© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
Most of you are aware of the Jesus story when five thousand people are fed from five loaves of bread and two fish. It is one of the supposedly supernatural miracles frequently referred to when people discuss the divine nature of Jesus. At the beginning of the story, he has just landed on shore after having retreated – to find peace and quiet – in a boat to the middle of a large lake called the Sea of Galilee.
During Jesus’ work in the northern region of Palestine called Galilee, thousands of people had heard about the teachings of this radical young rabbi. He was unlike any rabbi or religious leader heard or seen before. Jesus did not address all of the fine points of Jewish religious observances – like regular sacrifice, ritual washing, Sabbath rules or dietary regulations. He was focused on reaching out to the poor, to the sick, to women, and to all those who lived as outcasts at the margins of supposedly decent society. During this time of Roman occupation and collusion with them by Jewish religious elites, many were looking for a prophet and inspirational leader. Because of his teachings and how he led his life, Jesus became hugely popular. The hopes and dreams of thousands were invested in him as one who could change lives for the better.
And so Jesus came ashore and found the huge crowd waiting for him. He walked through the crowd, talking and reaching out to them with his compassion and concern. He was at a remote place and his disciples eventually told him that it was getting late and would soon be dark. Should they send the crowd away at such a late hour so they can go get food? Not wanting to disperse the people who had walked so far to see him, Jesus told his disciples to instead feed them. But the disciples immediately protested that they only had a few loaves of bread and a few small fish – only enough for themselves. Jesus asked for the food and then broke the loaves and fish into small pieces and told the disciples to distribute the items to the crowd.
Afterwards, they amazingly discovered that five thousand people had been adequately fed – and there were still leftovers – all from that original small supply of food. A miracle! How could so many be fed out of such seemingly insignificant resources?
I am not someone who interprets this famous story literally. Far from it. Whether or not this feeding event actually took place, I believe it offers us a profound lesson in how we view our own limited resources. Despite the fear and caution of the disciples – who refused to trust and to have confidence in a situation of scarcity – Jesus saw instead abundance. He saw potential in the human spirit. Instead of holding onto the small supply of food – needed to feed himself and his few disciples – Jesus gave it all away. And it is in that example of giving that he created a literal miracle which came about not because of some godly intervention but because of human kindness and generosity.
As the disciples handed out their food, I imagine others in the crowd began to offer their own scraps of food to people around them. They saw Jesus’ example of giving. They shared. They gave away. They were extravagantly, perhaps foolishly, generous. As the disciples and the crowd began to be less preoccupied with their own meager supplies of food and recognized that by sharing there was more than enough for all, generosity exploded. Clenched fists of self-concern opened up into outstretched arms willing to give everything they had to eat away. A human being named Jesus, not some superstar god, created this miracle of giving and sharing.
Such is the miracle of abundance which I believe is evident in our world. When we freely give away what we have, we participate in a world in which everyone’s needs are met. This helps to nurture and create the kind of people we want to be, the kind of church we want to be and the kind of world in which we want to live. We as a people, as a church and as a world are interconnected, cooperative, generous and willing to share with others. We see life as not something to be feared but as open with possibility. Instead of living in a world we perceive as destined to be full of hunger, poverty and need, we live in one in which heaven can be created by us – by our work and by our generosity.
And that leads me to this concluding topic for our October message series. In this series about money and time, I pose today’s theme as a question – “Give It All Away?” We’ve discovered over the last two Sundays, I hope, that our money and our time are two concerns which closely reflect our overall life values – are we selfish……..or selfless? Do we use money and time prudently, in balance and in a way that reaches out to family, friends and strangers? Do we hoard money and time or do we give them away? Is our attitude about time and money focused on the “me” or on the “other”?
My purpose today is not to create guilt or to lecture anyone about being generous. Indeed, we must all see to our own needs first so that we are then able to give and help others. The Buddha said that one cannot help oneself if one does not help others. But, just as important, the Buddha also noted that one cannot help others, if one does not help oneself. So, if I do anything in this message, it will be to provoke questions, to inspire reflection and to encourage self-examination about giving in general.
My understanding of generosity is that it does not solely encompass financial or material giving. A generous person is one who embodies that quality in all aspects of their life. They share their time freely, being willing to listen and understand others. They are emotionally giving through their happiness, their smiles and their positive outlook. They show extravagant hospitality to all people – friend and stranger alike. They volunteer time to charities and organizations. They give others the benefit of doubt despite one’s flaws or mistakes. They forgive. They recognize the inherent dignity and worth of every living creature. Spiritual generosity, therefore, is not something that is contingent on having lots of money or not. It is a holistic attitude and one which is attractive to other people. We want to be around those who are truly giving with their time, compassion, understanding, empathy, money, and happiness. As Mother Theresa wisely said, “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of Divine kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.”
That ethic of Mother Theresa’s is daily lived out by charity workers around the world. As I’ve mentioned on a few occasions, I was privileged to travel several times to the nation of Haiti on outreach trips with one of my previous churches. On one of those trips, I visited a hospital run by the Sisters of Charity which cared for dying children. I walked into a large open room with row upon row of cribs and small beds, where perhaps a hundred children were tended. Most suffered from either tuberculosis or AIDS. At one point as I walked through the room, a Sister reached down to pick up a seven year old girl, who looked like a holocaust survivor she was so thin. I forget the girl’s name now but she had been born with AIDS. She was blind, she could not speak or walk or barely lift her head. The Sister held her in her arms like an infant and lightly tickled her under the chin. A small smile crossed the girl’s face. This Sister handed the girl to me to hold for a while and it was impossible for me not to choke up. As horrible as this situation was – repeated in the story of each of the many children in that hospital – I realized later that I was just a visitor – a tourist into some of the horrors of our world. I gave some money and I gathered information to share with others back in my church but the Sisters – those who worked in this hospital day in and day out – were the truly generous. When symbolically asked by the Jesus, whom these Sisters deeply respect, to give away everything they had in this world – money, material things and their own time – they willingly answered “yes – here I am.” The example of such charity workers like them deeply humbles me. I am a terribly and horribly selfish person in comparison.
Ultimately, though, our personal generosity is something we establish within our own hearts. It is not something others can or should impose upon us. If we feel guilt or compulsion in our giving, I do not believe we have truly given. As the Bible says, “Each one must give just as he or she has purposed in his or her heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for the Divine One loves a cheerful giver.”
That attitude speaks to how I hope we can all approach this church’s upcoming annual pledge campaign. Are we confident about our future? Do we see things with fear or with wide-eyed optimism? Are we focused on our scarce resources or might we imagine the abundance we have and that is all around us? Is this a place that creates change in people’s lives – both those who attend and those we serve outside these walls? Are homeless young people better off because of us? Do we help the hungry? Have homeless families been served by this congregation with love and understanding? Are gays and lesbians treated with respect, with dignity and with the value they deserve as equal citizens? Is our music inspiring? Do we truly care for one another in our times of illness, challenge or despair? Do our messages pose questions that provoke thought and encourage change? Are meaningful relationships formed here? Are visitors helped in finding a new community of friendly faces? Does this place matter to you and to others? Is there value here?
Two weeks ago during our talk back time after the message on attitudes toward money, a few of you envisioned the dream of us all living within a commune – where sharing is free and easy and everybody works together for the common good. While we do not call ourselves the Soviet Socialist Church of the Gathering, we have within our power to be something like a commune. All of us have the ability to manifest spiritual generosity here, in our families and in our neighborhoods. As we are transformed by the realization that life is not about us but about our service to the wider world, counting and hoarding our money and our time becomes meaningless. We each work and save for what we eat. We give of ourselves in kindness to one another and to strangers. We treat others with dignity and affirmation. We build close and strong families who are then able to go out into the world to make it better. We give away time playing with a child or talking to a teenager. We meaningfully relate with a spouse or partner. We help a friend and we volunteer for the homeless, the hungry and the marginalized. We open our hands with generosity, seeing the fantastic opportunities we have to serve others. In sum, we see our lives, we see this church and we see our world as alive with possibility. We can literally change all creation for the better and we have each been blessed with friends and associates in this congregation who are willing to join us in that undertaking.
My friends, I do not propose that all of one’s generosity must be focused on a church – let alone this church. Indeed, I know that so many here give abundantly to other causes – to scholarship funds to help young people learn and grow, to social justice organizations that fight for equal rights, to animal rights groups that call each of us to treat fellow creatures with love and understanding, to a myriad of other very worthy causes. Generosity of spirit calls us all to, as I said earlier, give as the Divine One puts into our hearts to give. And that includes to whom we give. If we are passionate about advancing art and beauty in the world, we give to creative and performing arts organizations. If our passion is to see education improved, we give to a school or university. If we yearn for a world free of disease, we support the heart association or the cancer society. If we care about animals we give to the zoo, a local shelter or animal rights groups. If, as I hope, this place called the Gathering finds a meaningful place in your lives, I pray it finds a place in your giving.
Some of us have the ability to give more. Some live with a tight budget and paying the monthly bills is a regular concern. My hope is that we can all meaningfully and generously give something to this place – both in time and in money. It is said in the Bible that to whom much is given, much is expected. And I believe that is true. But the Bible also wisely says that those who sow sparingly also reap sparingly and those who sow bountifully, reap bountifully. I, like most of you, do not believe in the gospel of wealth that god will somehow pour out his financial blessings if you only give away all of your hard earned money. But I do believe that generous people and generous churches are surrounded with that same spirit. People who are spiritually generous as I mentioned earlier – who freely smile, listen, show kindness, and give away happiness – are the kind of people who discover others being generous to them. Generosity attracts generosity. And the same holds true for churches. That is why I believe it is so important for this congregation to be actively involved in outreach to our community – in volunteering, giving away money, feeding, clothing, mentoring and caring for those in need. We walk our talk. We see the world as not about us but about others. We think positively as we work to create heaven on earth. We go out into the world refusing to accept things as they are but confidently determined to work for things as they should be.
This is the last of my Sundays with you during my first year at the Gathering. It has gone by so quickly and it has been an amazing ride. When I next see you on a Sunday, I will begin my second year with all of the hope and excitement for this place that I have had over the past year. Whether we are big or small as a church, we have a purpose. We help to change lives for the better. We matter in this community. Pat Crahan and Brandon Wiers have both said very eloquently that they see the Gathering as a place of great depth where each of us continues to grow and stretch ourselves in how we treat one another, in our giving, in our learning and in our impact on the world. I am confident and absolutely positive that we will walk hand and hand into our future with love, with abundant generosity and with the dream of peace and contentment throughout all of creation.