Sermons

Fearless Generosity

A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, November 19, 2017

Text: Ephesians 3:14-21 (NRSV)
14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father-Mother, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.16I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to the Holy One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis, a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.
Frederick Buechner, originally published in The Clown in the Belfry

In his text for the beautiful hymn, “God of the Sparrow,” Jaroslav Vajda lines out some of the many wonders of God and God’s creation, from the simple to the grand, and then asks at the end of each stanza how the creature, including us – maybe especially us – will respond.

God of the sparrow
God of the whale
God of the swirling stars
How does the creature say Awe
How does the creature say Praise

God of the rainbow
God of the cross
God of the empty grave
How does the creature say Grace
How does the creature say Thanks

It’s that last question that’s on my mind this morning – “How does the creature say Thanks?” In the world outside it’s the season of Thanksgiving. Here in the church it’s the season of stewardship. We’ve sung some of the great songs of the season this morning, truly some of my favorites. “Let all things now living a song of thanksgiving to God our Creator triumphantly raise….” “Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices…” “For the fruit of all creation, thanks be to God…” These are songs of joy and praise, of tribute and celebration.

So, is this how the creature says thanks? Well, of course it is. Sometimes lifting our voices in song is the only response we can make to the wonders of creation and the blessings of life. In today’s ancient word, the Apostle Paul falls to his knees in gratitude before the God he serves, the God from whom every family on earth – not just nuclear or extended families but every clan, tribe, people, and nation – takes its name, derives its identity. It was Jewish custom at that time for the faithful to stand and lift their hands and eyes along with their voices in prayer. But here, Paul, with all his tendency toward ego and pride, is overwhelmed in the presence of the Holy One, is overcome by the enormity of God’s blessings, is humbled in gratitude for gifts beyond imagining and falls to the ground.

Have you ever experienced a time like that, a time when you felt so overwhelmed by the beauty or the power or the wisdom or the grace of something or someone, of some thing or some presence that you fell on your knees and sang or shouted or whispered thank you, thank you, thank you? The wise Meister Eckhart wrote that “If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” But is that, or, at least, is that prayer the only way to say thanks?

Since this is stewardship Sunday, I know I’m supposed to say something about money, about how tithes and offerings and pledges are a way of saying thanks – thanks to God for all our blessings, thanks to Christ for our redemption through support of the church, the earthly Body of Christ, thanks to this congregation which has been our community of faith, love, and support. The financial support of our church and its wider mission can be, ought to be, a gesture of gratitude, a way to say thanks. It should never feel coerced or depend on a sense of obligation.

Stewardship teaches us that giving our time, talent, and treasure, when rightly practiced, comes from a deep sense of gratitude. At first, I thought today’s text from Ephesians was a little strange for a stewardship text. The producers of our stewardship materials crafted the theme “Fearless Generosity” from this text and I couldn’t quite see how it all fit together. Paul isn’t talking directly about good stewardship or fearless generosity when falls on his knees in prayer for the church in Ephesus.

But the more I thought about it, I realized that what Paul is praying has everything to do with generosity. He is writing here about the very things that ground our thanksgiving and call forth our generosity. Hear his prayer again and imagine that Paul, himself, was kneeling in our midst this morning, praying this prayer on our behalf. “I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Imagine the First Baptist Church of Palo Alto strengthened in our inner being with power through the Spirit. What if Christ was to dwell in our hearts through faith? Think of our community rooted and grounded in love. What if we owned the power to comprehend the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge? Can you see us filled with the fullness of God? Wouldn’t all this be enough to flood us with gratitude and generate a fearless generosity?

Why fearless, you ask, though I’m guessing you already know the answer. Have you ever been afraid? Silly question, isn’t it? Those early Christians in Ephesus must have held many fears as they claimed and proclaimed this new faith tradition. Jews and Gentiles alike saw them as a threat to their traditions and practices. The Christians were a small, struggling community with limited resources. They fell outside the cultural norm and, still, they felt called to critique cultural beliefs and expectations. Sound familiar? They had plenty of reasons to feel fear.

But then there’s that nagging voice that echoes throughout our sacred writings, “Do not be afraid.” Have hope, take courage. Remember “the Holy One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Here is the truth that Paul is praying. It is when the blessings of God, the good news of Jesus Christ, the power of the Spirit indwell us, take root in the core of our being that courage comes to the fore and manifests in shalom, in justice, righteousness, peace, well-being, compassion and love that transforms our lives, our communities, our world.

Frederick Buechner shows us how important this indwelling is, how vital finding God’s Beloved Community is to our finding fulfillment for ourselves. In his vision we are created and called to be that Beloved Community. In “holiness, goodness, beauty,” God’s Beloved Community “is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world.” It is “where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis, a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength” (Frederick Buechner, Clowns in the Belfry: Writings on Fiction and Faith). How does the creature say thanks? By living into our best dreams and our truest prayers.

Today’s Words of Preparation come from one of my favorite novels, Gilead. In it Marilynne Robinson draws a concept of prevenient courage from her reading of the theological notion of prevenient grace – the notion that divine grace precedes human decision, that it begins without consideration of anything we have done, good or bad. She records the aging Reverend Ames reflection, “I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave – that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.”

It struck me that this is a word about fearless generosity. There is something in recognizing the beauty around us, the wonder of creation, the love in which we are rooted and grounded, the possibilities of life, that calls forth courage, that evokes fearlessness in the face of everything that threatens, that worries, that drags us down. Are you afraid that we’re too small, that our resources are too limited, that there just isn’t enough to go around? Well, there’s that haunting voice again, “Do not be afraid.” Take heart; have courage; hold hope. That’s what it means for us to be the Beloved Community, the people of God, the Body of Christ, the fruit of the Spirit. That’s how the creature says thanks – by letting go of fear and living with courageous generosity.

Fearless generosity is only one part of what it means to be God’s Beloved Community, but it is an important part. As Robinson reminds us, generosity is another way to name the courage to be useful, to act to make a difference in the world. What we know and love as the First Baptist Church of Palo Alto is not the only way to manifest the Beloved Community, though it is probably the one with which we are most familiar. Recently, we had the courage to commit ourselves to trying a new thing, a different manifestation of the Beloved Community in Mosaic South Bay. Nothing we do or try will perfectly fulfill that Community. At the same time, we are called to step out in faith, to practice fearless generosity in service of the Holy One and in hope of all that is to come. How does the creature say thanks? In our singing and in our praying, in our giving and in our caring, in our seeing and in our serving, in our living and in our loving, in our every breath – thank you, thank you, thank you. Amen.

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