This sermon was delivered on our Consecration Sunday, when church members turned in their estimate of giving cards indicating their financial support for 2023.
Scriptures: John 6:1-14 & Galtians 6:2
In 2007, researchers at The University of California-San Diego did a study on generosity. They called it “The Sharing Game.” Participants in this study didn’t have to do anything other than make a choice between two hypothetical options. Option #1: you could receive $7. Option #2: you could receive $5.
At this point, which option would you choose? Most of us would choose option 1 because we’d receive a greater amount of money. Here’s where it gets interesting. If you choose option #1, then an unknown person would be given $9. If you choose option #2, then an unknown person would be given $3.
So, with option 1, you’re given $7 and an unknown person receives $9. With option 2, you’re given $5 and an unknown person receives $3. Given those two options, every participant in the study had to make a choice as to which one they’d choose.
As it turned out, the overwhelming majority of them chose option #2, in which an unknown person would not receive more than they did, even though that meant the participants received less than they would have otherwise. The takeaway? People simply did not want an unknown neighbor to get more—and they’d even accept less for themselves to ensure this outcome.
The results of this study point to the battle we’re up against every single day, which is pushing back against our natural inclination to order our lives by the principle, of scarcity. The principle of scarcity is the belief that there’s not enough for everyone. And that if you get more of something, that means there’s less of for me. This is the principle that drives the big-picture ‘economy’ of our world and has a huge impact on our daily decision-making. The thinking is:
- There’s only so much money to go around
- There’s only so much food to go around
- There are only so many hours in the day
- There’s only so much we can do to help
If you’ve ever said or had thoughts along these lines, you’re certainly not alone. In our human brokenness, that’s our default perspective. And it’s what we have to battle against every day if we’re going to experience the abundant life Jesus said he came to give us.
So, about that abundant life – what does it look like? And how do we come to experience it?
Well, let me quickly say what I’m certain it is not. It’s not a divine promise of what we might call an abundant lifestyle. The kind of lifestyle typically associated with being financially wealthy. Unfortunately, and often to the detriment of the Kingdom of God on earth, this is how it’s been presented from too many pulpits. It’s the message is that Jesus’ came into our world in order to give us “the good life,” meaning a life of ease, pleasure, and comfort on account of having the money to live so. That’s an abundant lifestyle.
But, friends, that’s a bastardization of Jesus’ words. In John 10:10, he did say, “I came that you may have life and have it abundantly,” but the abundance he came to give us has nothing to do with money and lavish living. No, it’s about experiencing life to the fullest as God designed it for every human being. A life that is meaningful and joyful. Or should I say meaning-full and joy-full? If you read Jesus’ statement in its context, he’s contrasting the kind of life he wants for us to the kind of life satan wants for us, which is an empty life born of fear and self-preservation. And one of satan’s biggest lies is that living for self is the path to a full and enjoyable life. In one way or another we buy into that lie every day, don’t we? But the truth is, living for self is surest path to a life emptied of all that brings us true joy and meaning and happiness. The truth is, the full life we all desire, the life Jesus came to give us, is only available when we order our own lives for the sake of others. And friends, that including those who are different from us, those who aren’t deserving, and those who would even reject us.
For three weeks, we’ve read the same Bible story of Jesus feeing the multitude as told by three different Gospel writers. (The story of feeding the five thousand is also found in Luke.) According to Matthew, Mark, and now John, at the point Jesus received the small portion of fish and bread, he looked up to heaven, blessed it, then distributed it to all those who were sitting there.
Two weeks ago, we focused on the significance of Jesus looking up toward heaven. This act of looking to God signified Jesus’ understanding that in God’s hands, the minuscule amount of food he was offered contained the capacity to feed thousands of people. Likewise, in God’s hands, we are imbued by the Holy Spirit with the capacity to accomplish far, far more than we think possible or could ever imagine. And that whatever we offer to God as a gift is imbued with divine capacity to accomplish great and wonderful things for the Kingdom.
Last week, we focused on the significance of Jesus blessing the food. We acknowledged that whatever he said was more than a simple “returning of thanks” for the food they were about to eat. That his act of blessing the bread and fish had the effect of consecrating them. To consecrate something is to invite God’s power and presence into whatever is being blessed such that it becomes holy and set apart for God’s purposes. Again, in God’s hands, whatever we consecrate to God—be it an offering of money, one’s schedule for the day, one’s children, the task of grocery shopping, having coffee with a friend, a meeting—becomes holy and accomplishes far more for the Kingdom than we could every image. When we entrust into God’s care those things that are most important to us, rarely is the “return” to us a financial blessing, but the deep joy and satisfaction we feel in knowing that God’s purposes are being accomplished.
Today, our focus is on what Jesus did after he blessed and broke the fish and bread. The Gospel writers tell us that at that point he gave the food to his disciples to distribute it to the crowd of people. The food was distributed to the wider community.
God asks us to look at abundance not as the assets we possess but as the fruit we produce.
One author, commenting on this event, points out that the miracle of the feeding of the multitude wasn’t complete until the food had been distributed. That is, until Jesus shared that which he’d blessed with the crowd. And it had to be the crowd, or the community, that was the recipients of his work. What if Jesus only consecrated enough for himself? Or his immediate band of twelve disciples? That would have resulted in them seeing what they received as a private miracle only for them. The full miracle would have stopped. But the fact is, Jesus’ abundant provision depended upon the willingness of the community around him to serve and give generously to one another. In God’s hands, we, the community of faith, are imbued with divine capacity, and consecrated with the Father’s presence, power, and holiness, for the purpose of being the means of Jesus pouring out his abundant provisions to the wider community at-large. Those beyond ourselves. But that won’t happen unless we, the community of faith, are willing to serve and give generously of ourselves to them and for them.
In this sense, God asks us to look at abundance not as the assets we possess but as the fruit we produce. Jesus did promise that he’ll fill our lives full. But it’s not a promise to fill our lives with material goods but, rather, with people—people we have the opportunity to bless. When we make it our purpose and aim to bless the community, we then experience the “abundant life” Jesus talked about in John 10:10.
So, what’s the most effective way of us sharing of ourselves with the community around us so that they receive the provisions of God, and so that we’re also blessed in the process? Generally speaking, there are two approaches to doing this, both of which are important and have their place and purpose.
The first is called transactional generosity. By definition, ‘transactional’ has to do with giving and taking. I give you something and you give me something in return. The focus is on the benefits received.
When it comes to the work of the church, ministry which is transactional in nature can be described as “doing for” a person. A lot of ministry is transactional. For example, we send money to UMCOR to provide help after a hurricane. Our Red Food Pantry is a type of transactional ministry. There are people who need food, and so we give it to them. In this sense, we’re doing for them. They have a need and we meet that need by giving them something. If someone comes into the church office needing fuel for their car, we’ll often give them a voucher to a particular gas station. The strength of these kinds of ministries is that they’re the best and quickest way of providing help when it’s needed.
The other approach to the sharing of ourselves with the community is called relational generosity. The focus of relational generosity is…building relationships! Whereas transactional ministry can be described as “doing for,” relational ministry can be described as “doing with.” In both cases, ministry happens, people are helped and served. But with relational generosity and ministry, the goal is bigger than making sure the person in need is provided with whatever they need. With drives relational generosity is the desire to come alongside a person and relate to them person-to-person, not simply as an object in need. In the course of doing ministry that relational in nature, sometimes we and they will work alongside each other, and sometimes it’ll just be a matter of connecting with them and getting to know them while we’re doing something for them.
A simple example would be raking the leaves in a person’s yard. We could pull together a team of people and rake all their leaves to the street and call that a job well done. Doing that would certainly be helpful and the homeowner would benefit. If that’s all we did, it would be transactional generosity. But what if while some people raked leaves, a few others sat with the homeowner and talked with them? What if the group brought lunch and invited the homeowner to eat with them? That’s building relationship.
Of those two types of generosity, which do you think Jesus considered the most important? For him, relational generosity was most important. Both were necessary, but he understood that doing with had a far greater impact that doing for. In Matthew 23:23 he says to the Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders of his day: “You hypocrites! You are careful to tithe (give a tenth) even the tiniest of income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.” I think it’s safe to say that for Jesus, relationships mattered more than resources.
And do you know what else mattered to Jesus? The types of people with whom we’re called to connect on a relational level. To a group of persons who were of means and influence, Jesus once said, “When you host a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives, or rich neighbors. If you do, they’ll invite you in return and that will be your reward. Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you” (Luke 14:12-14).
Matthew 25 contains the teaching of Jesus where he talks about how, on Judgment Day, God will separate the righteous from the unrighteous as a shepherd separates goats from sheep. It’s where he gives us his well-known line, “If you did it for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me,” as well as the converse, “If you didn’t do it for the least of these, you didn’t do it for me.” Who are the least with whom we’re called to serve and connect with relationally somehow? Those who are hungry. Strangers. The naked. The sick. The imprisoned. There’s not a person here who’d say we shouldn’t do anything to help people whose lives reflect these realities. And the fact is, it’s easy to help them by giving money to organizations who serve them. It’s easy to provide people with food and clothes and medicine and a new roof. And we should do these things, absolutely! But it’s another thing to enter into relationship with folks whose lives reflect these realities, isn’t it? But that, dear friends, is our call. In fact, I’d even say that it’s our mandate.
The bottom line is this: relational generosity is about inviting vulnerable people into our lives. People who don’t necessarily have the means of giving back. According to Galatians 6:2, we are, in fact, called to be our “brother’s keeper.” Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. But remember that we don’t keep our brother in order to please God so as to win his favor. Rather, it’s how we discover the truth that we were created to order our lives for the sake of others, especially the least, the last, and the lost. Therein lies the truly abundant life! Let’s pray.