"Gratitude Inspires Generosity”

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – October 30, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Proverbs 3:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

    This morning we are going to talk about the value and virtue of having a generous spirit. As with every aspect of our spiritual development, we do not practice our generosity in the same way.  Some of us attach strings.  Some of us have expectations.  Some of us look to receive some value from our giving.  There are others that simply give because they enjoy doing it. Sometimes it even bothers us when we do not have enough opportunities to make a difference in someone’s life through our generosity.     

    For example, here in Bermuda, with the automatic 17 percent gratuity added to our bills, we seldom have the opportunity to express our individual gratitude to those who wait on tables in our local restaurants.  The Specialty Inn is a rarity.  A number of people are happy to give a nice tip to those who have performed their tasks exceedingly well. The 17 percent gratuity is an added expense rather than a symbol of our appreciation.   

    In one of my former churches there was a delightful young woman who possessed a highly energized, gregarious spirit.  She was a Master Degree teacher in the public school system.  However, when teaching became a chore and when an increasing amount of classroom time was taken up with maintaining discipline, she quit teaching.  She drifted for awhile and then started waiting on tables in a restaurant located in Nags Head, North Carolina.

    One day when she was visiting her folks over Christmas, she came to church.  In telling me about some of the changes in her life, she said, “Dick, I am actually earning more money than I did teaching and I love my job as a waitress.  I am having a ball.  In the restaurant where I work, people actually ask for me.   Even when there are empty stations in the restaurant, they patiently wait until one of my tables opens for them.”  She had made an art form out of waiting on tables and her fans loved her spirit.  Gratitude inspired their generosity toward her.

    There is a natural desire in us that wants to share.  The major religions of the world have five spiritual practices that guide the lives of their believers:  study, prayer, meditation, serving and giving.  Generosity is a spiritual practice that allowed even the ancients to experience a connection with God. 

    Years before Jesus was born, people living in the Middle Eastern countries would travel for weeks to their holy shrines and bring offerings of their most prized possessions. Their spirit was not about buying God’s love or achieving special recognition from the priests. Their generosity came from of their gratitude for God’s guidance and presence in their lives. 

    Our Proverb for today was written over three thousand years ago.  Listen again to the wisdom of the writer: “Remember God in everything that you do.  When you do, the practice will be like good medicine, healing your wounds and easing your pains.  Honor God by making him an offering from the best of all that your land produces.  If you do, your barns will be filled with grain and you will produce so much wine that you will not be able to store it all.” 

    The writer was expressing his understanding of the connection of gratitude to generosity. He also described the abundance that frequently comes to believers as a result of this practice. The aspect of being blessed with barns that were filled with grain and a vineyard that produces more wine than can be stored can be a problem. It can mislead people into thinking that they can gain extra favors from our Creator.  Does God actually bless people because of the spirit by which they live?

    When I was a little boy, our entire family -- aunts, uncles and cousins -- would gather for the unique holiday in the United States known as Thanksgiving.  We enjoyed a meal together around my grandparents’ large dining room table in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  When it was time to eat, my grandfather would give the prayer before the meal.  His prayers were always from the heart.  He would thank God for blessing the Stetler family.  Sometimes his words touched on certain remembrances where it appeared that God had intervened with a miracle.

    Somehow the idea of God singling out our family for a unique blessing always received a chilly reception from me.  I knew too many other wonderful, loving families that had experienced moments where their lives were filled with tragedy and disappointment.  I wondered where God’s blessings were in the lives of those families. 

    After one of those fabulous Thanksgiving meals, I found my grandmother in the kitchen by herself.  I asked her why grandpa prayed the way he did by suggesting that God had uniquely blessed our family countless times.  She gave me information about my grandfather that I never knew.  Of the three children in his family, he was the only one that survived birth.  He developed the understanding that God had a specific purpose for his life. 

    “By keeping God in the middle of his life,” she said, “your grandfather carried himself with a sense of expectancy rather than feelings of abandonment when his goals did not work out as he had planned.”  “His prayers,” she said, “come from looking back over the years and learning to See God In Little Things, knowing that With God We Can do anything, and understanding that during his life, God Was There. 

    My last sentence contained the titles of three of the five books my Grandfather wrote about his faith.  He learned to interpret his life’s events through the eyes of his faith, even the challenging and most difficult moments with which some phases were filled. 

     Faith gives us the eyes to understand insights into our living that the eyes of others without faith cannot see.   It was this understanding that caused my grandfather to know that his family had been deeply blessed. 

    In helping people learn how to translate their gratitude into generosity, priests, ministers and rabbis have not always communicated a consistent message.   Years ago, I clipped a cartoon from a magazine that showed a couple walking to church.  As they were passing the outside bulletin-board where the sermon titles were displayed each week, the man said to his wife, “It looks like we are really going to get it this morning.” The sermon title was, “Give or Die!” This was a theme proclaimed by clergy for centuries.

    During our Bible Study last Tuesday, we were discussing how Christianity has expanded to include a number of different beliefs and practices that Jesus never discussed during his ministry.  Several in our group mentioned some highly personalized experiences that were life-changing, experiences that had drawn them closer to God. 

    Mentioned also were a number of sharp departures by The Church that brought the words of that cartoon into a sharp and painful focus.  The power that many priests displayed during the Middle Ages is what caused Martin Luther to write 95 practices of The Church that unequivocally needed to change. 

    Pastors can be temperamental sometimes, particularly when it comes to their churches and how much money parishioners are putting in the offering plate.  For example, a woman called me one afternoon and asked if I would be kind enough to visit her husband who was dying of cancer even though they were not members of my church.  She even wanted to know what my fee would be for doing so.  I could not imagine such a question being asked.

    When I was sitting beside her husband she said, “We called the priest of our church and he refused to visit us because we have fallen too far behind in our attendance and our dues.”  She went on to say, “The reason we could not attend is that my husband has been so sick for months.  We always gave very generously and . . .” I pressed my index finger against her lips preventing her from continuing. 

    Her words were reflecting her pain and disappointment.  The couple was actually feeling guilty for missing their payments!!!  All they wanted was for their priest to love them.  I apologized deeply for anyone in my profession who put a price requirement on loving the people in their flock.  It happens.

    While attending a clergy luncheon, I was seated next to a colleague who had the Executive Vice President of one of the major Utility Companies as a member of his church.  He told me how much he imagined this man earned a year.  Then he said, “This guy only gives our church $6,000 a year.  He is probably worth millions.”   He went on to ask me,” What is it with these people?  Don’t they know that the church has lots of bills to pay just to keep the doors open? He could drop in another $10,000 and never miss it.”

    I told him that it was not a wise practice to make it his business to know what his church members give!  He said, “I want to know.  In fact, I have a right to know.”  I said, “What have you really learned about this man from what he gives?”

    It was coincidental that his parishioner’s wife and I served on the Board of Directors of another company.  When she learned that I was a pastor, she was not as silent about their benevolent giving as her husband.  She confided that she was often fearful of how generous her husband had become with their money.

    Without telling him any specifics, I told my colleague of my connection with his parishioner’s wife. I asked him, “Did you know that he is helping to pay for the college education of four of his grandchildren?  Did you know that annually he sends a large December check to the rural church where his parents attended their entire lives?  Did you know that he serves on three boards of charitable foundations?”  My colleague fell silent.  He said, “I guess giving money to his church is not the only game in his town.” 

    We cannot put a dollar amount on our gratitude and call it generosity.  Generosity is a spiritual skill that permeates all of life.  Having this virtue as an asset sends green shoots that contribute to our choice of words when we speak, how often we use that remarkable three letter word, “YES,” how often we volunteer for a project, investing enormous time and energy for which we receive little or no thanks.  To us it does not matter because we serve for the joy of it.   Generosity may mean being God to someone who does not have a personal relationship with our Creator.   Is that possible?  Absolutely!      

    During the early days when William and Catherine Booth founded the Salvation Army, the couple took into their home a young man named Alexander.  He had been abandoned by his family.  They treated him like a son and eventually invited him to become the Treasurer of the organization. A day came, however, when he became weak.  He began stealing money and was caught.  He was tried and sent to prison for several years.

    With great frequency Catherine wrote letters to Alexander and the two frequently visited him. When he was released, it was William and Catherine who came to pick him up.  Catherine had packed a picnic lunch, and, as the three of them sat on a blanket spread on a meadow, Catherine reached into her purse and pulled out a money bag that had Salvation Army stenciled on the side. With tears streaming down her face she said, “General Booth and I want you to come back to the Salvation Army so you can help us.  We want you to be our Treasurer again!” 

    Whether or not we realize it, all of us have been on the receiving end of this kind of love.  When we recognize the source of that love, we can never be the same again.  God is like that with each of us.  We are not deserving of that love, but God keeps handing us more responsibility and giving us dozens of second chances to get it right.  This is why gratitude for God’s unconditional love inspires us to give without counting the cost.  People who have learned this have found the pearl of great price.