At my church I am the staff liaison to the Stewardship Board. We are working to change the cultural paradigm of stewardship from a pledge campaign for the budget once a year to a day in and day out spiritual practice of generosity. So I look for year round opportunities to talk about generosity. Given that it is my turn to preach on the 3rd Sunday in Easter this year, I began looking at the texts through the lens of generosity.
Not a particularly obvious lens given a surface reading of the scripture. Some of the words that initially jumped out at me this week are “repent”, “sin”, “peace” and “forgiveness”. I am struck by the stark directness of Peter’s sermon, the psalmist’s dialogue with God, I John’s exhortation from the community’s elder and Jesus’ frank post-resurrection confrontation of his community. Peter proclaims, “You rejected the Son of God….though out of ignorance…so repent and be forgiven. Join God’s community in Christ.” The psalmist writes, “Answer me as you did before and how long will I suffer shame from the people?” I John’s writer advises, “See what love God has given. Let no one deceive you.” And Jesus says, “ Peace be with you. It’s really me. See I will eat with you. Now go and witness to God’s forgiveness of sin and great welcome home to all who change their minds and join God’s community.” There is nothing here overtly about generosity.
The Science of Generosity project of Notre Dame University defines generosity as “the virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly.” Instead of using the sociological term, “virtue” I might the theological term, “grace.” The grace of “giving good things to others freely and abundantly.” Is this not God’s relationship with humanity and all of creation? (You can read more about on Science of Generosity project at www. generosityresearth.nd.edu.)
If we step back a few verses in Acts we find that Peter’s sermon is actually an explanation and response to the temple crowd’s awe that he and John healed a well-known crippled man who had been begging at the temple gate for many years. Peter tells the awe-struck crowd that this generous healing power does not come from him or John. It is from the God who raised Jesus the Christ from the dead! It is the power of God’s generosity of love and forgiveness that heals and is evident in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Even in the midst of the time bound expectations of Jesus’ imminent return, the writer of I John reinforces the timeless joy of God’s generosity in claiming that we are so loved that God claims us as children. The psalmist has known God’s generosity to such an extent that she claims it imperatively, “Be gracious and hear my prayer as you did before when you gave me room…extended my territory….got me out of a rock and a hard place!” And the Risen Christ comes with peace for all who follow in God’s ways and commanding the disciples to proclaim these ways to all nations.
It seems that there is great generosity, great giving of good things to others freely and abundantly, behind the actions and intentions of God in our texts this week. What better season to celebrate God’s generosity than Eastertide? What better season to encourage and challenge people to live their own lives of giving good things freely and abundantly to others as a primary way in which we follow the Risen Christ and participate in God’s powerful grace of generosity for all creation?
As I prepare to preach this week I am considering telling the entire story of Peter and John in Acts 3 and 4 as a central narrative to create a sermon on God’s generosity and our response with generous lives. The temple congregation’s response to the healing of the crippled man prompts Peter’s sermon on God’s extravagant gift of love in Jesus. The religious authorities respond by arresting Peter and John for proclaiming God’s power in Christ and healing through God’s power. It seems that the grace at the heart of God’s generosity overwhelms the law and traditions in a way that is too frightening from the authorities. Where is this happening in our religious traditions? Are we protecting ourselves from the transformation of God’s incredibly powerful generosity and hindering the growth of change in our churches?
I found a website with some wonderful suggestions for stories on generosity that speak to children, youth and adults. It is LearningtoGive.Org, http://learningtogive.org/materials/folktales/trait.asp?trait=giving. Check it out! In the list of stories on generosity I found the delightful tale below from the Inuit people of Alaska and northern Canada. It is titled “The Old Woman Who Was Kind to Insects” and is found in the book ,A Kayak Full Of Ghosts: Eskimo Tales. (Folktales gathered and retold by Lawrence Millman, Santa Barbara: California: Capra Press, ©1987. p. 184.) Here is a synopsis written in my own words and with a few of my embellishments.
It seems that one winter an old woman was left behind in the tribe’s summer campground. She was too old to move one more time as the tribe searched for new hunting territory. She could no longer help with the preparation of leather the goods the tribe made to sell for part of their livelihood. She had few teeth and it was a hardship to walk from one hut to another. Her family left her with a little food to eat in her last days, a few small insects. But the woman said to herself, “I’m not going to eat these poor creatures. I am old and perhaps they are young. Perhaps even a few are children. I’d rather die first…” So she set the insects free from the cages in which they had been trapped.
Not long after her people went away, a fox into began to linger around her hut. One day it came into her hut! It leaped up and started to bite her. The old woman thought that surely this would be her time to die. But then she noticed that the fox was biting her in a very strange manner. It was nipping at her skin all over her whole body. It acted as if it were trying to remove her skin like it was a set of clothing to take off her body. The fox nipped and bit until all her skin fell away. And underneath there was a new skin which belonged to an attractive young woman. The woman was amazed. The few insects that had been trapped for her to eat began to buzz excitedly around her, thanking her for their freedom. They were so grateful that they had instructed their friend, the fox, to rid the woman of her old skin. And bring her new life!
The next summer her family with the tribe returned to the campground. But they did not find the old woman’s body or bones as they expected. She had vanished….though as the story goes it was said she had gone to live with the insects and, perhaps, even married a blow-fly who had been particularly kind to her.
Blessings on your story journeys,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2015 and beyond. Text and photos may be reprinted with permission only.