Chaotic Generosity

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ash Wednesday
February 22, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers us grace and blessing, which comes before the call to deeper discipleship. God's grace goes to the core of our being, so that we act in obedience from the inside out, resulting in generous giving.

Today's passage has given us a well-known catch phrase. Perhaps most people would recognize only this phrase from the passage. Unfortunately, we usually take the phrase out of context. Most people hear the phrase to mean one thing, and Jesus intended us to hear it another way.

We usually hear it in a context something like the following: Perhaps a church has a big fundraising dinner. The person who was supposed to decorate misunderstands the date and doesn't show up. Everyone scrambles around to decorate at the last minute. The person assigned to bring desserts brings salads. That person declares, "I know I heard salads." Someone rushes to the store to pick up some desserts. The worksheet says four batches of fried chicken, but only three make it to the dinner. The crew who volunteered to clean up forget, so the people who set up have to clean up. The next day, a person asks cheerily, "how did the fundraising dinner go?" The questioner receives a glare and the answer, "It was a mess. The left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing."

Almost every time we hear this catch phrase, people use it that way. They use it to talk about disorganization. The phrase lends itself to that interpretation. It sounds as if it should mean something like a breakdown in communication. In a congregation, we often do have communication problems. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we can't get the word out. We put an event in the newsletter. We announce it from the pulpit and post signs. Inevitably, someone will come up and say, "I didn't know about the fundraising dinner; no one told me!" In those situations, we use the phrase, "The left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing."

The word of grace in the Sermon on the Mount

Jesus does not use the phrase the way we use it, however. The phrase pops up in the Sermon on the Mount. When we read the Sermon on the Mount, we should take care to look at its structure. If we don't gain a sense of the whole sermon, we may have trouble understanding any one part. The sermon starts with Jesus' word of grace and blessing. We should not mistake Jesus' words of grace by turning them into instructions. When Jesus pronounces a word of blessing on the poor in spirit, he does not tell us to do something. He pronounces God's grace on people who have felt their spirits crushed by the pain and struggles of life. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness ache for fairness and justice in life. Blessed are those who have felt oppressed by life, because in God's kingdom, you will really know blessing.

The call to deeper discipleship

Then, after announcing the blessings, Jesus calls his followers to deeper discipleship. The word of grace comes first, then the call to obedience, and the call to take our obedience to a new level. We often feel helpless when we read this part of the sermon. We believe that we cannot live up to its call to deeper Christian living. If someone slaps us on the cheek, we should turn the other cheek. Who has the inner strength to do that? In Jesus' sermon, we control more than our actions. In the sermon, we must do more than control our urge to strangle someone who has infuriated us. We must do more than not hit them. Jesus calls us to control our anger. Our discipleship must go to the very core of our being.

In this part of the sermon, Jesus calls us to avoid doing the right thing for the wrong reason. We have to pray correctly. Most of us would be in better shape if we simply prayed more often. According to Jesus, we must pray in the right way. We can't pray like the hypocrites, who draw attention to themselves by their prayers. Not many of us fast, but we have to fast in the right way. We shouldn't make a show of our fasting.

Verses 3 and 4 of today's reading call attention to our giving. Jesus starts by telling us that when we give, we should not advertise that we have given. He calls that blowing our trumpet to gain praise from people. In today's world, people don't blow a trumpet when they give. They appear on television. They have a building named after them. They receive a testimonial dinner.

Many of us don't have much trouble following this part of Jesus' advice. We don't advertise when we give. We don't blow a trumpet, either literally or figuratively. Yet, we hold back on our giving. Most of us do not give ten percent of our income, maybe more like one or two percent. We may withhold our money if we feel as if the church has done something we don't like. That money doesn't go just to the church, however. The church uses it to feed hungry children and do other ministry.

In some cases, we turn a cold eye to those in need. We blame them for their laziness, even though some people work more than one job and still can't make enough to live on. Some have family to take care of. We should check our attitudes. In 2006, two researchers from Princeton University studied brain scans of people who were shown pictures of poor people and rich people. When the test subjects saw pictures of rich people, one part of their brain lit up the scanner. The part of their brain that lit up the scanner was the part that recognizes another person. When the researchers showed the subjects pictures of people experiencing homelessness, or poorly dressed people, a different part of the brain lit up the scanner. That part of the brain reacts to inanimate objects, to "things." The areas of the brain that react with disgust went into action. The brains of the subjects did not recognize the humanity of poor people. People with little money, with no home for right now were not "one of us;" they were "other." Those hooked up to the scanners did not see children of God.1

Jesus has offered us blessings, no matter where we find ourselves in life. Jesus has opened up to us the kingdom of God. Jesus has given us the church and each other. Jesus has shown us love and grace.

Responding to grace with generosity

Jesus calls us to respond to that grace and to the future kingdom of God. In the Sermon on the Mount, that response comes from the deepest part of ourselves. The key to understanding what the sermon calls forth from us comes in chapter 7, "every good tree bears good fruit."2 We allow God's grace to work on us from the inside out, so that we become good trees. We may not find the process easy, or quick, but we open ourselves to the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that we become good trees, down to the deepest part of ourselves. From the deep goodness will come good prayers, good fasting, some control over our anger and the ability to love others.

We do not wait for the process to come to fruition before we act. We may be only partially good trees, but we can give generously. We can give so that the left hand does not know what the right hand does. We can give without keeping track, without keeping score. We give out of gratitude to God and out of love for other people. Maybe God's grace will work on the different parts of our brains so that we can love others, even those different from us, even those with little money and no home for right now.

Jesus doesn't give us a phrase to use when everything goes wrong. He gives us a phrase to evoke generosity and care from us. We give so that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. We practice chaotic giving.

A church in Charlotte, North Carolina found an envelope in its offering plate. Inside was a note and eighteen cents. The note said, "Please don't be mad. I don't have much. I'm homeless. God bless." A person with no shelter for the night gave from the heart. It wasn't much, but it was an act of faith and love. The giver didn't sign a name, so he or she didn't want recognition. All we know is that the person was in the process of becoming a good tree.3


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