Living Generously: Systems
Today we begin a few weeks where we’ll be talking about living generously in worship. As we’re watching the leaves begin to turn the most beautiful colors outside, as Thanksgiving approaches, as we’re thinking about the stewardship of our community…it seems we have an invitation to do some spiritual work, to think about all we have and what we do with all we have.
So, for the next few weeks we’ll be asking what it might look like if we approached every area of our lives, individual and collective, with an attitude of lavish generosity. In the coming weeks we’ll think about the material things we own; the investment of our time and talent; and the stewardship of our relationships. Today our focus is systems—the systems that govern collective living, and what it might look like if those systems reflected a sense of generosity.
You and I are well aware that all around us are systems built and maintained by greed; our world is rife with inequity and filled with people suffering the effects of these broken systems. When we talk about living generously as people of faith, we acknowledge that our living in community must extend beyond the occasional Girl Scout cookie purchase or some spare change in the Salvation Army collection. The way we live in community with each other reflects what we value. And there’s no mistaking it: the gospel message surely has something to say to the grasping, greed-filled systems of our world, and quite a bit to say to those of us who build and maintain them.
Guiding our thinking this morning is a passage from the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus continues to spar with the temple rulers who were getting nervous about what he was doing. You’ll remember if you’ve been around these past weeks that we’ve been reading through passages in the gospel of Matthew telling the story of Jesus’ last week. It begins with Palm Sunday, when the whole town threw a party for Jesus when he arrived. Things quickly went downhill after that, though. Everywhere Jesus went, he wound up clashing with the folks in power, turning over tables in the temple, telling terrible stories filled with thinly-veiled criticism of prominent people, just generally making everybody mad.
I myself have been mad, in fact, as my preaching assignments have included such challenging parables as the parable of the wicked tenants and the parable of the wedding banquet!
Today we find Jesus again, in conflict with the temple leaders, who were trying desperately to beat him at his own game. It was a lawyer in today’s passage who took a turn. He approached Jesus and asked him a question: “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
This wasn’t really a thoughtful question intended to facilitate deep conversation about things that matter; it was a calculated chess move. You’ll recall there were 613 commandments religious Jews were required to follow, so many detailed rules that structured their lives. For Jesus to declare the most important commandment would certainly be a point of controversy for somebody!
But, as we’ve seen these past weeks, Jesus doesn’t shy away from a debate, he’s always taking things deeper than we expect, and—I’m guessing—Jesus might have had a little bit of media training, because—if you notice—Jesus doesn’t answer the question that’s posed. Instead, he gives an answer to a deeper question.
What is the greatest commandment? Well, that would be easy. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind. But, wait, let’s talk about what loving God looks like—tangibly. There’s one more commandment that goes hand in hand with the first: love your neighbor as yourself. All the other commandments? They don’t amount to much unless you’re practicing these. Love God, love your neighbor.
So, so hard.
Last week we heard a powerful word from Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. On our Children’s Sabbath, she stood here in the pulpit, talking with passion and intensity about the need for people of faith to challenge systems that hurt and oppress some of the most vulnerable among us—our children. As Mrs. Edelman always does when she talks about this issue that has defined her life, she wove in and out staggering statistics that painted pictures of these broken systems.
Perhaps, like me, you left last Sunday with so much of what she said lingering in your heart. So I went back this week to look at all of the stark reality she shared with us. Here’s a quick litany of what she said, condensed:
We live in the United States of America, the richest nation on earth.
In our country there is a child born into poverty every 36 seconds.
In America there is a child born into extreme poverty every 69 seconds.
Our children are the poorest age group in America and the younger they are the poorer they are.
The richest 1% of Americans own more of our nation’s wealth than the bottom 90%.
A child is arrested every 24 seconds in our nation.
Over 75% of our Latino children and 80% of America’s black children cannot read or compute at grade level.
In America a child is confirmed abused or neglected every 47 seconds.
A child or teen is killed by a firearm every 3 hours, and injured by a gun every 30 minutes.
One American child is killed by abuse or neglect every 5 and a half hours
States are spending over 2 to 3 times more per prisoner than public school pupil.
And, we live in the United States of America, the richest nation on earth.
Friends, this is not the picture of a system that generously includes, nurtures, and loves our neighbors. It’s a system in which some people have power and others don’t; in which some of us have so much more than we need and some don’t even have the basics; in which some voices are heard far too often and much too loudly, while others cannot speak at all.
It’s all good and nice to say that we love God, to be good people who follow the rules and read our Bibles. But that’s just the first part of what it means to be a person of faith. Jesus added the second part: love your neighbor as yourself…because that’s where the rubber meets the road, where the deep commitment to love God with heart, soul, and mind, comes to bear on our daily living. You can claim to love God all you want. Loving your neighbor is how you illustrate your love for God.
Because we can never forget that we are all tied together; that we live in a world of mutual dependence; that how we behave in relationship with each other is important; that the choices I make have effects far beyond just me.
But how? How can we create generous systems in a world so broken?
This is how. We begin to understand that the statistic of a child born into extreme poverty every 69 seconds…and the child injured by a gun every 30 minutes…and the child who doesn’t have a safe school to attend…in the richest country in the world…these are more than statistics. These are our neighbors. And we cannot love our neighbors as Jesus instructed unless we hear of such suffering and immediately question the systems are causing that suffering.
If we have the courage to do the hard work of living in relationship in such a way that we insist on systems of mutuality and care for neighbor, we are going to have to tell the truth about our broken systems.
We are going to have to insist on standards of excellence and collaboration whenever and however we are in community together.
We are going to have to keep saying that broken systems need to change, until they are systems that care for the least of these, that steward resources effectively, that right wrongs, that stand up to powers that hurt and oppress, that create over and over again in every place that human beings gather together, the beloved community that Jesus kept insisting we must live.
As Jesus’ words echo over our hearts and our minds today we know: there are so many broken systems pervasive in our world. Until we begin to love our neighbors by creating systems of generosity and justice, I wonder if we can even say that we love God at all?
When we begin to see each other as neighbors, that’s when we begin, slowly but surely, to dismantle hurtful systems and begin putting in place healthy, generous systems in which our mutuality is a holy gift. This week a friend reminded me of a favorite poem by Palestinian American Poet Naomi Shihab Nye. The poem’s title is Gate A4, and it’s an unusual kind of poem as it tells a story. Listen:
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning
my flight had been delayed for four hours, I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately.”
Well–one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,”
said the flight service person. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly….
The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to
her–Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies–little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts–out of her bag–and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo–we were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling….
And then the airline broke out free beverages from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too….
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate–once the crying of confusion stopped–seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies….
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
The poet says it well: this world we live in is a shared world.
All of us who say we love God with our hearts and souls and minds must create and sustain systems of generosity, where we begin to take our calling to be stewards of each other seriously.
Jesus just won’t stop saying things that challenge us to our deepest core. You say you love God? Show it by creating a world in which we take the instruction to love our neighbors seriously.