This week we are concluding our preaching series on the five historical practices found in fruitful and growing congregations called the Methodist Way. We began this series by looking at the early church from Acts 2 and talking about what they did to set their world on fire for Christ and how we might follow that example today with the power of the Holy Spirit. The following weeks we looked at the ideas of Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Discipling, and Salty Service, and discussed what those ideas command us to do, why they are important aspects of healthy and growing congregations, and ways we can make these active ideals of our congregation here at Druid Hills. Today we are going to discuss the final practice, Extravagant Generosity, talk about what it means, what Scripture tells us about it, and talk about some ways we can practice it.
Difficulty in Being Generous
Of all of these practices I think this one of Extravagant Generosity is the most misunderstood. I also believe this is the one that causes a lot of people the most discomfort. Let's face it...we are talking about something very personal and very revealing. We are talking about something that our culture says is of paramount importance. We are talking about money. When I was going to school I was taught that I needed to study hard so I could get good grades, so I could get into a good college, so I could study hard and get good grades again, so I could get a high paying job and be happy. That message of money=happiness was drilled into me.
Do you know that 40% of Americans spend 110% of their annual income each year. Dave Ramsey, founder of Financial Peace University loves to tell people, “We buy things we don’t even need, with money we don’t even have, to impress people we don’t even know.” That is a mindset that will only bring pain. That is a lifestyle that guarantees you stress, heart ache, and loneliness. And our culture fosters this sense of materialism that is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. No wonder generosity is difficult for our culture.
What is Generosity?
But what is generosity? The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, dealt with just this issue and had some very poignant thoughts on the matter. He believed that “Having, First, gained all you can, and, Secondly saved all you can, Then give all you can.” Wesley wanted us to work hard and earn money to sustain our livelihood. But he did not want us to keep it. He taught us to earn it and then give it away. He was advocating generosity and helping those we could. He built on that idea by also teaching us to, “Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.” This is the idea of generosity. It is not a once in while, annual event. It is a way of life, a mindset, an outward expression of our belief in Christ Jesus and proof of our maturing into Christ's image.
We Are Called to Extravagant Generosity
But we are called to be more than simply generous. We are called to extravagant generosity – a generosity that is lavish and goes far beyond mere duty or requirements. The symbol for today’s piece of the Methodist Way is an overflowing cup. Psalms 23 tells us that God so abundantly provides for our needs that our “cup runneth over.” And in Luke 6, Jesus shares with the disciples that if they give, they will receive “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, poured into [their] lap” (6:38).
Our Scripture lessons this morning impress these ideals of extravagant generosity. From 1 Chronicles we read about King David and all that he gave for the building of God's Temple; the gold, silver, iron, onyx, all out of his personal treasury. But in addition to that was all of the material given by the tribes in response to David's generosity. But here is where the difference between generosity and extravagant generosity is revealed. All of this was given willingly, without hesitation or reservation. King David, even after giving all that he had, was so overwhelmed by the response of the tribes, that he prays a wonderful prayer in verses 10-18. But I want us to pay special attention to verses 14-16, “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill-offering? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope. O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own.” David understood something about what we have. He understood that all we have is not ours to begin with. It all comes from God.
Then from 2 Corinthians we find Paul writing about the generosity of the Macedonian Christians. These were primarily Gentile churches that Paul had helped to establish during his missionary journeys. And the offering that they took up was for Israel, particularly the region of Judea, where Jesus had come from. From Acts 11 we find out that a famine had hit Judea hard. And as the word spread about the problems that the Christians in this region were experiencing, the Macedonian churches felt compelled to help. Paul makes it clear that this was not an easy feat, but that the Macedonians had experienced many trials and were considered at the level of “extreme poverty.” And yet, they begged for the chance to give, pleading for the privilege of sharing. And the amount of their offering overwhelmed Paul. His only explanation? They had given first to the work of God in their own area, were blessed for it, and then gave over and above their duty and regular giving in order to help their Christian brothers and sisters in their time of need.
What strikes me most about these two examples is that anyone can give, if they truly believe in what they are giving towards. They may have to re-order some priorities, but extravagant givers do not seem to count the cost. Rather they look toward the benefits others will reap from their gifts. And the other thing that strikes me about these examples is the joy that accompanies the giving. Joy helps prompt the gift and joy is also received in the process of giving. I also think that when we fully understand that all we have been blessed with is God's to begin with, that practicing extravagant generosity becomes that much easier. We are not owner, but mangers and we should not be takers but givers. The blessings, the joy, the light that you will give to others by practicing this discipline is worth more than anything you can buy.
I heard a story about a 10 year old boy who walked up to the counter of a drug store soda shop and leapt onto a stool. He caught the eye of the waitress and asked, “How much is an ice cream Sunday?” You know it was a long time ago, because the waitress replied, “50 cents.” The boy reaching into his pockets pulled out a handful of change, and began counting. The waitress frowned impatiently. After all, she had other customers to wait on. The boy squinted up at the waitress. “How much is a dish of plain ice cream” He asked. The waitress signed and rolled her eyes. “35 cents,” she said with some irritation.
Again, the boy counted his coins. At last, he said, “I’ll have the plain ice cream, please.” He put a quarter and 2 nickels on the counter. The waitress took the coins, brought the ice cream, and walked away. About 10 minutes later, she returned and found the ice cream dish empty. The boy was gone. She picked up the empty dish---then swallowed hard. There on the counter, next to the wet spot where the dish had been, were 2 nickels and five pennies. The boy had enough for a sundae, but he had ordered plain ice cream so he could leave a tip. This young man understood the idea of extravagant generosity.
We as Christians are called to be in this world, but not of this world. We are called to do things as Christ instructed, not as culture dictates. We are called to understand some things differently than those around us. But the reward for all of this, the benefit of undertaking this journey are the blessings that come from God.
In the days and weeks ahead this is our challenge together. To understand that all we have is not ours, but first belonged to God. That giving is central to the Christian life because we understand God as generous – the source of life and love and the source of every good and perfect gift, including the gift of his Son Jesus upon the cross for our sins. We need to model that example of God, that God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life, to all we meet. Because we called to be radically hospitable people that worship passionately, intentionally disciple ourselves in the ways of Jesus Christ, and follow His call to be salty servants that practice extravagant generosity.