Defined by generosity

Pentecost 24, Proper 27B
Mark 12:38-44

In the name of God: the giver of every good gift.  Amen.

It’s probably no accident that the story of “the widow’s mite” shows up in the lectionary cycle in the fall - when most parishes are either engaged in, or are about to begin their annual stewardship campaigns.  This time of year the story of the widow and her exemplary generosity reaches us with an accompaniment of barely inaudible groans.

The chorus is rather predictable: look at this poor old woman, she gave everything she had, can’t you give at least a little more?

But there are at least two problems with this all-too-familiar refrain.  First, it doesn’t tend to work.  Manipulation and guilt may, in some cases, lead to short-term results, but they’re essentially useless if the goal is to build stronger relationships in a community or to cultivate deeper expressions and understandings of the Christian faith.

But, perhaps more significantly, I’m not sure that’s even what the story is about.

If we look at the bigger picture, it seems pretty clear that Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in supporting the stewardship campaign for any institution.  Institutional advancement was simply never his goal.  Institutional revolution: sure.  But supporting an institution for the sake of having it survive through another fiscal cycle?  Not so much.  That’s not the Jesus I follow.

Moreover, that’s just not the kind of compelling narrative that could ever spur a people through centuries of persecution, or lure the people of the farthest reaches of the earth into any faith.

So forget everything you ever thought about the widow’s mite.  Shake it off.

We can do better.

We can give more of ourselves to this story than just the same old things we’ve always thought.

While it’s true that money is important for the continued functioning of the church, I think this story is about something more - something deeper: it’s about the spiritual discipline of generosity.

Too often we equate the idea of generosity with financial giving.  Some of that is out of necessity, but some of it is about laziness.  It’s easier to write a check than it is to search your soul.  It’s often easier to find some cash than it is to find that point of connection with the community and with the wider world that causes your heart to sing.

But real generosity isn’t about the giving, so much, as it is about that heart-sing moment.  It’s not about checking a box or fulfilling an obligation, but about giving so completely of yourself that you can’t imagine anything else that you might do instead.  It’s about letting the spirit of generosity define you.

Over the past week or so I’ve been moved by the expressions of generosity I’ve seen following in the wake of the hurricane.  Some of the most striking images I’ve seen have come from the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn,New York, where my friend Michael Sniffen is the Rector.  You may remember Michael as the preacher at our Celebration of New Ministry in September.

His parish is set in this grand, old 19th century building in the once-wealthy Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn.  The church will seat 1700 people, and while they’re growing, they’re still about 1500 people shy of needing all that space.

In the days just after the hurricane had passed, they began collecting essential supplies to aid the relief efforts so desperately needed by their more aversely affected neighbors not too terribly far away.  Through Michael’s recent connections with the Occupy Wall Street movement, the community organized to form Occupy Sandy - an organic relief effort defined by neighbors helping neighbors.

The church became a distribution point for both supplies and thousands of volunteers.  Somewhere along the way, one of the volunteers setup an wedding registry for needed supplies, and donations began pouring in from all over the country.  In the past few days, that cavernous old church has been stacked with the things people need - from food and blankets to diapers and cleanup equipment.  The stacks reach higher than your head and stretch out all across the church.  More than $100,000 worth of supplies has been donated and the items are constantly being distributed to the surrounding communities where they’re most needed.

St. Luke and St. Matthew isn’t a wealthy parish.  They don’t have a huge endowment.  They don’t have thousands of people showing up every Sunday.  But what they do have is space.  And that’s what they gave.  And it’s changing the world.

I’m imagining what worship must be like for them there this morning: the opening procession snaking around stacks of supplies, the congregation huddled in the first several pews as most of their space is otherwise occupied.  It’s bound to be a bit of an inconvenience, but at the same time, it must be deeply moving to be so literally surrounded by expressions of generosity.

As I think about that parish and the risks they’ve taken to be so generous to those in need, I wonder what expressions of generosity we might find if we were willing to risk being open to the needs of our neighbors.

Whatever inconveniences the people of St. Luke and St. Matthew may find, I guarantee you that they will also find that this commitment to generosity will change them.  It will define them.  It will open them up in ways that they didn’t even know were possible.

That’s what happens when you are generous with yourself.

Generosity isn’t about writing a bigger check to maintain the status quo.  It’s about giving of yourself in whatever ways that you can.  It’s about making your heart sing.

It’s true that we need bigger checks.  In the upcoming pledging season you’ll hear all about that.  We need those checks to meet rising costs, and to supply the kinds of programs that will help us to reach our community.

But even more than that, we need our hearts to sing.  We need to find that explosive, viral strain of generosity that can infect us.  We need to find that mission that will define us.  We need to find that path to the needs of our neighbors.

When we do, it won’t be about our needs anymore.  It won’t be about these long robes, or the respect we get.  It won’t be about the best seats in the synagogues or the places of honor at the banquets.

It will be about generosity.  Let that be the spirit that defines us.  Amen.