Whatever else might be said about what Christians believe and the principles we try to live by, it seems to me that the central core of our Faith is gratitude. Christians understand that everything we are and all that we have comes to us from the generous and loving hand of our Creator who loves us so much that there is no limit to how far or how much God will do on our behalf. As St. Paul tells us, “Will not the One who has given us all things, even the life of his only son, also freely give us even eternal life?” God’s generosity is a model for us--a standard by which to measure our own commitment. The question is: Are we ready and able to live a life characterized by extreme generosity?
Today, Calvary Church launches our Annual Fund Campaign. It is a time in which each of us will be asked to express our gratitude to God for all the blessings we have received by making a financial commitment to the work of maintaining and extending God’s Kingdom here in this place. In the days and weeks ahead, leading up to All Saints Day the first week in November, you will be hearing a variety of voices urging you to continue to be (or to become for the first time) an extremely generous person.
I love language. I’m always fascinated by words, derivations and meanings, so as I thought about preparing to share some thoughts with you this morning about what it means to be extremely generous, I turned to the Thesaurus. Just a few of the synonyms listed here for generous are: abundant, extravagant, lavish, bountiful and munificent. Then, just out of curiosity, I turned to the listing of antonyms--words that mean the opposite of extremely generous. I found there words like selfish, stingy, miserly, calculating and withdrawn. In short, the range of difference is between “open-handed” and “skinflint.” Well, if that little word study defines a sort of stewardship spectrum, I would just ask you to consider where, along that spectrum, does your own practice of stewardship stand? Does the level of your own contribution to the work of God in the world truly reflect your own sense of gratitude for what God has given to you and to yours? Well, I’ll just leave that question to your own thoughts and prayers. I firmly believe that God will work on your heart until you know and do the right thing.
While all that is going on, I want to share with you several stories--stewardship stories--that speak to the question I’ve just raised here. These stories may help you reflect on the matter of what it means to be extremely generous in some new and different ways.
The first story is a biblical one--one of the shortest of the many teachings of Jesus that we have. It is the story of the Widow’s Mite, a story in which Jesus states the two extremes of giving in a single sentence. The scene takes place at the entrance to the Temple in Jerusalem where Jesus was observing, along with his disciples, worshipers placing their offerings in the collection box. Perceiving the rich and well-to-do making routine and even extravagant gifts, he noted, in sharp contrast, a poor woman who dropped in just two copper coins. “Of a truth, I tell you,” says Jesus, “this poor woman has contributed more than all of those others because they are giving out of their abundance, whereas she, has given even from her poverty, everything that she has.” Jesus is pointing to the two extremes of giving: out of abundance and out of poverty--out of surplus and out of survival. “The gift that’s truly generous,” Jesus says, “is the gift that costs.”
This first story (like most stories from the Bible) confronts us with a disturbing, but important question: Where does my own giving stand on that same scale? Is my gift a mere token that I won’t even miss or is it a sacrifice that requires me to let go of some things that make me more secure and comfortable?
The second stewardship story I want to tell you is not from the Bible but from the history book. In a small French village just after World War II, a much-loved longtime doctor who had, for years, served the health needs of every man, woman, and child, was about to retire. As the retirement date approached, there was lots of talk among the townspeople about how they could express their gratitude and affection. It was decided, since no one in the village had very much money, that on a given day, each family would bring a pitcher of wine from their own cellar and pour it into a large barrel that had been placed in the village square. When the barrel was full it was to be presented to the doctor as a generous gift of appreciation. The appointed day arrived and all day long people were seen emptying their pitchers. Evening came, the presentation was made with lots of cheering and best wishes, and the wine-barrel was taken to the doctor’s home where the old man was left with warm memories of the villagers’ love. He decided to sit down before his fire and to enjoy a glass of wine. He drew from the barrel and his first sip was quite a shock. It tasted like water! He sipped again--it was water. He went back to the barrel and drew another glass, thinking there must be some sort of problem or mistake. But, as he soon discovered, the barrel was filled only with water.
The doctor called the Mayor and the Mayor convened the Assemblymen. It wasn’t long until the sad truth was out: everyone in the village had reasoned, “My little pitcher of wine really doesn’t matter and wouldn’t be missed. I have so little for myself. Someone wealthier will take care of it. I’ll just pour in some water and, in all that wine, it won’t make any difference.” This second story, you see, is once again, about the extremes of giving: open-handed or skinflint; token or sacrifice; giving or begrudging?
One more story before we end this consideration of what it means to be a Christian steward--one who gives with extreme generosity because we’re so grateful for what God has given to us. This story comes directly from my own personal experience. As most of you know, I grew up in Cincinnati and a lot of my high school and college focus was on the sport of basketball. My models and heroes were either players for the Bearcats or for the (at that time) professional Cincinnati Royals team.
One player in particular was an inspiration for me--someone who, in his day, was just as significant as Michael Jordan. He played in the fifties and sixties, challenging the now widely held notion that white men can’t jump. His name was Jack Twyman, an NBA All-Star who had it all: skill, personality, and wealth. But who, at the same time, was a community leader as well. Jack had grown up in Pittsburgh and he had been a high school teammate there of a black athlete named Maurice Stokes. Stokes had played for a lesser known college, where his outstanding abilities had pretty much been overlooked by professional scouts. It was Twyman’s influence that eventually brought Maurice Stokes to Cincinnati to join the Royals and Oscar Robertson, where he quickly became Rookie of the year in 1957, a bright NBA star of the future.
Then the unthinkable happened. During a late season game, Maurice Stokes suffered a massive neurological episode caused by a collision with a Lakers player in which his head struck the floor. He went into an unexplained and irreversible coma-like state from which he would never recover. Stokes had to be encased in ice to keep his body temperature below 104 degrees. His sports contract was rescinded as well as his insurance when the team was sold. The new owners didn’t want an invalid, so he had no means of income.
For the next twelve years, until his death in 1970, the welfare of Maurice Stokes became the single-minded focus for the life of Jack Twyman. Because the $100,000 a year it cost to maintain the life of Maurice Stokes was totally beyond what his own family could come up with, Twyman filed papers and became his legal guardian, filing for and receiving a state workers’ compensation claim. Jack saw to the expensive health care costs and the management of his daily affairs, visiting him every single day for some period of time, even though Maurice could communicate only by eye-blinking in response to questions: one for '‘Yes", and two for "No."
How’s that for extreme generosity? Every time I think of Jack Twyman’s example of caring compassion and commitment, my own meager efforts to live out my Faith seem as nothing. This third stewardship story stretches my imagination and challenges me to do more and commit more generously.
I hope that you will look upon this time of Stewardship emphasis here at Calvary Church not as a nuisance or a burden in which you’re simply being hasseled for money. That’s not what it’s all about. What it is about is an OPPORTUNITY--a chance to discover the joy and privilege of giving to God’s work a gift of gratitude that makes all the difference in the world for others who need our help so desperately. You can be extremely generous. God will make that possible. Look into your heart and you will find both the resources and the courage to do your part. We’re all counting on you.
Let us pray:
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