Scriptures: Isaiah 58:1-14 & Acts 2:41-47
Given On June 30th, 2013 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY (4th in the Life, Abundant series)
When I was about 5 years old, my grandparents on my dad’s side, moved from the small fishing and golfing community of Santee, SC back to my hometown of Lumberton, NC. Our family, my mother and father, my brother and myself were just about to welcome a third brother into the world and I think that they wanted to be closer than the 2 hours or so that it took us to come for visits. Our world’s were much the better after their return. I spent a lot of time at their house. A lot. Some of my earliest memories of those times revolve around time spent with one or both of my grandparents. Watching Atlanta Braves baseball or Carolina Tarheel basketball with my granddad, helping my grandmother in the kitchen, playing in their backyard with the neighborhood children while my grandmother sat on the back porch shucking corn or snapping field peas. It was a completely loving environment that in many ways I have spent a lifetime alternating between trying to recreate and trying to return to. Not surprisingly, many of my earliest memories involving my grandparents revolve around food. It was my granddad who taught me about eating peanuts and drinking coca-cola on a hot summer day and to this day, my grandmother made the best root beer float I’ve ever had. Truth be told, the constant refilling of either soda or ice cream probably didn’t hurt the final product. And when any of the three boys had a birthday we got to request whatever we wanted for dinner from my grandmother and the whole family would get together at their house and enjoy a meal together. Because of my grandmother’s influence, pineapple upside cake remains my absolute favorite cake. Sundays after church almost always meant meals together at their house and if I close my eyes and let my mind slip back to that time I can still taste the fresh grown tomatoes right out of the garden smeared with my grandmother’s homemade mayonnaise, made the old fashion way, with raw egg, long before people were worried about silly things like salmonella poisoning. And as I think back to that time, the one feeling that continues to emerge in my mind is a feeling of contentment and care that was provided by the loving hands of my grandparents.
In the time that I was given with my grandparents, they passed away when I was 12 and 13, respectively, their house was a revolving door of my friends and none were ever made to feel anything but welcome. My best friend lived right down the road from my grandparents and numerous were the trips spent walking between his house and their house and each time any of my friends would come with me to their house they to were grafted into the family through the sharing of root beer floats or peanuts and coca-cola, or on rare occasions pineapple upside down cake. And so as I was preparing this sermon, the memory of my grandparents came into my mind. I was reading the philosopher, Peter Singer’s book, The Life You Save, and he begins with a question. If one day your child brought home a friend after school and the friend, at some point while she was at your house mentioned something about being hungry, would you feed her? Singer presumes, correctly I hope, that of course you would feed her. So he pushes the envelop a little further. If you were out walking one day and came across a five year-old child complaining about being hungry would you stop and try to offer the child some way of being fed. Again, Singer surmises that most of us would stop and figure out some way to help the child. Singer then reaches the crux of his questioning. If we would welcome and feed the child who is in our house and we would stop whatever we were doing to help the child that we encounter while out of a walk, what is our response to the 10,000,000 children who die each year around the world from issues that stem from the basic circumstances of poverty? What is the responsibility we feel or should feel towards them as individuals and as a society? Taken a step further, Singer points out that there are around 1.4 billion people who live around the world on less than a dollar a day. Now, Singer grants that the vast, vast majority of those persons living on less than a dollar do not live in the United States and that poverty here looks starkly different than poverty in Africa or Asia, but he wonders if that fact alone relieves us of the responsibility we have towards persons (and especially children) who live in such wretched conditions.
Over the last three weeks I’ve tried to begin to lay out the groundwork for an intentional spirituality that encompasses the whole of both the life of the individual but also the life of the community, Beginning with the simple question, “How are we to live?” and then exploring the manner in which we have fallen from the perfect image of the holy in which we were created. Following that falling we, both as individuals and communities began an unending quest to pick up the pieces of our shattered worlds as we seek to place God at the highest point of a mountain of accidental qualities and material goods. Having laid the ground work, lets now begin to look at the different parts that make up an intentional spiritual life with today’s area, abundant culture.
At this point in our history, there seems little doubt that we as a people cannot continue on the path on which we find ourselves. From the most starry-eyed idealist to the most rock solid conservative, most will grant that the manner in which we live as individuals and communities must change if we are to survive as a people and a species. We are using up the resources of our planet at an alarming rate with battles over fossil fuels serving only as the prelude to future battles over food, clean water, and access to quality healthcare. In the Western World we have chosen systems of economics that ensure that wealth will be created for many that find themselves at the top of the mountain while simultaneously creating the conditions that also ensure that many will remain poor and some desperately so. We have created a system that requires that each relationship is defined by competition rather than cooperation where to be successful is to win each of these mini-competitions that go on between ourselves and the other while to fall deeper and deeper into poverty is to lose each of these competitions day-after-day and year-after-year. For many, it is the fear of losing these competitions that they believe will inspire the poor to rise up out of poverty. This creates systems of abjections here and desperate destitution around the world. While we have been able to and continue to dismiss the impending struggle against poverty and for the basic necessities in our own culture through a combination of willful delusion and various opiates that take the form of entertainment, even those are beginning to lose their ability to dissuade from the chief concerns of our world. As the internet and social media continue to bring us ever closer together as a planet, events from around the world more easily become part of the narratives of our lives. Thirty years ago, it is hard to imagine that we would know anything about the ongoing torture by the Assad dictatorship in Syria or the genocidal actions that continue to plague Darfur and the Sudan or the struggle for many in other parts of the world just to feed their families and find potable drinking water. With the internet, hundreds, if not thousands of times a day images from the struggles of the world are beamed onto our television screens, our computer screens, our smartphones until the weaker part of our own selves demand that we look away from the pain and heartache being splayed on our screens at which point we seek out the comfort of television, or sports, or books anything to give us a moment of respite from the bombardment of the knowledge of the ills of the world. But all hope is not lost. There’s always hope.
The two scripture readings for the morning offer a vision both for the individual communities of which we each find ourselves members but also for our societies and world at large. The passage from the book of Acts tells of the earliest days of the church in which the disciples, newly filled with the holy spirit begin to reach out into the larger community with a message of love and fellowship. We pick up at the point in the story whereby three thousand new followers are baptized and brought into the loving care of the whole community. We are told that each day, more reached out in loving kindness to the society at large and that each day more were brought into community. That they began to devote themselves to study, to prayer, to the breaking of bread together around table and each day their faith was upheld and strengthened by the powerful things that the spirit was doing in their midst and throughout their community. We are told that as they continued on and their numbers grew that they began to keep a common purse, that each contributed what they had, great or small, for the good of the whole community and they each only took what they needed to survive, leaving the rest for others who needed the resources of the community more. And we are told they were happy. That they entered each meal together, each time of prayer and worship with glad and generous hearts, praising God for the bounty that they each enjoyed. While they had very little, because they took care of one another, they were able to enter into worship and the breaking of the bread with glad and generous hearts.
In the second reading, Isaiah offers a greater and yet more pointed vision for the world as we are called to create it. A vision in which we reach out to the poor and destitute in our midst and loose the bonds of injustice that continue to hold them down. To each hungry person that we know about, we are called to give them food. To offer the homeless a place to stay, to take those without adequate clothes and give them clothes. To live as if our reason for being on this planet, the reason we were created was to make the lives of those around us more bearable, more livable. And if we strive to do that, Isaiah tells us that two things will happen. One, God will continue to take care of our needs, God will 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. Your 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. And also, the very light of God will shine in the dark places of the world because you have chosen to use your life to shine light. And as we know, there is always light in the darkness and the darkness can never ever overcome it.
Both of these visions for the world seem odd in our contemporary setting. In the Western World we are in a period in which individualism seems to be defining the parameters by which we are in relationship with one another. I’ll take care of mine and you take care of yours. But, folks are, by and large, a pretty unhappy bunch. The pursuit of material wealth has left many of us feeling hollow as we see the things that we thought matter breakdown, be stolen, or held so tightly that we cannot begin to garner any enjoyment from them. Do we possess glad and generous hearts? The abundant culture that arises from an intentionally spiritual life allows us each to live, with none being allowed to go to bed hungry. The abundant culture that arises from an intentionally spiritual life calls each of us to examine each moment of each day the manner in which our resources are being used and asks, “is there more that we can do with them?” Are we called to do more with them? The intentionally spiritual life calls us to be aware of the ways in which the money we spend can be used to better the world as a whole or can be used to perpetuate the systems of poverty around the world that allow us to purchase T-shirts at a cheaper rate, or coffee at a cheaper rate, or food at a cheaper rate. An intentional spirituality calls on each of us to be constantly vigilant of the plight of the poor in our midst and around the world while seeking to grow in the awareness of the systems that perpetuate the conditions of poverty around the world and then to seek to change them or withdraw participation in them.
But we need not fear. The spirit, the holy spirit who dwells deep inside of all of us is with us. She calls and we can follow, she passes over the dark places and shows us how we might spread light. She dances with us and we are called to bring more people into the dance. She loves and we are called to share in that love and to offer that love to each person we encounter. Because of our membership in the human race, because of our position as the only, we think, creatures who possess a consciousness of our world and our place within it, we are each responsible for the other members of the human race, we are each responsible for our brothers and sisters both in our midst but also around the world and what you do in this moment, what you do in every moment matters. The whole of human history rests on one moment at a time, one instance in which we might bring about incredible change in the lives of our brothers and sisters around the world or we might inch closer to the point of no return. Just one key unlocks them both, its there at your command. Let us pray that the Holy that dwells in us might give us the knowledge and the courage to pick the right path. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.