The Practice of Generosity

Paula Northwood March 22, 2020

Scripture: Luke 21:1–4

Be Like a River

In generosity and helping others, be like a river.
In compassion and grace, be like the sun.
In concealing other’s faults, be like the night.
In anger and fury, be as if you have died.
In modesty and humility, be like the earth.
In tolerance, be like the sea.
And either appear as you are, or be as you appear.

—Rumi

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A woman who practiced Buddhism frequented the local hot dog vendor and often engaged in conversations about religion. One day the Buddhist woman walked up to the hot dog vendor and asked the vendor to “make me one with everything.” The vendor gave her a hot dog and she gave him a twenty-dollar bill. After a moment of waiting, the Buddhist asked, “Where’s my change?” The vendor smiled and said, “Ahh, change must come from within.”

“Ah, change must come from within.” We continue our sermon series on the fruits of the spirit and the change that must come from within. Today we will look at generosity. When my colleagues and I came up with this sermon series, we never would have dreamed what was about to happen. We had never heard of COVID-19. During this Lenten season, we were hoping to examine the kind of traits we Christians manifest, how we are to be in the world and the spiritual practices we need to sustain our lives. My friends, we have been presented with an opportunity to see what we are really made of and, like the widow who gave her all, what it means for us to live into a spiritual practice of generosity.

Many of you know I visited my 88-year-old father during January. Dad and his wife, Carol, live in Anchorage, Alaska. Carol drove me around town to show me the sights and told me stories about the 1964 earthquake as well as the one that happened in 2018, from which they are still recovering. It was all very interesting so when I saw the New York Times March 12 article titled, “This Is How You Live When the World Falls Apart,” by Jon Mooallem, I was intrigued. The author uses the way people responded to that 1964 earthquake in Alaska to encourage us in our current crisis.

Carol took me to an exhibit that told the story of the 9.2 earthquake that shook the downtown area and left it looking like a war zone. The walls had fallen off the brand-new J.C. Penney building, making it look like a dollhouse. The New York Times article says:

By daybreak the following morning, hundreds of volunteers had spontaneously converged on the city’s combined police and fire station, . . . eager to pitch in. No one in the city government had anticipated this onrush [of volunteers] or put any system in place to manage it. The conventional wisdom was that in a disaster, authorities had to worry about hordes of civilians chaotically fleeing the hardest-hit area. Here, everyone was piling in to help. . . .

Virtually none of the looting, violence or other antisocial behavior that those city officials expected . . . ever materialized. . . .

Many of our ugliest assumptions about human behavior have been refuted by their observations of how actual humans behave.[1]

Yes, there are examples of bad behavior in times of crisis. But more often, according to researchers who study this, people are reaching out to help. You can likely think of a story where people are doing little acts of kindness even now. In my neighborhood, someone used sidewalk chalk and wrote encouraging messages in front of every house with children.

In this time when we are being asked to physically distance ourselves, which is itself a life-giving act, we are finding creative ways to stay socially connected. We must see the efforts we are making now to curb the virus as positive steps to care for each other. As the New York Times article says, “We are coming together to keep our distance.” If we want to stop our own anxiety, we need to acknowledge that even the tiniest of helpful acts are coming from a generous heart.

In our society, we often suffer alone, and even our experience of vulnerability can isolate us. But when a danger becomes a global threat, as this virus has, we begin to recognize that it is our shared vulnerability that connects us.

The widow in our scripture reading, likely in a very vulnerable situation with no spouse, put into the offering box all that she had with no apparent thought to the future, only to the present. She had something to give so she shared it. A crisis or an opportunity such as ours can expand our thinking too. It brings the present moment into focus; it levels the playing field (we all could get sick) and gives us the opportunity to connect our lives with others in ways not seen before.

I have sometimes thought the earth is like a shaggy, wet dog: when too soaked and overloaded, it shakes wildly, a full body shake from nose to tail. Natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and diseases are the earth’s way of shaking and saying, “Wake up! You are getting out of control. Your values and priorities and population are out of perspective.” Now is our opportunity to make some things right.

But in spite of what we may do or not do, the earth keeps spinning and the sun keeps shining and God remains present through it all. And God’s body in the world is the church—not the building, but the people who are doing shared ministry where we feel inspired and emboldened to do the work of our mission, within the church, without and beyond our walls.

Acting generously is one of our ethical values and spiritual practices. Being generous is meant to break down the walls we have built around our own possessions, time and resources and to share them. Being generous is to know that all we have is because of God’s goodness, not our own doing. No one is really a self-made person.

Being generous is an internal attitude, an orientation, and it comes from the heart. Many of you have showed us the generosity of your hearts by offering to help cover the salaries of our hourly staff during this time. Others have offered to deliver supplies. I’m inviting others to consider helping us recoup the loss from not being able to rent the theater and other rooms. We are also giving the preschool a discount as they will also likely have to close or have limited students in the coming days. Plymouth members, you are very generous, and it is so appreciated during this challenging time. But it’s not just about money, and, if we focus just on money, we may miss the opportunity to be generous in much deeper ways.

To be generous with each other now is stay physically distant but socially connected. Be generous by reaching out by phone, email, letters to those you know are especially isolated. To be generous with a bored and weary child is to give the child your attention, time, kind words and generous hugs. They are watching how you handle this crisis. To be generous with our spouses or family members is to really listen to the need beneath their anxiety and offer assurances. To be generous to a stranger is to give them the benefit of the doubt if they do things that seem mean or confusing. To be generous is to make face masks, help deliver supplies and likely share our resources as time goes on. It is also good to be generous with ourselves; when we are impatient or make mistakes, let us bless ourselves with love and compassion instead of guilt or self-loathing. Detach yourself from the need to be right, from your frustration, from your critical attitudes and from your overwhelming sense of anxiety. Detaching from these things are the marks of a generous heart.

Developing a generous heart, a generous orientation takes using your spiritual muscles. It involves a practice of giving when the impulse is to hoard. If we listen to Jesus, giving is life-expanding work. Jesus did not stop the widow from giving her all even though she may have needed it more.

Our world, the one we take for granted, has almost instantaneously changed, reality has been abruptly upended and the unimaginable is at times overwhelming.

Can we, despite our fears and anxieties about money and resources, create a culture of abundance and generosity? Can we practice a generosity that is grounded on a deep and trusting relationship with the divine?

I want to close with the first line of the Rumi poem that Beth read: “In generosity and helping others, be like a river.” Because God is our headwater, our source, let us be an overflowing, ever-running river of generosity during these days and those to come! May it be so. Amen.


[1] Jon Mooallem, “This Is How You Live When the World Falls Apart,” The New York Times, March 12, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-disaster-response.html (accessed March 24, 2020).