Applied Generosity, Sermon 02.27.11

Applied Generosity, Sermon 02.27.11

I Corinthians 4: 1-5 & Matthew 6:24-34.

“Applied physics” is the branch of, not surprisingly, physics! …dedicated to particular technological or practical use. “Applied” is distinguished from “pure” by a subtle combination of factors– such as the motivation and attitude of researcher or the relationship of the research to the technology or other use that may be affected by the it.

Applied physics differs from engineering in that an applied physicist usually is not designing something in particular, but rather investigating how to use physics to develop new technologies or to solve an engineering problem.

In other words, applied physics focuses on the fundamental truths and basic concepts of the physical sciences, but, more specifically, how they can be utilized practically in real-life systems and devices. (adapted from the Wikipedia definition)

Why do I start a sermon with a definition of “applied physics?” In part, because in all my years of preaching, I don’t think I’ve ever before spoken about physics.

I did preach once on “astronomy and the universe.” Not one of my best sermons! Afterwards, a parishioner said, lovingly, “Michael, I’m not sure I followed your sermon today. Um, it didn’t seem to have much to do with church or faith.”

There’s an interesting question always, church, but even more so in preaching: do we hear that which we are not expecting to hear?

I just laughed and responded, “Don’t worry, Barbara, I was in over my head. But it’s good to be reminded how much bigger than or beyond any of us God’s world really is.”

I hope beginning this morning’s sermon with physics, applied or pure, makes another important point about our faith. We’re among the Christians who don’t worry science and religion are mutually exclusive. In the UCC, this is known as the “not-so-quantum leap.”

We’ve let conservative Christian brothers and sisters define our Christian faith, leaving the world and even us sometimes to think their understanding is the exclusive position of the whole church. Or what it means for us to be faithful.

But neither Darwin nor the theory of evolution challenge my believing. They don’t undercut the Bible’s account of creation for me. Don’t even ruffle the feathers of my faith.

Faith never really means to explain how the world was created. Or how Jonah finally got where God meant him to be.

Instead, faith speaks to God’s purposes for creation, the operations of of our free choice and the affects of the power of love. Faith calls our attention to other realities, to new possibilities. To organize our lives around what really matters. To let go all the nonsense. Worthless facts. What others think. The latest fads. Even our long lists of anxieties and fears.
Science, on the other hand, increases my understanding, appreciation of God’s creation. Helps me with the operations of the physical world. Applied science brings that knowledge to human need, as in medicine that has transformed human existence in many ways.

But as a person of faith, I am also given to believe there’s more to life than its physical aspects. That there are other forces and realities, though, perhaps, harder to measure, that are no less real, effective, important, powerful.

For lack of a better descriptor, what I am talking about is known as the spiritual realm. Both perceived and mysterious, real and hard to get our hands on, for example the power of love.

Beloved, religion and science need not be two different freight trains headed towards one another on the same track. Even churches evolve. We’re a bold, thinking church. Rather than fearing or rejecting science, we embrace it.

Two years ago, the UCC released a pastoral letter entitled: ‘A New Voice Arising… Faith Engaging Science and Technology’. That pastoral letter needed to be written because people “today hunger for an authentic spirituality that is intellectually honest and at home in a scientific era… a new kind of wisdom to live by, one that is scientifically sophisticated, technologically advanced, morally just, ecologically sustainable, and spiritually alive.”

Amen.

About now you may be noticing that my sermon is not entitled “Applied Physics.” Which is probably good, because I’ve already shared all the physics, applied or pure, that I know, or, probably, could possibly understand. Some of you may be wishing for the “applied physics” sermon, which at 625 words, would be noticeably shorter than usual.

But today’s sermon is titled “Applied Generosity.”

Generosity that is applied to a particular end or practical use. “Applied” is distinguished from “pure” by factors such as the motivation and attitude of those who are generous and the relationship of such efforts to their recipients. I doubt the possibility of ‘pure generosity,’ at least in our human hearts… outside the heart of God.

By applied generosity, I’m not speaking about any particular system designed to elicit your giving, either by motivating or guilting you. You can relax. We’re not even near stewardship season. There’s no “ask” about to happen, either explicit or implied.

Instead, I want you to consider the operations of applied generosity because they are the secret to new responses to or even solutions to the age-old problems we humans struggle with.

In other words, applied generosity, rooted in fundamental truths and basic concepts of the spiritual realm, is concerned with the application of these principles in the practical transformation of lives, our own and others.

The rest of this sermon, or a whole other sermon, is needed to cover the incredible power we have at hand, in resources we take for granted, don’t even recognize. There’s a whole sermon series on the difference that the poorest or least powerful person in this sanctuary could make in others’ lives.

Church, never forget that the choices we make and how their either contribute to others’ misery and deprivation or their chances of having a life, in many cases, even surviving. And, yet, in many cases, more often than not, we don’t even recognize them. We have power at our fingertips, I fear, we are often unaware of, and hence, too often fail to access and use.

But today, I’m going to focus and finish on the internal spiritual operations of applied generosity. Not how our generosity can change the world around us and the lives of others.

But how in equally real ways, generosity can make all the difference in the world for the giver. It’s, in fact, the mechanism of much of the transformation that comes from God. “Those who want to save their lives will lose it; and those who lose their lives, for Christ and for the Gospel, will save it.”

Our world, this society says we are what we own or what we purchase. We are defined by how much we make or don’t make, by how much credit or debt we carry, and a thousand other more subtle measures and signs of our class standing, our privilege or lack thereof.

Of course, none of that makes any sense in our faith. Worse than “makes no sense.” It’s an abomination to our faith. An affront to the basic premise that that each and every one of us is sacred, eternally important. EVERY HUMAN BEING: right “down” to whoever we, in cahoots with the world, think of as “the last and the least…”

We all have someone we think doesn’t count– people who don’t work, or those who refuse to help themselves, folks we’ve given up hope on, those who in our eyes don’t seem quite human, the wrong-doers, those who are incurable, the users and the abusers, whoever is guilty of the sin we cannot forgive…

Yep, in our eyes and in our world, there’s always a last or a least. But not for God who sees and cares for all, better than we care for ourselves, and a whole lot more than the birds of the air and the lilies of the field that are here today and gone tomorrow.

The Bible defines what really matters as that which neither rust nor moth can destroy. That shiny, trophy car that made your heart sing, that gave you inexpressable joy– it lost thousands of dollars the moment you drove it off the lot. And it’s devaluation continues on until it will end up, sooner than its cost can make sense of, compressed scrap metal in a landscape littered with the wrecks of our consumerist dreams of independence and mobility. (You all know, I don’t like cars!) And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems created by our auto driven economy.

To be fair, let me cite another example, one that hits a bit closer to me personally. I can keep working out. Try and keep the weight off. Keep my pressure down and my blood sugar in control. Take care of myself. I can even convince myself this is faithfulness, proof-texting with that pointedly true spiritual verse about our bodies being God’s temple.

But really, I’m caught up in a modern religious cult, our adoration of youth. And I can participate all I want. But my hair still went gray. The young adults point out I’m old. Even if they didn’t, I’ve got wrinkles around my eyes. And, inevitably, we can see where this is all headed…

Applied generosity offers an alternative. It doesn’t invalidate the physics of life. I still need the basics. And no matter what, I will still die.

But it suggests that the relations, transactions, “laws” that hold so much cred. in our world and sway our lives may not be the only possible ground for our being or even the best practices.

Pay attention here: this is like the leap from classical physics to quantum mechanics. A whole other realm that suggests that you aren’t at all what you acquire. You don’t count because you are wrinkless.

Instead, you are how much you share or even give away. You don’t matter because you’ve got money in your account, or your pension is all set aside. Instead, each of us draws the only credentials anyone can ever have, and the only thing that lasts: from God’s love.

A life that matters, is abundant, lasting comes from the fact that love is not a limited commodity. Not to be conserved, preserved or hoarded. Instead, it operates differently than physical matter. With love, the more you share… the more you spread it around… the more you give it and yourself away, the more you have. Strange, huh? One of those mysteries we’ve been entrusted with.

Yes, good credit. Or at least a few dollars at our disposal make life easier. Everyone needs food, shelter, clothing and medical care. And if we took seriously our faith that everyone matters, we’d figure out how to share so as to make provision for all.

But the world uses these needs or our fear of scarcity to work a number on us. To get us scared and anxious. Tight. Clamped down. Self-protecting. Convinced we can only care for our own, live in a world of scarcity and gotta watch our backs.
(leaving the pulpit to come down to the center aisle)
A good reputation, people’s trust, thanks, admiration– all these are more valuable, more useful than all the gold in Solomon’s Temple.

Beloved, our lives are enriched more by what little we give away than by all the things we fear we can’t afford to lose or share…

So, decide for God; live a life that’s worshiping God.

Then you won’t have to fret about the food on the table. Or whether your closet is full or in fashion.

There’s far more to life than our stomaches. more than what we wear.

Look at birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to God than birds.

Fussing in front of the mirror, do we add an inch, lose a pound or smooth over even one wrinkle? All this time and money, product and worry wasted!

Look at the wildflowers. They neither shop nor primp, but their’s is beauty because, filterless, they are a reflection of their creator.

If God gives so much to the wildflowers, most of which are never even seen, don’t you see:

God takes pride in you;
watches over you;
does the best by you.

Relax.
Don’t run around frantic,
preoccupied with of the world’s endless various varieties of “getting.”

Instead focus, open up to, respond, build a real life around God’s giving.

If we didn’t know God, it’d make sense for us to fuss and fret over lesser things.
But we’ve had some godly experience, know at least a little how God works.

Throw you life into the reality of God.
Trust in the initiative of God.
Look for the provision of God.
And you won’t miss out on anything.
In fact, your everyday life will be richer.

Be completely present to what God is doing right here and now.
Don’t get caught up or carried away in what may or may not happen tomorrow.
God will be there with you then too.

Amen. 

(Preached by the Rev. Michael W. Caine)