Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
November 6, 2011
Texts: Luke 10:25-37; 6:36-38
Andrew Daugherty texted me after he’d had a conversation with Jeff Trenning a couple of weeks ago. He said, “I love what Jeff is about. This is not a Stewardship Campaign. This is a Spiritual Growth Campaign.”
It is all about mimicking God, about entering a kingdom of outrageous goodness. Today’s text in Luke 6 is set right in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, though in Luke it is called a the Sermon on the Plain. British New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, who was one of our Jesus speakers awhile back, wrote of this passage:
The kingdom that Jesus preached and lived was all about a glorious, uproarious, absurd generosity. Think of the best thing you can do for the worst person, and go ahead and do it. Think of what you’d really like someone to do for you, and do it for them. Think of the people to whom you are tempted to be nasty, and lavish generosity on them instead. These instructions have a fresh, springlike quality. They are all about new life bursting out energetically, like flowers growing through concrete and startling everyone with their colour and vigour.
Jesus is trying to give us a glimpse of the astounding compassion and generosity of God. “Love your enemies,” he says. Why? Because “God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” Be compassionate as your Abba in heaven is compassionate. Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or wear. Why? Because God takes care of the birds and adorns the flowers, and God will take care of you. “Judge not.” Why? Because God is full of mercy. “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” There is wisdom here. The judgmentalism we dish out will almost surely come back. But deeper still, our judgmentalism often comes from a place of self-judgment, where you’ve already been judged, where you endlessly judge yourself. This is not God’s will for you. “Forgive!” Why? Because God is infinitely forgiving. In other words, mimic God.
And give and give. Why? Because God is gloriously, uproariously generous. In the NRSV it goes:
Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.
Picture a Near-Eastern market. The burlap bag of grain you’ve just bought is pressed down, shaken together, running over.
The sermon is far more than about money. Money is just one measure of our lives, despite what our culture says. It is about the generosity of self, the giving of self to God and others. Eugene Peterson’s translation / paraphrase of this verse captures the spirit:
Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, not merely given back–given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.
Jesus lived that way, with what poet Edward Hirsch called “wild gratitude.” You saw it the way he prayed at mealtime, prayed even when the tide had turned against him, the way he talked about the birds of the air and the wildflowers of the field, the way he gave himself to others and to God. In Hirsch’s poem “Wild Gratitude,” he was watching his cat Zooey and thinking about the ecstatic gratitude of a British poet Christopher Smart, who was locked away as one insane but who wrote joyously beautiful poetry to God. Smart, in Hirsch’s words,
. . . wanted to kneel down and pray without ceasing
in every one of the splintered London streets,
And was locked away in the madhouse of St. Luke’s
With his sad religious mania, and his wild gratitude,
And his grave prayers for the other lunatics
And his great love for his speckled cat Jeoffrey.
Some of our choir has no doubt sung Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb with the section based upon Christopher Smart’s words about Jeoffrey the cat.
I think today of our choir who give lavishly, sometimes sacrificially, to sing their praise to God and to thereby help our praise. They work on a piece of music for weeks, sometimes months, then fling it into the air and lift it to God, and then it is gone. Gone. But is it? Doesn’t it echo in us, and somewhere, forever? And I think of the quiet good deeds you do for others.
In Christopher Smart’s poem of August 13, 1759, he blessed the Postmaster General “and all conveyancers of letters” for their “warm humanity,” and blessed gardeners “for their private benevolence / And intricate knowledge of the language of flowers,” and milkmen for their “universal human kindness.” He remembered the “soft clink of milk bottles” delivered outside his front door. (Anyone here old enough to remember that?) And he called his cat, Jeoffrey, “the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving Him.”1
In Luke we are given a story by Jesus of outrageous and risky giving. It came when a man inquired of Jesus about how to attain eternal life. Jesus returned the question with a question: How do you read Torah on this? The man gave Jesus the double commandment: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus answered, “You’ve answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
Then the man asked a further question: “Who is my neighbor?” It was one of the three questions we centered on as a church in our Holy Conversations.
Jesus answered with a story. A story is better than an answer. It opens up more possibilities; it opens our eyes to God and to the world.
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, Jesus began. He fell among thieves, who beat him and robbed him and left him half dead.
A priest came by, took a look and passed by on the other side. He was on his way to a conference on “Ethics and the Priesthood.” Then a Levite came by, and likewise passed by on the other side. Levites were in charge of worship and music in the Temple. So shall we say a minister of music or the chair of the Board of Worship? Jonathan Crutchfield, Joe Aldrich?
Then came a Samaritan, despised, considered unclean, one living outside the Law of God, suspect racially and spiritually, of mixed race, a threat to pure faith.
But when he saw the man he had compassion – compassion as God has compassion – and using his provision of wine and oil, cleansed and bound the wounds. Then he loaded the man on his donkey and walked him to an inn and nursed him through the night. The next morning he paid the innkeeper two denarii – two days’ wages – and said, “This is for last night. Take care of him as long as he needs, and I’ll return and pay the bill. Here’s my credit card.”
O the lavish, risky, compassionate generosity of God, and of people who like this Samaritan have caught this vision and have set about to mimic God.
In the movie Witness you see an Amish barn-raising, where the whole community comes together to help a neighbor build a barn. They are all there, young and old, men and women, boys and girls working as one to build the barn. In the movie the whole day’s joyous and hard work is captured in about six minutes. Everyone is busy, doing their part: lifting, hammering, cooking, bringing water, young learning from old, old teaching the young. I saw the movie twenty or thirty years ago, but I am still captivated by the scene. It’s a little like our Stop Hunger Now Wednesday night in Lent when we gather all ages, 200 strong, in the Cornwell Center and work together for an hour to pack 24,000 meals.
When we build a budget as a church it is like a barn-raising. We are building a house for the love of God and neighbor, where people can come out of their houses of fear into a house of love. The church budget is no less than an annual miracle. No dues. Nothing guaranteed. We lived by faith every year, and every year the budget, whatever the size, is a miracle. Want to be part of a miracle?
So we in a few minutes will come down the aisle and place our pledges and offerings in baskets on the communion table, young and old with gifts of every size from piggy banks, or the cardboard banks our children have been using, to investment accounts.
For every gift of any size we are grateful and give thanks to God. Generosity is not measured by the size of the check but the size of the heart. And we give in so many ways to the work of God through this church, the stewardship of self, of life.
So let us come with “glad and generous hearts,” as the early church was described, with joy and thanksgiving. No self-judgment or sadness. Look what we are doing together!
1 Edward Hirsh, “Wild Gratitude” in Wild Gratitude (New York: Knopf, 1990), p. 17.