Tuesday, August 16, 2005

"What Goes Around"

I know when I do this kind of thing, it tends to drive traffic right into the ground (not that I pay attention to how many visitors I get, you know; that would be vainglorious; not to mention futile). But this seemed to catch some themes we've been discussing, or raising in the comments, so I figured: "Well, it'll fill a page."

From the 7th Sunday of Epiphany, 2001.

TEXT: GENESIS 5:3-11, 15; PSALM 37:1-11, 39-40; 1 CORINTHIANS 15:35-38,42-50; LUKE 6:27-38

Charity must have its limits. That's what the man told me. We'd only just met, but he was quite sure of his opinion. We were talking about someone who had been with him in downtown Houston. This third person had tried to give a dollar to a homeless man on the street. My new acquaintance thought it quite absurd, to be handing out perfectly good money to someone who obviously was not a perfectly good person. Charity, he told me, must have its limits. Because, after all, if we gave away everything, we'd soon have nothing left. Yes, charity must have its limits.

But Jesus says: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."

Now: which one makes more sense?

"Love your enemies" is hard, because it throws the whole idea of enemies into question. Do you have enemies, or do you make them? I know people who virulently hate politicians, people they've never met and never will meet. Did the politician make them an enemy, or is it just part of being a public figure to have some people who just hate you, simply because you're there? Either way, can you really love an enemy? Don't you have to have some reason to love someone? Don't you have to have some reason to even like them?

And what's this business about giving away your cloak and your shirt? Do you realize what that would mean? The cloak was just an outer garment, kind of a robe. It was worn over an undergarment, kind of like a nightshirt. Those were your clothes, in Jesus' day: a shirt, and over that a cloak. If you gave those away, all you'd be left with would be your sandals. Giving away your cloak and your shirt would leave you, well, naked.

It's no better if you give to everyone who begs from you. Go out here on [the road ] and give some money to the first person you see. Better yet, come live near the church, come live in the parsonage with me for a week. See how many people come to the door, or to the church office, once they find out they might get some money here. See how many come back, again and again. Charity must have its limits, certainly. But Jesus says "Give to everyone who begs from you." How long could we keep that up, and still pay the electric bill? Before long, we'd be naked. Which is what Jesus tells us to be.

"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. " When you give a gift, do you expect something in return? A thank you, an acknowledgement, at least some recognition that you were the giver and the gift was received? But if you expect that, is it really a gift?

I know it's hard to think about, but look at it this way a moment. When you work for somebody, they give you money in exchange: your time for their money. When you buy something, you give the store your money, the store gives you its goods. Their toaster, for your money. Or you give the bank your money to lend, they pay you for the use of your money. There's always an exchange, something for something. Even in our charity, we want to think we helped someone, that we gave money for a good reason, that it was appreciated, or used well, or not misspent or just given to somebody who was hustling us, scamming for a dollar. When you think about it that way, there really isn't such a thing as a gift, is there? Not a gift you give, expecting nothing in return. Even a birthday gift, or a simple card, you expect someone to say something, don't you? You expect something back for what you gave. So it's always an exchange, even if the exchange is not for money.

So if I love you because you love me, love isn't a gift, it's simply an exchange. I give back to you as you gave me. If I do good to you because you did good to me, my good deed isn't a gift, I'm keeping up the system of exchange. If I lend to you, I expect you to return the money to me. That's the system of exchange. I don't love my enemies, because they are outside the system of exchange: they won't love me back. I don't lend, expecting nothing in return, because then I lose in the system of exchange. If I keep that up, I wind up naked, or begging on the streets of downtown Houston.

Charity has to have its limits.

But what credit is that to me? It's a credit among people, among sinners, as Jesus says, but what credit is that with God? After all, God gives, expecting nothing in return. God gave you life, and you don't have to return anything to God for it. You may; indeed, you should. But God does not require it. God gives us the church, and we don't even have to return anything to that; no one charged you admission this morning, no one's going to check on how much you paid before you get out of here. "Pretty good show for a buck" is the standard joke. But you don't have to do anything for it. But of course, if you don't do anything for it, you don't get anything from it.

But what do you get from charity, besides a nice feeling of doing something for somebody? Well, at least, as long as you are sure you've done something for someone. Maybe you've given a buck to a wino, and now he's off to the liquor store. Maybe you've given a bag of groceries to someone who doesn't seem grateful at all, who won't even get out of the car when you carry them out for his wife. Maybe you've given a dollar to someone who simply doesn't deserve it, but how do you know? Charity has to have its limits, doesn't it?

Well, it does; but those limits are beyond our understanding. Those limits are better than we could ever imagine. Because the problem of the ideal gift that I outlined, the problem of the gift that is given with no idea of getting back, is that it's impossible. You always get back for what you give. It's the idea of getting back, the expectation, that matters. "Lend, expecting nothing in return," Jesus says. But you will get something in return. What goes around comes around. "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."

And if you are fortunate, this won't always be true. Consider the story of Joseph. His brothers beat him, stripped him, threw him in a pit, tried to decide if they should kill him, and then sold as a slave to a passing caravan on its way to Egypt. That's how he got there and then, through the grace of God, he saved Egypt from the famine. That's what brings his brothers there, years later; the famine. And when they come to Egypt begging for food, begging for relief, Joseph could have killed all of them. Charity, after all, has to have its limits. The measure you give will be the measure you give back, so who could blame him if he'd said to them: what you did to me, I now do to you. But he didn't. Instead, he has an epiphany.

"And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here," he tells his brothers, "for God sent me before you to preserve life. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; [and] You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and. . . I will provide for you there." Joseph does not give back the measure he gave. His brothers meant for him to have death; but he gives them life. "Love your enemies," Jesus says, "do good to those who hate you. . . . and you will be children of the Most High; for [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked." God is kind even to the brothers of Joseph; because if God hadn't been kind, there would have been no nation of Israel, no Jesus of Nazareth, no [ ] church, today.

What goes around, comes around. If there are limits to charity, they are not yours to define. If you charity leaves you naked, that's as it should be. Love is naked. Love is exposed. That's why love, love as Jesus talks about it, love for your enemies, for those who curse you and abuse you, for those who hurt you so deeply you'll never fully recover, that's why love for those people is so hard, so dangerous, so scary. Because it leaves you without cloak or shirt, without even sandals. It leaves you naked. But it makes you children of the Most High. Love like that clothes you in God. Love like that, covers you in prayer. Love like that, is why this church is here; it's why God's church is here, on earth; the church of which we are just a part, a small portion. Clothed in love, naked to the world. Exposed, but not vulnerable. Living without limits to our charity, because there are no limits to our God. Because God is kind even to the wicked and the unjust. It is God's way in the world, and we see all around us the benefit of it. May this be an epiphany to you.


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