30 September 2018

Giving Our All

In 390 BCE, the Gauls, an ancient Celtic people, sent an army to take the city of Rome.  The Gauls tried to sneak into the city early one morning. Near the sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Juno, on the Capitoline Hill, lived a flock of geese, kept in a courtyard.  As the Gauls approached the geese were startled and began to honk loudly.  The captain of the guard, sleeping near the courtyard, heard their ruckus and woke up.  He spread word about the impending invasion, brought in more troops, and saved the city.  Juno, the wife of Jupiter, was considered the queen of the gods and the most powerful goddess.  She was originally the goddess of marriage and childbirth, the protectress of women, patroness of female virtue, and the patron goddess of Rome.  The Roman General Marcus Furius Camillus built a temple on the hill in gratitude for protecting the city.  She was known as Juno Moneta, from moneo, which means “to warn.”  Geese soon became symbols of Moneta, the goddess of warning—from which we get the English word money.  Around 290 BCE, the first Roman mint was built adjacent to the temple to Juno Moneta and the coins, struck with the head of Juno Moneta, were called moneta.  She became known as the protector of money and the guardian of finances.

Money and mint both evolved out of this ancient temple and mythos.  The myth taps into or reflects the way money is viewed as a god.  The myth also reminds us there’s something about money that is inherently alarming.  “Ever since the invention of Money, people have had to guard and defend it.  Now there was something worth stealing and an alarm to be sounded that we all must heed.”[1]

We remain enthralled to this myth, even if we don’t believe in the gods.  We do.  Money is a god.  It’s worshipped and praised by many.  If we’re not worshiping money or wealth, we certainly know the anxiety we feel around money, and alarm that it brings.  We’re anxious about having enough, about where it’s going to come from, and we worry about it being taken away or stolen.  Sometimes people who have more than they need and are at little risk of losing it are the most anxious.  People who have little or nothing have a different kind of anxiety, anxiety and fear that are justified and real.  Fear and anxiety over money can be devastating and dehumanizing and producing a lot of shame. 

Our two texts this morning, from Deuteronomy and 2 Corinthians, are two of many in the Bible that offers a very different attitude toward money and wealth and giving.  They form the foundation for a theology of stewardship that calls into question our views of money and wealth that trade in anxiety; these texts offer a different way, a way that is liberating and life-giving.

We begin, not with money, but with God.  God is always the starting point. We started with the great Shema, “Hear, O Israel, The LORD is our God, and the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). Write this on your heart.  Inscribe it on your forehead. Mark it over the lintel of the door.  Don’t forget.  Remember.

What should we remember?  “Remember what the LORD—Yahweh—has done for you, remember the promise he swore to your ancestors to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Rachel and Leah.  When you enter into the land of promise, which did not belong to you, which was given to you as gift, and live in large cities, which you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of the place of slavery. The LORD you shall fear, the LORD you shall serve, the LORD and the LORD alone is owed your loyalty (Deut. 6:10-13).

This text, and others like it, reminds us of the givenness of things, of all that we have but didn’t earn, is, like grace, a gift.  We are reminded of the prevenience of grace, the fact that grace is always prior, it always come first. The gift, that which has been given to us, is always first.  We don’t create the world, we are born into a world that is already here. When you consider the world, the gift of human existence, the gift of your life, the gift of God’s grace which has saved you and continues to save you and redeem you and make you whole, when you consider all that has been given to you—do not forget the Adonai.  Then let your worship, your life, your service be in response to the prevenient grace, to what has already been given to us. Give of yourself.

“The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly,” Paul said, “and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  Put in a little, then expect little.  Invest generously, expect a generous yield.  How you give, what you give is between you and God, whatever you decide, whatever your conscience dictates.  What matters most is that we give not reluctantly or under compulsion, not because it’s what’s expected of us, not because we have to, but because we want to.  This might not sound all that radical, but it was.  Because what you need to know is that in Roman society, which was extremely patriarchal and hierarchical, generosity and gratitude were often forced.  People were expected to express their gratitude to the emperor for what the emperor provides.  In this patron-client system, a patron provided protection, money, access to power in exchange for the client’s loyalty, allegiance, and thanksgiving.  Giving was not free.  It had conditions.  Protection, money, and access were given only when you promised loyalty and gratitude.[2]  It was an even exchange. The amount given was proportional to the response received.

However, what Paul is suggesting here about giving undercuts, even undermines the patron-client system.  We don’t give reluctantly, not because we must to be safe and secure.  That’s not motivating us. We give because we want to, because giving should be a matter of the heart.

Where’s your heart? Is your heart in it? God want us to give—whatever we give—from love. God wants us to give because we want to, because it brings us joy knowing that through what we give we are bringing joy to the world.  “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7).  The Greek is actually hilaritas.  In the Greco-Roman world, the goddess Hilaritas was the personification of cheerfulness, rejoicing, and mirth. She’s often seen holding a cornucopia, a horn of plenty, signifying abundance.  This is the root of the English word hilarity.  A better translation would be, “God loves a hilarious giver.” God wants your hilarity. You know what’s it’s like to be around someone who is hilarious, she causes you to laugh and laugh, and when you’re laughing with joy, it just flows and flows from a deep place; it’s there in abundance.

That’s what giving is like in the Christian life.  The apostle Paul is often described as the theologian of grace because he knew, first-hand, the transforming power of God’s grace, made real for him in the face of Jesus Christ.  When Paul experienced the enormous generosity of God’s love and grace toward him, it released something enormously generous and generative in him.  When we encounter this grace, when we experience it, when we’re pursued by grace, we discover that we are free to be generous because there’s more than enough to go around, there’s never any risk of losing what we have, because, technically-speaking, we don’t have anything that really belongs to us.  We’re drinking from cisterns that we haven’t hewn. So we are free to share.  “And God is able,” said Paul, “to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8).

Grace and gratitude.[3] These two words pretty much sum up the Christian life. The more we experience God's generous grace toward us, the more our hearts are moved to respond with gratitude. Just as grace is experienced in a variety of ways in our lives, so, too, is gratitude.

But sometimes there’s a “gratitude gap.”  That’s what contemporary religion scholar Diana Butler Bass describes in her recently released book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. This past week The Presbyterian Foundation hosted a stewardship conference in St. Louis where Bass was one of the keynote speakers.  I wish I could have been there, but I followed online.  Back in 2015, she came across a disturbing statistic in a study conducted by the Pew Forum.  The survey indicated that 78 percent of Americans said they had experienced gratitude within the past week.  “Seventy-eight percent is an extraordinarily high number,” she said.  “I sat for a moment with that and thought, ‘Wow that’s really wonderful that eight out of 10 Americans say they’ve felt strongly grateful in the last seven days.” She said, “Wow,” but then asked, “Am I one of the 78 or one of the 22?”[4] This began her exploration of gratitude; she wanted to be more grateful in her life.

There are two important aspects of gratitude that she unearthed in her research.  First, she found that American men are uncomfortable with the concept of gratitude. Why? “Being strongly indoctrinated in the importance of being ‘self-made,’ men find it an insult to be told they didn’t accomplish their feats alone. “No one gives me anything.” “I do it myself.”  “I earned it myself.” “I don’t owe anyone anything.”  This is the prize narrative in our culture and has influenced American men. This attitude has shaped how we view gratitude. But, remember, we live in cities that we didn’t build, drink from cisterns that we did not hew, enjoy the fruit of vines which we did not plant.

For all of us, Bass believes, there is within American society a “gratitude gap.” Most of us know that gratitude is good. Being grateful is actually good for us.  Still, there is a gap between our desire to be grateful and our ability to behave gratefully. We might feel personally grateful, but we fail to convey our gratitude in a public way, and this is adversely affecting our personal and public lives.  Bass has found that, “Being grateful does not appear to make much difference in our larger common life.”  This has enormous implications for society and institutions, including the church. How do we move from private gratitude to public gratitude?

In Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead, the ailing Congregationalist minister John Ames tells his son, “There is more beauty than our eyes can bear, precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”[5]  I love this sentence.  I love Gilead, it’s one of my favorite novels.  I love Marilynn Robinson’s writings, she’s a person of deep faith and searing insight and a great lover of John Calvin (1509-1564)—she understands Calvin better than most.  Calvinist or Reformed theology is imbued throughout her works, including Gilead, especially this one sentence.  

This sentence beautifully sums up the Reformed claim that grace and gratitude are at the heart of the Christian life.  And Calvin wrote quite a lot about beauty.[6]  Beauty is all around us, more than our eyes can bear, beauty not of our own making, prevenient beauty. Given to us.  Indeed, much—so much—has been given to us.  Precious things have been put into our hands, entrusted to us, and to do nothing to honor them, to fail to acknowledge them, to use them, to share them, even to give them away, is to do great harm.  This is a profound insight—and it haunts me, actually. To withhold our gratitude, to not be generous with what has been placed into our hands, into our lives, into our bank accounts, especially when we have the capacity to be more grateful and generous, is to do great harm. We cut, we sever the grace-gratitude connection, and our souls suffer as a result.

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, and the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). All.  Not some.  Not a little. Not enough. All.

With gratitude, we are call to be good stewards of our time, talent, and treasure.  Being a good steward is to honor what has been given to us.  It means not holding back.  We are free to be hilariously generous with our time, talent, and treasure. But woe to us when we prefer to be too cautious, when we hold back, when we withhold, when anxiety and fear take control of our lives.  

Where in our lives are we holding back our time, our talents, and our treasure?   Where can we be more generous with our time? Not because we have to, but because we want to?  Where does the heart want to be more generous?  How can we be more generous with our gifts—to really use them and not hide them under a bushel? Where can we be more generous with our financial resources to do more good in the world?  What harm are we doing, often unintentionally, by holding back or withholding our time, our talents, our gifts, our love?

Gratitude takes many forms. What matters most is that we respond to the gift of grace, and not hold back.

[1] Aaron R. Kipnis, The Midas Complex: How Money Drives Us Crazy and What We Can Do about It (2013).
[2] Diana Butler Bass, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving (HarperOne, 2018).
[3] See Brian Gerrish’s brilliant text Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin
[4] Presbyterian Foundation, Stewardship Kaleidoscope, September 25, 2018. 
[5] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (Picador Books, 2006), 290
[6] On beauty in the Reformed tradition see Belden C. Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

23 September 2018

Welcome the Child

Mark 9:30-37

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Before we rush to judge the disciples for arguing over who was greatest, we need to chill and step back. If you lived in Palestine during the Roman occupation, you would have asked this question many times.  Roman society was rigidly hierarchical.  It was also built upon a shame-honor dynamic, which feels very foreign to us today.  Your sense of honor or shame was contingent upon how you were viewed by the larger community, particularly those in your social level.  Public humiliation was one of the most painful experiences one could endure.  To lose a sense of one’s honor, to be publicly shamed, to be dishonored felt like death.  And many a Roman preferred to take one’s own life instead of face dishonor or shame.

Organizing a society this way cultivated growth in civic participation, aspiring people to live honorably in the eyes of the wider society. Honor virutis preamium, the Romans said.  Honor is the reward of virtue.  This was the positive side of the shame-honor system. However, human nature being what it is, this approach inevitably led to secrets and schemes to keep the shame-producing truth from ever seeing the light of day.  “In shame cultures it is the group that has the conscience, not the individual.  Thus, when a group accuses one of violating its standards, deep shame is the result.”[1]  This sounds eerily familiar today as we see the shaming of victims who speak out, often courageously, to report abuse or sexual harassment or crime.  The shame felt by the victim is overwhelming and paralyzing.

It’s quite natural for the disciples to be curious about where their movement placed them in the wider social context and, individually, they would have wanted to know who was the “greatest” among them.  Status meant everything.  Status brought power, honor.  Status meant height, being “high” above others who were below you.  Once you figured out where you were in the pecking order you were encouraged to stay there.  That’s what was meant by “being humble.”  It meant “staying within one’s inherited social status, not grasping to upgrade oneself and one’s family at the expense of another.”[2]   In Jesus’ world, you knew who was at the top—the emperor—and you knew who was on the very bottom—the slave—and somewhere in between (probably close to the bottom) was you.

All of this is important to keep in mind because what’s going on in this text is radical.  What Jesus is up to here is astonishing. In the privacy of this house, not out in the public, Jesus doesn’t judge them for their discussion.  Instead, he intentionally undermines their societal assumptions of how the world “really works” and shows them a still more excellent way.  He challenges their assumptions about what matters and doesn’t.  He destabilizes the foundation, the structural core of their moral universe.  That’s why Jesus is radical, because he gets to the root, the core of what matters.  He does this by lobbing at them the curve ball of all curve balls, something so counter-intuitive, something they would never have considered valuable or possible or sane or even desirable.  Jesus unmasks the power structures of his society and the disciples’ aspirations for power and privilege, and then undermines, undercuts their value system.  It’s as if Jesus is taking on or hoping to heal all the damage inflicted upon a society based on shame and honor.  How does he do this?  Where?  “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk. 9:35).  That would have left them speechless.  It still leaves us speechless.

This is the grand reversal of the gospel.  This is what the kingdom of God is and does and what we’re called to embody. This is what grace does. This is the way the world ought to be and is becoming.  This is justice.  Jesus reverses the pecking order.  The Gospel always questions the prevailing morality of any culture.  Jesus challenged the moral assumptions of his society.  The first shall be last and the last shall be first (Mark 10:31).  If you want to be first, if you want to be great, if you want something to feel honorable about, then give up your status, move in the opposite direction of where you are, choose downward mobility; instead of wanting to be served, serve—serve all, especially those who are below you or those you consider below you.  If you want glory, then be who you were created to be—serve one another.

And with that Jesus reaches over and places a little child among them and puts his arms around the child (Mark here uses one of the most unique verbs found in the New Testament).  He takes the child in his arms and says:  See, like this.  This is where you start.  This is how you do it.  Even this gesture is wildly radical and subversive. 

Unfortunately, we have domesticated the text.  We have our images of Jesus welcoming the children, gathered at Jesus’ knee, smiling, innocent, well fed, well dressed, well behaved, clean, and cherub-like.  These images are seared into our brains.  But I wish we could get rid of them or forget them or cast them aside.  We mustn’t romanticize this text; we mustn’t romanticize children.  And we mustn’t dehistoricize this text by lifting it out of Jesus’ time and placing it in ours or, worse, taking our views of children and projecting them back into the text. 

I said earlier how slaves were at the bottom of the rung. Well, children were just a little higher than slaves.  Like slaves, they had no status, no rights.  They were invisible.  “Childhood in antiquity was a time of terror.  Infant mortality rates sometimes reached 30 percent.  Another 30 percent of live births were dead by age six, and 60 percent were gone by age sixteen.  Children were the first to suffer from famine, war, disease, and dislocation, economic deprivation, and in some areas or eras few would have lived to adulthood with both parents alive.  The orphan was the image of the weakest and most vulnerable member of society.  Childhood was thus a time of terror.”[3]  Surviving to adulthood was cause for celebration. That’s why rites of passage ceremonies were so important in earlier cultures, they meant one survived childhood.  “Children had little status within the community or family.  A minor child was on a par with a slave, and only after reaching maturity was he a free person who could inherit the family estate.”  To call someone a child could also be a serious insult (Matthew 11:16-17).  This is not to say that children weren’t loved and valued.  They were.  Having children promised continuation of the family, as well as security and protection to parents in old age.[4] Still, it was a dangerous time.

Jesus embracing a child was a symbolic action demonstrating the core of his ministry, declaring what matters most in the kingdom of God.[5]  We should not be arguing who is the greatest.  Instead, we are called to question the moral structure of society that fails to care of the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40).  What is more, we must work against that structure if society is not willing to care for the “least of these.”  We are not called to serve the rich and powerful, those with status and honor in the eyes of society, we are called to serve the “the least,” the child, children. Embrace them.  Care for them. 

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said, “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” It is true that as people of faith we are called to ensure that our children are safe and secure, that they are cared for, that they are offered the prospect of a future to grow and develop and love.  Jesus was obviously talking about children, but he didn’t consider children the way we do today.  Jesus is really talking about welcoming, embracing, and holding close to our hearts the most vulnerable segment of society: the weakest, the marginalized, the ignored or excluded, those without power, the poor. These are the people we are called to love and to serve, the least of these among us, be they children or adults, or adults who are as vulnerable as children. This is kingdom work.

In his last speech, vice-president Hubert H. Humphrey (1911-1978) was channeling this kingdom ethic when he said, "...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”  In other words: the most vulnerable. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) caught the vision of the kingdom when he said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, tirelessly reminds us, “If we don’t stand up for children, we don’t stand up for much.”

But Jesus is not first talking to nations or governments, he’s talking to the church, to the people of faith who are in seats of power and have authority in government—whether in Annapolis or Washington, DC.  And people of faith who through their voice and actions have enormous power and influence upon the way we care for the most vulnerable in our society, for the marginalized, for those women and men and children who are invisible to us, whose plight is unknown to us because we have not stepped into their lives, or maybe have not stooped down low enough on the social ladder to consider their plight. 

There are many vulnerable segments of our society we could highlight here, our “children” in need our care and love.  Children made up 52 of the refugee population in 2017, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, up from 41 percent in 2009. Consider the number of immigrant children being detained in the USA.  At the end of May 2018, the number was 10,773.  The most recent number is 12,800 children, both unaccompanied and separated from parents.  Closer to home, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, on any given night in 2017, 2,669 experienced homelessness in Baltimore City.  The 2018 poverty threshold for a family of four in the United States is $25,100. In Baltimore City, 21.9% live below the poverty line. More than 1/2 of poor residents live in deep poverty, meaning they live at or below 50% of the federal poverty line; more than 1/3 of children in Baltimore City live in poor households. In Baltimore County, approximately 9% of the population lives below the poverty line; in Howard County, 4.66% live below the poverty line.

I can throw disturbing statistics around all day.  They’re helpful to a degree, however, statistics remove us from the situation at hand; they depersonalize and dehumanize.  It’s tough to embrace a statistic.  It’s tough to wrap your arms around a statistic.  Each statistic has a beating heart, made of flesh and blood.  Jesus calls us to wrap our arms around a fellow-child of God.  To welcome a “child”—to embrace the most vulnerable in our society—means that we are at the same time welcoming Jesus: to welcome him is to welcome and embrace the One who welcomes and embraces us all.  This is what the kingdom of God is all about. This is the Gospel.  This is what we’re called to.  It’s tough.  It’s not popular.  It requires courage. And, yes, it even has political implications for the living out of this vision.  The gospel is always political, because the gospel is concerned with power and people and ensuring that people are empowered and loved and cared for.

Jesus loved children. And I imagine children knew they were loved by him. Jesus said that whenever we welcome a child we welcome him; to neglect, hurt, or exclude a child is to neglect, hurt, and exclude him. Today, Jesus continues to call us to welcome the “child,” to extend hospitality, welcome, and sanctuary to the most vulnerable among us: the weak, the neglected, the marginalized, the ignored or excluded, the powerless, the economically vulnerable, living from paycheck to paycheck, meal to meal. 

It might be difficult to empathize with the marginalized or most vulnerable.  But if we want to be considered “great” in the Kingdom, we know what we must do. The burden of responsibility is upon us, both collectively and individually as people of faith, to welcome the child. The kingdom, the gospel, Christ requires nothing less from us. Then and now, it’s a radical step to take. When we take this step, whenever we live this way, it will leave the world speechless.

[1] See Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1992), 237-238.
[2] Malina and Rohrbaugh, 237.
[3] Malina and Rohrbaugh, 237
[4] Malina and Rohrbaugh, 238.
[5] See Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man:  A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus  (Maryknoll:  Orbis Books, 1994), 260ff.