Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - More than a Gut Feeling

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 30, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. This was the seventh message in the series entitled "Living by the Spirit." You can hear a podcast of the sermon on the Cove Presbyterian Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.


Now, when I was a kid, we didn’t measure summer by any kind of official scientific standard. I mean, it didn’t start at the summer solstice, when we enjoy the most daylight of the calendar year. And it didn’t end at the autumnal equinox, you know, when day and night are each about 12 hours long. Now that may be how it’s defined on the official calendar and in The Farmer’s Almanac, but that’s not how I saw it. Instead, for me, summer started on the first day in June and ended on the last day of August. I mean, June 21 to September 22, give me a break; that’s just wrong. Anyway, using my old, reliable three month pattern, right now we’re about to enter summer’s homestretch. Which also means we’re getting close to the end of this series dealing with living by the Spirit.

And to this point, we’ve had six messages. First, we looked at what living by the Spirit is not. And second, we considered how love is a decision and an obligation. Third, we talked about how Christian joy is grounded in faith and how it strengthens those who suffer and how it must be shared among believers. And then, fourth, we focused on Christian peace and how God has called us to live in harmony with ourselves and with God and with one another. And fifth, we dealt with spiritual patience and how it involves humility and love and faith. And then last week, we looked at kindness and how kindness is part of God’s nature and how it should extend to everybody and how it’s only possible with God’s help. Now there’s where we’ve been.

And this morning, we’re going to talk about Christian generosity, or according to the literal meaning of the Greek word that Paul used, the goodness that Christians demonstrate to others. And as a sign that God works in mysterious ways, just this last week I ran across an article that dealt with a scientific explanation for generosity. You see, I have an app on my phone entitled Curiosity. And every day, they post some interesting articles that you might not find out there in world. And on Monday, they posted an article entitled, “Your Microbiome Might Play a Role in Altruism.” And let me read you the first paragraph: “They might be microscopic, but single-celled bacteria are surprisingly powerful. Research has linked certain bacteria in the gut to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even autism. Now, scientists are beginning to think that bacteria may not just be out to destroy our mental health. They could be responsible for acts of altruism, too.” In other words, some scientists think that bacteria may actually cause us to be generous, and they’ve even done some experiments to support this theory.

Of course, I have no idea whether or not bacteria in my gut makes me put some change in the cup of a homeless person. What I do know, though, is that altruism or generosity or goodness directed to others, well, it’s not always easy to do. I mean, suppose I’m at in intersection and a guy is holding up a sign asking for help. And he’s right there at my window. I’m telling you, at that moment, I can think of all kinds of reasons not to give him a dollar. I mean, I’m sitting on my wallet, and it’ll be really hard to get it out, right? And he looks pretty able-bodied to me; helping him will just give him an excuse to not work and I don’t want to be an enabler, right? And I bet he’ll just take that dollar and buy drugs with it; you know, that’s what they all do, right? Sure they do. And so regardless of what’s swimming around my gut, I avoid eye contact and get moving as soon as I can, you know, before the bacteria kicks in. I’m telling you, being generous isn’t easy.

And that’s why it’s kind of a bummer that it’s the seventh fruit of the Spirit. In other words, for Paul, Spirit-filled Christians are generous. They’re altruistic. They’re good to others. Now that’s what he wrote. And unless we white it out, we’ve got to deal with it. And so, in the next few minutes, we’re going to talk about generosity. And like we’ve done with love and patience and kindness, we’re going to use the Bible to define and better understand how we might do it. Now that’s our focus this morning.

And I’ll tell you, when we take a look at what’s in the Book, I think there are four things we can say about Christian generosity. But before we look at the specifics, let me tell you that, when I read the Scripture, you’re not going to hear the word “generous” used. Instead, it’ll generally be something about being good, but I want you to understand the same Greek word that Paul used in our passage from Galatians was also used in everything we’ll read. And so, having said that, I think there are four things that Paul had in mind when he talked about generosity.

For example, first, for Paul, Christian generosity is always directed away from self. In other words, it’s not about me; it’s about you and us. But I’ll tell you, it’s not just about us; it’s also about them. Generous goodness points out, not in. And I think we can see that in what Paul wrote to the Romans: “If our faith is strong, we should be patient with the Lord's followers whose faith is weak. We should try to please them instead of ourselves. We should think of their good and try to help them by doing what pleases them. Even Christ did not try to please himself. But as the Scriptures say, ‘The people who insulted you also insulted me.’ And the Scriptures were written to teach and encourage us by giving us hope.” [Romans 15:1-4] And to the Galatians, he wrote: “Share every good thing you have with anyone who teaches you what God has said. You cannot fool God, so don’t make a fool of yourself! You will harvest what you plant. If you follow your selfish desires, you will harvest destruction, but if you follow the Spirit, you will harvest eternal life. Don’t get tired of helping others. You will be rewarded when the time is right, if you don't give up. We should help people whenever we can, especially if they are followers of the Lord.” [Galatians 6:6-10] You see, the kind of goodness, the kind of generosity Paul called us to show, first, is all about helping others, not self.

And second, it also may take different forms. In other words, how a person might show goodness, how he or she might be generous, well, it may differ from person to person, you know, depending on what the person has to give. And again, Paul seems pretty clear about this in his letters. But before reading some of this, I think it’s important to remember that Paul lived in a time very different from ours, one with different values and norms; therefore, I think it’s wrong to take an example that Paul used to make a point and assume that he was prescribing institution or even suggesting that we impose the example. Let me show you what I mean. To the Ephesians, Paul wrote, “Slaves, you must obey your earthly masters. Show them great respect and be as loyal to them as you are to Christ. Try to please them at all times, and not just when you think they are watching. You are slaves of Christ, so with your whole heart you must do what God wants you to do. Gladly serve your masters, as though they were the Lord himself, and not simply people. You know that you will be rewarded for any good things you do, whether you are slaves or free.” [Ephesians 6:5-8] Now I don’t think this is Paul being pro-slavery here. Rather he was showing that even slaves could be generous with what they have. I think that’s what he was saying. And I think we should read what he wrote to Titus in the same way. He said, “Tell the older women to behave as those who love the Lord should. They must not gossip about others or be slaves of wine. They must teach what is proper, so the younger women will be loving wives and mothers. Each of the younger women must be sensible and kind, as well as a good homemaker, who puts her own husband first. Then no one can say insulting things about God's message.” [Titus 2:3-5] Again, I think he was using an example of how women might be generous, given their limited means in the first century. You see, whether it’s our time or whether it’s our talents or whether it’s our money or some combination of the three, generosity can take different forms. And that’s his second point.

And third, for Paul, Christian generosity is impossible with God’s help. You see, it’s not about trying harder. Being generous is actually being more focused on and faithful to God. I mean, I think that’s why Paul called it a fruit of the Spirit. And I’ll tell you, I believe we see this in what he wrote the Romans. Now this is a long passage and so I won’t read it all. But in it, Paul talked about how he wanted to be good, how he wanted to be generous, but he just couldn’t pull it off. He wrote, “I know that my selfish desires won't let me do anything that is good. Even when I want to do right, I cannot. Instead of doing what I know is right, I do wrong. And so, if I don't do what I know is right, I am no longer the one doing these evil things. The sin that lives in me is what does them." [Romans 7:18-20] And given this situation, all Paul could say was this, “But in every part of me I discover something fighting against my mind, and it makes me a prisoner of sin that controls everything I do. What a miserable person I am. Who will rescue me from this body that is doomed to die? Thank God! Jesus Christ will rescue me." [Romans 7:23-25] You see, God rescued Paul and enabled him to continue doing what he was called and equipped to do. And later, in the same letter, Paul wrote that this can also happen to us: “Dear friends, God is good. So I beg you to offer your bodies to him as a living sacrifice, pure and pleasing. That's the most sensible way to serve God. Don't be like the people of this world, but let God change the way you think. Then you will know how to do everything that is good and pleasing to him.”  [Romans 12:1-2] With God’s help, we can be generous. And that’s Paul’s third point.

And finally, for Paul, Christian generosity has power. You see, it really isn’t just about making a personal sacrifice; rather, it’s about changing the world. And I believe this was what he had in mind when he wrote to the Ephesians, “You used to be like people living in the dark, but now you are people of the light because you belong to the Lord. So act like people of the light and make your light shine. Be good and honest and truthful, as you try to please the Lord.” [Ephesians 5:8-10] And to the Thessalonians, he said, “God chose you, and we keep praying that God will make you worthy of being his people. We pray for God’s power to help you do all the good things that you hope to do and that your faith makes you want to do. Then, because God and our Lord Jesus Christ are so kind, you will bring honor to the name of our Lord Jesus, and he will bring honor to you.” [2 Thessalonians 1:11-12] You see, when we’re generous and when we treat others well, we’re sharing the good news of the one who really treated us better than we deserve, the one who cleansed our past and locked in our future, the one who’s very life becomes an example of what goodness is all about. This is the one we share through our generosity, and that my brothers and sisters can change the world. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “Don't let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good.” [Romans 12:21] Generosity has power, and I believe that’s Paul’s fourth point.

Remember how we started this? I was telling you about how some scientists are trying to establish that generosity may be the result of bacteria. Well, the article ends with this: “So when Ebenezer Scrooge changed his ways on Christmas morning, it could have been the result of those three ghosts or, more likely, the bacteria in his gut finally got their way.” Of course, I don’t know whether that’s true or not. What does seem true, at least to me, is that Paul believed that Christians must be generous and that Christian generosity is directed away from self, and it may take different forms. It’s impossible with God’s help, and when it’s done, man, Christian generosity has all kinds of power. Now that what Paul wrote. Which means to me, when you get right down to it, generosity is a whole lot more than a gut feeling.

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