Evolutionary Giving

First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Cynthia Lindenmeyer
October 1, 2017
Scripture: Psalm 145
Sermon: “Evolutionary Giving”

A song of praise
1 I will lift my praise above everything to You, Creator God!
I will continually bless Your name forever and always.
2 My praise will never cease—
I will praise You every day;
I will lift up Your name forever.
3 The Eternal is great and deserves endless praise;
Your greatness knows no limit, recognizes no boundary.
No one can measure or comprehend Your magnificence.
4 One generation after another will celebrate Your great works;
they will pass on the story of Your powerful acts to their children.
5 Your majesty and glorious splendor have captivated me;
I will meditate on Your wonders, sing songs of Your worth.

In the Spring of 2008 my son was in kindergarten. Like most working parents who have guilt about not spending enough time with their kids, when the call for chaperones for an upcoming field trip went out, I responded. We lived in northern Virginia at the time, and the field trip was to the National Zoo in D.C. When another chaperone couldn’t make it, the teacher asked if I could handle two groups instead of one. “You dare ask,” I thought, “I’ve commanded soldiers into battle, I can handle that.” While three classes of kindergartners from a very diverse elementary school awaited to board the bus, I gathered my ten assigned boys, put their lunches in my backpack, went over their names and learned three of them did not speak English very well. You can probably tell where this story is going. I’ll get back to it in a moment.

A few weeks ago, on a picturesque evening I was walking the dogs. The moon was full, radiating a burnt orange. As I walked by homes, I could see TV screens displaying news pundits facing off, various sports and the iconic NETFLIX logo. A part of me wanted to knock on the doors of all my neighbors and say, “Hey, look what is going on in the sky!” The great mysteries of the universe on display for us and we don’t need a satellite dish, entertainment account or payment plan. Every waking moment, we are invited to participate with God…The mysterious flow of nature is an ongoing drama lost in our hectic lives.

A field trip to the zoo is nature on display. My troop of kindergartners were captivated by a herd of gazelles which we learned could run up to 50 miles per hour. We learned that if a lion was about to attack the herd, that one of the members would respond by jumping, called stotting, up and down up to six feet, attracting all the attention and sacrifice itself so the herd could run away.

Next, we encountered the giraffes. A zoo guide asked the kids what was different about the giraffe, and they yelled, “They have a long neck.”

“Yes,” the guide said. “And they have the biggest heart of all land animals. It’s this big. ”WOW!” all the kids hollered.

Next, we ventured to the indoor building of primates that smelled so bad that someone with stuffy allergies would still respond to the very distinct stench. The kids were mesmerized by watching the baboons sitting in a circle cleaning one another. We learned that the baboons are actually socializing and forming bonds when they clean one another—it is their response to a need to feel protected when threatened. It is the theory of group selection on display in nature. If two groups are competing, and one group cooperates with one another, and another group is made up of egocentric (self-centered) members, the group that invests time in one another like the baboons, fare much better.

But within the group, the one who is most focused on self, will have more success. So there is this conflict—the interest of the individual versus the interest of the group. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution theorizes that the strongest species survive, and that may lead to a “look out for myself” mentality. We live in a culture where the actions of the individual are very much marketed in a Darwinian evolutionary way—we look out for ourselves.

What would Darwin say about the way humans evolve when it comes to giving to the church? Since Darwin rejects group selection and the importance of community, I think Darwin would say the church will not survive.

A quantitative analysis regarding the way members of church give, one would logically conclude that as we age, we give proportionally more to the church. I know for me I have evolved in my giving. I remember at a young age in Sunday School dropping whatever change my grandfather gave me into the offering plate, which was really a small plastic piggy bank that was not a pig, but a church. In high school I gave when the offering plate came around and when a specific need in the church arose, like the missionaries from Africa who spoke once a year. In college, I was broke. One night at our campus ministry, money was due for an upcoming retreat. I did not sign up because I had no money. Mysteriously, a crisp 100-dollar bill appeared in my Bible, and I was able to go on the retreat. To this day, I have no idea who put that money in my Bible, and so I could not respond with gratitude to a specific person. But I became more aware of how I spent money—because if someone gave me a $100, then I wanted to be a good steward of the way I spent money.

Speaking of stewardship—which could be defined as the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care….

The National Zoo had quite a bit of construction as it was preparing for elephants arriving from Asia. We came across the pandas, who were eating bamboo trees as such a fast pace that a call to people across the state who had bamboo trees to bring in their stalks. And people in the surrounding area responded. At some point between the hungry Pandas and the very smelly monkey house, though I was diligently ensuring that I had ten kindergarten boys, my son grabbed my hand and said, “Mom, where’s Matthew?” Matthew was a Korean boy wearing a red shirt and I definitely had a Korean boy wearing a red shirt in my group, but it was not Matthew.

How did I respond? Mentally, I wanted to respond like I left a soldier behind on a mission and call for back-up. After all, this was D.C. and the zoo was free. Any person who wanted to steal a kid could. I gathered my group and we very rudely bumped into other zoo guests as we returned to the last place I remember seeing Matthew. Five frantic minutes later, I saw another woman who looked as stressed out as I was and without any verbal communication, exchanged one red-shirted boy for another. With that crises averted, we journeyed back to the primate display which would have been my last choice to stop and eat our sack-lunches (remember the smell), but at that point I was just very grateful not to be the mom who lost a kid at the zoo.

I pulled out eight lunches from my backpack and then realized two of the boys whose English was not too great did not have lunches. My eyes searched for a snack bar but before I could figure out what to get them, the kids were in a circle all sharing their food with one another.

On the bus ride home, with all ten boys with whom I started, I thought about how they responded to nature. They saw how the animals took care of one another and they responded by sharing what they had with one another.

Think about nature’s response…

What is the butterfly’s response to the sun’s awakening as it rests on the petals of lavender flowers?
What is the squirrel’s response to acorns scattered beneath trees?
What is a nomadic ocean wave’s response once its travels meet a sandy beach?
What are the roots of an oak tree’s response when tested by a mighty wind?
What is a star’s response when gazed upon through a telescope?
What is a garden’s response to the nurturing care of a gardener?
What is the response of migrating geese when they find a quiet lake?

What is our response to God’s grace?

Last week, we heard the parables of the Workers in the Vineyard—those who worked all day in the hot sun received the same payment as those who worked an hour. I still think the workers who worked all day should’ve earned more than those who worked an hour.

My reaction to that parable reveals that I’m stuck in Darwinian thinking. Individualism. Survival of the fittest.

If we could break down the Christian faith in a sentence, it would be that God created us in love, God remembers us and we need God. Oh, but we are a people that do not like being in need. Reminds us of words like welfare, entitlements, helplessness—that’s not the American way. And maybe that’s what is tough when it comes to giving to the church. We are so used to living in a Darwinian system where reward is based on perceived hard work that we forget about grace. When we participate in a faith community, not in a meritocracy, we participate in the beauty of the ecology of God. Stewardship, giving to the church, isn’t about responding to guilt, but responding to God. Giving is our evolutionary response to ecological transformation and the rhythm of the earth. May we respond to God’s generosity the way that nature responds.