Generosity of spirit
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
By watching the recent news, it would be easy to conclude that scarcity rules the day. Not enough money to pay our national debt, Medicare, Social Security, and the wars we’re now waging all the time. Not enough food for the 10 million in East Africa who are becoming refugees or starving to death. Not enough tolerance for Muslim immigrants in Europe, leading to the horrific killings in Oslo. Not enough equality in America, where white families have 20 times the net worth of minority families.
It would be easy to conclude that we have come to an age of scarcity, and our best response would be to buckle down, slash spending, protect what’s mine, and bar the gates. Nobody cares about the greatest good for our common humanity, and even if they did, they couldn’t accomplish it. So the heart grows hard, self-protective, and suspicious.
And then we walk in this place and hear the readings for today. From Isaiah:
<em>Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.</em>
Part of today’s psalm that we didn’t sing goes like this:
<em>The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season.
You open wide your hand, and satisfy the needs of every living creature.</em>
And in the gospel, we hear the story of the feeding of the multitudes. There’s a crowd of 5,000 men, “besides women and children,” so maybe 4 times that. Fill the Isotopes ballpark twice over, you get the picture. They’re hungry, and the disciples who look out upon them feel the way we do when we watch the nightly news.
They see a needy, desperate mob that thinks that Jesus is going to rescue them from their misery. They could turn ugly at any moment. The disciples plead with Jesus - “They’re not our problem. Send them away so that they may go into the villages and buy food. You know how the world works. It’s every man for himself.”
But Jesus has compassion, and tells the disciples to soften their hardened hearts. “They need not go away. You give them something to eat.” Right. Five loaves of bread and two pathetic fish for some 20,000 people.
But leading the way, wading into the crowd, Jesus heals the sick, hundreds of them. He forgives their many sins. There is bread and fish for all. God’s bountiful love becomes a feast.<em> Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; you that have no money, come, and eat!</em> The disciples, much to their astonishment, are now the ones who <em>open wide their hands, and satisfy the needs of every living creature. </em>
The miracle is not so much that bread and fish expanded exponentially. The crowd probably didn’t know what was happening. As far as they were concerned, somebody brought a bunch of food. The miracle is that in the face of obvious scarcity, the disciples set aside their fear, even their rationality, and overflowed with generosity of spirit. The miracle is that they became like Jesus, like God.
God gives generously by sending rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. God casts seed everywhere, even on hard ground where it won’t grow. God does this even when the evidence shows that it is not deserved by the recipients, and it will not change us.
Jesus lived this way. He forgave and healed and accepted people before they had a chance to do shameful penance, like the father in the story of the Good Samaritan. His heart overflowed with generosity of spirit. And Jesus demonstrated to the disciples that day that they could be like this, too.
Now keep in mind, the miracle described in today’s gospel only lasted a day. Many millions of other needy human beings weren’t there, and they died hungry and sick. The Romans still destroyed Israel 30 years later, making refugees out of everyone Jesus ministered to, including the disciples.
So are these stories from scripture just naïve utopianism? Were the Jews deluded for the1,200 years they lived in Israel, counting all the while on God’s protection and provision? Was Jesus just a charismatic local teacher who had visions of grandiosity? And are believers who follow Jesus gullible idealists?
I think that sometimes ideals are mistaken for idealism. If you encourage people to aspire to the ideal of generosity, they think you’re being idealistic. Today, any talk about social safety nets or ample funds for public education is considered nonsense that has been thoroughly discredited. We can’t afford this! Generosity of spirit is not possible in an age such as ours. Buckle down and get real.
That’s mistaking an ideal for idealism. We needn’t forsake our ideals just because they seem more difficult to attain today.
Jesus was not an idealist. He was a realist with ideals. He knew full well what he was up against – that worldly powers will always crush the most vulnerable, that many will always give in their meaner, smaller instincts, that he would probably come to a bad end. But he also knew that even so, we can live our ideals, and that’s all that matters.
He could only heal those in front of him, and yet he laid his hands on them. His words of love could only be heard by those with ears to hear them, and yet he spoke them. And still, his ancient witness to a holy and generous life can only inspire those who believe that God’s ideals are possible to live. And yet he continues to witness.
I’m realistic enough to know that I’m not going to sell everything I own and give the proceeds to charity. Even if I did, it would only be a drop in the bucket. I’m realistic enough to know that the necessity of political compromise will ensure that we will never be as generous as we should.<em> The poor you will always have with you</em>, as Jesus said.
And yet I still hold as an ideal the beautiful expressions of generosity I hear in scripture.<em> Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. They need not go away, bring them to me. We shall feed them.</em> I still aim towards generosity of spirit. This is one of the central ideals of our faith. Each one of us is invited to embrace it, to keep looking to it as our guiding star as we travel through this life.
Generosity of spirit involves more than giving money to charity, to church. It is an attitude we can carry, a willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt, to look for the best in them, to be open to their struggle, their quiet suffering beneath the surface. It is a capacity to throw caution to the wind sometimes when there’s something we can do.
We can be generous of spirit even though it is no more than a ripple in the ocean. And what is the point? That by golly, if we all do it, added up together, we’ll create more good than evil in this world? No, I’m even realistic about that.
We live our ideals because it is all we can do. It is the only way to live. We do it without looking for results. We don’t even let the right hand know what the left hand is doing. We don’t have to save the world from itself. We only have to live as God intends us to live, within the limits that we have, despite all evidence that it may not do much good. The rest is not our business.
Our effort to be kind and good-hearted is the most precious gift we can offer to the world. That was Jesus’ lesson that day, and this lesson was given more for the disciples than the crowd. Only look to your own heart. Watch how it tends to harden, how it loses hope, and dare to soften it. And the miracle of that day long ago – that we can overflow with generosity of spirit, becoming like Jesus, like God - will happen again, in you.