Back last summer as the pandemic began to tighten its grip on our country with nerves becoming frayed and emotions running high, Reader’s Digest asked people to share stories about moments in their lives, particularly in recent days, in which they had experienced the generosity of others. Ultimately the magazine chose 21 of the best stories they received and featured them in an article for all to enjoy. All of the stories published are heartwarming. Yet two truly stood out to me from among the others.
One was about a fellow in New Jersey named Greg Dailey who runs a paper route. One day, a lady on Greg’s route shared that she was starting to have trouble getting around and wondered if he could throw her paper closer to the house in order to minimize her walk. This simple request got Greg to thinking. If this lady was struggling to get her paper, how was she getting about to take care of other needs? And further, what about others on his route? What kinds of needs did they have? The very next morning, he attached a simple note to everyone’s paper. In it, he shared that he was their paper delivery guy and that if any of them needed someone to run basic errands such as picking up groceries or medicine that he would be glad to do it, free of charge. Since that morning, Greg Dailey has made over 100 deliveries mainly to elderly people on his route who took him up on his offer.
The other article was about a 58 year old airline stewardess. She had served her airline for 34 years before being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Now in Hospice, her brother was flying to visit her on the very airline she had served faithfully. While traveling, he spoke to a flight attendant on the plane who was an old friend and colleague of his sister. He asked her if he could speak to his fellow passengers and she allowed him to do so. He told them about his sister and that he was headed to see her at the Hospice house. He asked if they, as random passengers on an airplane, would consider writing her a note as an act of compassion and encouragement. He then handed out napkins to those on board. 96 passengers obliged with notes, one sentence words of encouragement and pictures. When his sister received these notes from those strangers, it warmed her heart and she carried that act with her until she died. (21 Extraordinary Stories of Generosity That Will Stay With You, rd.com, July 13, 2020)
I read the observations of a fellow minister the other day who said that you can take the book of Acts, from which our text for today originates, and in all 28 chapters, you can find at least one act of generosity described. Now, that might be a bit of a bold claim, but, it is not an exaggeration to say that Acts is a book where generosity is a clear, common theme. It is also true that generosity as a major component of the early, emerging church as described specifically in Acts is very, very hard to miss or ignore.
Think about it for a moment. As the church is being formed in Acts chapter 4, Barnabas sells a field that he owns and gives the proceeds to the early church. Others follow suit selling land and houses according to the text to make their own funds available to the apostles. In chapter 6, 7 individuals are chosen to assist the apostles becoming in some ways the first group of lay leaders elected to a committee. Their task? It is an act of generosity as they are charged with caring for widows in the early church’s distribution of food.
Beyond sharing possessions and resources, generosity also emerges in other ways. In chapter 7, Stephen is generous with grace when in the midst of being stoned to death, he asks forgiveness for his tormentors. In chapter 9, we learn about the generosity of Ananias to Saul as he welcomes Saul into the fellowship and into his personal care even though Saul has been a persecutor of followers of Jesus up until this point.
Our text, Acts 13:1-3, carries on the theme of generosity in a powerful way. Here Saul, who is now Paul, and Barnabas, the one who had earlier sold his field and given the proceeds to the church, are set aside and sent out as the church’s first missionaries. As we study the text, we discover at least three acts of generosity at work. First, Paul and Barnabas are generous with their lives. Whatever plans they had for their future are delayed so that they can give their very selves to the spread of the gospel. Second, the early church is generous with Paul and Barnabas. Both were clearly leaders and critical to the well being of the Antioch church but their fellow believers bless them and affirm the sense that is time to let these two go that they might be helpful to other believers in other places. Third, collectively, there is a spirit of generosity at work here related to the gospel itself. After all, remember that one of the major arguments of the early church was whether or not the message of Christ was to be shared with only Jews or also with Gentiles. Here, there is a spirit that Christ was not to be hoarded but instead was a gift to all people. Let us never forget that even today, you and I are the beneficiaries of this decision.
My point is simply this, as we begin this new year, we must evaluate our individual lives and our life of faith together with a critical question. Is generosity a clear, undeniable characteristic of our lives today? When people think of you and I as individuals, is generosity one of the words that immediately comes to mind? Further, when others think of our church is generosity a word that quickly comes to their minds?
In a world full of anger, frustration, criticism and mean-spirited behavior, what better medicine for our world right now than to embracing unexpected and unmerited generosity on all levels as a key cornerstone of our lives and our church?
I want to challenge us with something. In this month of February which starts tomorrow, every time we are tempted to do something out of frustration or anger or in a critical way, let us stop and choose to do something that is generous instead. If we did this, I think we would have a lot better chance of changing the world.
Kyle sang one of his well known songs for us a little bit ago called What in the World. Part of that song goes like this, “if we were not taught to teach, if were not sought to seek, if we were not helped to help, if we were not told to tell, if you’ve not forgiven us to let mercy live in us so you could love through us once more the Lord, what in the world have you saved us for?” (What In the World, Kyle Matthews, 1994)
What in the world have you saved us for indeed…Amen.