38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
This morning I want to ponder generosity as a quality of the heart–not just giving treasure, time and talent as is often noted in this passage–but how we go about the giving. Authentic generosity, the kind Jesus practiced, is a way of being, not just doing. This kind of giving has depth, not just surface action. Real gifts rather than something pretend for show. Generosity that is neither expected nor asked for. A quality of the heart that offers without strings attached, without calculating the quid pro quo of our transaction culture. Those who practice authentic generosity make people feel seen and acknowledged, wherever they move in life. As the poet Maya Angelou famously said: I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Here’s a simple example of easy giving, not very deep at all. I spoke at senior community worship recently, and joined a group for lunch afterwards. They had lemon meringue pie at the dessert bar, which made me happy, and I took the last piece with me to the table. Soon after, a gentleman in his 90’s came and sat down, lamenting there was no lemon meringue pie left. I pause for a second, and then gave him mine, prompting him to say, “Now I know you are a good minister.” Yet this bar is way too low, people! I gave up lemon because I knew I could get apple, and so the action cost me little. It was courteous, but not that generous, because I love apple, too.
Imagine this as a metaphor for all the things we offer others, the very easy things. However, authentic generosity doesn’t stop here. In fact, Jesus tells his disciples that the bar is much higher, when he sees the humble widow give her all. Her small gift is not out of abundance, he notes, but is everything she has. What might you or I give that would impact us that dramatically? What makes you more vulnerable, takes you outside our comfort zone, possibly to a place that is quite inconvenient? To explore this quality of the heart, the kind that Jesus noticed in the widow, let’s look at three ways of being: generous hospitality, listening and speaking. I’d like to tell you some stories about each one.
Hospitality is always shaped by culture and family practice, geography and ethnicity. In El Paso there is a strong tradition of warm reciprocity among many who have known each other a while, and often to strangers as well. Many Latino and Mediterranean hosts are fans of the open-ended hospitality model, with no real restrictions on numbers or time. Others around here might share the more WASP-y sentiment that my grandmother Gigi, Virginia Green, was known to offer. While she was person of great hospitality, she did say often, “House guests and fish smell after 3 days!”
Somehow the 3-day limit was not my own instinct. When I was in 6th and 7th grade, my friends and I used to take the Mesa bus alone from Crown Point all the way to downtown to shop. It’s true, although this seems strange now, and even then, it was unusual. We just liked the different mix of people on the bus, enjoyed the adventure and the freedom it offered. We always finished off with ice cream floats at the White House department store soda counter.
Right next door was the Greyhound bus station, and a number of travelers were usually there, heading down in to Mexico, or coming back. One day I met an engaging French woman in her 20s named Dominique at the soda counter. She was backpacking, which I found alluring and fascinating, and told me she was looking for lodging for a night. Dominique was asking me about motels, but I was 12 and had a better idea. Practicing hospitality, I took her back home with us on the bus! To their credit, my very startled parents kindly gave her dinner, and she slept overnight, maybe two. For years she sent me postcards from her world travels and we kept in touch. After that incident however, I recall Mom and Dad explaining that I should NOT bring more random travelers home on the bus, that the exchange students we hosted from UTEP for dinner were plenty!
Authentic generosity, the hospitality that stretches you, looks different depending on who you are. My spouse’s culture, Italian-American, embraces multiple guests, and a more-the-merrier attitude at all meals. This is how she grew up. When Regina graduated from social work school, we had her family as houseguests for almost two weeks, which I found mind-boggling. If you come from a culture that has more limits, say 3 days, generous hospitality can expand to your uncomfortable growing edge! We just had a guest from Norway for nine days, at a time that was quite difficult for multiple reasons. Lina stayed longer than planned because she got ill, and it stretched our systems, no doubt. Authentic generosity took patience, and some prayer for me to get to, I’ll be honest! Yet in offering that gift, we were impacted for the better, and so was Lina.
Generous listening is another way of being that might challenge us to the inconvenient. This last week I was at a stoplight, and a guy at bus stop started talking to me through the passenger window. He was selling Street Sense, a $2 newspaper offered by vendors who are homeless or in transitional housing. I purchased one, and he launched right into conversation: telling me he was Chris, the Cowboy Poet, that he was moving stuff and that’s why he had bundles, that he had a poem in the paper, and on and on. I did listen, but I was ready to move on because traffic was rolling, people were honking, and I was in a hurry. I looked at his poem later, and got a very humbling surprise: it was so esoteric I had to look up several classical references, and then read it a number of times to get the complex layers of meaning. Wow, I did not see that coming from Chris, the Cowboy Poet! By pausing, and hearing, I received a gift that challenged my assumptions, enabling me to know more about my neighbor on the street.
Similar thing happened when I did a memorial service on Thursday for a woman I didn’t know. Her family had rented space at our congregation, and a woman requested me as minister. She had attended another service I led for her friend’s husband. I usually don’t have time to do these outside services, yet she kept asking and scheduled right when I was technically free. Not ideal, not on my agenda, but I had a feeling this memorial was coming to me for a reason.
The experience was wonderful: I heard stories about Clara, a Latin American woman who offered generous listening her whole life, whose joy impacted all she met. She raised two children on her own with little financial means, in a household abundant with love. Her sons each spoke, and then a 30-year-old man named Christopher nudged me, asking to speak. “I will do it,” he whispered to me fervently, and I wasn’t even sure what he meant. He got up and said Clara always treated him as her stepson, teaching that “doing good, trying hard, and being kind was the very best way.”
There were a lot of tears after that speech, because Christopher has Down syndrome, and he had pretty much summed up what’s most important in living. Our generous listening gave him space to speak, and his speaking showed how Clara had impacted Christopher for years with her kindness. Someone starts talking, and you can chose to really hear. You never know how generous listening will impact you, or how you might influence another person.
Finally, let’s contemplate generous speaking. Having a commitment to this authentic generosity is one of the hardest things you can ever do. This is because it is so counter-cultural. Embracing the now unusual practice of offering less judgment, gossip, harsh rhetoric, and snarky commentary is tough. Our society at large has a climate of incivility, and a fast-paced habit of cutting remarks. It is challenging to give people the gracious benefit of the doubt, to not leap and think the worst.
The more set in our ways we become, and often as we age (thinking of myself approaching 60), the more we know what we like and don’t like. Then how easy it is to completely dismiss the experience and opinions of our fellow human travelers! This seems to happen a lot in speaking to strangers, children, wait staff, overburdened service workers, or maybe people in a different political party. Worst of all, it’s common to get the most sharp and frustrated with those we know the best. We all find that some of our worst conversations–the ones where you say, “Why did I say that?!”– take place with those with whom we live day in, day out.
A wonderful resource, one we have used in our home, is a book called Talk To Me Like I’m Someone You Love: Relationship Repair in A Flash. The book is composed of flash cards, with great commentary that helps reframe stuck conversations. Regina and I each work with people all day long, in the congregation and at the hospital, so we get tapped out. It can get kind of edgy on the home front! The cards provide phrasing that creates new openings, and offer more open-heartedness, and less toxicity.
A couple of examples: When you are so intense, it’s hard to take in what might be valid about what you are saying. Or, I think I am supposed to know how to do this, but honestly I have no idea. You practice with the cards to get expand your tool kit, even though it feels funny, and then you might use a flash card when you need a breakthrough. Generous speaking shifts the atmosphere, creates new bridges for understanding, and deepens relationships.
That is a very important thing, one that Jesus practiced pretty much everywhere he went. When we hear him teaching about the scribes and the widow, he is showing us what is real. He is saying that the inner attitude of the heart is more important than the grand and public flourish.
While his words are sharp, his aim is true, and it lands on us. Those who would be his disciples, those who would make a difference in this time.
The God of Life that we serve is, of course, the greatest example of authentic generosity. From our loving Creator we receive the gift of amazing grace, unmerited and unearned. We are sustained by a Source that holds nothing back, giving endlessly without percentages, or payback, or keeping a tab.
May we each be moved to more authentic generosity, that our hospitality and our listening and our speaking would show an abundant Spirit of Love.
May we stretch beyond the easy gift, so that our way of being reflects the Light that sustains us.
May it be so, followers of Jesus, may it be so.