[Jesus said] “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” – John 3:14-21
This is the fourth week in Lent and we are continuing down A Disciple’s Path focusing on spiritual disciplines that can help us grow as children of God. So far we’ve looked at the Path of Grace, the Path of Prayer, and the Path of Community. This week’s focus is on the Path of Generosity.
After giving it some thought, I am not going to talk about money today. A Disciple’s Path has good information in it about John Wesley’s approach to handling money from a Christian perspective, and gives examples of Old Testament and New Testament teaching on wealth. I recommend it to your reading and discussion groups.
But we’ve already had at least two sermons on giving since I came on board last July: the annual stewardship campaign, and one of the weeks in the Advent focused on giving. And I know the doors of this church are still open only because people give sacrificially, and I appreciate that.
I also appreciate the fact that there are a lot of ‘old-school’ Pittsburghers in this congregation – which I mean as a compliment, because old-school Pittsburghers are generous people. Speaking as a native of Philadelphia, in the city where I grew up, you don’t even say ‘hi’ to people on the street, or make eye contact. It’s dangerous and you just don’t do it. When I moved to Pittsburgh I was floored to discover that if I got lost downtown and asked someone on the street for directions, more often than not the response would be “Sure I know where it is. Come with me, I’ll take you there.” That’s generosity.
Old-school Pittsburghers were often raised by parents who worked six ten-hour days a week and depended on each other’s neighbors to look after the kids and keep an eye on the laundry hanging out back. The attitude was, “We’re all in this together.” Even if you couldn’t stand someone you’d still look after their kids in a pinch, or help organize a fund-raising dinner for them if there was a big medical bill to be paid. Pittsburghers have a natural generosity that comes from having survived challenging times.
So instead of yet another sermon about money I thought I’d share a couple of stories about the generosity of God’s people in history and what they have meant to history, and then I’ll wrap up with some brief thoughts on today’s scripture reading.
The first story I wanted to share today has to do with the field of modern medicine. Did you know that hospitals as we know them today would never have come about if not for the generosity of Christians? There were hospitals in the world before Jesus was born, but not as we know them today, and they weren’t for everybody.
I thought I remembered hearing about this some time a long time ago like in high school but I had to double-check my facts on the internet to be sure. Here’s what Wikipedia had to say: The ancient Romans had begun a rudimentary system of health care but it was…
“…the declaration of Christianity as an accepted religion in the Roman Empire [which] drove an expansion of the provision of care. Following the First Council of Nicaea [which, as you recall, was where the Nicene Creed was written] in 325 A.D. construction of a hospital in every cathedral town was begun. […] Some hospitals maintained libraries and training programs, and doctors compiled their medical and pharmacological studies in manuscripts. Thus in-patient medical care in the sense of what we today consider a hospital, was an invention driven by Christian mercy and Byzantine innovation.
“…the first physicians under Muslim rule were Christians or Jews in conquered areas in the 7th century. The first prominent Islamic hospital was founded in Damascus, Syria in around 707AD with assistance from Christians. […] The public hospital in Baghdad was opened… in the 8th century. […] It was headed by (a) Christian physician…
“Medieval hospitals in Europe followed a similar pattern to the Byzantine. They were religious communities, with care provided by monks and nuns. […] Some were attached to monasteries; others were independent… The first Spanish hospital… was supplied with physicians and nurses, whose mission included the care of the sick wherever they were found, “slave or free, Christian or Jew.” 
In this bit of history we see the generosity of God’s people making it possible over the centuries for the injured to be healed and the sick to be cured. We’re not talking about a lot of money being donated (there wasn’t a whole lot of money going around in those days). It was a generosity of lifestyle, in the monks and the nuns and the people who worked alongside them. These people taught that everyone should be cared for, and that every life mattered, regardless of background. And their legacy of care and generosity is still with us today.
The second story I’d like to share is from the book of I Samuel and is taken from the life of David. This story tells about both generosity and the lack of it. This story takes place when the prophet Samuel had already anointed David as the next king of Israel but David had not yet been crowned. The current king, Saul, was trying to kill him, so David and a few hundred of his best friends were living in the wilderness far away from Jerusalem.
1 Samuel 25:1-39 Now Samuel died; and all Israel assembled and mourned for him. […] Then David [and his men] got up and went down to the wilderness of Paran. 2 There was a man in Maon, whose property was in Carmel. The man was very rich; he had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. He was shearing his sheep in Carmel. 3 Now the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was clever and beautiful, but the man was surly and mean… 4 David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep. 5 So David sent ten young men and… said to the young men, “Go up to Carmel, and go to Nabal, and greet him in my name. 6 [say to him] ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. 7 I hear that you have shearers; …your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. 8 Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your sight; for we have come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.’”
9 When David’s young men came, they said all this to Nabal in the name of David… 10 But Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants today who are breaking away from their masters. 11 Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?” 12 So David’s young men turned away, and came back and told him all this. 13 David said to his men, “Every man strap on his sword!” And… about four hundred men went up after David, while two hundred remained with the baggage.
14 But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, “David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master; and he shouted insults at them. 15 Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we never missed anything when we were in the fields, as long as we were with them; 16 they were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep. 17 Now therefore know this and consider what you should do; for evil has been decided against our master and against all his house; he is so ill-natured that no one can speak to him.”
18 Then Abigail hurried and took two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five sheep ready dressed, five measures of parched grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs. She loaded them on donkeys 19 and said to her young men, “Go on ahead of me; I am coming after you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal. 20 As she rode on the donkey and came down under cover of the mountain, David and his men came down toward her; and she met them. 21 Now David had said, “Surely it was in vain that I protected all that this fellow has in the wilderness… but he has returned me evil for good. 22 God do so to David and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one [man] of all who belong to him.”
23 When Abigail saw David, she hurried and alighted from the donkey, fell before David on her face, bowing to the ground. 24 She… said, “Upon me alone, my lord, be the guilt; please let your servant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your servant. 25 My lord, do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow, Nabal; for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him; but I, your servant, did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent. 26 Now then, my lord, as the LORD [God] lives, and as you yourself live, since the LORD [God] has restrained you from bloodguilt and from taking vengeance with your own hand, now let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be like Nabal. 27 And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord. 28 Please forgive the trespass of your servant; for the LORD [God] will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the LORD [God]; and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live. 29 If anyone should rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living under the care of the LORD your God; but the lives of your enemies he shall sling out as from the hollow of a sling. 30 When the LORD [God] has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you, and has appointed you prince over Israel, 31 my lord shall have no cause of grief, or pangs of conscience, for having shed blood without cause or for having saved himself. And when the LORD [God] has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant.”
32 David said to Abigail, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today! 33 Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you, who have kept me today from bloodguilt and from avenging myself by my own hand! 34 For as surely as the LORD the God of Israel lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there would not have been left to Nabal so much as one [man].” 35 Then David received from her hand what she had brought him; he said to her, “Go up to your house in peace; see, I have heeded your voice, and I have granted your petition.”
36 Abigail came to Nabal; he was holding a feast in his house, like the feast of a king. Nabal’s heart was merry within him, for he was very drunk; so she told him nothing at all until the morning light. 37 In the morning, when the wine had gone out of Nabal, his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him; he became like a stone. 38 About ten days later the LORD struck Nabal, and he died.
39 When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, “Blessed be the LORD who has judged the case of Nabal’s insult to me, and has kept back his servant from evil; the LORD has returned the evildoing of Nabal upon his own head.” Then David sent and wooed Abigail, to make her his wife.”
Of all the stories I’ve ever heard about how people have met their spouses, this one takes the cake!
Other than that, this story seems a bit strange to modern ears. After all, these events took place over 3000 years ago. By our standards, it makes sense that all the sheep and all the harvest and everything belonged to Nabal, the property owner – to our ears it sounds like he had the right to do what he chose to do with what belonged to him.
But that’s not how people thought in the ancient Middle East. Back in those days, living in a semi-desert area, where people had no electricity or running water or heat (other than fire), resources were precious. It was considered a person’s duty – not a religious duty, just a human duty – to feed any travelers that passed through, because it could mean the difference between life and death. And in the case of David, there was one other thing to consider: a tradition, an old and strong tradition in that culture. A large estate like Nabal’s would have attracted robbers and sheep-stealers and all kinds of unsavory characters. It was not unusual for young, unattached men like David and his friends to act as protectors on an estate like this, like rangers guarding the perimeter. That’s why David tells his messengers to say to Nabal, “your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and nothing went missing….” They did Nabal a service. And cultural norms dictated that Nabal share his good fortune with the ones who had helped to protect it. His refusal to do so was an insult worthy of battle.
Nabal was foolish. That’s what is name means, translated from the Hebrew, it means “fool”. That’s why his wife says, “his name is ‘Nabal’ and he is a fool”. Abigail, on the other hand, demonstrates the generosity of the desert people: she presents David with 200 loaves of bread, five sheep, wine, and piles of figs and raisins and grain. That’s the way things were supposed to be.
This story is more than just history though; it’s also an allegory. It’s a picture of life. Nabal represents the world’s way of doing things: profiteering, greedy, selfish, short-sighted, living only for today. The Bible calls this foolishness, because Nabal doesn’t realize that death is right around the corner. Jesus tells a similar story of another rich man in Luke 12 – a man who says to himself, “eat, drink, and be merry,” but God says to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you…”
Abigail by contrast represents God’s faithful people, acting wisely. Abigail’s name in Hebrew means “my father is joy” – and for God’s people our Father IS joy. There is always enough and to spare in our Father’s house. There is always enough here to make a stranger welcome. As Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God… and all these things will be added to you.” Just as Abigail seeks first David’s kingdom and his joy – and she ends up a queen (!), in the same way the people of God seek first God’s kingdom and God’s joy, and we end up the bride of Christ.
And so in the story David represents Jesus. Jesus, like David, comes to the world looking for what is rightfully his own, only to be insulted and turned away and thrown out; but God’s people hear his voice and are wise enough to do what is right. And when the time is right, David – and Jesus – both become King.
Finally I’d like to take a quick look at our scripture reading for today.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)
The apostle John describes our world as being like Nabal: foolish. The world loves darkness because evil can hide in the darkness. The world hates light because light exposes evil for what it is. The world is not condemned by Jesus because the world in its foolishness condemns itself. But Jesus gives his life for this world so that anyone, regardless of their background or their past, anyone who wants to leave the darkness behind and live in the light of God’s truth can do so by believing in Jesus and trusting Him. This is the ultimate in generosity: we receive life with God forever by faith and through grace.
Christian generosity is not something we do because we’re required to. It’s not something we do to get into heaven. Eternal life is a gift of God, and there’s nothing we can do to earn it. We practice generosity because we are God’s children, and as God’s children, we want to grow up to be like our heavenly Parent. We are like kids trying on their parents’ shoes when we imitate God’s generosity. And as we clomp around in shoes too big for us, God smiles like a parent and says knowingly, “They sure grow up fast.”
It all comes down to a choice, really. Nabal or Abigail? Foolishness or wisdom? Darkness or light? Hard-heartedness or generosity? Death or eternal life?
Seems to me the choice is obvious. Amen.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church 3/15/15