Monday, November 13, 2017

Joy Practices: Generosity

November 12th, 2017       “Joy Practices: Generosity”    Rev. Heather Jepsen
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Mark 10:17-22
          This morning is our final installment in our stewardship sermon series on joy practices.  We have combined lessons from our scriptures with words of wisdom from the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in “The Book of Joy” each Sunday for the past month.  We have talked about forgiveness, gratitude, and compassion.  This Sunday we finally discuss money (and more) as we focus on the practice of generosity.  Like always, we will be watching video clips and doing a meditation practice within the sermon time.  Let’s start with a video . . .
          (Watch “we find a deep, deep dissatisfaction”)
          In this video clip, the Dalai Lama points out one of the primary flaws of our culture.  We seek to make ourselves happy through the collection, the amassing, of material goods.  We use money to buy more stuff to make ourselves feel good.  This is flawed thinking.  Throughout this series we have learned that what actually makes us feel good is on the inside of us, and that is love.  When we give love away, through forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity is when we will actually be happy.  When we practice generosity and good stewardship, is when we will grow in joy.
          Our reading from Deuteronomy is one of my favorite readings in the Old Testament.  This reading describes an act of worship in the giving of a yearly offering.  The Israelites are called to offer the first of the harvest in the place of worship.  As part of the offering, they tell the story of their history with God.  God has offered them freedom and the gift of a homeland, the people respond by offering back to the Lord the first fruits of that homeland’s harvest.  They then share that offering with all those in the community, from neighbors to strangers as they celebrate the bounty.  It’s the first Thanksgiving really.
          I love this story because it tells of an act of trust.  To take the first of the harvest and give it away, the first apple on the tree, the first tomato on the vine, the first carrot from the ground; is to assume that there will be more harvest to come.  You give to God first, trusting that the gifts from God will keep coming.  You don’t gather everything all year, make sure there is enough for you and everything you want to buy, and then give to God from the leftovers.  No!  Instead you give to God first, and trust that there will be enough for you second.  This is an act of generosity that relies on trust in God to continue to provide.
          Our second scripture reading is also all about trust.  We all shudder to think of the story or the rich young man, or the rich young ruler in other gospels, who is asked to give everything away.  We are afraid God will ask something similar of us, and no one wants to get rid of all their possessions. 
          I think in this reading Jesus is inviting this young man into a higher level of discipleship.  He was clearly a man of deep faith, who had followed and kept the commandments throughout his life.  Yet, he still longed to be closer to God.  Jesus reveals that to be closer to God is to live in extreme generosity.  If the young man could give everything away, then he would be free to follow Jesus and become a disciple.  He could learn what it feels like to completely trust in God to provide for everything he might need. 
          We read that Jesus looked at him and loved him, and in that love he offered the one lesson that would make a profound difference in the young man’s life.  The writer of the gospel of Mark tells us that the young man went away shocked and grieving.  One can only guess if he is grieving the loss of his possessions, or grieving that he is unable to trust God enough to follow Jesus in this way. 
          Lucky for you today, I am not asking you to give everything away!  I just want you to think a bit about generosity, and how the practice of generosity has the power to change your life.  Generosity is a natural outgrowth of compassion.  It is our willingness to share the gifts that we have received from God with those around us.  Generosity is a part of every world religion, and it emphasizes our interdependence and our need for each other.
          In the “Book of Joy”, the Archbishop jokes that “God doesn’t know very much math, because when you give to others, it should be that you are subtracting from yourself.  But in this incredible kind of way – you give and it then it seems like in fact you are making space for more to be given to you.”  The more you give, the more you have, and the happier you are.
          Generosity of course is about money.  Money can buy you happiness, if you choose to give it away.  Research shows that people experience greater happiness when they spend money on others, or give money away, then when they spend money on themselves.  Today we are making our pledges to the future life of this congregation.  Like the Israelites in our reading from Deuteronomy, we will come forward during the next hymn and make an offering of our first fruits.  We will make a commitment to give to God a portion of what we hope God will give to us in the year to come.  When we do this, we are trusting in God to carry us through the year, and we are trusting in the church, to spend the money wisely, furthering the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ.
          Generosity is not just about money, it is also about giving of our time and energy.  We all know that to volunteer at the Food Center is a lot harder than writing a check for $20.  That is a real ministry of giving, and that is a true act of generosity.  The same can be said of those who volunteer their time on committees, singing in the choir, or helping around the church.  These are all acts of generosity, and these are gifts we will offer shortly with our time and talents pledge cards.
          In the “Book of Joy”, the Dalai Lama talks about a Buddhist tradition of spiritual generosity.  This is the idea that we all have spiritual gifts to offer.  This can be in the form of teaching about the faith, sharing wisdom or knowledge of the faith with others, praying for and with others, and offering spiritual comfort.  This was a new idea to me and something I encourage you to consider.  How might you share the spiritual gifts that God has given you with others in the coming year?  How might you share the comfort of your faith with someone else?
          Like everything we have talked about so far, generosity is good for you.  When we give away the gifts God has given to us, the reward centers in our brain light up.  Researchers have shown that generosity is one of the four fundamental brain circuits that map our long-term well-being.  Being generous lowers our blood pressure and just thinking about generosity improves our immune systems.  Not only does generosity feel good, it is directly connected with better health and a longer life expectancy. 
          Let’s spend a few moments now thinking of all the ways God is inviting us to be generous in our lives through a generosity meditation . . .

·       Sit comfortably in the pew with the soles of your feet planted firmly on the floor.  Place your hands gently on your knees or in your lap.

·       Close your eyes, relax, and take a few deep breaths.  Center yourself here now, in this place, in this very moment.

·       Consider your money for a few moments.  How do you use the financial gifts that God has given you?  For what purpose do you imagine God has given you this money?  How might these resources be used to address issues of inequality and injustice in our world?  How might God be inviting you to share your money?

·       Consider now your gift of time.  Who might need your presence today?  How might God be calling you to share your compassion with those around you?  How might you support the community through the generous offering of your time?

·       Consider now your spiritual gifts.  What lessons from God might you be able to share with a friend or neighbor?  How might you share your faith experience with those who are looking for answers?  How might your daily interactions be marked by a generosity of spirit?

·       Now consider all the blessings that God has given to you.  Time, talents, and treasure.  What first fruits are you willing to offer to God today?  How might you respond to God’s generosity with generosity of your own?

·       Now bring yourself back to this moment.  Sitting in worship together in the faith community, the community of generosity.  You may open your eyes.
          Good work friends.  I want to close this sermon with some final words from Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the “Book of Joy”.  In the end of the book he is asked to offer a final word of wisdom to the readers and I want to share that message with you today, as a final word in this sermon series.  He says . . .
“Dear Child of God, you are loved with a love that nothing can shake, a love that loved you long before you were created, a love that will be there long after everything has disappeared.  You are precious, with a preciousness that is totally quite immeasurable.  And God wants you to be like God.  Filled with life and goodness and laughter – and joy."
“God, who is forever pouring out God’s whole being from all eternity, wants you to flourish.  God wants you to be filled with joy and excitement and ever longing to be able to find what is so beautiful in God’s creation: the compassion of so many, the caring the sharing.  And God says, Please, my child, help me.  Help me to spread love and laughter and joy and compassion.  And you know what, my child?  As you do this – hey, presto – you discover joy.  Joy, which you had not sought, comes as the gift, as almost the reward for this non-self-regarding caring for others.”
          To that I say, “Amen!”  Let’s close with a final video . . .
          (Watch “Flex your joy muscle” video)

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