On Ash Wednesday, I opened this sermon series, "Moral Values: Which Values and Whose Values?" with a reflection on the nature of morality and an overview of this topic. Simply stated, Morality is concerned with right conduct and virtuous behavior. In our times, the public discourse, "Moral Values" are spoken of in a divisive way. This division is about what you think makes a "good" person and what is "the right" thing to do. It is family based. What kind of family you believe you have or wish you had? It is a division between "Strickness" and Nurturance." It is a division which is highly personal.
In this public discourse, a small subset of issues have been narrowly defined as moral by a small subset of political and religious people. I believe moral values are essential for the raising of our children and grandchildren and for each one of us as we live in these days. However, I ask in this series: "Which values and whose values?" Today's sermon is "Generosity as a Moral Value."
The prophet Isaiah had an economic vision of a just society. It was a moral vision because it called for equality and dignity for all. One thousand years before Jesus walked the earth, Isaiah shared his God-given vision of his prophecy:
"No more sounds of weeping in the city, no cries of anguish; no more babies dying in the cradle, or old people who don't enjoy a full lifetime...They'll build houses and move in. They'll plant fields and eat what they grow. No more building a house that some outsider takes over, No more planting fields, that the enemy confiscates, For my people will be as long lived as the trees, my chosen ones will have the satisfaction of their work....They themselves are plantings blessed by the Lord!" (Isaiah 65:20-25).
The vision of good and fair wages, housing and health, safety and security are foundational to God's vision of a good society. In The United States of America, one of the greatest nations to have ever existed in human history, it is left to us - as citizens and especially as people of faith - to ensure that people who work are not poor and homeless; that health care for all is not a pipe dream, that housing is not a luxury for the middle and upper class, that ours is a culture that supports strong, stable families in which parents are given the tools and the wherewithal to raise children successfully. These tools include equal education, access to opportunity, and fairness in the marketplace of work and social values.
In America, we also must see to it that those who cannot work, because of age or disabling circumstances, are cared for by our society. I know of only one way to insure this and measure success in economic justice and equality. It is by holding generosity as a moral value. I say this because every nation is ultimately judged by how it cares for its own - particularly the poorest of the poor. We are ultimately and eternally judged by how well we implement budgets - personal, church, city, county, state, and federal budgets - as moral documents.
So, how do we live with generosity as a moral value? I suggest to you two ways: first, understanding and establishing generosity as a core moral value in your life and second, implementing budgets as moral documents in your life and in our society.
1. Generosity as a Core Moral Value. Generosity is a noun. The American Heritage Dictionary says it means: "1. liberality in giving or willingness to give; 2. Nobility of thought or behavior, magnanimity. 3. Amplitude, abundance. 4. A generous act." The origins of the word are French, Genereux and Latin, Generosus which originally meant, "of noble birth." The word originally grew from "nobly born," to "noble-minded, magnanimous," to "liberal in giving."
Writing in 1686 in his essay "On Generosity," Gottfried Leibniz, a German thinker, wrote,
Generosity is the virtue which elevates us to do actions worthy of our kind, nature, descent, or origin which is heavenly...It is fitting for all human beings to be generous and act according to the nobility of human nature, so as not to degenerate or lower ourselves to the level of the beasts. This has been well expressed in these verses of Boethius, the Roman Senator:
We are all born of the first rank,
If we feel in ourselves our divine source.
(Leibniz translated by Donald Rutherford, University of CA, San Diego, quoted in Inspiring Generosity, UCC, 2002).
Generosity is a virtue of the heart and mind in which we act on behalf of others as a noble, magnanimous deed. Paul writes of generosity as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." In following Christ, we are called to be stewards of the generosity which has been given by God to us. Since stewardship presumes blessing and abundance, we are called to share our gifts with others.
Jesus sums up the purpose of his ministry this way: "I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). In the biblical Hebrew, the word for "Salvation," comes from the root that connotes "space and freedom and security which is gained by the removal of the constriction." In other words, the good news of salvation is deliverance from what constricts us. Salvation gives us our first breath and helps us overcome what stifles us or smothers us.
This sharing is a life commitment. It is a sharing of time. It is a sharing of talents. It is a sharing of treasure. How do you generously share your time with others? How do you generously share your talents with others? How do you generously share your money and your financial resources with others?
Generosity then is that "heavenly" virtue of liberality in which we share ourselves with others. How are you liberal in giving? How do you share yourself with others? I am amazed by people who, for no known reason, reach out to other human beings in need. Often, they do not know this person. It may happen on the streets. They may be in an AA meeting. They may be the workplace. They may be your neighbors. But, someone, simply reaches across the street, across the table, across the water cooler and they generously share themselves with someone in need. They perceive a physical, spiritual, or emotional need and respond with kindness.
In my time at First Church, I have met some of the most generous people I have known in my life. They have reached out to me or my family and touched our lives with kindness and love. They are my teachers in the ways of kindness and love - virtues and values which I seek for my life. For the generous, kind, and loving people of this church, I am deeply grateful. When things get tough in my life, it is the generous people of this church and of my life encounters who give me hope. In kindness and generosity, they help me become more generous in my outreach. I find them as generous in all things - time, talents, and treasure. Generosity is a moral value which cannot be narrowly defined to one end. It continues to all aspects of life and living. Someone who is abundant in sharing love is usually abundant in sharing money. Someone who gives generously of time and talent, is more giving of their financial resources as well.
We teach our children generosity by what we do when faced with poverty and need. Sometimes our children teach us. Often, long after many of you have gone home on Sundays, I am here. Last month, my daughter, Sarah and I were the last ones to leave. It was 4:00 pm in the afternoon. It was a cold winter day - zero to 5F. A family of three came to the door needing bus fare to Cincinnati. Sarah warmly welcomed them in the church. She offered them cookies and drinks. As I was checking on a few things, she slipped this note it me on a prayer card. It reads, "Is there anything I can do?" I have it wedged into the picture frame of Washington Gladden above my desk in my office.
A generous heart is one that is asking "Is there anything I can do?" As we have been faced with a budget deficit to open 2005, the first person to step forward with his new pledge was Cameron Wade, age 7. Following the congregational meeting, Cameron offered $1 a week to end the deficit. That is a generous heart (unless of course Cameron is earning $50,000 a year on his boyish good looks and youthful charm!).
When I my ministry has ended here, I hope it will be said of us by others that generosity marked our life together. Quite frankly, if my ministry ended today, I would not feel that we had reached that point yet. But, as we embrace generosity as a moral value for our lives, each of us will grow in abundant love and the question which will guide us will be Sarah's question. The question from a generous heart: "Is there anything I can do to help?"
2. Generosity can be measured by the ways in which we implement budgets as moral documents in our lives and in our society. In the text from Ash Wednesday, Jesus said in Matthew 6:19-21, "Don't hoard treasure down here on earth...Stockpile your treasure in heaven....The place where your treasure is, is the place where your heart is also." What is your heart's treasure? There you will find your investments of generosity.
Is your heart invested in family - daily operations, family vacations? College Education for your children? Church? Country Clubs? Social Organizations? Overseas development projects? Local charities? Stocks, bonds, securities? Where is your treasure? How do you invest yourself and the money in your budget?
Two weeks ago, we had a difficult and challenging congregational meeting as we were dealing with the church budget. Quite frankly, we have more mission and ministry vision and reach than in this growing congregation than we current year pledges to meet those visions. There was a gap of $32,000 between the two. We have had a number of people step up to that challenging gap and close it to $25,000 without any solicitation from Church Council. But, the challenge was laid out by one member at the meeting (and later in the newsletter) that if we want to be a part of this church, it takes a deeper commitment of giving than simply the average of 2% of income shared. It takes 3% or more! He was so bold as to suggest that if you can't meet this challenge than some other church might be a better fit for you.
His challenge was met with a number of responses which have come back to me through email and hand delivered letters. Others have said, "How can we call ourselves open and affirming of all people regardless of socio-economic conditions if we say `give this way or hit the highway?'" I agree that in times of budgetary challenge, we cannot drive people away or out the door with "either/or" theology. But, I also believe we must all live into the covenant of this church which calls us to give something! We cannot simply take a place on the roster and rolls of the church without supporting the mission and ministry of the church!
Since pledging is the way in which we choose to commit to this covenant at First Church, everyone should seek to somehow engage this covenant through intentional giving. If we say we want to be in covenant and celebrate our life together, and yet, do not nothing to give to its mission or ministry in time, talent, and/or treasure, we are suffering from hypocrisy and a lack of generosity.
As well, we need to measure our treasure by what we share with the "least of these" among our planetary companions. If we fail to give in mission and ministry to the poor and the oppressed, then we also fail in the moral value of generosity.
Last week, Dr. Jacob Dorn spoke at the 100th Anniversary of The Gladden Community House. He pointed out that from 1905-1908, First Church had a budget with only two categories: Benevolences (which included all mission locally and across the globe) and "Home Expenses" (which included pastors' salaries, heat, light, congregational expenses). Benevolences always fell short of home expenses. But, the percentage of dollars given away ranged from 30-35% over these years. About 1/6 of all congregational costs in these years went to Gladden Community House. The split between our benevolences now and home expenses range from 10-15% in any given year. How times have changed. If we gave 35% of our annual expenses to mission today, the amount would be around $252,000 instead of $113,000 as it was in 2004. Talk about our treasure where our heart is! One of the arguments recorded in earlier years was how could the church "drop" in giving from 35% to 30%. One of the concerns raised at the congregational meeting two weeks ago was "how could we cut mission dollars to balance the budget?" You see, 100 years after Dr. Gladden, budgets are still moral documents. Budgets are measurable ways in which we demonstrate how we struggle to balance home expenses with benevolence. I believe this struggle is personal as well as congregational in nature.
Meanwhile, we struggle at city, county, state, and federal levels to create budgets that reflect the "compassionate conservatism" that President Bush brought to the White House four years ago. Clearly, the big money in the budget now is for war and tax cuts. The federal budget has hundreds of billions of dollars in deficit spending. It reflects a growing compassionate deficit. I believe, according to the places in which we put our values and treasury that we have gone from a war on poverty in the 1960's to a war on the poor today. In the past, we talked about a safety net for the poor. There is no net now. There are only threads. As a result, the poor are slipping further and further out of the economy and into the abyss of unchecked poverty. This reflects the missing moral value of generosity.
Since the federal budget effects the state budget, we are seeing more pain at the state levels of government than ever before, too. The budget proposed by Governor Taft this week does not provide any hope for Ohioans who are poor and hurting. The Taft budget will severely damage our care for children, the poor, the elderly and the environment - among other things.
Currently, the federal and state budgets are moral contradictions which are too great to ignore. With the growing gap between rich and poor, we can no longer turn aside and say nothing, we need to speak with love and truth to power. While war of terror is being engaged across the globe, I feel like there is a silent war at home effecting the low-income families desperately clutching on to the bottom rungs of our struggling economy.
When faced with temptation in the desert to succumb to power offered by Satan or stick with God's plan of generosity and salvation, Jesus chose God's plan. May we do the same - living into generosity as our guiding moral value. Then we will see the fruits of Isaiah's vision:, for we will be "plantings blessed by the Lord!" And, we will also be able to answer with Sarah the questions, "Is there anything I can do?" Amen.