“Spiritual Practices: Generosity”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
October 8, 2017
Some give freely, yet grow all the richer;
others withhold what is due, and only suffer want.
A generous person will be enriched,
and one who gives water will get water.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me to work for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
Let’s take a look at our Gospel passage from this morning. Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard owner who does the equivalent of the contractor driveby at Home Depot, looking for day laborers who will help him with the harvest. There must have been a bumper crop that year, because the vineyard owner has to return to the marketplace four more times throughout the day to find enough workers for the harvest. At the end of the day, the vineyard owner lines up all those who have labored and hands out a denarius to each of them, including those who have only worked an hour or two. Those who have worked all day – likely starting at 6am and going 12 hours – are furious.
Have you ever been there before? Maybe in school or at work you were assigned to do a group project with someone who was completely checked out, and even though you did most of the work, that other person got to share in the good grade or the public accolades without contributing much of anything. ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat!’ It smarts, doesn’t it?
If you remember from my first official sermon here at PACC, a parable is a story with a twist, a paradox hidden just under the surface. It seems safe to say that in this parable, the twist is actually right on the surface, plain as day. Who wouldn’t be flummoxed by the ridiculous, upside-down unfairness of this pay structure? Or, to put ourselves in the role of the vineyard owner, who in their right mind would pay a day’s wage for 1/12th of the work, or 1/4 of the work, or even 3/4 of the work? It makes no sense financially.
But let’s turn it on its head one more time. The laborers – and presumably the disciples, who were listening to this parable and who had just asked Jesus what they would get for being his disciples from the earliest days of his ministry – are upset that people aren’t paid according to their work. The vineyard owner, however, isn’t paying according to hours worked. The vineyard owner is paying according to the wage needed. You see, the denarius, a silver coin issued by the Roman empire, was the standard for a day’s wage. We’re talking subsistence-level living here – it would be enough to feed one worker and his or her family for one day. The vineyard owner knows that if he pays less than a denarius, no matter the work done, someone is going to go hungry that night. And so he pays a full day’s wage even to those who worked only the last hour.
That’s a revolutionary idea, both then and now – paying according to what someone needs rather than what they earned. Jesus is rewriting the story here about what compensation – and giving – should look like. And I mean that literally – there was a similar parable making the rounds in Jesus’ time about a king who gave much more to a hard worker (symbolizing the nation of Israel) than he gave to those who just did what was required.
Did you notice what the vineyard owner calls this upside down payscale where someone’s wellbeing is considered more important than the amount they’ve earned? He calls it generosity.
Ugh. That puts a strange taste in our mouths, doesn’t it? Generosity is supposed to be a feel-good word, not something disconcerting or confusing. But let’s follow that discomfort, because discomfort is often where we grow.
Knowing that I had pastored people experiencing homelessness, someone once asked me how to respond when a person on the street asks for money. “I don’t want my money going to fund someone else’s habit,” she said. “How do you know that what you give isn’t going to buy alcohol or drugs or something?”
There are a lot of practical answers to that question, like, “You don’t.” Or, “Buy the person a meal or a bus ticket or whatever else they say they need the money for.” But those answers sidetrack the root of the problem here, which is that the person asking the question misunderstood two things.
First, she misunderstood whose money this was to give. The person who asked me how to keep her money from buying someone’s can of beer saw the money as hers instead of God’s.
But as we talked about last week, scripture is clear that what we have comes from God. When we are reminded that all we have and enjoy is in some way a gift, that it comes from God, it becomes easier to give it back to God or to give it away. Suddenly it’s not our hard-earned money, our finite possessions or time or love – it’s part of an ever-flowing stream from God that we trust will continue to flow even as we give it others.
Second, and just as important, she misunderstood the purpose of giving.
We tend to think that we give to others, whether individuals or organizations, to fulfill their needs. And that is, of course, true – when you give $5 to a person on the street or $50 to a non-profit whose cause you support, you are empowering them to use that money to meet a need, to make a difference, to better a life in ways small or large.
That’s the result of giving. But it’s not the purpose of giving.
Giving is for the giver. Let me say that again – giving is for the giver.
It is meant to change not some other person or organization’s circumstance, but to change us.
This is different from merely making us feel good, although giving can do that, too. Giving is meant to break open the dam we’ve built around our own possessions, time, and resources, to unravel the cord we draw so tightly around us to delineate what belongs to us from the rest of the world.
Break open, unravel – those are some scary words when we think about them, aren’t they? They imply a sort of free-for-all, a destruction of the barriers that help us feel safe. And that’s exactly what giving does; that’s why the rich young man who asked Jesus, just two chapters before this morning’s Gospel passage, what he must do to have a full, abundant life in God walked away when Jesus said he should sell what he had and give it to the poor. What are we without our possessions, without the line in our bank account, without our routines and our fences that help us feel secure?
I Googled generosity this week and the first definition that popped up, from Wikipedia, was: “Generosity is the virtue of being unattached to material possessions, often symbolized by the giving of gifts.”
I had always thought that generosity was when someone gives a lot, but it turns out that that giving is the result or the side effect of generosity, not the thing itself. I’ll repeat: “Generosity is the virtue of being unattached to material possessions.” Generosity is what happens when we stop feeling threatened, afraid that we won’t be able to hold on to what we have, and start feeling like there is enough to go around, enough not just of material things, but also of intangibles, like love, time, experiences. Generosity is what happens when we move from a mindset of scarcity to a mindset of abundance.
Years ago I worked at a day shelter for people living in homelessness. We made breakfast every morning and sometimes lunch for whoever was around. At the time I was vegan, which meant I ate no animal by-products – no meat, dairy, shellfish, or even gelatin. (This explains, in part, why the first time I cooked grits for breakfast I was lovingly but firmly told by some of our guests that it would also be the last time, because what are grits without butter or cheese? Horrible, is what.)
At this shelter we would often get donations for food and if there was something vegan-friendly, I would always grab a portion for myself first and set it aside, because I was worried that the non-meat, non-cheese stuff would get eaten up and I’d end up hungry and less than pleasant due to low blood sugar. (The official name of this condition is “hangry.” Hungry + angry.)
At first my habit of squirreling away food made me feel better – I knew I would have something to eat for every meal. But after awhile I noticed that it was making me anxious and, frankly, ungracious. I would hover around the food table, strategizing how to fend off others and secure my meal without looking like a glutton. And until I had my side of black-eyed peas or veggie pasta, it was all I could think about.
Did I mention I worked in a homeless shelter where guests were scrambling to pull together 3 meals a day, if that?
So one day I just stopped worrying. I let others go first, like my mama taught me, and somehow, there was always enough. I learned to keep a jar of peanut butter and some fruit in my office and, y’know, sometimes I just went hungry, because it’s never a bad idea to have an idea of what those around you are going through.
And a funny thing happened. I discovered that instead of being anxious, I felt bountiful. Instead of grouchily worrying, I was able to joke around with and enjoy the folks who had come to share the meal. As the author of Proverbs says, when we live out of abundance, “giving freely,” we grow all the richer… those who water will themselves be watered.”
Do you remember the miracle of the loaves and fishes? A mentor of mine once suggested that the miracle there wasn’t that Jesus magically turned a few measly fish and loaves into enough to feed 5,000 people, but that as Jesus began to pass around the food the disciples had socked away for themselves, people began to take a crust of bread, a knob of cheese, a couple of dried figs out from inside their robes and share with their neighbors. Jesus, acting out of abundance, out of his sense that there would be enough, broke through their justifications and their worries that if they started eating what they had brought everyone would want some and they would go hungry. And miracle of miracles, they shared. And there was enough.
Generosity – being unconcerned about what’s mine vs. what’s yours – does that. It turns things inside out and upside down, and it’s contagious.
Did you notice that when it comes time to pay the workers at the end of the day, the vineyard owner starts out with the latecomers, paying them first while those who worked longer stand around waiting for their wage? Why didn’t he do it the other way, starting with those who knew they deserved a denarius and ending with those who would be unexpectedly delighted to receive it?
There is a domino effect to generosity; once that crack in the dam starts to flow, it becomes bigger and bigger until the wall is washed away. The vineyard owner knew this, and so he makes the workers who have been there the longest wait in line to witness his generosity to the ones who came at the 11th hour. He is trying to break open their barriers and unravel their circles and generally disorient them into generous living.
Friends, the vineyard owner represents God. And something funny about God is that God models this kind of jaw-dropping, inside-out, makes-no-sense generosity all over the place, sometimes where we least expect it or where it’s most guaranteed to get our dander up, hoping we will take notice and do the same, that we will join the domino effect.
Quaker author Parker Palmer tells a story about an unusual experience he had while flying:
“After a speech in Saskatoon, I boarded a 6 a.m. Air Canada flight home to Wisconsin. Our departure was delayed because the truck that brings coffee to the planes had broken down. After a while the pilot said, ‘We’re going to take off without the coffee. We want to get you to Detroit on time.’
I was up front where all the ‘road warriors’ sit — a surly tribe, especially at that early hour. They began griping, loudly and at length, about ‘incompetence,’ ‘lousy service,’ etc.
Once we got into the air, the lead flight attendant came to the center of the aisle with her mic and said, ‘Good morning! We’re flying to Minneapolis today at an altitude of 30 feet…’ [which was, of course, both the wrong destination and an inaccurate altitude.] That, of course, evoked more scorn from the road warriors.
Then she said, ‘Now that I have your attention… I know you’re upset about the coffee. Well, get over it! Start sharing stuff with your seatmates. That bag of five peanuts you got on your last flight and put in your pocket? Tear it open and pass them around! Got gum or mints? Share them! You can’t read all the sections of your paper at once. Offer them to each other! Show off the pictures of kids and grandkids you have in your wallets!’
As she went on in that vein, people began laughing and doing what she had told them to do. A surly scene turned into summer camp!
An hour later, as the attendant passed by my seat, I signaled to her. ‘What you did was really amazing,’ I said. ‘Where can I send a letter of commendation?’
‘Thanks,’ she said, ‘I’ll get you a form.’ Then she leaned down and whispered, ‘The loaves and fishes are not dead.’ ”
Are we willing to see the world this way – paradoxically, through an entirely different paradigm? Are we willing to let a crack in the dam develop, to let a fray begin in the rope encircling what we deserve, holding what’s “ours” separate from what’s “others’”, to let a chink open in our armor so that we can be opened to giving, to generosity, to abundance?
You may have noticed that most of this sermon hasn’t been directly tied to money. And that’s because I firmly believe that generosity is about much more than what we do with our dollars. In fact, although it’s stewardship month and we’re just a few weeks away from gathering in our pledges for next year, I think it’s actually best to start practicing generosity on something that isn’t financial at all.
Because it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that generosity begins and ends with our wallets. But it’s really an internal attitude, an orientation, and if we focus on how much we give monetarily – to the church, to non-profits – or on the dollar amounts spent on presents for our family and friends, we may miss the opportunity to be generous in a much deeper way.
To be generous with a misbehaving child – one who deserves a time out, but who really needs a hug.
To be generous with our spouses or family members – giving them a compliment or thanking them when you would really rather complain that they didn’t put the dishes in the dishwasher.
To be generous to someone in line at the grocery store or in the car next to us – letting them go first when you know it will make you late.
To be generous to a stranger who cuts you off or steals your stuff or to a relative who pushes your buttons – giving them the benefit of the doubt that maybe they needed it more, maybe they were having a bad day, maybe they are just human.
To be generous with ourselves, when we are impatient or mess up or don’t look right in the mirror or can’t do what we used to do when we were younger – blessing ourselves with love and compassion instead of guilt or self-loathing.
Detaching ourselves from the need to be right, from our frustration, from our critical attitudes, from our sense that our priorities trump all else, from our self-criticism, from the idea that everyone should get what’s coming to them instead of what gives them life – these are the marks of a generous heart. Developing a generous heart, a generous orientation to ourselves and the world, is hard, and, to listen to Jesus tell it, necessary work. Yet when we can remember that all good things belong to and come from God – when we can see through that paradoxical lens that what’s “ours” isn’t really – life, I have to tell you, gets a lot more buoyant, a lot more joyful. That flight attendant was on to something, and I want to be onto it, too.
Jesus’ parable, if you’ll remember, starts off by saying “The kingdom of God is like this.” Friends, we can help bring about the kingdom of God just by being…generous. Just by opening our hands, opening our hearts, and saying, “God, it’s yours anyway, so help me to share it.”