an empty Christmas.

For their deep and generous kindness, I am still in debt.

You’ve been so kind and generous
I don’t know how you keep on giving
For your kindness, I’m in debt to you
And I never could have come, this far without you
For everything you’ve done, you know I’m bound
I’m bound to thank you for it

Elijah and the widow

If I had to guess, I would think that this widow had the same feelings of gratitude for Elijah that I did for those amazing neighbors so many years ago.

She, like my mother, was desperate and broke. When she met Elijah she was out by the gate gathering up some sticks to build a fire. She told Elijah her plight. She was down to her last bit of meal and oil, and she had no way to get any more for herself and her son — so she was getting ready to go home, whip up her last meal for her and her son and prepare to slowly starve to death.

Given her situation, she was probably a little bit put off by Elijah’s bossiness in this passage. “Woman, get me some water… woman, get me some bread.” Or perhaps she was just resigned to her fate and didn’t care if some stranger was ordering her around. Or perhaps she knew her place in her society — as a widow she had little choice but to serve any man who asked something from her. Or perhaps she knew this was her last chance to share a bit of kindness with a stranger before she lay down to die.

Whatever her thoughts, she served Elijah — she showed him kindness and generosity even when she had nothing to live for — and nothing to live on. It wasn’t her attitude, but her actions, that helped her tap into one of the greatest mysteries of the Holy — the more you give, the more you get.

This is a hard lesson for any of us to learn, especially here in America, where we tend to reward and admire those who amass great stashes of money or things for themselves. We may scorn those who hoard stacks of newspapers or other kinds of junk in their houses, but those who hoard money and wealth get their faces on the cover of magazines and are given the highest honors. Generosity seems like a foreign concept in our culture.

As a matter of fact, the most generous people in our country are not the wealthy who can give from their abundance, but the middle class and the poor who give from their poverty. A study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that:

Households that make at least $100,000 per year give an average 4.2 percent of their discretionary income to charity, [while] those that make between $50,000 to $75,000 per year give an average 7.6 percent of their discretionary income to charity.

Generosity seems to come naturally to those with very little — maybe because they’re not used to their wealth or good fortune sticking around very long.

But I like to think that the poorest among us know the truth — that believing in a scarcity of resources reveals a profound lack of faith for the Holy to provide what we need — though not necessarily what we may want.

Theologian and author Bruce Epperly writes:

When the widow generously shares her meager meal with Elijah, she is connected with the bounty of the universe and, indeed, “her cup overflows.” She discovers in her risky generosity that the abundance of God will supply her basic needs. In our own lives, we find that while generosity does not magically change our bank accounts or reverse the hands of the clock, open-hearted generosity opens us to experiencing a generous universe in which we discover we have more time, energy, and money than we previously imagined. In letting go of our strangle hold on our resources, we discover that we are connected with the abundant resources of God.

Breathe deeply.

Oh, I want to thank you for so many gifts you gave
The love, the tenderness, I wanna thank you
I want to thank you for your generosity, the love
And the honesty that you gave me
I want to thank you show my gratitude
My love, and my respect for you,
I want to thank you
Oh, I want to thank you, thank you; thank you, thank you
Thank you, thank you; thank you, thank you thank you, thank you;
thank you, thank you Thank you, thank you; thank you, thank you

60 million lives

There’s a story about a worldwide survey that went out asking just one simple question: “Would you please give your honest opinion about solutions to the food shortage in the rest of the world?”

The survey was a huge failure because:

  • In Africa they didn’t know what “food” meant,
  • In India they didn’t know what “honest” meant,
  • In Europe they didn’t know what “shortage” meant,
  • In China they didn’t know what “opinion” meant,
  • In the Middle East they didn’t know what “solution” meant,
  • In South America they didn’t know what “please” meant,
  • In the USA they didn’t know what “the rest of the world” meant.

It’s a joke, of course, but how close it hits home. Scientists tell us that today that nobody needs to go hungry. We can easily feed five billion people. Think about it: 30 million people die in the streets because they don’t have food, clothing or shelter. The exact same number — 30 million — die in hospitals because they eat too much.

Thirty million dying of starvation, another 30 million dying from overeating — when all it would really take is some kindness and generosity to save 60 million lives. When I say we hunger for generosity, even those who stuff themselves to death are ultimately empty, because we all hunger for just a little kindness and generosity.

As Rumi asks us: If because of your generosity and love, a few humans find their lives, what do you think will happen …

Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from Glenn Travis Campbell. The country singer and songwriter was born in 1936 in Arkansas and rose to fame with a string of hits in the 1960s and ’70s including “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Southern Nights” and “Wichita Lineman.” He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. Today’s song was a hit for Campbell, going to No. 2 on the Billboard Country chart in 1970. It’s called “Try a Little Kindness.”

If you see your brother standing by the road
With a heavy load from the seeds he sowed
And if you see your sister falling by the way
Just stop and say “you’re going the wrong way”

Chorus: You’ve got to try a little kindness,
yes, show a little kindness
Just shine your light for everyone to see
And if you try a little kindness
then you’ll overlook the blindness
Of the narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets

The widow at the temple

In our Jesus story, we find our guy hanging out at the temple in Jerusalem. He’s dropped in to do a little people watching… and what he sees is a deep lesson in generosity.

While he is watching, many rich people come by and put in large sums of money in the treasury box. Now, how in the world would Jesus know who was rich and who was poor? Certainly, their manner of dress would give them away — the rich would like to dress in more ostentatious or fashionable clothing. Like the scribes Jesus talks about, they’re probably in long, beautiful robes, made of the finest material.

The other people around them are also probably noticing them and honoring them, or trying to rub elbows with them to improve their own social standing by being seen with them. They would probably go from the alms box to the best seat in the temple. So the rich are pretty easy to spot because they make a big show out of their giving.

The widow though, she’s a different story. The other people at the temple are so busy ingratiating themselves to the rich or fawning over their hand-woven robes that they probably take little or no notice of her as she approaches the treasury. Jesus, however, sees the amazing generosity of this woman who has been marginalized into invisibility by the society she lives in.

As a widow, this woman has no role in society — and most likely very little money. The inheritance from her husband would not have gone to her, but to her oldest son. So she goes from being dependent on her husband to being dependent on her son, so her fortunes rest on whether or not sonny-boy has any love or compassion for his dear old mom.

Apparently, this widow was not well taken care of by a son, or perhaps she only had girls, which meant her money would have gone to some other male heir who may have rejected her. Either way, widows in Jesus’ world had little chance to provide for themselves and were always relying on the kindness and generosity of others.

Perhaps that’s what made this widow put everything she had — two little “mites,” or copper coins, which weren’t worth much — into the treasury. Perhaps she had received amazing acts of kindness and generosity from others that opened her heart so wide that she was able to be a channel for that kindness, giving away the last bit of her money to the temple.

Honestly, I think the lady was crazy. Not to give her last bit of money away, but because she gave it to the temple. Just before the widow gets to the alms box, Jesus has already warned us of the treachery of the institution she is giving to.

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. (Mark 12:38)

They devour widows’ houses, and here is this widow giving every thin mite she had to this awful institution. How does that make any sense?

Cheap grace vs. costly grace

I think this widow instinctively understood something that theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would expound upon thousands of years later as he sat in a Nazi prison for trying to assassinate Adolph Hitler — the idea of “cheap grace.”

This is what the long-robed scribes embodied — a cheap grace that demanded little from them except to give from their abundance and enjoy the accolades and admiration of the world around them. That cheap grace is still available in many churches today!

This widow, however, practiced what Bonhoeffer called “costly grace,” which required her — and us — to give everything we have — our last dime, our last ounce of energy, our last drop of compassion — to anyone who is in need, whether they be friend or foe — whether they be an institution we love, or an institution we hate.

The widow gives because she is a witness to “costly grace” — to an institution that sold and continues to sell it at a deep discount. The widow gives because she understands that even though this form of organized religion will devour her on the spot, her generosity is a witness against the temple’s greed and indifference.

Jesus recognized, and invites us to recognize, that her giving is a revolutionary act. Her gift will not be appreciated. It will never be acknowledged, and the money changers may even toss out her meager gift — but by giving she “has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury,” because she has given her all, even to an institution that does not deserve it.

This is the key to generosity, Jubilants — we give wastefully, not worrying whether those who receive are “worthy” or not. We give as a witness to the wasteful love that the Holy has bestowed on each of us. This love cannot be hoarded, or it turns into the corruption Jesus condemned the temple for. This love turns bad when you try to store it up. The only way to keep it fresh, to keep it going, is to give it away — even when it is the last ounce of love you have.

Breathe deeply.

Don’t walk around the down and out,
lend a helping hand instead of doubt
And the kindness that you show everyday
will help someone along their way

Chorus: You’ve got to try a little kindness,
yes, show a little kindness
Just shine your light for everyone to see
And if you try a little kindness
then you’ll overlook the blindness
Of the narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets

The abun-dance

South African spiritual teacher Michael Brown writes:

Giving-is-receiving is the energetic frequency upon which our universe is aligned. All other approaches to energy exchange immediately cause dissonance and disharmony in our life experience.

“Giving-is-receiving” — or as St. Francis famously prayed, “it is in giving that we receive” — this is the entire energy source of the universe. Giving is receiving. Whenever we try another way — like only receiving and not giving, or hoarding those things that we have been given, those are the times when we experience dissonance and disharmony in our lives.

Those neighbors who arrived at our doorstep early Christmas morning received far more than the toys they gave to us that year.

They received blessings beyond measure because they stepped outside of their own self-absorption long enough to take care of those hurting and in need around them. This giving-is-receiving energy flows all the time — it is we who block up the flow with our feelings of scarcity, our fear that there isn’t enough to go around.

Elijah reminds us, Jesus reminds us, the widows remind us, there is more than enough to go around — but to experience that kind of abundance we must give everything, we must give from our poverty, not from our abundance. We must not be afraid to be an open channel, letting the generosity of the Holy flow from us.

Theologian Cynthia Bourgeault reminds us that “abundance” is not a noun — it’s a verb. Life is about the “abundance,” that intricate dance of giving and receiving. It’s not a dance you learn step by step, it’s a dance you feel — it’s the ability to let the abundant energy of the universe move you in new and exciting ways.

Bourgeault writes that:

In virtually all [of Jesus’] teachings the fundamental leitmotif is an “over-the-top” generosity that leaves its recipients not only satisfied but bedazzled. Think of all those well-loved parables — the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the loaves and fishes, the water turned into wine — and you’ll see what I mean. It is not a question of “adequate” or “barely enough,” but of a fullness “filled up, pressed down, running over.”

The trick  is that we have to be willing to receive it — and, having received it, to allow it to flow from us again. The problem with any kind of constrictive motion — taking, defending, hoarding, clinging — is that it makes us spiritually blind, unable to see the dance of divine generosity which is flowing all around us.

This is the key to generosity, Jubilants — dance! Even if those you dance for will hate you, or take your house from you. Dance! Even if those you dance for will ignore you or laugh at you. Dance! Even if those you dance for will scorn and reject you. Dance! Even if those you dance for will never thank you and aren’t worthy of your generosity. Dance!

Let the generous energy of the universe move you in ways you’ve never moved before. Try a little kindness, shine your light into this world — and in every moment, dance the universal dance of generosity, so the whole world can say: “Oh, Yeah!”

If you see your brother standing by the road
With a heavy load from the seeds he sowed
And if you see your sister falling by the way
Just stop and say “you’re going the wrong way”

Chorus: You’ve got to try a little kindness,
yes, show a little kindness
Just shine your light for everyone to see
And if you try a little kindness then you’ll overlook the blindness
Of the narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets

Oh, Yeah!