Sunday, July 12, 2009

The water of charity

Isaiah 58: 9-12
9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

It’s the summer for general church assemblies and conferences. The United Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians and United Church of Christ, just to name a few, have already gathered in solemn assembly to discuss the giant issues of our time. I’ve been following the news from various conferences just to see if there are any real surprises. Not so much. As usual a lot of us are talking about a lot of the same things. How to grow our churches in income and membership. How to handle issues of sexuality. What to recommend to the federal government about health care and care for the earth. The biggest news has been how news has gotten out. Some folks were sending out messages on Twitter, Facebook and their blogs continuously throughout the events, so anyone who was interested could know what was going on as it happened. This has been very cool, as it has meant I didn’t have to wait for the magazines to come out a couple of weeks after each event to know what happened. You may be sure that Disciples, including me, will be doing the same things during our Assembly a few weeks from now. But aside from that, no really new news. But there were a couple of very significant statements made just this week.

Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori surprised everyone at the Episcopalian General Convention in Anaheim when rather than speaking to the issues of gay bishops and other matters of sexuality she talked about individual salvation. “She . . . names the sin of rampant individualism as the cause of most of the world’s problems, from environmental disasters to economic meltdown.” 1

When God spoke to Israel through Isaiah and the other prophets, God spoke to Israel as a people, not as individuals. He spoke in particular to the leaders, who represented the people and whose decisions about national policy were binding upon the people. Jesus too rarely spoke to just one person saying “this is what you must do” but to groups. And even when he did seem to address himself to one person it was easy to see that the instructions were meant for all to follow. Like Isaiah and the other prophets, it was the leadership who bore the brunt of his wrath for not putting God and the wellbeing of God’s people ahead of rules and traditions and greed and lust for power.

Anyone who was greedy, who pointed fingers blaming others for their mistakes, who spoke evil of any who opposed them should of course seek to change their behavior in order to be as God wants us to be. But leaders who behaved in this way led all the people into slavery – metaphorically, slavery to sin, and literally, slavery in Babylon. Leaders who behaved unjustly and without mercy brought evil upon the whole of the nation, not just upon themselves.

We know this to be true. In the eyes of some, the German people are still living in the shadow of evil events perpetrated by their national leaders a lifetime ago. There are many today who blame all Americans for the decisions of our leaders, even though according to polls the majority of Americans disagree with some of those decisions. The actions of the leaders always reflect upon the people. The people are blessed or punished depending upon the actions of the leaders. When the leaders of Israel behaved justly, caring for the poor and keeping the greed of the wealthy and powerful in check, the people also prospered. And when they didn’t, the people suffered. This had been seen again and again in the history of the people of Israel. And yet – here they were again, doing all the things the prophets and judges had told them not to do.

We understand these words as individuals, of course We have to, really. It’s kind of hard to take direction of this kind as a group. Remove the yoke. Stop pointing fingers and speaking evil. Offer your food to the hungry. Satisfy the needs of the afflicted. Individually, we do what we can. We support agencies who do what they can with what they are given. We offer our money to Church World Service so that people who’ve lived without may enjoy fresh water, and our labor to Habitat for Humanity so families with little hope may have a home. We rarely speak the word “Charity” these days even though that is what we’re engaged in. I’m not sure why.

Pope Benedict XVI released a statement this week that focuses in part on charity. He said “Charity is love received and given. It is grace. . . Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is “mine” to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is “his”, what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot “give” what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. . . [regarding the common good he said] To love someone is to desire that person's good and to take effective steps to secure it. … To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity.. . The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them.”

The Pope went to on to say that charity is required of all Christians, but also that the first responsibility of all governments is to care for its people in this way. To feed the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted. To care for the earth on which their nation is placed. It shouldn’t be any surprise that the leader of the largest Christian church should agree with Jesus and the prophets and hold the leaders of the world responsible to care for their land in every way. For Jesus said “34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:34-35)

And if you do these things, Isaiah says, , then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

What does all this charity talk have to do with caring for creation? That is the sermon series, after all, “Creation Care as Justice.” There was a little piece in Pope Benedict’s encyclical that I read as meaning when we give to another, we are not giving something that belongs to us, but rather sharing with him something that God intended for all of us to have. I keep going back in my mind to Genesis where Adam and Eve are told to care for all the earth and its creatures. When we help Church World Service dig a new well so people in an African village can more easily raise crops, we are helping bring life back into earth that has been parched. When we buy seeds or baby chicks through the Heifer Project for a family in South America, we are helping them be self sustaining so they may continue to live on and care for the land where they live. And of course, when any part of the earth is restored to health, that’s good for all the earth.

Even more, moving out of self, ceasing to put ourselves first, becoming aware of ourselves not as individuals but as part of something much bigger than we are, we more fully become part of the body of Christ. When we realize that who we are and what we are is no more or less than one small and critically important piece of the body, then our own desires stop being as important as making sure the entire body is well. Isaiah tells us, and Jesus tells us, that when we act in these ways – feeding the hungry, caring for the afflicted, loving the neighbor – then our light will shine. And everyone will know us by the love that we have for each other, and for all the creatures of the earth.

So let’s do what Isaiah said and Jesus taught us. Let’s listen to Bishop Jefferts Shori and Pope Benedict. Remove the yoke of sin, of being unloving and selfish and self centered. Stop blaming others for the ills of the world. And give of ourselves that water might flow in the desert, and the land everywhere become green and life filled once more. Let us offer ourselves to God, so that everything we are and everything we have might be dedicated to the care of all creation.

1( Candace Chellew Hodge)


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