Generosity

The Rev. John Lane. This sermon is based on Luke 19:8.

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor …”

I was at a retreat last week, and the leaders told a story I already knew.

This involves a test, a test with an honor system. If you know the answer, raise your hand quietly, and we’ll count. Don’t shout out, don’t speak to your neighbor, don’t pass notes to one another. No cheating. I will give you several clues:

1st clue: Joshua Bell—a show of hands if you know who he is.

2nd clue: DC Metro nearly 10 years ago

3rd clue: $3 million Stradivarius

Early in 2007, a world-class concert violinist named Joshua Bell put on old clothes and a baseball cap. He placed his violin case on the floor of a Metro station in Washington, and began to play the kind of music he would have played at the Kennedy Center or Carnegie Hall.

Bell played, as I recall, for 2 hours. During that time, over one thousand people passed by. They did not stop. They did not even slow down. In some cases, they gave him a wide berth, accelerating their departure. .  It reminds me of a Bible passage from Lamentations that used to be read on Good Friday: “Is it nothing to you, all ye who pass by?” (Lam 1:12 KJV)

Twenty-seven persons, 2.5% of those who came through the station, actually stopped to listen. Most of them were children. “You shall be like a little child,” Jesus told us. There was one instance where a child stopped and his father literally put his body between the violinist and his son before dragging him away.

This was a Washington Post experiment, When Bell came back to Union Station for an announced appearance several years later, the place was packed. No one left. No one passed by.

I don’t want to ruin a good story by dwelling on interpretation. I think Bell’s impromptu concert was working against our prejudices. The people weren’t expecting this, even though they had seen and heard many musicians, some of them quite good, in this kind of setting before. They thought he was a busker, not worth listening to. They were busy. They did not see Bell’s performance as a free gift. They passed it up. They passed by. They missed out. Did you ever miss out?

Second story: Thirty years ago, I was asked by the Diocese of Louisiana to visit a parish vestry at pledge time. I was told, in fact I already knew, the parish was hostile to the diocese, out of step with what the diocese was doing, all that kind of thing. I called the rector, who I thought was a friend, and arranged to come to the next vestry meeting.

On the appointed evening, I got in my car, drove across the bridge to the West Bank of New Orleans (an eerie other world), and found myself in the midst of heavy fog.  I got to the church 15 minutes before the vestry meeting, and was ushered into the Green Room to await my appearance. I looked around for a book, did some centering prayer, and may have even dozed. It was clear the vestry was not eager to hear what I had to say. Two hours after I arrived, the senior warden came to get me.

I looked around at the combination of hostility and empathy, and launched into my spiel, a message which had evolved a good bit while I sat there cooling my heels.

“I’ve come to talk about your parish’s pledge to the diocese. Giving has at least two aspects: (1) Making certain the money you give is well spent. This is called stewardship. (2) Giving up control, the opposite of careful giving, just letting loose of your money. Not making money into a weapon, but a real gift, no strings attached. This is called generosity.” I was warming to my topic.

“I ask you tonight to emphasize the second aspect. None of us, certainly not y’all, really know what in the world the diocese is going to do with YOUR money. I ask you this year to give up control, to give with a generous heart, and leave the recipient free to use it wisely—or not. Their opportunity. Their problem.”

I left and drove home. Two or three days later, the phone rang and it was the diocesan administrator. “What did you say to those people on the vestry?” My blood ran cold. I took several cleansing breaths. I saw my career pass before me. “Their pledge to the diocese is $5000 MORE than it was last year. Whatever you said, it really worked.” He rang off.

Third story: This one also came from the monks leading last week’s retreat. Thanks, guys, for immense help with this sermon.

In Kansas, during the Depression, a family of six was barely scraping by. Despite their poverty, it was the parents’ dream to take the children to the circus the next time it came to town. They literally saved their pennies, and eventually they saw posters announcing a travelling circus. The whole family was excited.

They woke up early, and together walked some miles to town. The kids were overwhelmed when they saw the tent, and ran around, very excited. Their father stepped up to the ticket booth, and said, “Two adults and four children, please.” He was told the price and kept checking his wallet. No matter where he looked, he found he was short several dollars. He was devastated, and began to turn to leave.

Two older women, sisters who lived together, were right behind him in line, and saw the dreadful truth unfold. One of them had gotten out a $10 bill., ready to pay for their tickets. She looked at her sister who nodded, and then dropped it on the ground. She tapped the man on the back and said, “I think you dropped this.” He knew he hadn’t, and he protested. It wasn’t his.

She insisted it had to be, picked it up, and pressed it into his hand. Finally, he thanked her, accepted the money, and turned back to the ticket seller.

The two women left the line and started back home, almost jumping and skipping, as excited as the children they had paid for. They no longer had enough money to go to the circus themselves, but they were happier than they had been in years. They had made a real difference in someone else’s life.

It is not only more blessed to give than to receive. Sometimes, it’s even more fun.

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor …”

Amen.

Comments

  1. Great stories! Gives me something to ponder

  2. John Clark says:

    Grand Message! Loved your comments on circumspection ‘while cooling my heels” and “saw my career pass before me”.

    Some moments grip us more firmly than others. I will use this as thoughts for my days.

    Thank you,

    John Clark