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Jesus Inspires Generosity

May 21, 2017
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner
Acts 4:32-5:11 NRSV

The other day I looked around my house and wondered, “Where did all this stuff come from?” Maybe it’s just me and the inability of my kids, and yes, myself, to find a place for everything in our lives. But it’s enough for me to want to sell it all and go live in a hut. Anyone else feel this way sometimes?

The average house in America has 300,000 items in it How did we do this? And why? The average 10 year old has 238 toys, and only plays with 12 of them. I think the estimate of toys is a little low, if you ask me. They aren’t counting the hundreds of little Lego pieces that find their way into every crack and cranny in my house.

A few years ago, I heard about the Sharing Economy. It started to catch on in urban neighborhoods where space is at a premium.  If you’re not familiar with it, the sharing economy is an effort to reduce the amount of stuff people own by intentionally sharing goods and resources when they are not being used.

In the sharing economy, a neighborhood group might choose to collectively purchase one lawn mower or snow blower and share it among the neighbors. People might intentionally reduce the number of cars they own and carpool, take public transport, or use Uber to get around. Or they might choose to grow a large organic garden in someone’s backyard and share the produce, then split the proceeds from any sales at the local farmer’s market. When they do this, people increase the effective use of resources, they tend to be more in tune to the impact they have on the environment, and they are more intentional about the interdependent nature of their resources and their relationships. It sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But it also sounds like a radical departure from the instant access we have when we have those 300,000 items in our house all to ourselves.

You could easily argue that the last thing that might make us happier is more stuff.  So I wonder, is there something to this sharing economy that could do us all a little good, where we evaluate the deep connection between our resources and our relationships?

In biblical times, sharing resources and having deep relationships was the typical way of life. The needs of the community came ahead of one’s individual needs. In ancient Greece, Aristotle wrote, “Among friends everything is common.”

The same was true for early followers of Jesus. The Holy Spirit guided the early church into deep relationship with one another. They practiced an even deeper form of sharing and generosity as those who participate in the Sharing Economy today.  They weren’t so concerned about reducing the amount of stuff they owned, but they did see that their resources were inseparable from the relationships they had with God and with others. They lived intentionally with one another as testimony to their commitment of faith in the risen Christ. And their lives reflected the gratitude they had that the Holy Spirit was at work transforming their lives and their community.

The Spirit gave them courage to speak boldly against those who opposed them, she gave them power to heal people, and gave them open hearts ready to generously share and receive all that they had. The prevailing thought among the early Christian community was that it was a virtue to share your resources with those in need.

Today, we still think of generosity as a virtue. We give when there are natural disasters, when there is an important cause to support like Open Table or Lutheran Social Services. We give to organizations, like our church and schools, which provide meaning to our lives. It feels good to give.

At the same time, the connection between our resources and our relationships are not as strong as they once were. There is more emphasis in our culture on using resources to gain access to privilege and comfort. There is tremendous effort from marketing and commerce to fit in by “upgrading” our stuff – our phones, our homes, and our cars. The focus on purchasing our way into community leaves many left out and ashamed, especially if they can’t afford all the upgrades that seem to be necessary.

Many of the messages we hear every day sideline the ways of Jesus. Rather than work toward all having enough, a chasm grows between those who have much and those who have little. This chasm impacts not only the economy, but the fabric of our communities. I recently read, “Just eight men, own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world's population.” (Fortune, Jan. 15, 2017)

One might wonder how this could happen. How has humanity separated its resources from the care of one another in such a way that eight people could have as much as almost four billion people? We might not be able to do much about this, but what about the things we can do?

What if we did pay more attention to the choices we made about what we consume and why? How might we experience abundance when we see the link between our resources and our relationships?

 While I was in seminary, one of my neighbors was a farmer from Tanzania. His wife was working on her PhD at Luther. After worship one day, he told me the difference between standard market coffee and fair trade market coffee, like the kind we sell here on Sunday mornings. At the time, a farmer selling his coffee crop to the standard market made a penny a pound. My friend Ndi had joined a fair trade cooperative back in Tanzania and was now able to make a quarter per pound.

When it comes to the price I pay for my coffee that 24 cents doesn’t make a huge difference, but the difference for the coffee grower is the difference between just barely surviving and sending his children to college and allowing them to live into their full potential. Purchasing fair trade coffee, or anything for that matter may not change the world, but it might lead to a little more abundant life for others.

Living as they did back in Acts is nearly impossible today. In fact it didn’t last long for them either. Eventually, the call to hold everything in common became too large a hurdle, and some withheld a portion of their offering. We don’t know why Ananias and Sapphira did it. There could have been a perfectly reasonable explanation. What we do know is that the consequences for us when we hold back generosity are far less drastic than they were for them. Perhaps though, we do lose sight of the abundant life Jesus offers when we miss how generosity links our resources and our relationships.

About ten years ago, my friend Angela was living in Ashland, WI, raising two small girls with her husband, Rick. One day, Rick went to the clinic. He hadn’t been feeling quite right. It turns out he had cancer. Angela and Rick had great friends and colleagues who surrounded them during this time. When he went for treatments at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, they would give Rick gift cards to one of his favorite places to eat, Café Latte.

Before moving to northern WI, they both had worked at St. Olaf, so they had lots of friends in the Twin Cities area. Rick wanted to surround himself with others during these treatments. We wanted to feel alive and be reminded of the blessings in his life. Even when he wasn’t feeling at his best, he invited friends, family, and former coworkers to join him for lunch at Café Latte. He always went ahead of his guests and when they got to the cashier, he picked up the tab for the whole group.

One day Angela suggested that it was possible that he was being a little too generous with these lunches. She urged him to hold back just a little. There might be a time when he would be hospitalized and she and girls could use them. He wasn’t all that enthused about it, but he saw her point. He didn’t invite as many people to eat with him after that, and when he did he no longer picked up the tab for everyone. A few months later, Rick died…There were gifts cards left over.

To this day, Angela carries one of the unused Café Latte gift cards in her wallet to remind her of the abundant life Rick lived, even during his illness, and as a reminder that withholding what has been freely given to us takes away from the abundant life Jesus has so freely given the world.

Jesus inspires us to be generous – to see that our resources and relationships are inseparable from one another. We won’t always get it right.  There are plenty of times we’ll follow the way of others. There will be times when we cling to our possessions out of love or fear, when we will want to hold on to more than is necessary. At the same time, the Spirit is as much at work today as she was in the early Church. She still calls us to be of one heart and soul, and whispers to us to share life in ways that open us to the generous and abundant life of Jesus. Amen.



Our journey of faith leads us to build bridges of understanding and peace, to reach out with compassion, and to share the hope of Jesus.