I read an article this week about generosity. The founder of a small company called ‘Facebook’ (ever hear of it?), Mark Zuckerberg, is planning on donating 99% of his shares in the company in the coming years, currently worth around $45 BILLION, to charities to help make the world a better place. What brought on this thinking and announcement? The birth of a first born daughter named Max. That’s pretty generous, huh? The cynic in me says ‘yeah, that’s a ton of money, but I’m also sure they are not giving up much of their lifestyle either’. There is some grace in such a story.
Well, maybe if that news story is too big to imagine, or just doesn’t work for you, how about this? There was a story a while back about Salt Lake City, Utah, who has implemented a ‘housing first’ model to end homelessness in their city. The program, which will cost approximately $8,000/ person annually for not only housing, but counseling, training, and other programs to help these individuals and families, actually makes financial sense according to reports. By leaving homeless individuals on the streets it is calculated that it costs the city approximately $20,000 per person. On top of that, homelessness has gone down over 75% since this program has begun. People’s lives are being forever changed because the number one priority in a person’s life, shelter, is being met, allowing people to spend time and energy on other areas of life. Pretty compassionate.
Still too big or impersonal for you to really take to heart? I want to tell you a story about my friends David and Caroline Webb. They always wanted a big family; I mean BIG. When they met and started dating, they both shared with each other that they had a vision of having 12 children one day. Well, they got married, and eventually started raising children of their own. One day they felt another tug in their hearts. God was calling them to mission work; in particular, to serve orphaned children in Africa. Eventually the settle in Johannesburg, South Africa, where they set up what is now called ‘African Havens.’ On one particular day, they were introduced to a baby boy. His face was severally fractured and most of his body burned and disfigured. He was lucky to be found, taken to the local hospital, and to have survived. Unfortunately, this story is all too familiar for many infants and children in this part of the world; the hospital often has mothers or neighbors bring in babies who need help, only to abandon them in the hopes that maybe someone else may be able to provide a better life for them.
Well, David and Caroline did just that. In fact, they not only took this baby into their orphanage, they took him into their family. Baby Gabriel would be raised as one of their children; he now had a home, a family, and a future. The Webb family would eventually have a large family…a very large family, as now African Havens runs seven different homes throughout Johannesburg for children of all ages, and celebrates the adoptions of hundreds over the years. This truly is a story of love overflowing.
Today I want to talk about the possibilities of love overflowing during this season of Advent. The reality, however, is that the world is not always as loving as we wish it were, or that we wish we were as individuals. We live each day with the hypocrisy that we identify as followers of Christ, yet our lives often are lived counter to his teachings about money, politics, violence, and relationships. We live in a nation where the majority of people are self-identified as Christian, yet we have created a culture of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ with millions of individuals living without adequate shelter, food, education, and healthcare. If there are so many resources in the world, then why do people live and die each day from things that seem so obvious to remedy? Is this all just too much for us to take on in this world? Should we just accept the fact that we are too small to fix such big problems? What can we do to make a difference in this world?
I think the Apostle Paul was pretty realistic when he was writing to the Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire following the death of Jesus. He lived in a world of big problems, and what seemed like not too many answers. But even while living in such a broken world, he wrote words that gave hope and a vision for a better world that inspired the followers of Christ at that time, and still inspire Christians today.
We pick up this morning reading a letter from the Apostle Paul to one of the early Christian communities in Philippi. As we read from this letter, Paul, despite his current situation of imprisonment, is in good spirits as he writes to a community that he has a loving relationship with. Though it is a shorter letter for Paul, only 4 chapters, Philippians is considered one of the most theologically and emotionally inspiring writings of Paul, and of the Bible.
We pick up in the opening verses as Paul is giving thanks for the loving relationship between himself and the Philippians. We read in verse 6 that Paul’s focus and perspective for this letter will not necessarily be on the present or day to day events, but on the larger picture of God’s Kingdom being realized here on earth in Jesus Christ. In verse 7 we read about Paul’s imprisonment, but there is something else that catches our eye, the use of the word KARIS in the Greek language: grace. Paul begins his letter with this word as well found in verse 2, ‘Grace to you and peace …’ Why choose the word ‘grace’ over all of the other words that one could choose? What makes this word so appropriate to Paul given his circumstances and intention for this letter?
Paul would choose another word in verse 8 to describe Christ as he compares his love for the people of Philippi with the love of Christ for the world: compassion.
And in verse 9 Paul shares with the community his prayer for them:
‘…that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.’
Now this is the part of the text that moves me, and that I would like for us to meditate upon this morning. What does it mean for our love to ‘overflow more and more’? How will we know ‘what is best’? And what will a ‘harvest of righteousness’ look like in the world today?
Paul’s letter will go on to share in some of the more memorable writings of the Bible tradition. He will write about the person of Jesus as Christ, he will share his own passion and struggles, and he will remind Christians across time and space to ‘rejoice’. But here in the opening verses, we come across what will establish the foundation of this message as we hear the words ‘grace,’ and ‘compassion,’ and we begin to imagine what it would look like for our love to ‘overflow’ in the world today.
Paul, the prisoner, was writing about grace, compassion, and love overflowing. This was not Paul the millionaire, or Paul the President, or Paul the recently retired with a sufficient nest egg; no, this was an individual who, while growing up with privilege and education, in his words considered them ‘rubbish’ as they compared to knowing Christ, and sharing in the Good News of God’s salvation in Christ. Paul willingly, intentionally, gave up his privilege and power in the world, so that he could share the Gospel message freely. And what was that message? Grace. Compassion. Love.
I wonder what things would look like if we took even a small step further in that direction. Yes, we are here this Sunday morning for a reason. We are worshipping God just like the Philippians did. We proclaim Jesus as Christ just like the Philippians did. But I wonder about Paul’s words. What would happen if we intentionally sought to live out those three words: grace, compassion, love. What would the possibilities be? Would we be able to change anything? Would the world miraculously stop the violence that seems to feed upon itself? Probably not. Would there all of a sudden be no more homeless living just a few feet from our comfortable homes? Maybe not. Well, would the world stop wasting so many of its food resources and find a way to feed the millions of individuals who go hungry around the world each day? I’m not sure.
Yes, the world’s atrocities and brokenness does seem insurmountable at times. But this is not a new problem, and Paul’s words of hope are not new, or even uniquely his own. Paul’s words echo back to prophets before his time who write of a new day to come.
The prophet Malachi wrote, ‘The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight — indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.’
The prophet Isaiah wrote,
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
John the Baptist heralded the arrival of a new King, ‘…proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’
Friends, the Good News is that God’s love is always overflowing. No matter your background, your current lot in life, or your future prospects, God is grace, compassion, and love overflowing.
When we hear and accept this Good News, our lives all of a sudden have different possibilities, just as the Apostle Paul. When we live by the truth of grace over condemnation, then we can offer grace to those we encounter. When we accept compassion instead of apathy, we can walk alongside of others whom we never might have known. When we embrace love above all things; above fear, and hate, and anger, then we can not only accept God’s love into our own lives, but we can literally change the world with our live and our actions.
So how can we change the world during this season of Advent? Could we donate $45 Billion to charities? Well, if you have that kind of money…. In all seriousness, we can make donations to very worthwhile causes, including our own congregations. Could we end homelessness by working with our local government? Absolutely! If you feel God is calling you to realize God’s Beloved Community in that way, then go for it! Could we adopt orphans, welcome strangers, and care for those in need that we come across daily? Yes. We may not solve all of the world’s problems in the next few hours, or days, weeks, months, or years, but we are called to work to realize God’s Kingdom today nonetheless.
During this season of Advent we wait for the coming of the Christ Child. We wait, but we do not become complacent. We wait with the hope and trust that God is moving even within the darkness, even within the pain and brokenness of this world. While we wait this day, we pray that God may move within our hearts, so that as we hear the Good News of such love, we may be living our lives in faith,
‘…that our love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help us to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ we may be pure and blameless, 11having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.’