Radial Generosity message by Guest Speaker Alex Costanzo. For more information, visit cornerstone-sf.org
Well, it’s a privilege to be here this morning. This is the third time that I’ve been invited to share in the last six months, I think. I’m starting to feel like a regular around here. I feel legit. It’s a good feeling. It’s October and there’s a lot going on. We’re getting ready for the election. The Cubs are going to the World Series. Have we got any Blue out there today? Go Cubs. October is also Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I’m wearing my little pink ribbon here this morning. I’ve had the chance to share some of my cancer journey with you before. I was first diagnosed in 2010, was treated, and they declared me cured. I never thought I’d have to deal with it again. But about a year ago, it came back. This time it spread to my bones, making it stage four with a very serious prognosis. According to the statistics, I won’t be able to finish raising my family. But by the grace of God, I’ve been receiving experimental treatment in a clinical trial. For now, the cancer is gone. Thank you, God.
Unfortunately, I have to be in treatment indefinitely. I go in about every three weeks. The last time I was there, I ran into the only other participant that’s left in my trial. We’ve become friends. She is a very nice lady. She started the trial about six months ahead of me, I think. Her scans have been clean for almost a year. But when I ran into her, she informed me that her cancer was back. That’s pretty devastating news for her. Honestly, it’s not that great of news for me. We have no idea if my cancer will follow the same timeline as hers. Part of me feels like I’m living on borrowed time. Another part of me believes that God can do anything. If it’s in His will, you might be stuck with me for another 20 years. We’ll see.
Facing mortality has a way of crystallizing what’s important in life. I’ve been feeling an extra urgency to impart wisdom, particularly to my kids. Michael and I have three sons, two teenagers and a nine-year-old. The oldest is Rocco, he’s a high school junior. He’s getting ready to start thinking about college. We’ve been able to visit a few of them. It is so competitive these days. You have to have a successful startup or solve world hunger to get into some of these schools. It’s just ridiculous. These kids are under so much stress. I confess that I have probably contributed to some of this stress as well. I’ve been known to have some, what they call tiger parent tendencies. I admit I push my kids. I want them to do their best.
Are you familiar with the tiger parent grading scale? Have you heard of this? “A” doesn’t stand for excellent, it stands for average. B stands for bad. C stands for, can’t have dinner. For the record, I’ve never withheld food from my children. I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t done it. D stands for don’t go home. F stands for find a new family. It’s hardcore. I read an article recently about a study that was conducted. It showed that the majority of teens today prioritize their achievement and happiness above caring for others. We start them young. Don’t we? Our culture says to strive for personal success, wealth, power, and status. That’s what’s going to make you happy. For those of us who follow Jesus, this should not be our sole mission in life. Don’t mishear me. There’s nothing wrong with success in and of itself. Many of you are leaders in your fields and organizations. God has blessed you with talents and skills. You’ve worked hard. That’s great and should be celebrated.
As Christ-followers, we should be using our success to glorify God and bless others. The flip side of that survey should be true too. Loving others should take priority over our own happiness and personal achievement. Jesus taught us to love God and others in addition to spreading the gospel. This is our prime directive. He taught us to love in such a way that it goes against the grain of our culture. This is what I want to dig into. How does Jesus want us to love? In a teaching known as The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was quite specific about how He wants us to love. Let’s walk through this together. It’s found in Luke 6, “But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you.” Right out of the gate, Jesus is saying something radical and counter-cultural. Sometimes I think we forget how radical His teachings were and still are.
Did you know that Christianity is the only faith that says we should love enemies? Why would we love someone who wants to harm us? It’s counterintuitive. It goes against human logic. When I think of my enemies, my mind goes straight to my childhood in the schoolyard to those bullies who terrorized me. Maybe some of you experienced that kind of thing as well. I’m not sure if I want them in heaven with me, frankly. Who is your enemy? Think about it for a minute. Is it a competitive coworker? Maybe a grouchy neighbor. My son plays the drums, so we have many grouchy neighbors. We do a lot of baking cookies and give them out at Christmas time. If we’re honest, we have a hard enough time loving our own family and friends, let alone our enemies. Whether someone truly hates you or just dislikes you, Jesus says to do good to them, bless them, and pray for them.
Let’s keep going. Verse 29, “If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also.” This one goes against not only our sense of justice but against our instinct for self-preservation. We live in an eye for an eye world. The bad guys shouldn’t get away with it. We want the good guys to win. This is why we love revenge movies. It resonates with our human need for justice. Jesus is saying, don’t repay a wrong with another wrong. My boys are always saying, “He started it. It’s all his fault.” But Jesus says, “No. You don’t have to get even.” Love means restraint even when you’re justified.
Verse 30, “If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. Give to anyone who asks.” Anyone? Many of us give generously, but we go to great lengths to decide where to give. Don’t we? It’s not a free for all. When things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Has anyone ever stolen from you? It’s a violation of your personal rights and it’s not a good feeling. Maybe someone tried to take advantage of you and your generosity. You give an inch, they take a mile. Jesus is saying, “It’s okay. Let it go, people.” I think that people are more important than material things. Verse 31, “Do to others, as you would like them to do to you.” It’s funny how human nature wants justice for others, but mercy and compassion for ourselves. We want others to give us the benefit of the doubt, but when the tables are turned, we only give others one chance.
Verse 32, “If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them.” Jesus is saying, love the unlovable. Who are the unlovable people in your life? Don’t point. Have you ever visited a small group, and on the way home thought to yourself, “I don’t like those people.” Well, Jesus would say, that’s exactly why you should go back and join the group. Sometimes we have to practice loving unlovable people. It’s easy to love the ones that are lovable. Maybe you have a bad boss. Bad bosses can make your life miserable. Jesus says you should still give him your best, even if he takes credit for your work. He doesn’t want us to pick and choose who we love.
Verse 33, “If you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much.” How many of us keep count? Jesus is saying, give and serve without expecting anything back. Verse 34, “If we lend money only to those that repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return.” Don’t you hate it when you let someone, somebody borrow something, and they never give it back? I lent someone my Michael Jackson, Thriller tape, and I’m still waiting for it. Or we lend someone money and we’re bitter because they haven’t settled up and they don’t seem to want to either. I have extended family members who haven’t spoken in decades over money quarrels.
Jesus says, “Love your enemies. Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great. You will truly be acting as children of the most high, for He is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked.” Would you agree that our culture loves with strings attached? We follow the tit for tat approach and ask questions like, “What can I get in return? Does this person deserve my love?” Jesus says, “I don’t want you to love like that. I want you to love the way I love, indiscriminately, unconditionally, and generously.” This is how Jesus loves us. He gave this teaching, and then He walked the talk. During His betrayal, trial, and crucifixion, He turned the other cheek, literally, when they were beating him. He didn’t retaliate. The son of God didn’t defend Himself. He even blessed those who cursed Him. He hung on that cross and asked God to forgive His murderers. This kind of love is powerful and transformative. It’s what drew us to Jesus in the first place. It can also seem superhuman and untouchable for us.
How do we love radically and generously like Jesus? This is what I want to explore in the time that we have left together. My first thought is yield your heart. The Luke passage that we just went through came alive for Michael and me years ago when a friend of ours stole from us. The details aren’t important. Let’s just say that it was a very large sum of money and had the potential to ruin us financially. The hardest part for me was that our friend didn’t seem remorseful. I was really, really angry. He had no right to do this to Michael, me, and our family. What I’m about to share in no way condones the crime that this man committed or any crime for that matter, but God wanted to do something in my heart in this particular situation. That’s what I want to share with you. He wanted to teach me about sin.
Our society judges sin by the consequences of it and how it affects others. This is why our criminal justice system punishes murder more severely than stealing a car, for instance. Many of us think, “I’m not a bad person. I’ve never hurt anyone.” But God sees sin at its origin in our hearts. It’s different for Him. Jesus said that anger in your heart is like murder in God’s eyes. By this definition, I wasn’t any different than the guy who took my money. I realized my hypocrisy. If Jesus forgave me, I have to forgive him. I can’t have it both ways. Michael and I still pursued restitution, but God was asking me to forgive him no matter what transpired. I think it was the first time that I really got what it cost Jesus to forgive us. Sometimes we gloss over the gospel. Jesus died for our sins, yeah, yeah, yeah. I heard it so many times. We can regard it so casually, but it wasn’t casual for Jesus. It cost Him His life. He didn’t deserve death. He was perfect. We deserve death, but He took our place. It was the most generous act of all time because it was the greatest injustice of all time.
This is what we call grace. God was telling me that I could let go of demanding fairness because of His grace because His grace was enough for me. That grace can set us free. It can set us free to love the unlovable, to serve the undeserving, to forgive those who don’t think they need forgiveness. That’s what I had to do. Forgive this guy no matter what happens. Even if we didn’t get the money back, even if I had to earn every penny back myself, which would’ve taken me years. I had to yield my heart to Jesus, give Him the right of way, and allow Him to transform my heart into His. Because radical love overflows from a humble heart. We did get the money back, but ironically, it didn’t happen until after I let go in my heart. That’s how God works.
For the second idea I had about how to love like Jesus, we need to shift to an eternal mindset, from earthly to eternal. We know that earth is not our final destination. When we decide to follow Jesus, we become citizens of heaven, even though we’re still here on earth. The lens through which we live out our lives should no longer be a secular view, but the mind of Christ. Let’s take a look at what it says in Romans 12:2. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is, His good pleasing and perfect will.”
Our world says, you only live once, right? My kids are always like YOLO, YOLO. It’s all about you. It’s performance based. Show me what you can do. Jesus says, “It’s not all about you. It’s about loving others. I care more about what’s in your heart than how you perform.” He teaches us to store up treasure in heaven and not on earth. It’s better to give than to receive. He says it’s better to serve than to be served. But do we really believe this? Do we really live like this? Do our actions support it? If we follow Jesus, we should look more like Him and less like our culture. We’re supposed to be different from our culture. We can learn to delay gratification because we have the promise of salvation. We can guide our desires on this side of heaven and give ourselves away like Jesus did. Even when it’s inconvenient or costs us something. It will cost us something. Maybe our comfort, money, resources, and maybe even our hopes and dreams. But we know that a reward is waiting for us.
My two younger boys are Bruno and Julio. Bruno is 14 and Julio is nine. One day, Julio, the nine-year old asked me, “Is it true I’ll get rewards in heaven for being Bruno’s butler?” “Yeah. Yeah, buddy. I guess it’s true.” I’m thinking to myself, “What’s going on here?” My middle child, you always have to watch out for that one. Later, we peeked into their room and Julio had served Bruno a snack in bed and was giving him a back rub. Kids are more enthusiastic about heaven than adults, I think. C.S. Lewis once said, ‘when we Christians stop thinking about the other world, we become ineffective in this one.’ We don’t talk about heaven that much, but I think we should. Jesus did. He says He’s preparing a place for us. I think it’s going to blow our minds. I think it’s healthy to contemplate heaven. To be honest with you, I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, thinking about heaven and eternity.
A Bible scholar and pastor named, Randy Alcorn researched the scriptures. He made some very interesting speculations about what heaven might be like. The book is called Heaven. I want to share some of his conclusions. Think of this as a heaven trailer. We will have new bodies that are both physical and spiritual. We’ll have jobs. We’ll still have emotions. We will recognize one another, including our pets. Here’s one for the foodies. We will eat and drink. I like this last one, the best. We’re not going to miss our old lives. He says, it’s like flying first class. Once you’ve experienced it, you never want to go back to coach. This really comforts me that I’m not going to miss my old life because as I continue on my cancer journey, I want to be around for weddings and grandchildren. I don’t want to miss out, but I know that what awaits me will be even more than I can possibly imagine.
The last thought I have about loving like Jesus is so simple and yet so challenging. Stay connected to Jesus. Stay connected. When I think of radical generosity, I can’t help but think of my father. He retired early and took care of my mom for 12 grueling years. She had Alzheimer’s. What was extraordinary about my dad is that he never ran out of juice. I’m not talking about energy because there were plenty of times when he was physically exhausted. I’m talking about his amazing attitude. His demeanor was so cheerful that you would think he had won the lottery. If you met him on the street, you’d never guess that he was feeding, clothing, and bathing his sick wife, day in and day out, who didn’t even recognize him. We lived together for the last five years of my mom’s life. I saw it firsthand. He didn’t complain. There was no self-pity, only gratitude, and peace. The man had spiritual endurance. He’s still living today. He’s remarried and lives on the East Coast. I get to see him just in a couple of days.
Many of us can give a lot, but then at some point, we’re just tapped out. We’re done. Boundaries, we declare. Sometimes boundaries are called for. Sometimes we just don’t have what it takes to complete our mission. I remember Michael had the flu once. He was in bed for two and a half weeks. He was really sick. Looking back, he was really sick. The first few days, I gave him all this TLC. Being super nice, feeding him homemade soup, and putting warm towels on his forehead. But by the end of the first week, I start to get a little annoyed. Like, “Dude, it’s been seven days. Come on, push through.” He’s laying around all day and I’m starting to feel like a single mom with the kids. By the end of the second week, I’d had it. I’m slamming pots and pants, stomping around, sliding bread and water under his door, and giving him the silent treatment. I was done. I ran out of grace, but my dad didn’t. He was faithful to the very end. My mom died holding his hand.
Let’s take a look at John 15:5. John is my dad’s name. This is one of his favorite passages. “Yes, I am the vine. You are the branches. Those who remain in me and I in them will produce much fruit. For apart from me, you can do nothing.” When we stay connected to Jesus, we will produce fruit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Yes, the ability to take care of your wife for 12 years without despair, to forgive someone who wounded you deeply, to love radically and generously as Jesus did. You know you can’t fake this fruit. You can’t just try harder to be more loving and patient. Maybe you can fake it for a little while, but at some point, you’ll burn out, maybe even grow bitter and resentful because you’re trying to do it on your own strength. It’s like stapling apples to a tree. It just doesn’t work. It’s not the same thing.
You can’t force this fruit either because it takes time and some discipline. It’s not about focusing on the fruit at all. It’s about focusing on our hearts and relationship with Jesus. As we grow in that relationship, the fruit will come. It’ll come. In the meantime, Jesus invites us to remain in Him. What does it mean to remain in Him? It means more than simply believing in Him. The word remain in the original Greek means to abide, to not depart from, to be in union with. This means we should be fully engaged, all in, sharing thoughts, attitudes, and intentions with Jesus, His thoughts and attitudes. We do this by spending time with Him, by studying Him and His teachings. Like what we’re doing this morning, talking to Him. Remaining in Jesus will look different for each of us, but there should be some mix of prayer, studying scripture, and being in community. This is why you need to go to a small group, even if you don’t like the people there.
This world is so distracting. Isn’t it? I mean, there are so many things to take our attention away from Jesus. Sometimes I think I have an advantage over all of you because I can’t physically see the distractions. But even for me, I have to remain in Jesus daily. I try to go to His word first every morning, even before I check my emails because I need His word to ground and fuel me for the day. I watched my dad remain in Christ daily for years. He was always praying, worshiping, and singing. He loves music and reading his Bible. When he could get away from the house, he would go to church, lead Bible studies, and serve in church and his community. He was like a supersized conduit of God’s love and power. It flowed through him and onto others around him.
We live in the digital age. We are all attached to our devices. When one of our devices runs out of power, we scramble or recharge it, right? Some of us have those little portable chargers, so we can recharge on the go because we don’t want to be without power. We are like these devices. We can hold the charge, but only for so long. If we’re not plugged into Jesus, we run out of power and we can’t produce fruit. But if we plug in consistently and constantly enough, seek Him with a yielding heart, and seek to obey Him, the fruit will blossom naturally. You’ll find it easier to love, serve, and forgive because God transforms us. It might not happen overnight, but it will happen. God is so clever. He’s so amazingly clever because when we produce fruit, the world, our world, our culture, notices. Our fruit helps to reach others for Jesus. Like my dad, what makes that guy tick. Why is he so happy when he should be miserable? I’ll tell you what, Jesus. This fruit isn’t just for non-believers to see. It’s also for us to experience and enjoy.
Later on, in the same passage of John in verse 11 Look at what Jesus says. “I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow.” There it is, that word overflow, the name of our series. When we cultivate our relationship with Jesus, fruit overflows, not just to others, but in our hearts and lives. It sustains us, whatever we’re going through. The fruit will sustain us. But maybe some of us feel like we got nothing left to give. Maybe we’re in a difficult season in our life and we’re struggling. We feel withered and all dried up. I get that. I do.
My life hasn’t turned out the way I thought it would. My plan was not to be a blind, stay home mom with cancer. That was not my plan. It doesn’t matter if you’re sick or healthy, if you’re going through tough times or good times, or if the world says you’re a success or a failure, it doesn’t matter. We all have something to give. Jesus will empower us to be able to give it. That’s part of why I’m up here because this is something I can give, share my story, and hopefully encourage somebody. I want to make sure my boys understand following Jesus is the most important thing in life. It’s the best way to invest your time, energy, and resources. Learning to live radically, learning to love radically and generously is not foolish. It’s not foolish. It’s the best way to reap a harvest of eternal significance and lasting joy.
Before I close, I want to encourage you. Where is God asking you to be radically generous? Maybe He wants you to reconcile a broken relationship. Maybe He wants you to step out of your comfort zone and serve somebody. Maybe He just wants you to let go of something in your heart. Go ahead, take the next step. He’ll be with you every step of the way. In a minute, we’re going to have a time of giving and the band is going to come up and do a final song. But let’s close in prayer together. Dear Father, God, we are in awe of how much you love us. We understand that grace came at such a huge cost. Thank you so much for your son who gave it all for us. Who modeled what radical generous love looks like, Lord. He continues to love us that way daily. Soften our hearts towards your will, Lord. Transform our hearts and show us where in our lives you want us to be radically generous. May it all be for your glory. In your son’s precious name, we pray. Amen.