family promise

By Ellen Sims

Texts: Ruth 1:7-16;  Mark 12:38-44

Just in time for this morning’s sermon on generosity, I ran across an academic article published this week on the connection between religiousness and generosity among children. Perfect, I thought. Here’s scientific evidence that raising children in the church will cultivate generosity in them. Here’s inspiration for all of us to give generously to and through our church, and in the process of doing good for others, we’ll also pass the value of generosity to the next generation.

Actually, I’ve only glanced at the article, but I’m certain it will be just the thing to support my sermon’s theme. So let’s review, together, this new research. Here’s the 3-part summary:

  1. “Family religious identification decreases children’s altruistic behaviors.”

Hmm. I think I misread that. Let me read it again: “Family religious identification decreases children’s altruistic behaviors.”

Really? There’s a negative correlation between being raised in a religious home and being generous? I’m a little confused. Let’s skip over that point and go to the second main finding of the research:

  1. “Religiousness predicts parent-reported child sensitivity to injustices and empathy.”

Ah ha! So children in religious households are more tenderhearted and caring. Or, at least their parents think they are. Their parents say that they are. Well, on to the final take away from this scientific study:

  1. “Children from religious households are harsher in their punitive tendencies.”

So this study says the religious kids are meaner and less generous than the nonreligious kids?

(Taking off stole and placing it on the pulpit.)  “Folks, I think we’re done here.  (Walking away.) The last one out, please turn off the lights . . . .

(Returning to pulpit) . . . unless one of you can suggest a way to justify your participation in this religious practice that apparently makes people stingy and mean.

Here’s what I suspect: Although these researchers gathered data from people representing many world religions, they may not have taken into consideration the wide-ranging versions within each world religion. Maybe the religious subjects chosen were from versions of their religions that tend to emphasize judgment rather than compassion. I also wonder if, in this age of the “spiritual but not religious,” many people avoid the term religious even when they are members of faith communities. There may be a big difference among people who identify as religious versus those who call themselves spiritual.

You can find in most religions some adherents who teach that God is a harsh judge, that people get what they deserve in life, that those within that particular religion are the “chosen ones” who deserve God’s favor. Religions around the globe sometimes pass along a tyrannical image of God.  I’ve said before: you cannot become more compassionate than the God you worship. I also admit that we who claim to practice religion may actually be committing malpractice of our religion.

And now that I think about it, Bible readers shouldn’t be surprised at this new research. The Gospel story for today is further evidence that religious people may like to think of themselves as generous, but it’s not the religious leaders whom Jesus commended for their generosity. Jesus, who praised the poor widow, warned about the unscrupulous scribes who preyed upon the poor while they grabbed the best seats in the synagogues and repossessed widows’ houses even as they prayed long prayers in order to appear righteous. (Mark 12: 38-40).

Nor was it those representing the Jewish religion who were the compassion heroes in the story of Ruth.  It was the non-Jew, Ruth, a Moabite willing to return to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, who demonstrated concern and generosity of spirit. Later in the story, Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, the good Jew, had to be seduced into taking pity on Ruth.  (See Ruth 3 for that seduction scene one night on the threshing floor.)

It turns out that in the Bible the generous ones are the widows and the poor, not the religious leaders. Which might suggest that if you want your children to learn generosity, you’ll have better luck raising them in public housing rather than sending them to church.

It’s the misuse of scriptures like today’s texts that explains why religion can discourage gratitude and generosity. The church retells stories about the unexpected heroes of faith—and those stories end up sentimentalizing the generous poor so that the rest of us don’t have to be generous.  If Ruth, the poor immigrant from Moab, becomes a Cinderella figure who then marries well and is the matriarch to kings, then you and I will depend on a FairyGodmother-God to intervene in the lives of, say, poor immigrants from Mexico now living in Mobile. If the poor widow in the synagogue is praised but then hidden again from view, we can likewise ignore the poor widows in our community.

But what happens if we don’t simply praise the poor widow? What if we wonder what happened to her after her two copper coins disappeared into the synagogue’s treasury? Did the religious leaders bring supper to her that evening? Or did she have to beg for alms from the steps of the synagogue all the rest of her pitiful days?

I’m tired of Bible stories about children and young mothers and beggars and sick people and widows who give and give. If we make too much of their altruism, do you see how that absolves us from acting with justice? These stories were first told by people on the margins, so the poor widows’ courage inspired them. But when 21st century middle class Americans read stories about these winsome widows, we can miss the point entirely.

We need to tear these stories out of our Bibles unless we tell the stories in this way:

The widow Ruth and the widow Jesus observed in the synagogue did not deserve their poverty. Their religious communities failed them.  Their religious communities should have intervened on their behalf. Shame upon their religious leaders and shame upon ours when we preach a prosperity Gospel that says good guys will be financially rewarded. Shame upon those who believe religion is about getting in good with the God who doles out the good stuff.  Shame upon Christians whose God is an angry judge who turns them into judges of everyone else. Shame upon religious people who think their religion makes them superior to others. Shame upon people who label their country as a Christian nation but elect political leaders whose policies grind the poor into the dust.

Knowing how religion can be misused, why in the world was I surprised to learn this week that religious people are less generous than the nonreligious?

But here is some heartening news based on another bit of research on generosity. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, interviewed this week on the public radio program “On Being” explains that most people “can find meaning in any kind of work when we perceive ourselves to be of service—whether we realize this is our motivation or not.” That’s good news for churches like ours who are committed to following Jesus by serving others. Let’s hear four insights from Adam Grant on the topic of generosity.

First, Dr. Grant says generosity is, as others have suspected, like a muscle that, when exercised, grows stronger. If being generous is something we do value—and some consider it the most universal human value across all cultures—then I suggest your church is an ideal place to exercise that muscle. Grant explains that “as  people practice helping others, they start to notice what other people need. And when you notice what other people need, it’s hard not to want to help them.”  I would add that if you to practice being more generous, here is place where once a week you’ll learn about specific needs in the world and close to home, and you’ll hear specific ways to share your valuable time, talent, and treasure in the service of others.  Think about church as a yoga class for Jesus—with all of us stretching our generosity muscles together.

Second, Grant says that people tend to think that what we are looking for as human beings is interesting work “that leads to advancement.” However, “A sense of being of service to others is, on balance, a greater motivator . . . and actually makes people more productive.” Doing a caring act for others was measurably a greater motivator than doing something to help oneself. Being part of a faith community connects us both to needs in the community and that larger purpose.

Third, Grant divides givers into generalists and specialists.  He says some people “sprinkle” acts of generosity by sharing a little bit of time or money here and a little there.  But others choose to “consolidate” or focus their acts of generosity in larger chunks of time or money. His research suggests consolidating your acts of giving offers most people greater satisfaction. That’s good to hear since Open Table decided last year to support LGBT concerns as our first signature ministry. We hope to continue serving our community in various ways, but we’ll increase our impact with our new priority. Our recently affirmed partnership with Free2Be has brought us additional partners, increased funding, and may produce a greater impact in our larger community through the peer youth support group we’re creating. If Grant is right, we may feel greater satisfaction through a signature ministry to our community.

Finally, Adam Grant categorizes people in organizations as “givers, matchers, and takers.” He warns, for instance, that “one really selfish taker is enough to depress the generosity of a whole group.” Likewise, a few overextended and resentful givers can lead to widespread burnout.  We at Open Table are looking for that sweet spot as we serve together, giving altruistically while feeling supported by others.


I close with thanks and encouragement for all you do. We are not a wealthy church. But we are the givingest church I know. Our service to the Mobile community far exceeds what is typical of congregations our size and much larger. What you’ll do this Tuesday night through Family Promise makes a world of difference for homeless families in our city. What you’ll create soon, through our partnership with Free2Be, may save a young person’s life and will, I’m certain, change the trajectory of many lives. What we are doing together matters.

As you look for avenues of service through Open Table for 2016, I hope you’ll prayerfully consider making a commitment to one or more specific roles of service that will stretch your giving muscles, engage you in purposeful work, focus your efforts, and hit that sweet spot where giving feels like receiving.

PRAYER:  O God, may the religion we practice create in us a generosity that serves and heals and loves.

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