Home‎ > ‎Sermons‎ > ‎

"Practicing Extravagant Generosity" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - October 14, 2018

posted Oct 17, 2018, 1:22 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

A few years ago, I pulled up to a parking space.  The car in front of me had a vanity plate - the one in your bulletin - “WE TITHE.”  Honestly, my first thought was, “What, HUMBLE wasn’t available?” (Actually, I checked this week; and indeed, someone has the vanity plate “HUMBLE”.)


And then, as I thought about my reaction, I realized it said a lot about our cultural attitudes about money.  Talking about money can be hard; and yet it’s what Jesus talked about the most. My first reaction to the vanity plate showed a common one: to project a boast, an unseemly pridefulness onto the owner of the car.  And that’s how we can often respond to conversations about money: fear that we’ll be seen as boasting or offended when we interpret others as boasting.


Peeling back that reaction, I realized another emotion can lurk underneath: guilt.  Guilt often enters into discussions of money: guilt about what we can’t do, guilt about what we have, guilt pressing us to give.


I’m mindful of these landmines in conversations about giving.  And yet, I think we need to think about generosity as a spiritual practice.  Not just because Jesus talked so much about money. Not just because we’re starting our annual campaign at Plymouth.  Not just because money can be stressful. But because decisions about money reflect so much about our spirituality.


So often I hear people refer to guilt as an emotion in their spirituality.  The powerful emotion of guilt and its close relative shame often figure in religious language.  But what would our faith look like if gratitude replaced guilt? If thanksgiving replaced shame?


Our reading from Romans rarely gets shared in church; it never appears on the lectionary and mostly gets overlooked because it sounds like the credits at the end of movie.  And yet, I like the Paul who ends the letter better than the one who began it. For Paul opened the letter with sexuality shaming - the most anti-gay passages of the Bible - but ended it with exuberant thanksgiving.  Paul can’t contain his appreciation, his joy, his love for the people he knows and works alongside of. What would Christianity look like if we focused less on the beginning of Romans and more on the end?


The best message comes from what isn’t said in the list.  Greet Phoebe, a woman whose leadership in the church Paul respected.  Greet Aquila, Andronicus, Herodian, Apelles - all Jewish followers like Paul.  Greet Apliatus, Urbanus, Strachys - all Greeks and Romans. Greet Narcissus - a former slave who rose to a position of great authority with Claudius, until that ended in Narcissus’ arrest and imprisonment; but Paul didn’t forget the man in jail.  Greet Prisca, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis - more women whose leadership moves Paul to thanks.


With gratitude a different side of Paul emerges - gracious, inclusive, joyful.  This Paul lived in a world of women and men, Greeks and Jews, freed and enslaved and imprisoned who found themselves united in mission.  If thanks and appreciation can so change Paul, can you imagine what it could do for us?


Actually, social scientists know exactly what gratitude can do for us: studies consistently show gratitude positively correlated to happiness, well-being, and even physical health.  As one study explained, “Grateful individuals are more perceptive of simple everyday pleasures, show better recovery from traumatic experiences, have a more proactive coping style, and are more likely to seek social support than those who are less grateful.”  Simply put: gratitude changes lives.


I know what working to be more grateful means in my own life.  I’ve always loved to cook and bake. In fact, after my seminary graduation, Julia Childs and I were in the buffet line together at the house of Peter Gomes.  Julia prophesied that one day I’d be holding cooking classes in my church basement. Like Julia, I love anything French.


About a decade ago, back when the movie “Julie and Julia” was in theaters, I decided to cook my way through a French dessert cookbook, LaDuree’s aptly named, “Sugar.”  I learned to make macarons, choux pastries, tarts. Macarons became my signature dish (and actually Julia was prescient; I’ve taught friends how to make macarons, though never in the basement).  But I ate most of what I made; until I carried around forty pounds of macarons. Lemon macarons. Graham cracker s’more macarons. Strawberry balsamic macarons. Salted butter caramel macarons. I loved them all.


But then, as I continued to develop as a baker, I realized the mindset that separated home-bakers from professionals.  Home-bakers really bake what they want to eat. Professionals bake what they like to make. So this summer I started focusing on the joy of making things to give away.


And these baked gifts became expressions of my gratitude.  So last week I showed up at the house of friend about to move to Boston for an experimental cancer treatment; a dozen buttery croissants to say thanks for his friendship and hopes for his treatments.  And then I left baguettes, jam, and cheese in the choir room; again, a baked thank you. In each case, the bake took place over two nights - the first night I measured my ingredients and started my dough; the next afternoon rolling and proofing and baking; twenty-four hours to let my gratitude grow like yeast, expand and strengthen.  I’m starting to do this more and more - showing up with unexpected patisserie to say thanks: croissants for the deacons, entremet for someone whose friendship sustains me, ciabatta for a neighbor on my street. (I’m thinking of changing my job title to croissant fairy.)


Beyond the practicality of finding a way to bake but not overeat, this change made gratitude and thanks a part of how I live every day.  And as a side benefit, I lost a baker’s dozen of those macaron pounds.


Just as giving things away changed my relationship with baked goods, it changed my relationship with money too.  Instead of giving as an expression of guilt, I find that as Jay and I practice greater financial generosity, our gifts reflect a growing sense of gratitude.  As we’ve worked to tithe, gratitude moved to the center of our spiritual life. And as with baking so too with money: it just isn’t healthy for me to keep everything I make; better to give it away.


The conservative commentator Russell Reno, editor of First Things, gave me a way to think about this.


Reno, drawing as he often does on St. Augustine, suggested we have two basic ways to relate to reality: use and enjoyment.  As he said, “to use means taking up what is before us for the purpose of some greater end.” In other words: use this to get that.  Now, this isn’t necessarily bad: but it treats things as tools. What we use can be used for good or for ill. In contrast, he explained, “Enjoyment has a different character.  When we enjoy something, we are grateful for it, resting in the blessing of its presence.” And in a way, Reno means by enjoyment that we gratefully cherish something.


There’s much more to say about Reno’s distinction, but for now just think about these two words: use and enjoyment.  I find it a helpful away to think about the money I keep for my own use and that which I give away. There is a practicality to the money we keep for ourselves; we can use it for good or for ill.  (And what we do with the money we keep for ourselves is a spiritual issue too; which is why we have so many justice-focused discussions and studies.) But what I give away doesn’t get used for myself; but rather given as an act of joy, a cherishing of community, and gratitude for others.


As I suggested with Paul, practicing gratitude brings out a different side of our personality, a better side.  Martin Copenhaver, President of the Andover-Newton Institute at Yale University, once noted how we Americans “live in a time of extraordinary abundance but that hasn’t led us to greater thankfulness.”  Instead of gratitude, we often think we deserve whatever prosperity we enjoy. We live in a culture where successful people boast of being “self-made.” No connections got them privilege places; just hard work and ambition.  Bart Simpson once brought this attitude into comic exaggeration. Asked to say grace before dinner, Bart closed his eyes to pray, “Dear God, we bought all this stuff with our own money, so… thanks for nothing.”


Moving toward greater generosity pushed me in a different direction: to just say “thanks.”  Jay and I give because we realize all the ways we haven’t made it on our own: the help from family, from government, from friends, and from unearned and often hidden privileges.  So instead of telling ourselves that we got it all ourselves - thanks for nothing - we give as an expression of gratitude.


Yet what do we do when life seems far from blest?  This is why I wanted to include a reading from Job.  Job suffered. He lost his family, his business; all of which lead to the anguished cry in our reading, “If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!”  It speaks to his bitterness of soul.  What are we to do in our bitter moments?


Recently the progressive Christian thought leader Diana Butler Bass talked about one of her bitterest moments.  Shortly after receiving her doctorate in history, she started teaching at a small Christian college. While she received good marks for her teaching, Butler Bass couldn’t conform to the expectations of the community, especially as she was going through a divorce.  With the tenure committee clearly hostile to her prospects, the college president called her into his office to fire her. And then he added, “You just don’t fit. This wouldn’t be a good place for you. One day you will thank me for this.”


Butler Bass experienced her own bitterness of soul, especially so as those words - “one day you will thank me” - echoed in her mind.  Newly divorced and unemployed, things did not look good. A friend suggested she start keeping a journal. She started by writing about all the painful feelings around the loses in her life.  But observations about good things crept in too: a break in the weather, a meal with a friend, some professional recognition until eventually gratitude overtook her journal. As she said, “as the pages added up, day after day, I started seeing my life and the world differently.”


Through this process, Butler Bass came to appreciate the insight of Maya Angelou, who said, “If you must look back, do so forgivingly.  If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present… gratefully.”


Butler Bass found that gratitude moved her from bitterness to a renewal of hope.   Our Psalm speaks of this kind of transformation too: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.”


Practicing gratitude changes lives because it moves us from a mode of scarcity to one of abundance.  People can be entangled in scarcity whether or not they have material wealth - there are people living in our wealthiest neighborhoods who feel they don’t have enough and there are people in our poorest ones who call themselves blest.


People talk about hindsight - looking backwards on our life - and foresight - looking ahead.  But I think gratitude cultivates in me a widesight. It widens my view so that I know I didn’t make it on my own.  It widens my view so that I don’t narrowly focus on what I don’t have or just see what others do have. It widens my view so that I see all the good things even when not everything is good.  It widens my view so that I can cherish life.


Imagine what would happen if we made thanksgiving the heart of our spirituality; giving the center of our budget; gratitude the best part of our day; widesight the essence of who we are.  Alleluia and Amen.





Sources:

  • Bass, Diana Butler, “Practicing Gratitude,” Christian Century, 2018.

  • Copenhaver, Martin, “Learning to Give Thanks,” Christian Century, 2015.

  • Cooper, Burton, “Why, God? A Tale of Two Sufferers,” Theology Today

  • Newsom, Carol, “Job and His Friends: A Conflict of Moral Imaginations,” Interpretations

  • Reno, Russell Robert, “Gratitude for the Given,” First Things, 2017

  • Uhder, Jens, Mark McMinn, Rodger Bufford, and Kathleen Gathercoal, “A Gratitude Intervention in a Christian Church Community,” Journal of Psychology & Theology, 2017.

Comments