Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

The Virtues: Generosity


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Psalm 150

II Corinthians 9: 4-15


Juanita Cowan was a child of one of the founding families of Broadway Presbyterian, our predecessor church. she was aunt to Peggy Kennedy, great aunt to Katie Hinckley, and great great aunt of Katie and Greg’s three daughters, Trinity, Emory, and Addison. Ms. Cowan was a child when the Great Southside Fire of 1909 burned down Broadway’s original building, across from the site that is now Broadway Baptist Church. Ms. Cowan wrote the history of St. Stephen, and she wrote of being a young child when the rebuilt Broadway Presbyterian Church was completed. “On January 1, 1911, the congregation gathered at the tabernacle and marched to the new building singing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,” she wrote. “The new building was of beautiful red brick… The sanctuary in brown tones inspired reverence, especially in a small child; even when there was no service going on, I felt I should whisper.”

The building still needed to have its full debt paid, and in order to do that, the entire church got into the act. Ms. Cowan wrote that “Even children had a part in buying a brick for one dollar.” (“The History of St. Stephen,” 1997, Juanita Cowan.)

What a marvelous example that must have been for a young girl of the virtue of generosity. Generosity is, of course, giving something of your own to someone else without expectation of return, but the classical Greek scholar Aristotle makes an additional point that “the generous person … will give for the sake of the noble, and rightly; for she will give to the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time, with all of the other qualifications that accompany right giving.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 4.4.1) By paying a dollar for her brick, little Juanita Cowan learned not only to give, but to give to that which is noble, that which is beautiful, that which is worthy, and that which is good. That, according to Aristotle, is the ultimate benefit of generosity: it serves the larger good. To little Juanita, that beautiful, noble, worthy, good thing to which she was called to be generous was her new beautiful red brick church with its stately sanctuary in brown tones.

Today we celebrate another act of generosity, this time to the building that has succeeded Broadway Presbyterian over 100 years later. Thanks to the generosity of you all sitting here, as well as the many friends this church has developed over the decades, we are dedicating our sanctuary’s new roof and Heating and Air Conditioning Systems. When our church leaders first decided that we needed to have the first capital campaign since this building was built in the ’60s, to do these things, their first thought was, “Will people think these things are worth it?”

But this amazing congregation has stepped up and committed over $1.1 million out of their own pockets, around 90% of the cost, to accomplishing this goal. You did so because you thought this church, its ministry, and its unique building, were noble, beautiful, worthy and good, and you believe they provide a lasting benefit to our community and the world that needs to attract more people into its walls and continue to serve Fort Worth and Tarrant County for generations to come. This campaign, ultimately, was not about the roof and air conditioning, but about the future of St. Stephen’s particular ministry.  Was it worth preparing this building for a future yet unseen? The answer, according to you all, was yes.

My friend Karl Travis over at First Presbyterian likes to say that people are generous to the church because we instinctively want to give to something that is larger than ourselves. I’ve found that to be true. People who give, to the church or anything else, aren’t just thinking about themselves. They’re thinking about generations to come. They’re thinking about how to meet the needs of the least of these. They are often thinking about the benefits they themselves have received from the church, and how important it is to make it possible for others to receive those same benefits.

We are entering our Stewardship season here at St. Stephen. We’ll be asking you to give to support our 2014 budget. We’re hoping that you will view St. Stephen, its mission, and its ministry, as things that are noble, beautiful, worthy, and good. So this is a good time to reflect on the nature of generosity itself.

Generosity was not one of the four cardinal virtues that Aristotle celebrated in his Nicomachean Ethics, though he wrote of it in detail and viewed it as vitally important. It is we Christians who raised Generosity, or as we tend to call it, “Charity,” to the level of the great virtues, one of the three “theological” virtues. It is vitally important for Christians to be charitable, because charitability is the very nature of the love that God has shown for us. We believe that God gave, and gave, and gave—taking the human form of Jesus, becoming a servant of humanity, dying and rising for our sakes, forgiving our sins—and that God keeps giving to us, and never stops. As the Rev. Peter Gomes puts it, “Charity is what is done for others because of what has been done for us. Because the Christian has been from creation onward the object of God’s charity, the Christian is obligated to translate that into a care and concern for the neighbor, the orphan, the alien, the stranger, and all those in need” (Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc. , 1996,  p. 306).

In our Epistle reading, Paul is writing to the Corinth church about the collection that is being taken for the church in Jerusalem. The Jewish church in Jerusalem, the home church of Christianity, was burdened with many who were poor and hungry, and the Apostles, Peter and James, commissioned Paul to go to the Gentile churches in Asia Minor and take up a collection to support them. There was a lot of crossing of comfort zones in this charitable act–Gentiles helping Jews, Greek and Roman Christians helping Jewish Christians, rich helping poor. Paul has to convince folks to be generous. He tells them that our generosity “is producing thanksgiving to God.” By being generous, we are showing our thanks for all that we’ve received from God. Our Psalm today, 150, says to praise God in the sanctuary; and that’s what we’re focused on today with our dedication. But our constant praise must happen in the building and outside of it, in our generosity to others–because that is our true praise of God, imitating the generosity that God has shown to us. Generosity is an act of gratitude to God.

Paul also says that “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness” (2 Cor. 9: 10). Our generosity is blessed by God to multiply the good it does far beyond what we could or should expect. It does more than we think. This is important to remember because sometimes we don’t give to worthy causes because we’re afraid that the opposite will happen—the money will be used poorly and not to good effect. We have lots of reason to be suspicious that could happen—for one thing, it really has happened that number of charities use money and resources poorly or even dishonestly.

That, however, shouldn’t be a reason not to give, but rather to give wisely. There are excellent web resources, for instance, that analyze various charities to determine how they use their money and how well they fulfill their stated mission.  Likewise, we aim for the church to be completely honest and aboveboard about how we use the money and resources you provide us. Our budget is public information, and I suppose you could go through it line-by-line, but really, the question you need to ask is—Is the church doing what God is calling it to do? Are my needs and the needs of my family met—but more importantly, are the needs of others met?  Is my money being used for the larger good? Are the needs of the neighbor and the needy being addressed by St. Stephen? And what about my sense of call? Am I being challenged, expanded spiritually? Do I sense the presence of God at St. Stephen, and hear Christ’s call to discipleship clearly? It seems safe to say you must be able to answer “yes” to most of that, or you wouldn’t be here. But it’s important, and good stewardship, to ask it.

For the Christian, there is one question about which there is really is no question: we are called to give. We are called to be charitable. We are called to be generous. We’re called to do it because of God’s generosity to us. Just as important, we are called to be generous together. Together, God multiplies our gift so that its result is all out of proportion to what it could accomplish otherwise. That’s what’s so striking about little Juanita Cowan paying her dollar to put a brick in the rebuilt church a century ago. It was a way that as a child she was participating in building the church together with everyone else in the church.

Think about it—the dollar that little Juanita Cowan spent on a brick in 1911 went a long way. Together with a lot of dollars from a lot of other people it built the new Broadway Church, which, in the fifties, moved to this site here and built St. Stephen Presbyterian Church. Juanita Cowan’s dollar a century ago built this church today that her great-great-great grandnieces attend every Sunday, that is noted in the community for its mission outreach to the homeless, that is providing a unique style of worship that is the key reason many of you are here, that is the spiritual home to many who felt like they couldn’t find a spiritual home anywhere; but at St. Stephen they found a church that didn’t judge them, but welcomed them with open arms.

God multiplied little Juanita’s dollar. Wouldn’t you agree that was a dollar that was very wisely spent?