What is required for life to flourish and be free, for us to work and praise faithfully? Generosity! But fears get in the way. We are afraid of others’ actions or opinions; we are afraid of our vulnerabilities and shortcomings; we are afraid we won’t have enough; we are afraid we aren’t enough. These fears keep us from generously sharing who we are and what we have. That not only affects others who would benefit from our gifts, it keeps us living smaller lives than we’re made for. Join us in October and explore the world-changing potential of fearless generosity.
A sermon shared by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, October 7, 2018, the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost and World Communion Sunday. “Fearless Generosity” series.
Text: Mark 10:13-16
The other day Anthony and I sat in an orthopedist’s waiting room, part of a diverse, rather ragtag group in various states of pain and frustration, with the normal quiet of such spaces interrupted by a television blaring a local talk show focused on gossip about the rich and famous. Into this scene came a small child—maybe around 4 years old—with his dad and grandmother (who was wearing a hijab). The little one proceeded to walk around the room looking into the faces of each person with his deep, brown eyes and waving at each one of us. This child entered a room full of strangers and offered himself as a gift, as a friend, as someone who saw every unique person in the room and greeted them personally. Some responded with reciprocal smiles or waves. Others were too distracted to notice him or simply chose not to respond. But he was undeterred in his sweetness. He didn’t talk or interrupt or push. He just looked and waved. And the result for me was that in that moment I remembered gentleness and kindness, openness and kin-ship with every person. My heart and spirit were cared for. His offering continues to remind me of what is possible.
Communion—meaning fellowship, mutual participation, a sharing—that’s what is possible. And though it doesn’t happen always and everywhere, today we celebrate that by the grace of God we may share communion with Christ, with one another, and with members of the human family around the world. Our feast is a remembrance that a central part of Jesus’ work and message is to call us back to the truth that we are all part of ONE family and that we need to honor and support and love one another. At this feast we also give thanks that Jesus shared himself fully in solidarity with the silenced and vulnerable and gave his life freely for the sake of the powerless, those most likely to bear the brunt of human injustice and violence, like that little child in the waiting room.
In addition to all this, my brief encounter with that precious little one provides me with a clear image of our new series theme. What he displays is “fearless generosity.” It is a common child-like quality, this open-hearted, trusting friendliness. Some children are more naturally shy or perhaps respond to stimuli in the world with some anxiety, but all children come into the world with their own unique brand of generosity of spirit and presence in relationships. Fear and suspicion, defensiveness and transactional ways of relating come later—or sooner, depending upon the child’s context. //
I have a vivid memory from sometime in my early elementary school years—you know those random memories that we hold for some mysterious reason from early in our lives?—this memory is of one night when I lay awake in my bed and I was really upset and afraid. I went into the living room, where my mom and dad were watching T.V. and, with tears streaming down my face I tried to explain my feelings. I had this overwhelming sense that I was losing something. And I remember the look on my mother's face, as she tried to discover what was wrong. I don't remember exactly what I said, except that I was able to identify that I was growing up. I felt—was it guilt?—like I was losing my innocence. And I didn't want to. I didn’t want to know the things I was beginning to know.
I also remember the time as a teenager when, by way of a cheating boyfriend, I learned that I could no longer trust all human beings with all my heart. I was angry. My heart was broken.
Once we know that there really are things that go bump in the night, once we have been hurt or betrayed, after we have tried to do something and have failed, or taken a risk and been teased; if we have experienced what it’s like to live hand to mouth or to be abandoned by a caregiver; when we have experienced the death of loved ones—parents, children, partners, pets; once we know or have experienced even one of these things we begin to put up defenses. And of course some reasonable awareness of the painful things in life and some healthy strategies to manage those things are part of growing up. But the danger is that, in our fear of pain or loss or humiliation, our defenses block not only dangers (real or perceived), but also opportunities, gifts, friendship, joy, love. We can allow our fear to close us off—the image of a clenched fist is a powerful sign of our defenses…in that posture, we can’t receive what is offered…and in that posture, we aren’t able to give either.
The disciples in our Gospel story today provide another image of what happens when fear creates an obstacle. I don’t know what exactly they were afraid of when they snapped at those bringing their children for a blessing. Maybe they feared the kids would be a distraction to the things the disciples thought were important, or maybe they feared Jesus’ reaction if they let the children through, or perhaps they were afraid grape juice would get spilled on something deemed precious. Who knows? But what we do know is that Jesus wasn’t having it. He says, “Let the little children come to me for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
What is Jesus saying? What is required of us who are no longer children, who cannot go back and unknow what we know? It seems we are challenged to reclaim what is possible, reclaim some of the innate gifts we bear as creatures made in God’s image: warm, soft hearts, curiosity, playfulness, an openness to wonder, an assumption of friendship with those we meet. To accomplish this requires a kind of trust that can only really be called faith. Because we know what we know. We know there are reasons to fear. And yet Jesus challenges us to open our minds, our hearts, our hands so that we might receive the good gifts of life, the good gifts that God extends to us. And not only receive, but also share them.
Most children don’t necessarily enter the world wanting to share their toys; the primal instinct to claim what is our own is a pretty powerful one. But children are also super receptive. It never ceases to amaze me what children soak up. Kids pay attention to what we say and teach. They mimic our actions. My Nana loved to tell the story of my sister—around age 4 or 5—taking a toy away from me (two years her junior) and saying (in a teaching kind of tone) “Share.” Children learn what we teach; and if part of what we teach is how we are to behave as part of God’s family, they often they remind us of what that really looks like.
My dear friend and clergy colleague Alisa Lasater Wailoo shared this story with me and told me I could share it with you today:
At the Capitol Hill UMC where she serves, there is a daily breakfast for unhoused neighbors. A young mom with two little boys had been coming to breakfast for a while and become known to the core leaders. One evening, one of those church leaders saw the woman and her children on the street in the pouring down rain. After trying to get them into a shelter to no avail, the leader called Alisa who asked the leader to come over and watch Alisa’s two young boys so that she could collect the family and get them settled into a hotel for the night.
Once the church leader-sitter arrived, Alisa began to explain to her boys what was happening; “There is a mommy who has two boys just like you two—about your ages—and they are outside in the rain right now and need a place to stay, so I’m going to get a hotel room for them. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
At that, the questions from Alisa’s then 3 ½ year old son started. He asked, “So they don’t have a home?” “That’s right.” “They don’t have their own room?” “No, they don’t.” “So where are they gonna get pajamas from?” “That’s a good question.”
And without missing a beat, the child said, “If they’re our age we have PJs we can give them.” And with that he headed into his room and began to pull out some of his best pajamas to give. Once he’d decided on that selection, he continued, “What are they going to wear tomorrow?” He went to his closet and began taking out his nicest clothes. Pastor Alisa was starting to get anxious now…and even found herself saying things like, “Oh, we don’t have to give him that!”
The little one was undeterred and insisted, “They might like soccer too, I want him to have my jersey.” Then… “Mommy, they might not have a prayer book for nighttime.” (Alisa would pray with the children before bed from a book of prayers) Her son said, “I have two, they should have one.” He chose the prayer book his grandma gave him, a precious gift that meant a lot to Alisa. But her 3 ½ year old son wasn’t afraid of what he was losing. He knew he had what he needed and that another child didn’t. He didn’t hesitate, but immediately opened his heart and his little hands and his room to share.
My friend laughs as she confesses her own struggle in the moment—as she admits that the pastor, the mommy, was afraid of losing something special, while her son—who had learned these values from her!—was only focused on wanting to give what was needed to help.
The little one in the orthopedist’s office; Alisa’s child; our beautiful Foundry children; and other children in our lives teach us so much. They show us what it looks like to truly receive the kin-dom of God and to share what flows from there with fearless generosity. Thanks be to God.