Sermon preached March 4, 2012

Texts: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17; Mark 8:31-38

Begin with “Prodigal Son” Power Point from Discovery Zone.
No, you did not miss it. We did not read this story this morning, but the story fits. It fits our Lenten theme of “journey to and journey through.” It fits today’s emphasis on journey to generosity and justice. The journey of Christian faith, our journey with Jesus, or with God in Jesus, is a journey in certain directions, toward something. One of those directions is generosity and justice. One of the early self-descriptions of the Christian community, found in the second chapter of Acts, is that followers of Jesus were people with “glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46).
The Christian journey of faith is a journey to generosity and justice, to glad and generous hearts. The short journey of the father toward his wayward son returning home, a journey he made running, was also a journey toward a more generous heart, toward a generosity of spirit. The father’s sprint both displayed his generous heart, and it deepened it. And Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) in response to people who were grumbling about his sense of hospitality and his eating habits. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). He was saying, “God’s kingdom is like this – joy and celebration and welcome.” Jesus was saying something in this story about the character of God. God is an open-hearted, open-handed God, a God of profound and profuse generosity.
That God is open-hearted, open-handed, profoundly generous is an ancient witness in the biblical faith. God’s character is revealed in his dealings with Abraham and Sarah. To this childless old couple God promises profuse blessings. From them will come multitudes. God’s profuse generosity will be on display in the fruitfulness of Abraham and Sarah. God is going to bless them. Nations will come from them. Kings of peoples will come from them. In another place the profound generosity of God’s covenant with Abraham is extended to all. “By your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessings for themselves” (Genesis 22:18). So profuse and profound is the generosity of God, so wild and mind-blowing, that the response of Abraham is to fall on his face and laugh.
God is an open-hearted, open-handed God, a God of profound, profuse and wild generosity. The generosity of God is that God wants to bless all nations, all peoples. As followers of Jesus, we are recipients of the generosity of God. We know God’s grace, God’s persistent presence in our lives – God never giving up on us. We experience the beauty of God’s creation. We see unimaginable kindness and tenderness in relationship. We witness compassion, care for the earth, work for justice, peace and reconciliation. We are loved and gifted.
We are recipients of the generosity of God, but not so we can horde all that generosity. Such hording kills life. Holding too tightly chokes the flow of life and love. Jesus said: For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Holding too tightly to life, grasping, clinging chokes the flow of life and love.
Tuesday’s Duluth News Tribune reported on the results of a study that was presented this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study concluded that wealthy people are more likely to commit unethical acts because they are more motivated by greed. The researchers concluded that “because rich people have more financial resources, they’re less dependent on social bonds for survival.” In the words of one researcher (Paul Piff): If you occupy a more insular world, you’re less likely to be sensitive to the needs of others. The research also seemed to indicate that anyone who becomes wealthy is prone to that kind of insularity.
I don’t read this study as an indictment of rich people, or a criticism of wealth per se, but it points to a pattern in human beings, a pattern Jesus perhaps had in mind when he warned against holding too tightly, clinging, grasping. Such behaviors and attitudes keep our hearts Grinch-small.
The journey of faith, the journey with Jesus is a journey toward generosity and justice, toward a glad and generous heart. It is a journey in the direction of degrinchification.
All this use of the word generosity in a sermon may have you squirming on your wallets or holding a little more tightly to your purses. Please relax. I am speaking about a principle, not making a pitch. The journey of faith is a journey toward generosity and justice.
Generosity has something to do with sharing, but it is not only about sharing our financial resources. That is part of it, but only a part. Generosity has to do with sharing our time, our energy, the gift that is in us. For my Lenten discipline this year I am reading through two books, Malcolm Boyd’s Are You Running With Me, Jesus? And Joan Chittister’s The Breath of the Soul. This week, I read these words in Joan Chittister’s book. Each of us has been given something that is meant to make the world a better place for the rest of us. We cook and sing and teach and write and clean and organize in uncommonly common ways. Each of us has something that the rest of the world needs. (The Breath of the Soul, 26). Generous hearts celebrate the gift that is given. Generous hearts seek to develop that gift. Generous hearts give that gift to the world.
Generosity of spirit is also an important part of generosity. When I was a district superintendent, I noticed, and then wrote about generosity of spirit. Churches that were doing better seemed to have such a generosity of spirit. There was laughter. People did not hold on to grudges. People recognized that sometimes another person was not being mean, but was just having a bad day. Small things stayed small. Generosity of spirit is a reflection of the love of God in our midst and is a quality those outside the church are hungry for.
The journey of faith, the journey with Jesus is a journey toward generosity and justice, toward a glad and generous heart. It is a journey in the direction of degrinchification.
The biblical concept of justice is rooted in an understanding of God’s generosity and is rooted in the idea of the generous heart. For Christians, justice includes “recognition of all others as persons equally created in the image of God – free, thinking, creative and relational persons with capacities to develop these qualities” (Bard, 365). I wrote that in my doctoral dissertation 18 years ago. God has given to all gifts to be developed and shared. There is an inherent dignity in that that needs to be respected.
Out of this understanding of the generosity of God and the potential of each person comes a sense that the world should be ordered so that no one starves, so that each person has some opportunity to develop themselves. Out of our generosity of heart we want to see others develop their hearts and minds and lives. That’s justice. Justice moves us into the realms of law and politics where we have legitimate disagreements about what laws and what ordering of society recognizes human dignity and offers opportunity for growth and development. That we disagree, though, is no reason to avoid the call of justice into the hard work of law and politics.
Yet at its core, the biblical concept of justice is that it is a matter of the heart, of developing hearts big enough and strong enough to care about the poor, the outcast, those on the margins, the hurting, the abused, the lonely. Lady Gaga, at Harvard this week to kick off her Born This Way Foundation, encouraged her audience to “challenge meanness and cruelty” and noted that there is no law that will make people be kind to one another. She is right. Justice is a matter of politics and law, but even more deeply it is a matter of the heart, of a degrinchified glad and generous heart. And that’s where our journey with Jesus is trying to take us. Amen.