God's Generosity and Ours

Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

May 21, 2017


Texts:  Psalm 33, adapted; Luke 11: 5-13

The poor are more generous than the rich. Now, seriously, how can that be?  But it is true.  A 2010 controlled experiment conducted at the University of California at Berkeley – now, where else would someone conduct such a study? – took two groups of people and posited the same kind of question to them regarding money and the “causes” they supported.

And as I read those studies, I remembered back to a week in El Salvador, when a young girl offered me her parakeet after I had admired her training of the bird.  She had so very little, I thought, and look at her generosity. It was a kind of generosity that I continued to encounter, not just then in El Salvador, but among the poor in Colombia, and Indonesia, and continue to find here in the United States.  Anecdotes aside, why are the poor so generous?

Studies indicate that Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Warren Buffett aside, that the rich are less generous than the poor.  The 2010 study by Paul Piff, a Ph.D. candidate at that bastion of radicalism, UC at Berkeley demonstrated that upper-income Americans have a great deal of trouble imagining themselves as poor  in spite of the fact that the study was conductd after the economic collapse of 2008!.

He commented that “lower-income people were more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than were those with more wealth. They were more attuned to the needs of others and more committed generally to the values of egalitarianism."  What was especially interesting about his study is that when he showed videos helping people imagine themselves in different circumstances, the rich became more generous as they saw themselves as poor and the poor became less so as they saw themselves as rich.  The writer of the letter to Timothy was on to something in the comment that the love of money is the root of all evil.

But the love of money aside, people identify with those they consider closer to them as part of their group.  Thus, upper middle class and wealthy people will give to those institutions that reflect their own emotional needs, such as museums, colleges or universities, while the poor will give to neighbors suffering from the same kinds of deprivations they have.

As the income gap keeps rising, the disparity in giving grows greater.  Other studies since Piff’s suggest that it is the fact of income inequality that creates what I will call the “generosity gap.”   In areas where there is less inequality, both upper and lower income people are more generous across the board.   Well, we might ask, in today’s world would you open your door to the neighbor who is banging on it asking for bread?  Most of us living in an age of locked doors and fear of what lurks outside would not. And perhaps justifiably so.

This parable, although spoken in a framework of the kind of trust one experiences in close living circumstances, follows Luke’s version of what we call the Lord’s Prayer, which is starker than the softer version we read in Matthew.  Seen in this context, the parable could be considered to be an example of what it means to pray in expectation.  In fact, the reading continues by telling the listener that searching will yield finding; knocking will yield an open door.

This statement attributed to Jesus has been appropriated by people I will call the “soft Gospel believers.”  They are the people who always manage to come up with some Pollyanna way of dealing with adversity or grief.  The question really becomes what we seek and what we ask.  

The conclusion has Jesus saying that what we receive is God’s Holy Spirit.  For some that’s quite enough; for others who do not understand the power of God’s Spirit in our lives, it seems paltry.  But this gift of God is a gift of God’s generosity towards us.  We need to recognize it and seize upon it for our lives.

The spirit of God is what gives us strength for we then know that as we strive to live our lives as Christians, God’s Spirit is working through us.  Seeking and finding involves, first, seeking, and at times our seeking can bring us to answers or solutions that we find uncomfortable.  Seeking is more than simply looking for answers in what we hope are the right places, but is a process of discernment, working through the Gospel for guidance on how to live our lives.

Discernment, however, is not enough, for in our “finding,” as it were, we may find ourselves compelled to take actions that we might not really want to take.  We may find ourselves compelled to make hard decisions for ourselves as a result of our discernment. We may have to break off relationships that are destructive or we may have to shift our way of living.  

There is a story about Will Campbell when he was with Clarence Jordan at Koinoia Farm, established as an interracial community in 1942.  The locals did not appreciate the kind of Christian witness offered by Campbell and Jordan and the local power company turned off the electricity. Campbell went to his brother who was a local political bigwig and asked him to use his influence with the company.

When his brother refused, Campbell was mystified.  He reminded him that they had been baptized on the same day in the same church with the same preacher who told them that they needed to go to the cross with Jesus.  Yes, replied the brother, I’ll go to the cross but that doesn’t mean I’ll get on it.  In the end the electricity was finally restored but that relationship was damaged.

We live in anxious times.  And this anxiety is crippling us as a society.  There is the anxiety of young people struggling to find a place for themselves in the world; and there is the anxiety of the working generation trying to survive in economically uncertain times; and there is the anxiety of the elderly afraid that their life savings may not be enough to keep them out of poverty.

These anxieties are not only reflected in our political culture but are also seized upon by unscrupulous politicians who use them as a way to maintain their power.  Just look at the political discourse we are now hearing, not just on a national level but in our local and state politics.  We need to move beyond this anxiety.  Seeking for discernment in the light of our faith can enable us to do that.

It may not be the same kind of anxiety as reflected in Auden’s 1947 poem that analyzes Western society in light of World War II, but the characterization of our age, which continues into day, still sticks.  The phrase is even used in the NPR radio series run by New York Public Radio to describe how we experience society in the United States as well.

The wisdom of our faith invites us to live non-anxiously in this very anxious world.  Now that does not mean we should just view the world through rose-colored glasses.  What discernment means is that we look at life in perspective, continuing to work for the realization of God’s realm of peace and justice but realizing that there are limits to our own power, something that our so-called leaders should realize.

How can we keep the anxiety of the world from impinging upon and becoming destructive to us in our faithfulness to the Gospel?  How do we move out of this negativity without being naïve and foolish?  The community of faith we share offers us ways to be both realistic and faithful. We do not do this alone.

The seventeenth century poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, each unto himself, cut off from the main.”   The realization that we can work together in community to move beyond anxiety into faithfulness that is both realistic and full of hope is what our faith offers us.  We are admonished to be both wise as serpents and innocent as doves, knowing that the power of God’s Holy Spirit will enable us to move beyond anxiety, to open doors previously considered unopenable, and to work for the realization of God’s kingdom of peace and justice.

Let us pray:  You, God, who break the bounds of our imagination and offer us new ways of thinking, bring us out of ordinary thinking into extraordinary hope in realizing the community that knows no bounds. In the name of him who is your symbol of extraordinary hope, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.