A Generous Life

A Generous Life

March 14, 2021 • Rev. Rob Fuquay

David Livingstone was the famed explorer of Africa opening up trade routes through the continent. While the benefits of his work, and just who benefited, is up for debate, how he ended up doing this work is a result of someone who followed his heart. 

Livingstone set out to be a missionary, having been approved by the London Missionary Society, but his ambition was to go to China. However, the Opium Wars in China closed that passage. That is when he heard a missionary named Robert Moffatt speak about Africa and a flame was lit in his heart. He applied and was sent to Africa as a medical missionary. This involved both medical work and preaching. But as he traveled further and further into the continent he found something else capturing his heart, intolerance for the slave trade. As he saw what was happening, his heart became passionate for finding a way to end the slave trade. That was why he became so devoted to opening new trade routes, he saw it as opportunity to undercut and eliminate slave trading. In return trips to Great Britain he did all he could to use his Christian influence to stir up support for the abolition movement.

He gave his life to the cause of Africa. His health suffered. His family relationships suffered. And on his last journey he died in what is modern day Zambia. Before preparing his body to be returned to England locals cut out his heart and buried it under a Mvula tree. Then the they placed a note with his corpse which read, “You may have his body but his heart belongs in Africa.” Today a memorial identifies the place where his heart is buried.

Where does your heart belong? That is a question raised by Jesus’ teaching today in the Sermon on the Mount. In encouraging us to follow our hearts for God, Jesus warns about the greatest obstacle that can get in the way: wealth.

In Jesus’ day it was easier to tell who was rich. It’s tougher today. You have to be careful about measuring a person’s wealth by the car they drive or the size of their house. We moved here from Lake Norman in North Carolina. Many of the waterfront homes were magnificent, large houses, costing well over a million dollars. But you discovered is that many of these homes hardly had a stick of furniture in them. People spent everything they had to get a lakefront home, they couldn’t afford to fill it!

In Jesus’ day wealth was more obvious. Being an agricultural world, you could tell if someone had a bumper crop. They would build large barns or storehouses. Some, consumed with having as much as they could would build additions to these storehouses. Jesus saw how the need for more got in the way of the good life he came to bring so he offered some lessons, that as different as his world was then, are still relevant today. I want to look at what Jesus said and make some observations after each, and offer a reflection question to take with you and consider this week. So let’s start with Jesus opening words: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal…”

The word rust literally means to “eat away.” That’s why many translators say rust, but Jesus is talking about the way rodents can creep into a barn and eat away at your crops. Also, because the walls of houses were often made of hardened mud-like material, it was easy for a thief who saw you had been storing up treasures, to dig through the wall and steal.

As Amy Oden points out in today’s Anchor Point, the lesson Jesus makes here is very simple: earthly treasures are vulnerable. That’s still true. We don’t fret over moths or squirrels eating up our retirement accounts, but what would happen to most of us if we had a major stock market crash? Earthly treasures are vulnerable.

So Jesus advises “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moth nor rust consume and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Now this is where you might expect the sermon to get preachy, because it sounds like Jesus is declaring wealth a bad thing. That its wrong to be rich. Of course, I’m not sure why we get offended at that idea, most people don’t call themselves rich. You ask most folks, “Are you rich?” And they say, “Well, I’m doing okay. I have what I need. But I don’t know about rich.”

Shortly after Charles Barkley entered the NBA, George H Bush ran for president and Barkley came out in support of him. His mother said, “Charles, how can you do that? That’s the rich people’s president.” To which Barkley replied, “Momma, we are the rich people!”

Not everyone is as honest as Charles Barkley, and not everyone has as much as Charles Barkley. But did you know that if you have total assets of $3200 you are among the upper half of the world’s wealthiest? If you have total assets of $68,000 you are among the top ten percent. As we read in the book by James Bryan Smith which we are using this Lent, if you own a car you are among just 8% of the world’s population. Most of us, and maybe all who are listening to me right now, are wealthy.

However, I don’t believe Jesus saying wealth is bad. He says doesn’t say don’t have earthly treasures. He says, “don’t store them up.” Don’t become consumed with more.” (illustration from More or Less?)

In other words, Treasures aren’t bad, it’s what we treasure that matters.” So a little question that draws out this point: What is my value apart from my valuables? Where do I find value in life?

So Jesus continues: “For where your treasure is there will your heart be also.” The heart is a euphemism for the command center of our lives. The heart determines everything we do. What you set your heart on, is what you value. But that’s not what Jesus said. He didn’t say “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be.” He says where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be. Where your treasure goes is what you will end up treasuring. Hidden in this statement is a most important thought. If you want to change your heart, change your action!

When our girls were little we used to get videos for them to watch on long trips. We went through about three minivans between the first birth and the last high school graduation. The first two vans we bought this small tv and strapped it in the console between the driver’s and front passenger seats, and hooked up a DVD player to it so they could watch videos and not fuss on long trips.

But our last van had a built in video player. That was the day we thought we were rich! Well, we used to lay this Christian video series called Veggie Tales, and the girls’ favorite episode was Madam Blueberry. Madam Blueberry was so blue she didn’t know what to do, because her happiness depended on things. And her world was turned upside down one day when she met someone who didn’t get want he wanted and was still happy. She discovered, satisfaction doesn’t depend on stuff.

Now my kids had watched that so many times they could recite every line. And I’ll never forget, driving on a trip, another episode of Madam Blueberry finished, and the video had no more than ended than two of them got into an argument over whose toy was whose! I pulled over and said, “Have you not learned anything from Madam Blueberry!”

I realized, most of us don’t need more information to change, we need more action. It has been estimated that the average Christian will hear four to six thousand sermons in a lifetime! Just think for a minute in your own life. If you were in worship two out of three weeks, that’s 340 sermons a year not including other special services. So how many sermons would you guess you’ve heard in your life so far? Open up the chat and type that in. See how many sermons you and others have heard.

Now let me ask you, if you wanting something to change in your life, is the reason that is not happening because you need to hear just one more sermon? My guess is no. It’s not more information that’s needed. It’s action. It’s taking a step in the direction of a preferred future. To use an old expression, it’s putting your money where mouth is. Or as Jesus might say, “put your money where you want your heart to be.” Because that’s the direction of flow. Action doesn’t follow feeling. At least not for long. Feeling follows action.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. So a question here is: What do my treasures say I treasure? Based on where my treasure go, what does that say I value?

Now, before I go to the next part of Jesus’ teaching I need to tell you a little about myself. In an indirect way I am a product of the Great Depression. That’s because my parents were born during that era, and as any of you who have parents from that time know, the Depression established certain values. You don’t waste a thing. You watch ever so carefully every penny you have. That’s how I was raised, especially by my dad.

He was raised by a single mother who worked 12 hour days on the assembly line of a cigarette factory in Durham, NC. He had to do most of the chores at home, something he made sure his children valued. I learned the value of hard work and self-discipline from my father. I remember a time when he promised to pay me an allowance if I helped him replace the gutters on the house. BU the taught me how the world works. He vowed to pay me minimum we at the time which was about triple any allowance I ever made. But then he said, now the government takes out FICA and federal taxes. Then there’s state taxes. He figured up the percent and then said, “So this will be your allowance.” My excitement diminished.”

When I was in high school he drove all over town looking for a place that might hire his son. He finally found a job for me at Biscuitville. He said, making my own spending money would be good for me. Now, I had to quit the basketball team to take this job, but I did get free biscuits. 

The day they helped me move into college, He led me to the cafeteria to ask the manager if they needed any workers. Suddenly I had a job washing dishes after class, so I could have the pride of earning my own money. And it made me proud all right. In fact I looked at other students who didn’t have to work, who drove nicer cars than I did, and thought, “They get everything handed to them. Those rich kids. I’m earning it myself.” I’m proud.

During this time a pastor challenged me to begin tithing. I did. I have ever since. I give away ten percent. Now I’m really proud. I earn my own way and I fulfill an important Christian responsibility. So at the risk of sounding self-righteous, I feel I keep Jesus’ teaching pretty well. I don’t have to buy things to be happy. I try to reassure the right things, bit it’s what Jesus says next that trips me up.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! The word for healthy here is actually the word good. Jesus says if your eye is good. But rather than meaning healthy he means generous. If your eye is generous, then your life will be full of light. And then the opposite. If your eye is not good, if it’s not generous, your life will be dark. Not generous means stingy.

That’s where the trouble comes for me. I don’t have a problem with careless spending, but stinginess? Hmmm. My wife admitted to me one time that it was getting hurtful to her that every time she told me about something she purchased I asked, “How much did that cost?” “That seems expensive.” She said, “I need you to trust me that I will be frugal, but I can’t handle the scrutiny.”

Stinginess darkens life.

James Bryan Smith in the book we are using this Lent says, “Both the stingy and the spendthrift are in the grip of avarice. Though they appear to be opposites, they share the same belief: money (spent or saved) is what makes a person happy.”

I realize that just because I tithe and give significant money to the church or charities didn’t mean I was generous. Worrying over every expense, being controlling about every penny that goes in and out, is still avarice. Its putting my trust in my own need to store up than God’s ability to give.

The point of this part of Jesus teaching is this: Life is Brightened By Generosity, therefore, How Generous Am I? Am I free to practice generosity as a daily way of life? Am I free to give without worrying about how its going to be replaced? Or am I constrained by fear of not having enough. Its realizing this simple truth, none of us are keepers. None of us can save it anyway. We are only borrowers. We give it all away eventually. One day everything we have will belong to someone else. Being generous is about choosing how I want to give it away.

We are challenged by financial advisors to set financial goals for the future. How much do you want to have when you retire. And I agree. I think that is being responsible. But I also believe an even better goal is to ask, How much do I want to be able to give away? How much would I have to have to give that much? Now that’s a cool goal.

What will happen with your things after you are gone? That’s something we want to help people consider at St. Luke’s. We have a team of folks working to help people consider legacy giving led by Andrew Fiega and Brad Fuson….

And that leads to the final part of this teaching. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and wealth.” I found it interesting in our chapter for this week where Smith points out the science that shows buying something new stimulates the same part of the brain as experiences that connect us to God. Our spiritual senses and the rush we get from buying something taps into the same part of the brain. No wonder Jesus compares wealth to God. Wealth has God-like power. It will carry on after us.

But why does Jesus recognize this truth in such a stark fashion: you cannot serve God and wealth? Why does Jesus force a decision? Because this is the decision that determines the future of the world. I am not overstating it! God provides for people through people. That’s how God takes care of us, through people. And therefore, God needs people who commit to serving God first and allowing God to use them to be God’s agent of hope in the world.

So the question here brings back to where we started: Will I give my heart to God? All I have comes from you anyway. I say to you today, “Use me. Any way you can. I will listen for how you can make me an answer to the world’s needs.

Let me close with this story. Eugene Lang grew up on the hard scrabble streets of Harlem. He attended what came to be known as Public School 121. He went to achieve amazing success and became a multi-millionaire. And he was generous. He gave millions back to the schools he attended. One year he was asked to speak to a group of 6th graders at his old school back in Harlem. He worked hard on his notes. He talked about working hard and never giving up just like he did. But the day he stood in front of an all black, Puerto Rican gathering of teenagers he thought, these kids are going to roll their eyes at me if I tell them that. They’ve heard that stuff before and they know better. They know they can work hard and it still might not be enough. And in that moment he felt a prompting to follow his heart.

He told them that the moment that changed his life was hearing Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, ‘I Have a Dream.” Everyone should have a dream. Then I decided to tell them I’d give a scholarship to every member of the class admitted to a four year college.”

There was stunned silence, and then suddenly jubilation. Suddenly there was hope. There was just platitudes. Now someone was investing in them. But Lang did more. He realized that just promising financial support to kids from poor or troubled homes was not enough. Many would drop out or fall into other problems. The principal pointed out that even with that hope there was too much pressure working against them. Maybe 2 kids out of the 61 would ever manage through the challenges to receive the scholarship. So Lang sort of adopted the kids to meet with them regularly, love on them, listen to their problems, encourage them. This led to creating the I Have a Dream Foundation with a program director and mentors and tutors.

This is a picture of Mr Lang with graduates from that first class of Dreamers. Now let me say, some of you will look at this and think, “Great. Another story about a rich white guy saving poor inner city kids.” But that would be to miss the point. This is a story about a guy following his heart. And guess what, all our hearts are the same color. Change in our world happens when we allow God to take control of our hearts and service His purposes. Listen to Eugene Lang’s words:

“Giving should not be mechanical,” he said. “It should be the fruit of one’s feeling, love and sense of responsibility. Giving is not giving back. There is no quid pro quo. Giving is self-fulfillment.”

So let me end where we started: Where does your heart belong? Where will it be buried some day?

David Livingstone story… https://hankeringforhistory.com/his-heart-belongs-in-africa-part-two/ 

Eugene Lang story: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/08/nyregion/eugene-lang-dead-harlem-college.html