Spirit of Generosity Acts 2:43-47 John 3:1-17 The wind of the Spirit blows free. Can you hold the wind? Can you grasp God? Can you contain the Spirit? Being free is not just being able to do whatever. And freedom is less about physical freedom and more about inner freedom. We’re free to jump into water whenever we want, but if we don’t know how to swim, it doesn’t lead to freedom. We’re free to order whatever we want, but not if we can’t pay for it. Freedom is more than just acting free – it is having the resources to be free. That is what Jesus is point to in his conversation with Nicodemus. This is what spiritual practices teach: inner freedom.
We’re now in the season of Lent, and we are encouraged to take on spiritual disciplines and to repent for our misdeeds or indiscretions or our selfishness. One discipline is that of fasting, doing without food or luxuries to encourage us to become stronger & freer of spirit and less fixated on our desires. In the Middle Ages, this kind of fasting was a matter of law; it was taken literally – especially for those in the holy orders. But as Protestants we have a story that throws a wrench into this machine.
The story goes that during Lent, Martin went down into the town square with a few of his friends and ordered bratwurst and beer for lunch. Bratwurst and beer! What a sacrilege! During Lent! How disresptectful! But what was his point? His point was that obeying the rules of Lent were not going to buy our way into heaven. We depend on God’s grace and mercy. That is the root of freedom in Christ: God loves us as we are, not just for what we do. God’s love is deeper and wider that bratwurst and beer – and so we have a freedom to follow the way of Christ. Martin Luther, the great reformer, who 500 years ago began the Protestant Reformation, taught that salvation does not come from literally obeying every law and working our way into heaven. Salvation is a free gift of God, offered with the loving grace of a compassionate parent. God’s love is what saves us, not our own efforts. This is the foundation of our freedom.
Peter Marty talks about this in The Christian Century this week, when he writes: “Most of us wouldn’t survive 43 days in solitary confinement. Albert Woodfox endured 43 years of it. When he was released in 2016, Woodfox had to relearn the basics of everyday living. Getting more than a few hours of sleep each night posed a special challenge. ‘He sometimes jolted awake, overcome by the sensation that the atmosphere was pressing down on him,’ wrote Rachel Avv in a New Yorker article about Woodfox. ‘All four walls appeared to be inches from his face. He felt so constricted that he removed all of his clothes. He calmed himself by pacing – four steps forward, four steps back – a technique he’d been using for decades. After four or five minutes, the walls of the room would snap back into place.’ To be released from prison is not the same thing as being free.”
Inner freedom is the ability to be flexible and courageous with the prisons in which we find ourselves: prisons of compulsive thinking, of addiction, of anxiety, of worry or grief or rage. Prisons are not just made of iron bars, but become internalized – to offer us a sense of security or familiarity or protection.
An old story goes about a circus bear who lived in a cage he paced sixteen feet on each side. On one train trip to a new city, a raging snowstorm forced the train off the tracks high in the mountains – and the bear’s cage rolled off the side and down a steep slope, where it broke open. The bear emerged and wandered into the forest. They found it a few days later, pacing around in a square sixteen feet one way, sixteen feet the other.
Consider Nicodemus in our story today. He is being offered a fabulous opportunity to open his mind and faith to new possibilities: an experience of life filled with the wonder and grace of God’s Spirit. This Spirit blows where it chooses, it is absolutely free; and it brings renewal of heart and soul and deep satisfaction and joy. But Nicodemus is holding onto his literal thinking. He’s holding onto a narrow-minded faith that can’t see beyond its simple laws and set doctrines. He takes everything literally, even being born again. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:9-10) Nicodemus was so literal and so legalistic, that he couldn’t grasp the lesson Jesus offered.
We can end up holding onto notions and ideas and not letting go, so that our lives become grasping and shallow. We end up carrying our worries, our desires, our petty concerns, so that we neglect so much else that is going on around us. We focus on what we are holding; we squeeze what is familiar out of fear that we will lose it. This also relates to our lifestyles and how our things, our possessions, can end up restricting our freedoms, rather than offering us greater leeway. Our possessions can end up ruling us – controlling us – instead of the other way around. They can become a prison to us.
There is an Indian parable in which a guru had a disciple and was so pleased with the man’s spiritual progress that he left him on his own. The man lived in a little mud hut. He lived simply, begging for his food. Each morning, after his devotions, the disciple washed his loincloth and hung it out to dry. One day, he came back to discover the loincloth torn and eaten by rats. He begged the villagers for another and they gave it to him. But the rats ate that one, too. So he got himself a cat. That took care of the rats, but now when he begged for his food he had to beg for milk for his cat as well. This won’t do, he thought. I’ll get a cow. So he got a cow and found he had to beg now for fodder. So he decided to till and plant the ground around his hut. But soon he found no time for meditation, so he hired servants to tend his farm. But overseeing the laborers became a chore, so he married to have a wife to help him. After time, the disciple became the wealthiest man in the village. The guru was traveling by there and stopped in. He was shocked to see that where once stood a simple mud hut there now loomed a palace surrounded by a vast estate, worked by many servants. What is the meaning of this? he asked his disciple. “You won’t believe this, sir,” the man replied. “But there was no other way I could keep my loincloth.”
Our reading from Acts teaches us that the early church learned this lesson – they shared everything they had, and gave to any that had need. They lived with open hearts and open hands. They were able to live with a measure of freedom that came with the spirit of sharing, the spirit of community and mutual love. Out of this freedom grew a great treasure. It was not greater wealth and possessions, but greater love. This was the wealth that they found – the joy of a generous spirit and love for each other.
A story comes from the early church in the Roman Empire before Constantine. One emperor, coveting the wealth these Christians must surely possess, summoned the archbishop to his palace and ordered him to produce “the treasures of the church.” The bishop protested that the church had no gold, jewels or other valuables (which was true at this point in history). But the emperor brushed aside his objection, and demanded that the riches of the church be brought to him in the morning. The next day the bishop dutifully appeared at the palace doorway, empty-handed. “I told you to bring me the treasures of the church!” raged the emperor.
The bishop then invited the emperor to look out at the palace steps. Gathered together, peering sheepishly at the great doors of the royal palace rising above them, was a mass of common people including shopkeepers, laundresses, laborers, beggars, cripples, slaves, and foreigners. With a sweep of his arm, the bishop said, “These are the treasures of the church.”
The treasures of our church are the souls who are in church. This morning is our Generosity Sunday, when we celebrate the giving of our members and friends that sustains the life of this church. We share some of our personal treasure to strengthen the ministries of our church; we offer our own goods to benefit the common good. Yes, money is an important element of our giving; but truthfully, the most important thing we can give is ourselves. When we join our hearts together into community – then the rest flows. We care for each other, we celebrate together, we mourn together, we work to help others, we teach each other, we encourage each other. We cook turkeys together. The greatest treasure of Christian community is each other.
So today we ask for support for our church community. We are being asked to open our hands to help – to keep the lights on and the programs running and the ministry sustained. To open our hands takes a measure of freedom. An old saying goes, “It is the heart that gives, the hand just lets go.” So giving requires some freedom of the heart. And that is a very valuable skill to learn – how not to be controlled and restricted by our possessions and our money. Many people accuse churches of only being interested in money. There may be some churches that are that way; but that is sad. A real church keeps its eyes on the prize of the goal – which is the love and unity of its people – heading toward the love of God.
Jesus says: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) This freedom is what we are offered by a life of the Spirit. It is the ability to share when it is necessary, as well as to save. It is to pick up and go when we need to; to let go of our fears, and to journey where God calls. Jesus was called to journey to Jerusalem, and to carry his cross up a hill where he let it all go. On this Generosity Sunday, we’re being asked to take this lesson to heart. Our real treasures are found, not in bank vaults, but in those we love around us: our families, our community of faith, our neighbors and friends. Our real treasures are what feed our souls and enliven our hearts. We widen our souls and discover inner freedom and inner satisfaction. Amen.