THE ENEMY OF GENEROSITY
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
November 16, 2014; 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Exodus 35:20-29; Matthew 25:14-30

“…so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”
Matthew 25:25a

This past week, I got an invitation in the mail. It came from my Ph.D. alma mater, the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The university’s been in the midst of a rare and special celebration: its 600th anniversary.

600 years — can you imagine? 1410 was the year those first classes started meeting. 1414 was when the papal bull, or proclamation, arrived, formally establishing St. Andrews as a Christian university.

That’s more than two centuries older than Harvard, the oldest university in this country! It’s 80 years or so before Columbus would set foot on the beach at San Salvador.

But, back to my invitation. The Vice-Chancellor of the University wants to know if I would like to attend a black-tie gala benefit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, about 3 weeks from now. Sean Connery, that old Scotsman. is going to be there, as a guest of honor. Sting will provide the entertainment. And just the other day, the University sent me an urgent e-mail, with late-breaking news about two more special guests: the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (that’s Prince William and his wife, Kate). St. Andrews is where they met, when they were both students at the University.

Well, I thought to myself, that was awfully generous of the Vice-Chancellor to ask me to come. I opened the brochure to find out what the tickets cost.

They started at a mere $2,500 (“limited availability” for those, and I’ve since learned those cheap seats sold out right away). The new cheap seats are now attractively priced at five thousand — and they go up from there. If I really want to do it right, I can buy a whole table and invite some friends — maybe even some of you. That would only set me back a hundred grand. (For that price, the least they could do is let me take the table home, when the dinner’s over.)

And so, the University’s generous offer proved to be not so generous, after all. I figured it was something like that: because universities, as we all know, are famous for big fund-raisers with big price tags.

There’s always a quid pro quo, in that type of fund-raising. You can come to the fancy dinner and breathe the same air as the celebrities — if you write a big check. And by the way, if you want your name on the new library, that too can be arranged — for a price.

It’s not pure generosity they’re encouraging. There’s another element: more like a high-level exchange of services.

True generosity — giving and expecting nothing in return — is a good bit more rare. It’s seldom seen in our nation’s capital — even though (as we all know) staggeringly large sums of money change hands, in the form of political contributions. Those donors, by and large, are not giving out of pure principle. Write a six-figure check to a super PAC, and you expect a little attention from the good Senator, next time you call on the phone.

If it’s true that money makes the world go round, then generosity doesn’t have a whole lot to do with it.

Still, I’d imagine most of us have a soft place in our heart for the idea of generosity. At times, we aspire to be generous ourselves. And when do manage to make that gift — from the heart, expecting nothing in return — we do get something in return, after all. We get a good feeling inside.

Did you know the neuroscientists have even documented that? Lately, brain researchers have been doing a lot of experimentation using souped-up MRI machines. They put people in them, then show them certain pictures, or ask them to do certain things. Then, they watch what changes in their brains, as they do them.

I read about a Dr. Jordan Grafman, who did some very interesting research about ten years ago. After his volunteers got into the MRI machine and the brain scans started, his staff members told them they were being given a hundred dollars: their fee for participating in the study. In every case, as the volunteers heard this news, a certain section of their brains lit up on the scanner. The scientists know it to be a pleasure center: the very same portion of the brain that lights up at the thought of food or sex.

No surprise there: receiving money does makes us feel good. It’s about what you’d expect. But here’s what was really surprising. As the MRI machine was scanning his subject’s brains, the doctor gave them a long list of charities, with brief descriptions of the good work they do. He suggested they might want to make a donation, out of their hundred-dollar bonus. They could do it right there, by checking a box on the form.

Some of the volunteers did decide to do that: and, as soon as they’d checked off that box, a section of their brains lit up on the scanner. Do you know, it was the same portion of the brain that had lit up a few minutes before, as they learned they were going to be the lucky recipients of the hundred dollars.

Think about what that means — what it says about how we’re wired, as human beings. Receiving something of value makes us happy. But giving away some of that wealth — freely and generously, to aid a worthy cause — likewise makes us happy.

So, there it is. Scientific proof that we all want to be generous. You and I all want to be givers: to take some of the good things God’s lavished upon us and share them with others, to make their lives a little better. When we give, it makes us happy.

So, what stands in our way? What blocks you and me from being more generous, when we know there’s a clear psychological reward if we do?

The answer is a simple, four-letter word: F-E-A-R.

*****

You can see fear at work in today’s New Testament lesson: Jesus’ well-known Parable of the Talents. You know how it goes. A master goes away, leaving money with three servants. To each of them he says, “Invest it. Make me more.”

Well, two of them do just that, and it pleases the master greatly. The third servant simply digs a hole and buries the money in the ground. When the master returns, this timid servant presents the original sum, still intact. So, why didn’t he follow his master’s clear instructions?

In his own words:
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” (Matt. 25:24b-25)

“So I was afraid.” Fear: it’s the emotion that has the power to rupture the generosity circuit, to interfere with that gracious ebb and flow of divine love, the receiving and the giving. Wouldn’t you and I all give more generously — to people we love, to the church, to other causes we care about — if we just weren’t so afraid?

Afraid of what? Afraid of running out. Afraid that God’s promises of abundance will one day prove to be hollow. Afraid that in our zeal we may overdo it, giving ourselves poor: as though that’s really going to happen, with any of us (we know ourselves too well, don’t we?).

I’m proud of you all, for the great things we do together as a church: the music, the Christian education, the outreach to the lonely and the needy, that fantastic mission project that is the Volunteer Village. But just imagine what more we could do, for the Lord, if together we could master that fear of failure and practice truly radical generosity! The Finance Team’s anxiety about meeting the budget would evaporate overnight. The mission money would overflow. We’d all be overflowing, too, with joy — joy and satisfaction at hearing the tales of all the good those donations are doing.

*****

This past week, I was reading a book about love and relationships. (Now, stay with me here: it may sound like a digression, but I’ll bring it back home.) It’s called The Zimzum of Love, and it’s by Rob and Kristen Bell. Rob Bell’s a best-selling author in the renewal movement known as The Emerging Church. He asked his wife, Kristen, to join him in writing this book, because it’s about love in committed relationships like their own marriage.

Without going too far down the garden path, let me tell you zimzum is a term derived from Jewish mysticism. It describes the space between two people, the emptiness into which each one enters, tentatively, then backs off, in the ebb and flow of giving and receiving.

What really interested me, as I was reading, was something Rob and Kristen were saying about romantic relationships. There are three stages of drawing closer to the one we love, of becoming more committed. The three stages are: spark, substance and sacrifice.

*****

You can probably guess what spark is all about. It’s what first appears in those beautiful, early days of a relationship: the feeling of joy, even ecstasy, at simply being in the presence of that special someone. I don’t need to say much more about that, because it’s all over the entertainment media: the movies, the TV shows, the romantic novels.

Hollywood knows we never tire of a good love story: and so they keep churning out the “rom coms” — the romantic comedies that tell the tale of two people meeting accidentally, feeling that spark and falling in love. Along the way, there’s some unfortunate misunderstanding. One of the couple bolts and runs. The other’s bewildered at first, then realizes it’s all a mistake. That person catches a cab for the airport, desperate to get there in time to buy a ticket and get onto the plane, moments before the gate agents close the door. (Actually, that person could always catch the next flight, but what kind of love story would that be?”)

Or, they meet each other and are smitten, but are afraid to admit it. Somehow they lose track of each other, in a city of millions. One of them had mentioned something about meeting on the observation deck at the Empire State Building at some particular date and time, so they both head in that direction — only, one gets hung up with some stupid delay. Will the beloved still be there, waiting, long past the appointed hour?

Yes! They fall into each other’s arms, holding on for dear love, as though they would never break that embrace again.

That, my friends, is spark.

*****

The relationship matures, over years. In the zimzum, the ceaseless back-and-forth of moving towards each other then away again, the two lovers weave a different quality of relationship. The spark is still there, but even more wonderful than that is the growing substance — the solid relationship that’s more like having a best friend, the ease and comfort in one another’s presence, the building together of a home eventually, maybe raising children, chasing dreams (and, by God’s grace, achieving one or two). There’s something there, something real, something trustworthy and lasting.

Substance doesn’t just drop out of the sky, the way spark seems to do. It’s the product of hard work, of communication, of compromise, of remembering the little things. Substance is a complex of powerful feelings, just as powerful in their own way as the feelings associated with spark. But they’re different, and this stage of the relationship is likewise different — but just as beautiful.

*****

Far more rare — and far more precious — is the third stage, the stage known as sacrifice. It’s not something anyone looks for, nor desires. Often it’s associated with significant loss, even pain. Something happens, something bad, something unforeseen. The beloved is at risk.

There’s only one thing for it: to traverse the zimzum, the boundary between them, but in a different way, and in doing so to sacrifice something very dear. There’s really no question about making that sacrifice — although, quite naturally, there may be reason for pause: because it’s a fearsome thing to do. Yet, because of the love — the spark of those early encounters, that gave birth to the substance of all the years since — the sacrifice is simply what one has to do: and one offers it to the beloved out of abiding joy, a joy so deep it issues not in laughter but in sighs, and even tears.

Such is love: in all its delight, its complexities, its joy.

*****

The relationship you and I have with our church is something like that. As we first come into the community — either through nurture, or through joining as an adult — it’s all about spark. We simply enjoy the people, the relationships, the new character of life together that — in our best moments as a fellowship — is so much better than any other community we’re part of.

During the time of spark, there are occasions for stewardship, for financial giving, and we respond — but in something of a tentative way, sporadically, when the inclination strikes.

In time, by God’s grace, the relationship as a church member matures, into substance. The Christian community becomes more than one social activity among many. You and I make commitments at this stage to serve in various ways. We give of our time, share our talents, perhaps even hear and answer a call to be ordained as a deacon or ruling elder. Gathered around us are those special people we’ve come to know, who’ve become more like sisters and brothers in the faith.

During the time of substance, we make financial commitments to the community and its mission. The cash or checks we drop in the offering plate, the electronic funds transfers we authorize, become an obligation as real and as familiar as any other bill we pay each month. But this payment is different from the others. We look forward in anticipation to making such gifts: for, unlike most other money transfers, this one is pure joy.

There comes a time, though, when you and I sense the Lord calling us to do something different. We know of the needs, the Christian work yet to be done, the goals that cannot be achieved by ordinary giving associated with substance. You and I look at this church — this community that’s become in many ways our spiritual home — and we feel overwhelmed with gratitude. We know something more is required. Something edgy, even dangerous. Yet we also know, deep within us, in a way we can scarcely put into words, that it falls to us, this time, to do what is needful.

The wonder of it is, as you and I make prayerful resolutions to give, fear is no longer an issue. For the moment we make our decision, fear falls away. There’s only the joy of it: a joy we know will only grow deeper and more enduring, in the days and years to come.

*****

Spark. Substance. Sacrifice. Or, as the Greeks would say, eros, philia, agape. The stages of loving, but also — as it happens — of generosity. Isn’t giving likewise an expression of love, for Christ and his church?

The enemy of generosity is fear. But you know what it says in the scriptures: “Perfect love casts out fear.”

Copyright © 2014, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.