Fearless Generosity

August 29, 2013
Sarah Ens |

I preached for the first time a few weeks ago--a challenging, stressful, and rewarding experience. I chose the topic of generosity with the help of one of the pastors from my church thinking “Hey, what’s a little stress at the end of my summer!” I didn’t realize that the parable that came with this topic was pretty confusing and not very warm or fuzzy. Still, things sort of came together in the end, and I thought I would share the thoughts on generosity and the parable of the talents that I collected for that sermon here as a blog post.

Besides fretting about this sermon, I also spent this summer working as an intern for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a Commission that was put together following the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement with the aim to inform all Canadians about what happened during the 150 years of the Residential School system by gathering statements from residential school survivors and examining thousands of documents and artifacts. One way they hope to preserve their findings as well as make the information accessible is by establishing a National Research Centre which will be hosted by the University of Manitoba.

I was invited to attend the Signing Ceremony for this Centre where the agreement between the Commission and the University was finalized. This Ceremony was one of the richest experiences of my summer. I heard people like Dr. David Barnard, President of the University, and Greg Selinger read their speeches and sound very much like the white, educated, powerful men that they are. This was not particularly special.

What is memorable however is that I heard them communicating with and listening to Elders like Levinia Brown who was not reading a speech but rather speaking to us in a conversational tone, speaking to us with humour and unedited anger and grief.
Each aboriginal person that spoke, prayed or sang was choosing to communicate in a way that revealed themselves honestly to everyone in the room.

There was no hiding, no holding back. I heard the anger, fire and sadness of speakers like Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild and Justice Murray Sinclair.
And I heard that anger, fire and sadness find a centre around a wish for reconciliation.

Justice Sinclair told us that he hoped through the Research Centre, all Canadians would be able to see “the brokenness of our shared history infused with dreams”. The goal is that all Canadians will be able to “join together on a path toward reconciliation”.

So how does all of this fit with the topic of generosity and the parable of the talents found in Matthew 25:14-30? Well, with the generous help of my family and friends, I began to understand the parable of the talents in terms of two things: 1) responsibility and 2) fear. The master entrusted his servants with a job and what they did with that job marks their different understandings of what their responsibility to the master was.

The first two servants invest the money; they use it, they risk it, and they increase it. They understood that it was their job to act on what they had been given, and I think that their interpretation of responsibility is very important to us as disciples. What we have and who we are is meant to be used and shared. Generosity is not merely a feel-good act—it is in the job description.

A story that I think illustrates this understanding of responsibility very well is that of Lucy, the woman who began Hope Community Centre in Kenya. Before she began the school and orphanage that is Hope Community Centre today, she was living and working in Nairobi. One day after work she noticed a child who was living on the street walking by her apartment carrying a bag of garbage. As she looked at him, she decided to take a risk. She decided to take responsibility. She decided to invest. She invited the boy into her home, fed him supper, and allowed him to sleep on her couch. The next day when she left for work, she told him that he could stay there in her apartment if he liked and when she returned she asked him if he’d like to go to school. The boy said yes. Before long, a dozen kids who had been living on the street had found refuge in Lucy’s home, which is when she decided to quit her job and throw all her efforts into creating what is now Hope Community Centre.

I think we can compare Lucy’s story to that of the first two servants who were praised and blessed by the master upon his return. And I think this parable calls us to ask ourselves questions similar to those that Lucy must have asked herself that day she opened her home to a street child. Questions like: “What am I responsible for? Who am I responsible to?”
The third servant understood his responsibility differently. He decides to protect the money and keep it safe. He believes that it is his responsibility to avoid the risk of losing the money and buries it in the ground.

Now, in that time, hiding money in the ground was much more common, and seen as one of the safest things someone could do to protect their money. He wasn’t spending the money on himself. He wasn’t wasting the money. He was being trustworthy and responsible.

But then the master comes back. And the first two servants are rewarded, while the third servant is called “evil” and banned from a life of happiness with the master, or a life in heaven. This was confusing to me, and I was only more confused when I read the line about how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer… “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them”. That doesn’t seem like something Jesus would say, and it doesn’t really promote the idea of generosity.

But this is where I think it helps to think of this parable in terms of fear. The third servant was paralyzed by fear—limited by his fear. He said “I was afraid and went and hid my master’s gold in the ground”. He could not even imagine doing anything but burying the money, keeping it safe. And I think we can exchange the idea of money here for faith: the third servant wished to protect his faith by hiding it away. With this understanding, I read the master’s critique of the third servant to mean that he was wrong in trying to protect the money, or his faith. The line: “For whoever has will be given more and whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them” does not make sense in monetary terms in the passage since even the third servant, the servant given only one talent, was still given a whole talent. A talent in those days was a huge sum of money, and no one would understand the third servant to “have not”. So if, instead, the master is talking about faith when he says “for whoever has will be given more”, perhaps he is saying that whoever has faith will only grow in faith. This is a faith that does not need to be buried in the ground and protected. Instead, the servants of the master, or we as disciples of God, can be free to go out and allow for a generosity of spirit and vulnerability. It is our responsibility to take risks by offering all we can, because a faith in God is not a faith that needs protection. A protectionist faith, a stagnated faith, a faith that is buried in the ground and hidden, is a fearful faith. And you can’t be fearful and generous. You can’t be protective and generous. You can’t be scared to lose what you have and be generous.

What does a fearful generosity look like? Well, I immediately thought again of the Indian Residential Schools. The churches that ran those schools could be thought of as “generous”, could be thought of as fulfilling their responsibility to God. The children were given clothing and shelter. They were given the “good Christian faith”! Many of the missionaries teaching in the schools truly believed that they were saving Aboriginal children from Hell by teaching them about God and many of the missionaries worked with very little pay, far from their families, in horrible conditions. They were working there with a generous spirit.

As I was going over documents from the 1940s this summer, I read letters in which the Government thanked the religious teachers and principals who worked purely out of “the goodness and generosity of their hearts”. I read confessions among Government officials about how it was better to hire religious teachers because they were willing to work in more difficult circumstances with less pay because they saw their positions in the school as not only as a job, but as a responsibility—a generous gift. This was what some people believed was generosity.

However, the generations of children that were forced to attend these schools were stripped of their languages, their religion, and their culture, torn from their families, and taught that they were savage and heathen and stupid. They were forced to do hard labour in unsafe conditions and denied health care and dental care. Many were abused emotionally, physically and sexually.

I think that this is what generosity turns into when people are afraid. Afraid to give because of what they might lose. Afraid to listen to those with opposing ideas or those of a different culture and context because they feel the need to protect their own.

Afraid to understand the poverty, the inequality experienced by others because they want to be able to justify keeping what they have. Afraid to dig up their faith and try to invest it in God’s work because they do not know how their faith may change. I believe when people give fearfully and protectively, they give with a motive to “help” or to “save”, without being able to listen to the people they believe will benefit from their generosity.

This is not true generosity. I think true generosity requires friendship and respect. And this is not possible if you are afraid.

Which brings me back to the Signing Ceremony that I talked about at the beginning of the sermon. By generously opening opportunities for reconciliation and by honestly communicating without hiding or holding back, each person at the Ceremony was acknowledging their responsibility to each other and demonstrating fearlessness. By deciding to generously make accessible the National Research Centre to all Canadians, the Commission has allowed us to better understand our own areas of responsibility, power, and fear. This is what generosity without fear or protectionism looks like. And as disciples, this is our responsibility. This is how we have been called to give.

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