The story is told of a wise old man who was - one beautiful day - walking through the hills. This was his habit and - very mindful and aware of his surroundings - his eye was caught by a flash of light just a few feet from where he was walking. He leaned down to take a better look and there he found an enormous ruby. All he said was "interesting". He wiped the precious stone clean and placed it in his pouch, alongside the modest lunch he had brought for the walk.
He continued to walk, neither excited nor overly troubled about his unusual discovery. After about an hour, the wise old man heard footsteps and he turned to see a young man walking toward him. The man appeared dishevelled and more than a little bit distressed.
The two men greeted one another and the older man looked gently at the younger as he waited for him to speak. "I'm sorry to bother you" said the young man. "I'm in trouble. I have had to leave my home and I have no food. I'm starving."
Without a word or a moment's hesitation, the older man reached into his pouch and gave the young man half of the food he had brought. The young man's expression suddenly changed. Along with gratitude for the gift was another expression - need, envy, desire. He had seen the great gem.
He paused for a moment, seemingly fighting an internal battle. "That stone!" He said. Barely able to contain himself. "I need it. Give it to me!"
With no more concern than he had shown when he gave away half his food, the old man handed over the enormous ruby. "Here. It is yours. I hope it brings you peace."
The young man had no words. He simply turned and ran from the old man.
"Interesting", the old man said aloud once he was alone. And he simply began his walk again.
Hours later, as the sun began to drop lower in the western sky and as the old man began to head back toward his home, he heard footsteps once again. This time they were rapid, running.
It was the same young man he had encountered earlier. In the young man's outstretched hand was the gleaming gem.
The young man tried to catch his breath "I've been following you - trying to catch up with you...." The old man patted him on the shoulder "it's ok, take your time." The young man's breathing at last calmed.
"Please - take back this stone you gave me. It is precious. It is worth a fortune, but I want to ask you for something greater - something even more precious."
"What can I give you?" asked the old man.
"I beg you" said the young man. "Give me whatever it is in you that allowed you to give away that stone."
Throughout the month of March, we will be exploring the subject of generosity. If you had a hammer, would you be inclined to use it to fix your own home - perhaps to secure it against the arrival of unwelcome surprises or guests, to hide yourself away from the frightening world outside?
Or would you dare to hammer for others - to hammer strength into the love between your brothers and sisters everywhere?
If you had a bell, would you reserve it to ring for your own pleasure - for your own protection? Or would you ring it for others, to awaken them to the dangers of our individualistic, materialistic culture - to warn them of the threats of injustice and suspicion throughout our world - to help them to hear and dance into the love between your brothers and sisters everywhere.
If you had a song, would you sing it for yourself? Maybe in the shower or the bath? Would you sing it quietly so no one would hear? Or would you throw caution to the wind and sing out loud and proud to the joy and benefit of others? Would you dare to sing your song for the love between your brothers and sisters everywhere?
OK, I know that many of you are thinking "My singing would actually cause pain for others." Talk to Stephen after the service. He can help you.
The truth is that our voices our hammers and our bells are needed by the world.
You may have noticed that the theme of generosity coincides with this month's launch of the annual pledge campaign - the time when each of us is asked to reflect carefully and decide how we will support our community financial over the coming year.
This may seem like a transparent ploy to soften you up for a bigger commitment.
It is and it isn't.
Yes, thinking about and working at generosity is important for supporting this community. After all, this community is you and you need to decide what happens to it and how you will support its movement to the future. In that sense, I unapologetically admit that I want you to be thinking hard about your giving to New Unity.
But generosity is about much, much more than deciding to make a large pledge to your community each spring.
We use the word generosity often when we actually mean we want to squeeze another penny out from the hand of someone holding it tightly. "Come on. Be generous!"
But that's not how it works. That's like saying, "Come on, be satisfied" or be forgiving or be mindful or be grateful. They are all wonderful things to be, but none of them come about by saying so.
I do not suddenly become a mindful person because - with gargantuan effort - I pay attention to my surroundings for 30 seconds.
I do not suddenly become grateful because I force out a "thank you very much" to the host of a dinner party.
I do not suddenly become forgiving because, having heard someone say "I'm sorry" over and over again in 10 different ways I at last, grudgingly, say "yeah - don't worry about it."
The story of the wise old man and the precious gemstone suggests two important truths:
Firstly, generosity is a way of life. It is a way of being in the world. It is a way of being that is desirable for its freedom and peace. It is a joyous way to live.
The second point of which our story reminds us: generosity is not easy to come by! "I beg you!" pleaded the young man "Give me whatever it is in you that that allowed you to give away that stone."
Peyton Conway March, an American military man who was especially involved in organisation US involvement in the First World War, had a surprisingly astute and hopeful view of human life. Was it despite his experience in war or because of it? I don't know.
He said this: "There is a wonderful mythical law of nature that the three things we crave most in life -- happiness, freedom, and peace of mind -- are always attained by giving them to someone else."
Generosity is not a way of self-sacrifice. That is not what generosity feels like. Generosity - true generosity - brings us joy. It brings us peace. When giving feels painful or makes us feel puffed up and virtuous, it is not generosity. Painful and self-serving giving is giving that comes out of fear or from the need to make ourselves feel like more than the small selves we imagine we are.
In fact, generosity is intimately associated with our own self-esteem. It is not that giving creates self-esteem. Rather, the more we love ourselves, the more likely we are to give to others from our hearts, our hands, and from our wallets as well.
Generosity is a joyous way to live and it is not a way to live that we can simply turn on and off. In fact, we may not even think we know how to turn it on except that - every once in a while - we notice that it flickers into being and then - just as rapidly is gone again.
The path to generosity is not an easy one. We begin with a first step. Give. If it feels good, fabulous. Do it some more. If and when it hurts, that is the opportunity to grow in generosity. Why does it hurt? What wound, what fear, what dread is keeping me from being the person I aim to be? This understanding is the second step. Growth is the third. Being with something larger - with our community, with our God, with our deepest selves - allows us to grow beyond and through the hurts that keep us from being who we want to be.
The fourth step is to return to the first: give again so we can learn again and then grow again.
Of the cottonwood trees - those magnificent living givers that shed a snowstorm of fluffy airborne seeds every spring - Lynn Ungar says: "Without words, they know so clearly that everything depends on what we call giving, that which the world knows only as creation."
Let us be part of the ongoing creation of life and of love.