Saturday, December 21, 2019

“Generous Hearts” - November 10, 2019

Text: Acts 2:42-47

For 34 years, LouAnn Alexander worked as a flight attendant.  But then at the age of 58, she received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.  Before long, this full-of-life mother and soon-to-be grandmother was making plans for hospice care.

Her older brother Rex was flying to see her when he asked the flight attendant—who happened to be an old colleague of his sister - if he could speak to the passengers.  He talked about his sister, even passed his phone around the plane so they could see photos of her.  Then he handed out napkins and asked if they’d write a little something for her.  Many passengers did.  Some drew pictures.  Two seatmates created flowers out of napkins and swizzle sticks.  But mostly, there were warm words.  One said, “Your brother made me love you, and I don’t even know you.” 

96 passengers, people who had never even met LouAnn Alexander, sent notes of love and care and encouragement and prayer.  Her brother never forgot the compassion shown that day.  “I’m just amazed that given the opportunity, even total strangers will reach out and show a lot of empathy and concern,” he said.

People responded to this request, I think, because at some level we understand that we are all in this together.  We understand that it could be any of us.  And deep down we know that regardless of our differences and all those things that might serve to separate us, we are really all family. 

This morning we will be receiving pledges of financial support for our church for the coming year.  Now, the money is important.  Don’t get me wrong.  Giving of our time and energy and talent is important.  I want us all to do that.  But when we are talking about generosity, it really begins with something deeper.  It begins with our hearts.  Part of the reason we give is that deep in our hearts, we understand that we are all in this together.

Our text this morning is from the book of Acts.  It is a description of the very beginnings of the Christian church.  

You may have noticed the bulletin insert this morning – it is a condensed version of the narrative budget that went out in a mailing a few weeks ago.  We have described our life as a church in terms of the heart – worshiping hearts, growing hearts, caring hearts, serving hearts.  It is interesting to me how closely the actions and practices of this early community of believers reported in Acts might be described in this same way.

“They were devoted to the apostle’s teaching.”  This church was about learning.  They were about spiritual growth.  If we reflect back on Jesus’ ministry, he spent the bulk of his time teaching a small group of disciples.  This instruction in the faith continued for these early believers as they were taught by the apostles.  Growing hearts.

This might happen for us as we hear the Word read and proclaimed each Sunday.  It can mean studying the scriptures and the history of the Church.  It can mean learning from each other and from those who have wisdom and experience.  It can happen as kids go to camp.  We need to continue to learn and explore as well as live out our faith.  Growing hearts.

They devoted themselves to ... fellowship.  They shared meals together.  They “had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”   These were people committed to one another.  Cultivating their common life together was important.  Caring hearts.

This model of communal living is not the only Biblical model and did not become standard practice for the early church, although it has been practiced by groups throughout Christian history.  But what was non-negotiable was the impulse to care for and provide for one another – the sense of responsibility for each other.

We have such a strong emphasis on the individual and the idea of the self-made person that we can wind up with a very individualized spirituality.  And with our Baptist emphasis on personal faith, we may be especially prone to focusing on the individual to the point of neglecting the community.  Taking a look at these early believers reminds us of the importance of the community and that we are to have caring hearts. 

This was a church that truly looked out for one another.  If there was a big need, they would have a garage sale or put something on Facebook marketplace.  They would come up with the funds and find a way to provide for the needs of the community.

Care was not just a concept or a feeling; it led to action.  It led to service.  Reading this passage you are struck by how many actions there are.  Teaching, fellowshipping, breaking bread, praying, performing signs and wonders, selling, distributing, praising.

This was a faith that led to action.  A faith that led to service.  The church was filled with serving hearts.

And indeed the care and the service provided by early Christians was not only shown to those within the community; it reached out beyond the community.  They drew others in.  They had a focus beyond themselves.  The fact that Christians would care for the poor and the sick and the needy had a great deal to do with the growth of Christian faith in the Roman Empire.  Christians were known for their serving hearts.

They devoted themselves... to the breaking of bread and the prayers…  Awe came upon everyone…  They spent much time together in the temple.  This church worshiped together frequently and fervently.  They centered their community life around it.  They had worshipping hearts.

The word “awesome” has come to have a broader and more generic meaning in our contemporary English usage, but to be in awe is to be aware that we stand before a Power and a Presence greater than ourselves.  This sense of awe was a regular part of the life of these early Christians.  It was a sense of God’s presence with .  Worshiping hearts. 

Luke reports that day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.  Growth, you will notice, is not at the top of the list.  It is attributed to God, not to the congregation.  And it seems to be more a by-product of everything else.  This church was devoted to teaching, devoted to fellowship, devoted to worship, devoted to prayer, they had a sense of awe, shared their gifts, shared their resources, shared meals, provided for everyone, they praised God and enjoyed the good will of the people.  Of course they grew.  Of course this attracted others!

With growing hearts, caring hearts, serving hearts, and worshipping hearts, the values of this church are much like what we hope to accomplish today.  But there is one little phrase that especially interests me this morning.  They had “glad and generous hearts.”

Over the past month we have looked at various dimensions of stewardship.  We have heard Erin and Rita talk about their own experiences of having been blessed by God and wanting to give in response.  We have heard from Taylor Schram from the Center for Creative Justice, who shared a moving story of how one client’s life was changed through the work of CCJ.  It is work that our church, work that our giving, helps to make possible.

The stewardship testimonies we have heard came from people who have “glad and generous hearts.”  If you had to describe the central idea of Christian stewardship in a few words, you couldn’t do much better than this.  “Glad and generous hearts.”  I love this phrase because it has connections both to being blessed and being a blessing for others.  Glad and generous.

When we have glad and generous hearts, everything else kind of falls into place.  When a community, such as this church in Acts, is filled with people who have glad and generous hearts, everything else works.  The community is truly a family of faith – and hope and love and goodness.

As we think especially about generosity this morning – about having generous hearts – the question may be, how do we get there?  Can we just flip a switch and suddenly have a generous, giving heart?

As it turns out, this is not rocket science.  The way to develop a generous heart is by being generous.  We learn, we grow, we change by doing.

A basketball player wants to become a better shooter.  How do you do it?  Not by reading about basketball, and not just by getting coached on shooting technique, though that can help.  But the way to improve is through practice.  Shoot a couple hundred shots every day. 

How do you become an excellent piano player?  Taking lessons is a good start, but if you don’t practice, it’s not going anywhere. 

How do you develop a love for books?  You can visit libraries, you can buy books, you can put up book-themed artwork on the wall, but you learn to love books by reading – and maybe as a child you start by having a parent read to you.  The love grows through the doing.

Generosity is the same way.  The gladness part – being thankful, being appreciative, knowing that we have been blessed – can lead us toward generosity.  But generous hearts grow through actually being generous. 

I am not simply talking about money here.  Being generous with our money is really a by-product of having a generous heart.  Being generous means being ready to give, even beyond what is expected, and practicing kindness.  A generous heart affects so many things: the way we use our time.  The way we think of others.  Our willingness to act in ways that show concern and understanding and empathy. 

My mom buys greeting cards like they are going out of style and has birthday cards and anniversary cards ready sometimes weeks in advance.  She will put a date where the stamp goes and when the time comes she puts the stamp on the card and sends it.  She sends cards to family, to nieces and nephews, to folks at church, to other friends.  She has done this for a long time.  It comes from a generous heart. 

There is so much heavy, demoralizing, and just plain sad news out there.  This week I tried to pay attention and looks for stories of generosity – and they were all over the place.  Maybe you heard the story of the young man in Georgia, late 20’s, who needed a heart transplant.  He has autism and with no family, he was homeless.  To get a transplant you have to have a home – a place to go and recover after surgery.  It’s one of the requirements.  One of his nurses learned of this and decided to take him in.  She became his legal guardian.  He received the transplant and he still lives with her and her son.  It was an amazing act of generosity, but I imagine that this was not the first generous thing she had done. 

We grow in generosity by doing – by being generous.  It is interesting that Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.”  You would expect him to phrase that the other way around.  If he said, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be,” that would be easy to understand.  We give to things we care about.  That is true.  But Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.”  This is about growing in generosity.  As we give, our hearts become more generous.  As we give, we become less focused on ourselves and more focused on others. 

And generosity is not just an individual effort; it is meant to be a team sport.  It is like those passengers on the plane, sending notes to a woman they did not know – generosity can actually be contagious.  It can become a characteristic of a community.  That is exactly what happened at the church we read about in Acts. 

I have been amazed again and again by the generosity this church has shown.  Folks are generous with their time, generous with their money – often in quiet ways that go largely unnoticed.  When we have a significant need, people meet the need.  And we have been generous in supporting ministry beyond ourselves, in the community and beyond.  Like this church in Acts, there are so many in this place who have “glad and generous hearts.” 

We will receive our pledges this morning as the offering is collected, and we encourage you to give generously as an act of worship.  But the challenge for us, the challenge of generosity, really goes beyond that.   

We develop generous hearts by doing – by being generous.  A challenge for us might be to find new ways to act generously.  Do an unexpected kindness for a neighbor.  Send an encouraging card or email.  Make a contribution to an organization you appreciate that you have not contributed to before.  Hold the door open for someone longer than they would expect.  Take the time to visit with a child.  Invite a student for a meal.  And like this church in Acts, share our gladness and generosity as a community.  Amen. 

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