“The Rewards of Generosity”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
11 October, 2020
Fifth in the Holy Habit of Gladness & Generosity Series
Proverbs 11:24-31
Luke 6:27-38

Today, we are celebrating the sacrament of baptism and dedicating an infant at our 9 a.m. service—and thereby welcoming three new members into our faith family.  The Trent family is going to be baptized and dedicated today in response to the gladness or joy, and generosity they have felt from God’s presence in their lives and expressed through this community.  Speaking on behalf of the congregation, we are thrilled that God has drawn them to our community, and is blessing us with the gifts they bring and share with us!

And, at the 11 a.m. service, we’re observing Bible Sunday, where we will present each of our 3rd Graders with their own Bible.  It’s a tradition we cherish here, and one I look forward to because the Bible is such an extraordinary book, one I think every child and adult should own.

Actually, the Bible is a book made up of smaller books.  And letters.  And stories, prophecies, proverbs, and poems.  All sorts of sacred writings or Holy Scriptures—another name we call the Bible.  It’s sacred, holy, because generations upon generations of people have heard and recognized divine truth conveyed through the various scriptures, the various writings that reveal things to us about God, and God’s intentions or desires for our best life.  Sacred, holy, because the truth found within and through the pages of our Bible resonates with wisdom revealed in other religious traditions that have also sought to understand and articulate divine truths about God, and our life with God and each other in this world.

My husband, Joel, and I were talking about the Scripture passages for this morning, and as I read the passage from Proverbs, he said, “That’s basically the Old Testament version of karma, isn’t it?”  I’d never actually thought about it that way—but I suppose he’s right!  We have sayings that reflect the experience: What goes around, comes around.  What we put out into the world comes back to us.

Our Gospel lesson contained another concept that had been around since antiquity—that of the Golden Rule.  Homer referred to the Golden Rule hundreds of years before Jesus lived, and there are versions of it in just about every religious tradition that survives to this day.

But in his so-called “Sermon on the Plain”, Jesus interprets the Golden Rule and expands on it in some radical new ways that reveal important things about God’s character, nature, and will for our lives and this world.  In the passage we heard this morning, Jesus makes it clear that God’s will for us is that we should love others, and that we should be generous with our mercy—even loving and being merciful toward those whom we despise, even those who have hurt or offended us grievously.  Because in so doing, we become more like God, we live more fully in God, which is what our souls are ultimately yearning for; the only thing that fulfills us or makes us feel whole, complete.

They’re not easy teachings; the life Jesus invites us to live asks a lot.  But I’m pretty sure that’s why he starts with the words, “But I say to you that will listen…” Because it can be hard to really listen to, or heed, what Jesus says sometimes; it takes a lot of work and spiritual self-discipline.  But as anyone who does listen to him knows, the rewards are great and profoundly gratifying—though they’re completely different from the sorts of rewards the misguided and broken world wants us to believe will bring us lasting joy.

Some of you know that my house overlooks the Bookdale orchard here in the center of town.  And each year, we can see the many different apple pickers making their way up and down the rows of apple trees.  I hear how families talk with their children, how teenagers who go through the orchards interact and play with each other … it’s a fascinating peek into a variety of relationships.

Last year, several rows of new trees were planted of a popular variety of bright pink, crisp, sweet apples.  I think it’s fair to say they’re beautiful, elegant trees.  And the apples are simply gorgeous; bright, golden pink.  I have a full view of them from my kitchen window and from the study upstairs.  Apparently, these apples are not fully ripened until later in the season, or Brookdale’s has other intentions than pick-your-own for the apples, because the rows have all been cordoned off with bright orange tape that clearly indicates “Do Not Enter/Do Not Pick These.”

Still, yesterday I noticed a number of people help themselves to the “trees from which you shall not eat”.  First was a mother in a shirt almost as bright as the apples, who appeared to tell her 8- or 9-year old daughter to stand guard at the end of the row, as she lifted the tape and proceeded to pick from the forbidden trees, and then covered them with “legit” apples from the other trees.  Next was a somewhat larger family, what appeared to be a mom and a dad with three children.  The littlest boy was sent beneath the tape and down the row to pick apples as the others waited outside the tape.  Then, a young couple, another young family, several groups of teens, another couple across the day—all helped themselves, either ducking under the tape or stepping over it.

Several groups of people slowed as they went past the orange tape and looked admiringly down the enticing rows, but they didn’t stop or stoop beneath the forbidding tape.  The last group I saw, a cluster of three young women, stopped at the end of the row, and as one ducked beneath the tape, the other two said, “You’re not supposed to go in there!”  The intrepid one came back, however, with a beautiful apple—which I think she dropped beside the fence by my yard when one of Brookdale’s employees drove up in their blue tractor.  I went outside later and picked it up so that you all could see exactly how appealing these apples are.  [I showed the apple at this point; it was gorgeous, looking SO perfectly golden-pink, ripe, and tasty!]

It sort of drives home how timeless and relevant certain Bible stories are, doesn’t it?  Brookdale orchards may not be the Garden of Eden, but we do still wrestle with temptation to take and eat forbidden fruit, don’t we?

As I watched across the day, I’d guess about half the people who walked by honored and respected Brookdale’s clear request that they abstain from picking those apples.  It’s possible they didn’t like Pink Lady apples.  But I’m going to argue that they were abiding by the principle of doing to others as they would like done to them.  The other half, however, apparently didn’t think much about whether they were treating the orchard owners with the same respect they themselves would like.  Nor were those with children thinking about the message their actions conveyed to those still learning about how healthy and mutually respectful relationships are fostered.  About half of them were, in that moment anyways, living by the self-serving values of this world.

As I was observing this, I was also working on this sermon, reflecting on the scriptural passages we all heard this morning.  “Do to others as you would have them do to you” hung in the air, along with “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”, and “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.”  All of these words of Jesus rattled around in my head as I wrestled with the questions: What would I want done to me if I was one of the owners in this moment?  What would I want done to me if I was one of those picking the apples?  How do I best love my neighbors—the Hardy’s and Brookdale Orchards?  But also, the individuals who were clearly disrespecting people I know and care about?  What is the right thing to do in this situation?

While I don’t approve of the apple pilferers’ behavior, I’m obviously not in a position to judge or condemn, even though I couldn’t help feeling my hackles rising at the violation.  But just as quickly, I felt chastened by thoughts of my own transgressions, ways that I’ve not always lived by the Golden Rule myself.  I am very grateful for the generous mercy others have shown me on countless occasions.  And the goodness of others reminds me of the goodness I hope to express, myself.

Doing to others as we would have them do to us—as I mentioned earlier, this thought wasn’t original to Jesus or Luke, or Matthew who has his own version of the dictum in his gospel.  But in Luke’s gospel, Jesus calls for a radical new interpretation of this rule, and suggests some explicit behaviors to make it clear that we’re treating others the way we ourselves would wish to be treated, though it’s likely not the way we usually are treated.  Too often, our world seems to think the ethical rule is to “treat others the way they treat you.”  Sometimes we’ll even hear the justification, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”

Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  He continues, If someone begs from you, or outright takes something from you, give them more than they asked for or took; don’t give with the expectation of being repaid, ever.  Jesus’ words to those who care enough to listen are, as Journalism Professor Bob Darden of Baylor University observes, more than a sermon; they are a revelation about God’s nature.  Jesus urges us to treat others (and not just the ones we like or appreciate) in ways that reflect how God treats us . . . which is supremely loving, and lavishly generous with divine mercy.[1]

And if we’re inclined to listen to Jesus, as we practice following the example and instructions of the incarnation of God in Christ, then we will be rewarded with a radically renewed life.  Jesus knew that those sincerely trying to follow him have recognized the ultimate emptiness and disappointment of chasing after what the world values, because those things simply don’t satisfy or fill the void we feel in the depths of our heart and soul.

But the Christ-like life is not easy.  “It asks a lot.”  As Prof. Darden puts it, “It requires us to abandon the cycle of violence and retribution, rejecting at last the self-defeating logic of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’  It calls us to expand the circle of our concern beyond the narrow boundaries of group or tribe.  In directing us to give even the shirt off our back, it demands a radical dependence on the God who has promised to provide for us.  Most of all, it asks us to sacrifice our long-cherished sense of aggrievement toward our enemies, rendering them in the process not enemies at all, but fellow sinners forgiven by God.”[2]  That, my friends, is a generous mercy—a lavish expression of love!  As we embrace the Holy Habit of Gladness and Generosity, it’s worth acknowledging squarely that such a Christ-like life requires real sacrifice.

But the good news is that, while the call is rigorous, the promise and reward is greater still.  It is serious work to love lavishly enough to include our enemies, and to extend mercy to those who have grievously and even repeatedly offended.  But, “…by lending, by loving, by giving, by forgiving, by showing mercy: by doing all of these things, we enter into the very life of God.”[3]  If we understand this, then the ‘good measure’ Jesus speaks of becomes clearer: “The more love we give away, the more love will come back to us, in greater and greater measure, until it cannot be contained.”[4]  And is that not why we’re here today?   Amen.

After-word: Following the service, Bryar Trent’s father (who had come from Georgia for the occasion) told me that they had gone apple-picking at the orchard a few days earlier, and had asked about the very trees I referred to.  They’re roped off, he was told, because they’re new trees.  And young trees do not produce tasty fruit–it takes 2-3+ years for the trees to drop their apples which rot and fertilize the soil, and after several years the trees eventually produce the crisp, sweet Pink Lady apples we pay a bit more for in the supermarkets.  I laughed so hard when I heard this, in part because of the way it reframed the questions about how best to love my neighbors–but also because the whole “karma” (or at least poetic justice) thing was going on.  I tasted the apple back at home–and sure enough, it was very hard, bland and had a slightly bitter after-taste; definitely NOT what I would have been expecting!

[1] Robert F. Darden, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 267.

[2] Ibid, p. 268.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 269.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC