Gratitude & Generosity
First Baptist Church
Sunday, November 5, 2017
Back when we lived in Western Kentucky just after my seminary days, we would load up the interested families in our church on a Saturday each October and head to the pumpkin patch over in Southeast Missouri for a day of hayrides, apple cider, a corn maze and of course, pumpkins. Truth be told, the trip to the farm was also an excuse for our group to stop off on the way for lunch at Lambert’s Cafe in Sikeston, Missouri.
Lambert’s is known throughout the Midwest and Southeast, so if you have ever been there, then you know it is the home of “throwed rolls”. You heard me right – “throwed rolls”. You see, back in the early 1980s, Earl Lambert, the chief proprietor of the restaurant was succeeded by his son Norman or “Ol’ Norm” as he was called around Sikeston. Ol’ Norm had previously been the High School Football coach before getting into the restaurant business. One day, Lambert’s was packed with customers and one of those impatient patrons wanted another roll but Ol’ Norm was struggling to navigate his way to the man’s table because of the crowd. That’s when the customer said, “just throw it Norm!”. Right then and there, the tradition was born. To this day, if you go to any of the three Lambert’s that are now in operation, your rolls will be thrown not served. It is quite a sight to see all of those hot rolls whizzing through the air to say the least.
But the rolls are really not the only reason I have fond memories of Lambert’s. My memory is more attached to the size of their portions and the seconds they offered on all of their veggies. The term for the veggies at Lambert’s is “pass arounds” for not only do they throw their rolls but they also have waiters and waitresses constantly walking past your table with extra helpings of fried potatoes, black eyed peas, fried okra and the like. Lambert’s, you see, is about abundance and plates filled to overflowing. That’s why after eating there, we needed to go to the pumpkin patch and walk about five miles before walking back to Kentucky in order to combat all of the calories we had just consumed!?!
This idea of abundance, generosity and a plate filled to overflowing that I associate with Lambert’s Cafe is also the message of Luke 6:38 which serves as our focal verse for today. This verse is situated in the midst of Jesus’ longest teaching section in Luke which we refer to as the Sermon of the Plain. The Sermon on the Plain is Luke’s companion passage to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. And, it is here in chapter 6, as Jesus teaches about all sorts of subjects that he pauses for a moment and offers this one sentence about generosity – God’s generosity and our own.
The image that this one verse creates is connected beautifully to that time and place in Israel. In that period, farmhands were sometimes paid in the form of the grain they had just helped to harvest. That is the type of scene this verse seems to refer to and in particular to a landowner who was overly generous with his pay. As he scooped the grain into a measuring jar, he kept packing it down that he might pour in more to the point that the jar was literally overflowing. This farmer refused to give his farmhand just enough. Instead, he gave in abundance to the point of the grain overflowing. In fact, if you read this verse from the NIV, it talks of the grain being poured “into one’s lap” which further broadens that scene in that sometimes these farmhands were so poor that they did not have a container in which to carry their grain and so they would take their robe, pull it up, and form a sack out of it. Thus the grain was being poured to overflowing in their lap. Their robe was now so full, it continued more grain than they literally could hold.
Again this picture of the grain overflowing and of the landowner’s generosity is a picture of God. Jesus wanted to remind the people that day that this is the way that God the Father treats us, cares for us and lavishes us in the abundance of God’s love. We don’t get what we deserve and we don’t get just enough of God’s goodness in our lives. Instead, on most days, God’s gifts are being offering into our lives to the point of overflowing.
Luke 6:38, I think, begs us to be aware of the true greatness and overwhelming nature of God’s daily bounty. This seems like an easy thing to do, but, it is not. In truth, it is terribly easy to ignore God’s goodness each day simply because we are too busy to stop and take it all in or because we are too busy focusing on the negatives in our lives to see the good.
This past week, I have been spending time with some of the beautiful writing of the southern author Wendell Berry. I had not thought about Wendell Berry in a long time but then his name came up in two different conversations last weekend with church members. So, on Monday, I began to listen to the audio version of one of his shorter books called Andy Catlett.
The little book is the story of a nine year old boy and his visit to his grandparent’s farm in the rural South over the week between Christmas and New Years in 1943. What really struck me was how Andy, who tells the story, found a way to simply stop and appreciate the aspects of every day life and to recognize in them life’s simple gifts. For pages, Andy reflects on how his grandmother made a homemade berry pie – her ability to measure the ingredients by taste and feel, not by a recipe, her skill at making perfect criss -cross dough patterns over the top and her prowess in the kitchen in a day before electricity had come to the farm. Similarly, Andy also recalls at length riding with his grandfather and a farmhand in a two mule wagon as he remembered the way that type of travel gave them time to really experience the land, the warmth he felt as a little boy sitting between the two grown men and the excitement that would well up in side of him as he approached his grandparents farm for a visit with them by himself away from his parents and siblings. Wendell Berry’s story through the voice of Andy Catlett and his keen sense of observation as he saw the wonders and bounty of life during Winter in the days of the Second World War really spoke to me of how easily we can over look the goodness of God each day no matter what age, time or season that we find ourselves in. (Andy Catlett: Early Travels, Wendell Berry, Counterpoint Press, 2006)
Yes, life is hard. No, our days are sometimes lean, challenging and overwhelming. But, most of the time and more days than we want to admit, God’s gifts in our lives are many and they are overwhelming like a cup that runs over while filled to the brim. Jesus, in his teaching, challenges us to have the wherewithal to see life in this way.
Yet, becoming people who live gratefully in light of God’s abundance is always also an invitation to become people who live with abundant generosity toward others too. Because God is so generous with us, we too should exhibit the same sort of generosity.
The problem is – we are not. Let me offer you a few statistics and these are just figures related to generosity in the church not to generosity and life in general. While 17% of believers say they tithe, only 5% actually do. The average churchgoer today gives 2.5% not 10% to their church. Even during the Great Depression, the average churchgoer contributed 3.3%. Likewise, one would think that the more we make the more we give, but, not so. Instead, what researchers have discovered that among American families today who make over $75,000 a year and who go to church, only 1% of those same individual tithe; however, among church going families who have an income of less than $20,000 a year, 8% of those families also tithe. Further, among families who have no church affiliation, at least 75% give financially to some type of nonprofit organization each year. (Gleaned from the website kennyjahng.com)
We say we recognize God’s blessings, but our actions show that we don’t. We say that God’s goodness, abundance, lavishness and overflowing love has a profound affect on how we look at the world and how we live our lives, but, does it?
Our fear, I think is that if we respond to abundance with abundance we will not have enough. If we are generous in the same degree that God is generous, our lives will be less not more meaningful.
Yet, I want to challenge these assumptions. No, we can not all give as we would like. And, yes, some of us are at points in our lives right now where giving and expressing our gratitude to God and to others as we would like simply isn’t possible. I understand that. I get that and it is okay.
For many of us, however, this is not where we are. Instead, we have convinced ourself that we have is ours because our own work, our to do with what we want and happiness will only come as we do more for ourselves.
What scripture invites us to recognize instead is that what we have is ours because of God, it is not ours to do with what we want and that more joy than we can imagine will come by responding to God’s generosity of our own.
The famous Minnesota story teller Garrison Keiler tells of a man named Clarence who one day gave more than he meant to in the offering plate at church. Clarence was trying to right out his check while also paying attention and thus he got distracted. Rather than making his check out for $30 he made it out for $300 yet before he realized what he had done, he had put the check in the offering plate and passed it down the aisle. In Keiler’s tale, when Clarence comes to his senses, we are allowed to ease drop on his thoughts about how he could approach the ushers as they counted the money in an attempt to get his check back. But, then, Clarence stops, he lets it go and decides to give the church the check for $300 after all. As the story end, Keiler says something that is beautiful, “Now, he (Clarence) felt fully alive for the first time all day. He felt terrifically awake. He had given all he had in the checking account and a little more.” (From “Collection” in Leaving Home, NY Penguin, 1997, pg. 91.)
Someone once said it this way. “In life, there are two types of people – givers and takers. The takers eat well. But, the givers sleep well.” Amen.