June 30, 2024 - Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

"Spirit of Generosity"

Rev. Gary Percesepe

2 Corinthians 8: 7-15

For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. ~ 2 Corinthians 8: 12

I taught philosophy for many years, first as a full-time professor, later part time. It provided a sense of balance to my work as a pastor, working with seventeen to twenty-two year olds, with their ready minds, their earnest idealism, their keen eye for hypocrisy (OK, Boomer!), their brand-new skin, their shy smiles, the way they carried their food and water bottles to class, gulping and gobbling in the few minutes before class, checking their phones. Some days I would study their unlined skin and think, “You have no idea what is coming, do you, the cares and sorrows of the world that will soon line your faces.” Then I would give myself a stern talking to, remembering that some of my students had already faced adversities I’d never known and never will-- some because of their color of their skin, others because of their gender, their sexuality, their nationality, their families of origin, and the many intersections between them; others because this world won’t always wait until you’re an adolescent to break your heart. And though it’s true that some will grow stronger in the broken places, I understood that some would not live long enough to know this.

I tried to teach them that life is both a gift and a task. They had already experienced enough to know life was a task, that we are born homo sapien but must learn how to become human—but many struggled with the notion that life, and all that we have, is a gift. Americans are not conditioned to think like that. We live in a society shaped by the idea that life is a series of entitlements based on certain inalienable natural rights; that we enter the world as a bundle of rights, and our lives consist in exercising these rights, and the function of government is to create maximum space for me to freely exercise these rights to which I am entitled. No one can be expected to feel gratitude if they believe they are only being given what they already deserve. No one writes a letter to the government each month to give thanks for their Social Security check.

So, it may sound strange to us to hear the Apostle Paul invoke the idea of the gift of Jesus, or to remind the church at Corinth of the giftedness of all that they have, including the gift of faith itself, a theme he also hammers home in his letter to the Romans. Every gift requires a giver, and with each gift comes certain obligations and responsibilities. We give because we have first received, and what do we have that we have not received? When we have no understanding of our lives as gifts then we will have no sense of obligation. And when we have no sense of obligation, we will not feel compelled to give to others when they are in need, even as we have received from others in our own time of need.

The poet Maya Angelou, speaking to first year students at Duke University on the first day of classes, told them, “You have been the beneficiaries of the best that this society has to offer. We have given you the best education we know how to give. We have told you all that we know. Now you owe us something.”

What is it that we owe to others? Why should we give? Why should we fill out our pledge cards this Fall for the following year? Why should we be generous to others? Maya Angelou quoted Jesus: To the one to whom much is given, much will be required. One semester, a nineteen-year-old in my Ethics class wrote on his final that he had a liver transplant when he was a young boy. With the gift came the task: to reflect on the fact that a perfect stranger had given him a chance to live. Tyler wrote on his paper, "I live every day with an organ that isn't mine. An organ that the donor had no intention of losing. I got a second chance in life because someone lost their battle with life. I pray every day for the family of my donor. I thank them every day for the experiences they've granted me."

Church, that is what is known as gratitude.

Jesus—who talked more about money in the four gospels than any other topic, famously said, “Where your money is, your heart is.”

My young student Tyler has someone else’s liver inside him, but all of us can learn from a stranger how to grow a giving heart. Amene.

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