I hope this season of Thanksgiving brings you close to people you love. This last week, it brought all six Sherouses of Greensboro down to South Florida, where as I told you last week, my sister, Susan, her husband, Jeff, and their 7 yr old, Harrison, became forever family for 6-month-old Ruby Rose, adopting her on National Adoption Day this past Friday. It was as joyful and thankful a day as our family can remember.
But this season also brings us close to the memories of those we’ve loved and lost. Gathering with my family this week, we celebrated this new life and new relationship, as we also thought of those we missed. Notably, this is our first Thanksgiving since my grandfather’s death. Some of you have heard me talk about my grandfather, Charles Proctor, who passed away at age 90 early this year after a full and meaningful life. My mother was sharing this week about the long process that many of you know all too well of gathering belongings, preparing for an estate sale, deciding what to keep, what to give, what a grandchild might want. My mother and her three sisters have been excavating generations of memories and treasures.
In the process, they recently came across a box full of letters, dated 1944 and 1945, and sent home by US Navy Petty Officer Third Class, Charles Franklin Proctor. My grandfather was 18/19 years old and stationed at Pearl Harbor those last years of the war. He was a Signalman, who was also training to drive a landing craft for the supposed invasion of Japan. After the war ended, he spent another 6 months in San Francisco. And over the course of these years, he wrote regular letters to his parents, which his daughters held a few weeks ago, transported through time and space, reading their father’s handwriting, and calling out to one another as they read something funny, or moving, or “just like dad.” Like the line assuring his parents he wasn’t falling in with the post-war “party crowd”: “You don’t have to worry about me at the parties. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t gamble and I don’t plan on it.”
Or there was the letter my mother read, written in the summer of 1945, just a few months before he’d come home. A fairly straightforward letter, he checked on things at home (“I hope all is well there.”). He wanted to make sure his sister had a happy birthday (“I hope Mary Ethel got the card I sent.”). And then just before the letter ended there were these words that caught my mother’s eye: “And I hope you received the $20 that I sent for my offering to the church.”
From our passage today: “The one who sows generously will reap abundantly.”
My grandfather was a farmer by trade, so he understood this better than most. He knew how a seed, containing so much life and possibility, when released and hidden in the earth can spring forth with abundant blessings, becoming more than you would ever imagine it to be. The Apostle Paul was a tentmaker by trade, not a farmer, but he draws on agricultural imagery throughout this passage in 2 Corinthians, as he urges the Christians in Corinth to give to a collection for the churches in Jerusalem, whose needs were acute and whose situation was urgent. The result is two chapters – 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 – that form one of the most important scriptural teachings on practices of generosity, which is so much more than releasing your money, but much more a way of opening up your life in response to the grace of God so freely released to you. As we’ve considered Living Generously with Paul these last weeks, we began with the question of what we give. Then last week we explored how we give, remembering the biblical practice of tithing, and Paul’s teaching that our giving should be two things: deliberate and cheerful, deliberately and cheerfully giving through the ministries of our church. Today, we conclude this stewardship emphasis by asking of this passage what happens when we give. What grows forth from what we plant?
It’s an important question, because we can’t always see. Like the farmer who releases the seed, we can prepare, plan faithfully, calculate as informed a decision as we can, but in releasing, we give that gift over to something other than ourselves. In grasping we can control, but in releasing, we give ourselves – whether a seed, an offering, or an aspect of our lives – over to trust and a process of grace that we can’t always see. This happens with our offerings. As we consider what happens when we give, there are some answers clear to our eyes and others that are less so.
Rev. John Buchanan was for many years Pastor of Chicago’s historic Fourth Presbyterian Church. One year, an area business journal, Crain’s Chicago Business, wanted to do a fall feature article on him and several other clergy and how they deal with the somewhat sensitive matter of giving and financial stewardship in church. Buchanan gave the interview, and then Crain’s also wanted a picture. The photographer came in and assessed the best spot and decided to haul his equipment up into the east balcony for a classic view of the expanse and the gorgeous west window that is the architectural hallmark of that church. The resulting cover photo depicted the grandeur of the church, with its majestic worship space, a statement about what grew from the gifts of those faithful church members over the years.
But Buchanan reflected on what was just outside the frame of the shot. For he recalled that as he stood in the balcony posing for the shot in the glimmer of the stained glass, in that same light just below him, on the sanctuary floor, were 15 people, most of them people who were homeless, including one man stretched out on a pew snoring. They were taking shelter on a cool day, coming to a place where they are welcome, not harassed, where they find food, a warm coat, a restroom, a hot shower, a place to rest and sleep. That is, if even for a moment, a place that is like home for them. (1)
How do we frame our identity as a congregation? What do we see? What is growing from the ministries of our church and the gifts that we give? Grand buildings, moving worship – these are not to be overlooked. But what else grows, beneath the surface, perhaps not as easily framed, outside our most natural gaze or range of view? What happens when we give?
In the early churches to which Paul is writing, the answer to that question – “What happens when we give?” – is something like transformation, even resurrection. New life springs up through the gifts of the followers of Christ, collected and transformed by the grace of God.
It’s what we hear about in Acts 2: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people… and daily God would add to their number those who were being saved.” That’s what happened when they gave.
We can hear in it the words of Jesus himself, in John 10: “I came that they may have life and have it in abundance.” More than survival, or day to day, when our lives are characterized by the generosity of our God, we begin to truly live and live with abundance. “Whoever sows generously will reap abundantly,” Paul says, and then continuing in verse 8: “For God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything you may share abundantly in every good work.”
It seems that when we sow generously – giving of ourselves and our resources in a manner that is deliberate, without hesitation, and cheerful, ordering our life according to grace and commitment to Christ – we practice sharing together in community the same grace and blessing that God so generously releases and shares with us. And in so doing, Paul says that abundance abounds. We find what we would otherwise miss if we lived a life more sheltered and grasping – that in a world that tells us at every turn to claim what is ours, to store up the best things, to possess and preserve the good gifts of God, when we open our lives, we come to see that the gifts of God are meant to be shared together. And when we do this, we find a true miracle: there is enough. The best gifts in this life are not scarce, but abundant.
It happens when we give in this church. On the surface, within the frame, we can see some obvious things to which we give: a 2.1 million dollar budget, basic financial needs, obvious expenses that allow us to maintain the life we share as a church and have for generations.
But recently I took another view. Thursdays at First Baptist are check-signing days around here. Our Treasurer, Randy Lewis and Assistant Treasurer, Jeannie Singley, faithfully sign and oversee the checks distributed. And stacked on that table are things you’d expect to see. There are checks that enable us to have a physical place in which to gather and worship and fellowship, and from which we go out to serve. There are checks that provide ministers and staff to journey with us through every season of life.
But then there are checks that allow for the education and formation of 100 children of our community who are part of our Weekday School. Checks that purchase the food for a fellowship meal where we share together around tables. Checks for the accouterments for another bereavement meal surrounding a family in their grief and need. Checks that go to buy meals for hungry families, or support shelter for those living outside during these cold months. Checks that support the ministry of missionaries throughout the world, who are seeking to live out the beloved community of Christ in a way that is consistent with the most cherished beliefs and values of our church. A check here to support someone who needs some assistance to make their rent this month. Or one there to help another person move out of poverty through our recently established Christian Restoration Fund. Ordinary gifts, shared generously, collected together, transformed to share the abundant grace of God. Shared for mercy, justice, peace, community, conciliation, and a kingdom known on earth as it is in heaven.
And if you give to the ministry of God through First Baptist, when Randy and Jeannie sign all those checks, it’s as if you are signing them, too. Because you are giving to something larger than yourself. You are knitting yourself together with a community ethic that says together we can dispense the gifts of God in ways we would never be able to see alone. You are acknowledging with each gift that God gives us to each other. Like those first Christians in Acts, the blessings of God are not meant to be hoarded, protected, or possessed alone. Rather, the blessings, gifts, and graces of God come to fullness of life when they are shared. An abundant life is a shared life. An abundant life is a generous life. And when we give, Paul says God is able to provide us with every blessing in abundance. What is sown generously is reaped abundantly.
I guess Paul uses these words because he knows that farmers understand this better than most. Perhaps you have seen the work of Jason Brown – a farmer here in North Carolina who, until 2012, was a Center with the St. Louis Rams of the NFL. He left a 5-year, $37 million contract in 2012 to become a farmer in the community of Louisburg, here in our state. Brown’s passion was to learn to farm with the purpose of donating the food to area pantries. He calls his farms “First Fruits Farms,” drawing on the biblical language of tithing, as he literally gives the first fruits of every harvest to those in need.
“I’ve never felt more successful in my life,” Brown says, “Not in people’s eyes. But in God’s eyes.”
The head of the local food collection agency says of Brown, “We’ve never seen this before. It’s unusual for a grower to grow a crop just to give it away.”
But it’s not a surprise to Jason Brown. “When I think about a life of greatness,” he says, “I think about a life of service.” He thinks about a life of giving. (2)
And that’s no surprise to you either, because you can hear in it echoes of the one who said “The greatest among you will be your servant.” The one who said, “If you want to find your life, you have to be prepared to give it away and find it returning to you as something new and reborn.” The one who, in his parables, told of farmers that opened their hands and scattered abundantly, to find growing more than they could have ever imagined, mimicking the God who opens God’s hand and extends God’s arm casting to the wind seeds of love that settle into every crack and cranny of our world. The one who in one parable talked about how even the tiniest of seeds, when shared generously, released, and planted in the earth, can grow into a great tree where all the birds of the air – all the people of the earth – can come and find rest, sleep, home.
I guess farmers understand this. How a seed, containing so much life and possibility, when released and hidden in the earth, can spring forth with abundant blessings, becoming more than you would ever imagine it could be.
Perhaps that’s why my grandfather seemed to understand it so well, giving faithfully to the ministry of God through the life of his church in Palatka, FL. A church where, not long after he was home from the war, he would walk down the aisle hand in hand with his bride, Madeline, beginning a partnership and covenant of more than 60 years.
Together they raised four daughters, who were dedicated as babies in that church, growing into faith there, singing in the choirs, and baptized in the waters of that baptistery.
One of them, my mother, Beverly, would marry her husband, Craig, in that church. And it was in part in that church and through its ministry that they came to hear God calling them to a life of ministry.
For it was that church where the people of that community shared together in hard years, and came together for thanksgiving meals, and gathered together for celebration or grief, and faithfully brought their gifts together to be shared with those who had need.
It was the church where as children we visited and sat in the same balcony row my grandparents occupied for so many years of their life, proud as we were introduced as the Proctors’ grandkids.
And last January, it was at that church where, after my grandfather’s funeral and graveside service, we joined together for a meal, as the men and women from that church spread out the comfort food in the downstairs fellowship hall. Gathered there were all 8 of us grandkids, and many of our families. And as it happens, to a person, every one of us is a follower of Christ, committed to a life of faith, and faithful in a ministry of a church, and in this way taking up something of the legacy of a grandfather.
One of us grandkids, my sister, just this week responded to the abundance of God in her life, and with her husband and son, adopted 6 month old Ruby, who today – right about now, in fact – is being baptized at her church, Memorial Presbyterian in Lake Worth, FL.
When we thanked all those church members who prepared that bereavement meal for my grandfather’s funeral, they kept saying it was a pleasure. They said it was a pleasure to give something little in honor of a man who had given so much over the course of his life to his church.
Sometimes we do see it. What happens when we give. What grows from such generosity. What when sown generously is reaped abundantly. And maybe it’s just the holidays, and I’m especially sentimental, but I can’t help but hear behind it all in my story, words of a 19 yr old in a letter home all those years ago: “Make sure the church gets the 20 dollars I sent for my offering.”
- In “Stewardship, Reformation, and Amazing Grace,” Fourth Presbyterian Church, October 30, 2011.
- “Why a star football player traded NFL career for a tractor,” CBS News, December 26, 2014, with thanks to dear friend, Rev. Courtney Allen, for the reminder of this story.