Thursday, March 10, 2011

Learning Generosity

Isa. 58:1-9; Ps. 112:1-9; Mt. 5:13-20[1]

I’m something of a people watcher. I find it fascinating to observe the trends and fads and the ebb and flow of the way our society functions. Of course, all that observing I do is from my perspective, and therefore it is necessarily limited and biased! Unfortunately, I’m not always as aware of that fact as I should be, and the result is that I have an unfortunate tendency to pass judgment on people about whom I really know very little! Perhaps it is my academic background that kicks in at those times—evaluating, analyzing, and judging are all very much a part of the academic process. But if I leave it there, it’s really just a convenient excuse for me to be “right”—which always happens at the expense of another! It’s not a very generous outlook.

Having said that, I would like to observe that it seems to me that our society is not one that I would call generous. We’re a people who are rushing around, trying to get ahead of everybody else, pushing and shoving to get to the front of the line for fear that there will not be enough to go around. It seems like we’re a people grabbing to get what’s ours before “they run out.” Among the many problems with that outlook on life, it goes against the grain of what it means to be truly human. When I read our Scripture lessons for today, one of the thoughts that comes to mind is that what the prophets and teachers and apostles were trying to encourage in the people of their day was to recover a spirit of generosity as a way to recover their own humanity and restore their community.

One of the central features of the biblical message is that we who claim to be people of faith in the God of Exodus—the God who looks on the oppressed with ultimate compassion and who liberates the captives—are summoned to emulate that spirit in the way we relate to the people around us.[2] The Bible calls it “fearing the Lord,” but the idea is really one of trusting God and orienting ourselves to God’s purposes in this world.[3] And over and over again, the Bible defines those purposes in terms of “justice.”[4]

What I find striking in our lessons for today is the clear and concrete way in which they define living out a life of justice in terms of practicing generosity! In fact, in our Psalm for today, “conducting one’s affairs with justice” is specifically equated with “dealing generously and lending” as well as “distributing freely” and “giving to the poor” (Ps. 112:5, 9). The prophet says that practicing God’s justice looks like this: “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke”; “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them” (Isa. 58:6-7). Practicing generosity is the heart of what it means to live out God’s justice in our world. It is about lifting the burden, and lending to the destitute, and helping those who cannot (for whatever reason) help themselves!

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to take a different approach toward the destitute in our world—especially those who challenge our sense that the world is an ordered and predictable place where if we follow the rules we can rest assured that everything will turn out alright. When we feel threatened by the destitute, we tend to fall into the pattern of judging them—we analyze them and assume we know why they “fell through the cracks.”

When we see others as a threat to our well-being—whether it’s the destitute who challenge our false assurances about life, or simply the neighbor whom we fear might get there first and “they might run out”—it is impossible to practice generosity. Rather than opening our hands to share, when we live out of that kind of fear we tend to close our fists in order to protect what’s ours—and we have all kinds of ways of closing that fist, from gated communities to “vagrancy laws” to simply assuming we have a right to judge another human being.

So how can we find a way to unclench that fist and open our hands to give the gift of generosity to the people around us? Well, I think it starts with faith. In order to learn to practice generosity toward others, we have to overcome the fear that there will not be enough and trust that our needs will be provided. And I think generosity comes from learning to live out of a spirit of gratitude. When we overcome the resentment of insisting that I somehow got short-changed, and instead learn what it means to approach life from a sense of gratitude that we have received far more than we could expect, then we can relate to others with generosity. And I think it also takes a good dose of humility. When we recognize how many times we have failed and instead of getting what we deserve God’s grace has come to us and let us off the hook, we will be more likely to extend that grace and let others off the hook.

Generosity is not easy to learn. And it can be even more challenging to practice. It’s hard to know when someone is truly in need and when they’re just scamming you. And it’s hard to know how much you should give a person who is destitute. And it’s risky, because you can’t control what others will do with the help you give them. But I think practicing generosity is worth the risk. It holds out the hope for us to hang on to the compassion and gratitude and humility that help us preserve our humanity. And it holds out the hope that we can restore our community—perhaps only in small ways, but they are meaningful ways nevertheless.[5]

At the end of the day, we who profess faith in the God of Exodus who compassionately liberated the oppressed are called to practice that same generosity with the oppressed people in our world.[6] We who have time and again received the gift of being let off the hook are summoned to extend that grace to those we encounter who fall short. We who have experienced the open hand of God giving us all that we need and more can do no less than to open our hands and extend them to the people around us—our neighbors, all our neighbors.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/6/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 355-56.

[3] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1136.

[4] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 204, where he defines it as “compassionate justice.”

[5] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 206.

[6] Cf. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1133; cf. also Mays, Psalms, 359.

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