A Generosity of Spirit

The CMA awards were on this past week. I know some of you watched. We learned a few things: Justin Timberlake can do no wrong. Fall Out Boy has no business on a country music show. Keith Urban learned everything he needed to know from John Cougar, John Deere and John 3:16. And we learned that while country music ain’t quite what it used to be, the fact remains that if you play one backwards you get your truck, your dog and your wife back.

No matter what you may think of the current state of country music or of country music in general, it’s clear that the country music community is just that—a community.  You can tell that the people in the audience are enjoying the people on stage and that the people up on stage genuinely like each other.  It’s a community.

The church is a community. Contrary to popular believe, you actually do need more than Jesus to make a church a church. We could erect gorgeous buildings with fabulous stained glass windows and equip them with the finest musical instruments to honor the Lord God Jesus Christ, but if their is not community to gather and worship and send out into the world, then it’s not really a church.

Not too long ago, several of you studied Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book, Pastrix. I was recently reminded of a passage in that book.* It’s about the new member’s class. Nadia, the pastor, goes around and asks everyone why they joined the church. I’m sure she gets the same kind of answers we do. “I like the worship.” “The pastor doesn’t put me to sleep.” “I feel like I belong here.” Pastor Nadia always goes last, so that she can say this, “I like being in a community where I don’t have to add or subtract anything from my story in order to be accepted.” And then she goes on to tell them that “this community will disappoint you. I will disappoint you.”  And then she asks them to decide now, before the disappointment happens, that when (not if) it happens, they will decide to stay. Otherwise they will never know “how the grace of God will come and fill the holes left by our community’s failures.”

I’m going to disappoint you. I’m going to say something stupid or something you don’t agree with. I’m sure I’ve already disappointed some of you. And other people in this church will disappoint you. Someone who doesn’t know your whole story will say something that cuts you deeply, and they won’t even realize what they’ve done. Or there will just be days when people aren’t their best selves, and they will hurt your feelings or rub you the wrong way.

But when this happens, I hope you will decide to stay. Because if you don’t, you’ll miss the really good stuff. You’ll miss seeing how the grace of God works in the midst of imperfect people.

When you are disappointed in me or in other church members, I hope you will stay, because, at some point, you will be the one who says something stupid. You will be the one who isn’t your best self or unwittingly says or does something that hurts someone else deeply, and you will be extended grace and forgiveness. You will be the recipient of extravagant generosity of the spirit.

When we talk about extravagant generosity, we always seem to go immediately to money in our heads. And yes, it does take money to keep a church going. Bills have to be paid. People have to be paid. But a church can’t really be the church without the extravagant generosity of the spirit.

You would think that it would be easy for us to extend this kind of generosity. After all, it has been freely extended to us. Because of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ, we have received grace and mercy and love when we know we didn’t deserve it. So it should be easy to offer this kind of extravagant generosity to others. But it isn’t. That’s why we need to decide to stay…even if our feathers get ruffled or we don’t get our way.

Jesus told us to love one another has he has loved us. That kind of love has to come with a generosity of spirit.

I don’t know if any of you know who Mary Fisher is. She was one of the first faces of HIV that wasn’t gay or male. When she spoke at the Republican national convention in 1992, she changed the conversation about HIV and AIDS.

In the early to mid-90s, I was part of a RAIN team. RAIN stood for Regional AIDS Interfaith Network. At a time when people were being turned out and rejected from their families for having AIDS and even healthcare workers were harboring fears about the disease, RAIN teams adopted AIDS patients and made sure they had food, rides to the doctor and people they knew cared about them.

Mary Fisher came and spoke at a fundraiser for RAIN that I helped organize. And I will always remember the story she told. It’s not her story. Some people say it’s an ancient Chinese proverb. Others say it came from a Dear Abby column. While I may not know its exact origin, it’s a story I’ve never forgotten.

A man who knew he was coming to the end of his life wanted to know what heaven and hell looked like. So he sought out the wisest man in the community.  The wise man led him down a strange path, and the man found himself in the middle of a huge room with lots of people and many enormous tables with an incredible array of food. But the people were all thin and sickly, and they looked positively miserable. They all had long spoons tied to their hands. So long that they could not get the food on the spoons to their mouths. So with an abundance of food all around them, they were starving.  The old man then said to the wise man “Now I know what hell looks like, will you please show me what Heaven looks like?” The wise man led him down the same path a little further until they came upon another huge room similar to the first–same tables filled with all kinds of delicious food. The people also had long spoons tied to their hands, but these people all looked well-fed and happy. This puzzled the old man and he asked, “Heaven and hell seem to be the same place. Why are people miserable in one and so content in the other?”  The wise man replied, “in Heaven we feed each other.”

That is what makes a healthy, vibrant, generous community. People who are ready to feed each other. People who are more concerned with “us” than with “me.” People who practice extravagant generosity of spirit.

May we be people who feed each other, forgive one another and love one another. And may we always practice extravagant generosity of spirit.

–Rev. Anne Russ

*Thanks to Rev. Marie Mainard-O’Connell for the reminder. You  can watch the sermon where she uses the story HERE. 

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