Generosity Born of a Contented Life
[from the Sermon Series, WHERE’S THE GOOD IN THE NEWS]
Imagine the Freedom of a Contented Life
(E. Payne, Ottawa Citizen, Thursday, July 19, 2011)
Hebrews 13:1-8 (NRSV)
Many of us have “imagined the freedom” of winning millions of dollars in a lottery, as the ads encourage us to do. But it is a safe bet that few imagine freedom the way Violet Large did – something you gain by giving those millions away. … Why would they do that? … They were content with their lives and didn’t want more. When asked by a reporter what they had bought with their winnings, Violet Large said, “Nothing. We haven’t bought one thing. That’s because there is nothing we need.” … (Instead,) the couple put together a “big laundry list” of people and organizations that they wanted to benefit from the money. (Excerpt from Ottawa Citizen)
Every now and then, when a lottery prize gets so big that it makes headlines, and people are lining up to the very last minute over at Shoppers or Metro to buy their chance at winning the unbelievable, either Lynn or I will tease the other. “Do you think we’ll ever win the lottery?” one of us will ask. To which, after a poignant pause, the answer is, “Ah, dear, I think you actually have to buy a ticket to win.” And we laugh … but, if I’m honest, the lingering thought from that poignant pause is haunting.
I suspect that most of us at one time or another have pondered what it would be like “to imagine the freedom” as the ads say … yes, even those who don’t actually buy a ticket. In a few short years lotteries have become a compelling feature in our North American landscape; they’re everywhere, all the time, much to the chagrin of local addiction counsellors. And the reason, I think, is because lotteries masquerade as “good news.” But evidently, the reality is often something different. Which, as Elizabeth Payne states in her op ed, makes the story of Violet Large unique. Payne concludes by observing that “in another world, [her] story might be seen as tragic: Winning money that would enable travel and a life never imagined before – and then, months later, dying of cancer. But it is difficult to view her story as anything but a happy ending. And that may be the real freedom – imagining being happy with what you have.”
When I read this story last Thursday, I immediately thought of the teaching from Hebrews – “keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have” … or as Peterson translates it in The Message, “Don’t be obsessed with getting more … . Be relaxed with what you have.” This spiritual advice is grounded in an appreciation of God’s grace that is with us in all circumstances, rich or poor … a peaceful presence which wants to shape the way we live, a generous love which longs to flow into and through our relationships. Live hopefully, Christ’s Spirit encourages, care for others with confidence today and love generously with whatever you have. Resist the temptation to think you have to wait until you have more than enough before you can begin; be content that what you have is worthy, and be willing to share from your goodness.
Rev. Harrison, the Large’s minister at Old Barns UC, bears witness to the kind of simple, faithful, contented life they lived before they won the lottery. So that when they won, it may have surprised them, but did not radically change their perspective on everyday life. They loved each other and were devoted to each other before … and they would continue after. They cared for neighbours and friends in their rural community as required … and they would continue after. They encouraged their extended family, supported local charities, contributed to their church … and they would continue after. They were confident of God’s help and content with what they had before … and would continue after. So when they won, what they did with their winnings was only a manifestation of who they had always been. Rev. Harrison said, how they gave their money away was “simply a symbol of the [folks] we have known – one event the world has taken to – but [they were just] a continuation of the people who are part of our community.”
Now this is not a sermon about the benefits or ills of playing the lottery, because, at the end of the day, whether you play the lottery or not, it really doesn’t matter. When we hear this story there’s something more at stake. We could quickly jump to conclusion and see the obvious good in the millions of dollars this couple gave away to the people and community in which they lived, and for the medical and spiritual work which they made possible. Expansive generosity is good news indeed, and we might easily say, that’s the good news in the Large’s story. But Mrs. Large’s death helps bring into focus a deeper, more profound good, because it shines sacred light on what’s at the heart of this kind of generosity, their kind of generosity, our kind of generosity, God’s kind of generosity. It is a generosity born of a contended life.
Before the lottery, the Larges graciously shared their lives and means with those around them, and that did not change when they won. Perhaps because she was suffering from cancer and knew her days were limited, it inspired their enthusiasm to share their new wealth. We don’t know. What we do know is that their contentment with each other, with their family, with their neighbours, and with God appeared to expand their generosity.
For us people of faith, we know that generosity is embedded in our spiritual DNA. God calls us to be generous. The question will always be, “what motivates our generosity?” It is not obligation. In fact, so far from it, that when we feel obligated to give, it almost always plants seeds of negativity and resentment, that the church or some other charity is manipulating us to get our money. No, true generosity is never born of obligation – obligation is not enough.
Generosity of the kind of the Large family, the kind of the people of faith, is born of a contented life – a life that honours God’s presence in all circumstances, a life that imagines being happy with what you have, a life that seeks to share God’s goodness with others, a life that is inspired to live gracefully and compassionately among all people.
May the Spirit so touch your heart. And may you live contentedly and generously in Jesus’ Name.
Orleans United Church
July 24, 2011