By Rev. Dr. Orville James
Sunday, May 29, 2022
Readings: Deuteronomy 26 selected verses; Matthew 6:16, 19-21, 24
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Matthew 6:19-21, 24
So, Rev. Lori and I are sharing this series of sermons around the theme “Why?” In exploring our faith, our spiritual beliefs, and practices it’s perfectly legitimate to start by asking why questions: Why Church? Why Jesus? You get the idea… So here I am, about to think through with you about the question, “Why Give?” Seriously. I’m going to talk about money and generosity and giving. Did I draw the short straw and get stuck with this question? Nope! Not at all. I chose this topic because I’ve come to see how important it is to our spiritual growth.
Talking about money can be awkward for us. We ministers can get nervous or tentative because we don’t want to offend. Money was big to Jesus. He was enthusiastic about the importance of money and the wise handling of it. He talked about it – taught about it! And it’s clear that there is nothing wrong with being smart about money. I’ll tell you a story about that.
A boy enters a barber shop and the barber whispers to his customer, “There’s a kid who never learns. He makes the same mistake every week! Watch while I show you.”
The barber puts a toonie in one hand and four quarters in the other, then calls the boy over and asks, “Which do you want, son?” The boy takes the quarters and leaves.
“What did I tell you?” Said the barber.
“That kid never learns!”
Later, when the customer leaves, he sees the same boy coming out of the ice cream store. “Hey son! May I ask you a question? Why did you take the four quarters instead of the two-dollar coin?”
The boy licked his cone and replied, “Because mister, the day I take the toonie, the game is over!”
Shrewd? Smart! … about money! Nothing wrong with that! Let’s just get that out of the way, right at the start.
One of my heroes in the faith is John Wesley (Anglican priest in the 1700’s). He said three things about money: Make all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.
Yes! Exactly. Please don’t feel guilty about having money. Be smart with it, and generous! Many of the great people of history have recognized the importance of money, of giving and generosity of spirit. Some of them have explained it with eloquence; some with humour:
“Money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.” Winston Churchill.
Anne Frank (teenage victim of the Nazi Holocaust) said: “No one has ever become poor by giving.”
“I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.” Maya Angelou (Pulitzer Prize winning poet)
Generosity is a spiritual instinct, deep inside everyone, that captures our imaginations and stretches our desire to live God’s goodness courageously, unselfishly, joyfully. Generosity is one of those human qualities that lifts our spirits and makes us feel good. Still, why are we smart to be givers; to be generous of spirit, to think and plan and dream of what good our resources can do?
I’ve been thinking about this, a lot, and I’m going to share three or four reasons giving is a good idea.
- We give because we know we have been blessed!
Do we? Do you know how rich you are? I’m guessing you sort of know how blessed you are; still, we could benefit from regular reminders. We are so blessed, there is a frequent danger of losing our perspective. Here is something to ponder: If you woke up this morning with more health than illness… you are more blessed than the million who will not survive this week.
- If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead, and a place to sleep… you are richer than 75 percent of this world.
- If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the terror of growing up in a war zone, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation… you are ahead of 500 million people in the world.
- If you can attend a religious event without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death… you are more blessed than two billion people in the world.
- I you have money in the bank, cash in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace… you are among the top eight percent of the world’s wealthy.
- If you can read information like this, you are more blessed than over two billion people in the world who cannot read at all.
Friends sometimes when we see what others endure, we realize how good we have it.
Watching the news can be painful, can’t it? Last winter, watching another of the many reports from a 1st nations reserve in the north. Polluted water, houses condemned because of mold and asbestos contamination. I`ve never endured any of that. Let alone a war zone or worse.
Here’s another way to look at it. Let’s talk baseball. The Blues Jays are back and playing reasonably well. Thinking about life in baseball imagery, some of us who have jobs and houses, cars, and pension funds, we could begin to believe that it’s all our own doing – that our position in the game of life is our own doing; we think we`ve hit a double or triple. When the reality is most of us were born on second base. In this world we are blessed. What was waiting for us on second base? Safe homes, without pollution or contamination, clean drinking water, access to education, healthcare, a stable banking system and economy, a heritage of teachers and coaches and family members who had prepared a pathway forward for our growth and development.
What do we do with that? Feel guilty? No, but recognize as the ancient worshippers did, the Lord our God has brought us to this place.
“When you have entered the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it, take some of the first fruits of all that… the Lord your God is giving you… put them in a basket and place the basket before the \lord your God and bow down before God.” Deuteronomy 26:1 & 10.
So, the first reason many of us give, is because we know how blessed we are.
- We give to enlarge our own hearts and save ourselves… from ourselves.
I know that sounds strange. What do I mean by that? To explain it, I want to tell you about what has come to be known as “the monastic cycle”. The idea behind the monastic cycle is that throughout history, discipline and dedication have led to wealth, affluence and then eventually decadence.
I’ll come back to that in a bit but let me tell you about the man who wanted to become a monk and join a monastery. He was told by the headmaster that to join, he would be allowed to say only two words a year. The man agreed. After the first year was up, the head monk said, “You’ve done well this year. What are your two words?” The man replied, “Hard bed.”
The abbott said, “Okay, well, I’ll see what I can do.” At the end of the second year, the man was allowed another two words. He told the head monk, “Bad food.”
The head monk again told him that he would see what could be done. At the end of the third year, the abbot asked for the two words the man wanted to speak. The man said, “I quit.”
“Well, I’m not surprised,” the head monk told him. “You’ve been complaining since you got here!”
So, getting serious again, back to the monastic cycle. Observing the modern world, French sociologist Jacques Ellul noted a striking trend: As the Christian faith permeated a society it tended to produce a change, a development toward a lifestyle that eventually contradicts the gospel’s qualities of simplicity, sacrifice and generosity. The theory is that high-commitment spiritual communities begin with a strong sense of devotion, which expresses itself in a life of discipline. Groups organized around devotion and discipline tend to produce abundance, but ultimately that very success breaks down discipline and leads to decadence.
The pattern is called “the monastic cycle” with good reason, for the movements led by idealists such as Benedict of Nursia and Francis of Assis and repeatedly demonstrate the cycle. In the 6th Century early Benedictines worked hard to clear forests and cultivate land, investing their surplus in drainage, livestock, and seed. Six centuries later, historians note, “Benedictine abbeys had virtually ceased to be spiritual institutions. They had become resorts reserved very largely for members of the upper classes.”
Most religious organizations followed this pattern – an initial burst of devotion and discipline, a resulting period of abundance, then a drift toward indulgence until some reformer came along to revive the ideals of the founder.
Protestant reformers faced the same challenge. John Wesley commented: “Religion must necessarily produce both industriousness and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, greed, love of the world, in all its branches.”
Maybe we should call this trend the “human cycle” because it applies to individuals as well as to religious movements and cultures. The point is: Prosperity is dangerous for the soul.
What’s the solution? Give! Break the grip wealth can have on your heart. Please believe me, nothing feels better than spending money or sharing wealth on others. It’s good for the soul.
Years ago, and miles from here I was with a group of 20 men, down in rural Latin America. We were there for a week, to build houses and a community center for the people of an impoverished village. After the third day of hard work, framing, drywalling, shingling in sun and heat, we were back at base camp. One of the guys, a very successful businessman, owned a major car dealership and had interests in several other dealerships back home; he was sitting on the two-by-four bed, slumped, elbows on knees, head down, hair full of plaster dust, sweat on his cheeks. I called over, “Al – are you all right?”
He tilted his head up and looked up at me with a huge grin. “You know Orv, I’ve been on a lot of high-priced trips and vacations. Ford has sent me to resorts and luxury travel. There is nothing absolutely nothing I’ve ever done as satisfying or fun as coming to Mexico and building houses for the poor.”
There it is! We give to enlarge our own hearts and save ourselves from ourselves.
- We give because it’s healthy – we are designed to be givers.
We are spiritually and physiologically wired for this! The positive results of generosity are verified by scientific studies. The Economist magazine reported on research in an article titled “Altruism—The joy of giving.” The lead paragraph reads:
“When it comes to anonymous benevolence, directed to causes that can give nothing in return, what could motivate a donor? The answer, according to neuroscience, is that it feels good.”
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders wanted to find the neural basis for unselfish generous acts. They studied the brains of volunteers who were choosing whether to give money to charity or to keep it for themselves. They used a standard technique to map the activity of the various parts of the brain.
The conclusion was that the persons who elected to hold on to the money they were given and use it for themselves did not experience the joy that was present in the lives of those who, with generosity, clearly gave what they had in a “costly” way.
They found that the part of the brain that was active when a person donated or did something helpful, happened to be the brain’s reward center, the “mesolimbic pathway” that is responsible for releasing the dopamine-mediated euphoria that also comes with sex, food, and drugs. Thus, the warm glow that accompanies charitable giving has a physiological basis.
Donating also engaged that part of the brain that plays a role in the bonding behaviour between a mother and child, and in romantic love. This involves oxytocin, a hormone that increases trust and cooperation.
When the subjects opposed giving to various causes, the part of the brain right next to it was active. This area is thought to be responsible for decisions involving punishment. And a third part of the brain, an area called the anterior prefrontal cortex, was involved in the complex, costly decisions when self-interest and moral beliefs were in conflict.
All this medical research only underlines what Jesus said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Of course, Jesus knew humanity and understood that God wired us this way. I’ve just told you the physiology of this, the cognitive and neural processes involved in the joy and satisfaction of “Living Large” with a generous spirit.
Let me tell you the theological reason: We are created to be in God’s image – and God is kindness, generosity, creativity, compassion. God is love, and God is loving. So, when we are acting in this way – when we are being generous of spirit, we are literally acting the way we were meant to be. We are spiritually and physiologically wired for this! One more thing to say:
- We give because we are follower of Jesus.
I suppose that goes without saying, but perhaps a story will enrich the point:
Decades ago, I heard one of the great black preachers of the last generation, Gardner C Taylor, of the Concord Baptist Church in New York City. He was just back from a mission trip in Africa and told us of an experience he’d had in a rural area. He was visiting a medical mission outpost that gave care to a nearby leper colony. One morning, he watched as a nun was kneeling in the dirt, tending to the open sores of an old man. She was wiping them, putting on medicated salve, and bandaging them.
It happened that the night before a safari tour group had arrived and were encamped nearby, and some of their people came over to check things out. A North American tourist, wealthy and curious was standing watching the nun work, a look of disgust on his face. He commented out loud: “I wouldn’t do that for $1000, or a million!
The nun heard him, and she looked up and smiled and then said, “Oh, but neither would I.”
And then, in Jesus’ name, she turned back to her work.
Friends, there are a lot of reasons why we live with generosity and compassion and why we give.
- We know we have been blessed.
- We give to enlarge our hearts and save ourselves from callous indifference.
- We give because it feels right, because we are created, spiritually and physiologically wired for generosity.
- And we give simply because we are followers of Jesus, and we’ve learned from him the great truth that it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Thank you for being givers. Keep it up, now and with your estate, keep giving, long after you’re gone. Amen.