Saturday, October 14, 2006

What Will We Give Up?

For several years earlier in my career I was the Episcopal Chaplain to Memphis State University. (Yes, I know it’s now the University of Memphis; but my wife, who graduated from Memphis State, insists on that designation, and says she knows of no “University of Memphis.” As it is, I grew up in East Tennessee, where we called it “Tiger High….”) I was the Chaplain at Barth House of the Diocese of West Tennessee. During the academic year I served students and faculty of the University. During the summer, I had a program to gather kids from Memphis who had gone away to school and were home for the summer.

One student I worked in the summer group I had known for several years. Before taking the campus position I had been Associate Rector and then Interim in his home parish. He had honored me by inviting me to participate when he became an Eagle Scout. He was a fine young man from a fine family.

One evening he and I were talking about jobs. He was working on a degree in engineering, and was considering his prospects when he graduated. In that context, he raised some concerns about affirmative action. “How is it fair for a less qualified candidate – even if only slightly less qualified – to get a job because of race or poverty or both? It’s not that I think black people should be discriminated against because they’re black. I just think qualifications for a job should be clear, and they’re not affected by someone’s race.”

Now, understand that I believed him. As best he could, he wanted to be just, and not to discriminate based on race or poverty. Still, I said to him, “You and I, upper middle class white males, have had advantages that we didn’t earn. Some of them came from parents who worked hard, but some of them came from just being upper middle class white males. We both know of folks who have had none of those advantages, and by dint of hard work they have become as qualified as, or perhaps only slightly less qualified than, you or I. You and I have had advantages, and they have had none. But there are only so many jobs. There is only so much room in the economy for them to rise, and that room is affected by advantages or lack of advantages that had nothing to do with work or merit. I believe that you want a just world. So, what are you willing to give up to offer an opportunity to someone else? How are you willing to fall toward the middle so that they can rise toward the middle?”

To give the young man credit, he didn’t argue. He didn’t even answer. He walked away quiet, and perhaps a little sad. I have long lost track of him; but I continue to believe that he continued to be a man of good will, who did indeed consider his answer, and to make decisions about his life based in good faith.

Still, I can’t think of the story of the rich young ruler without remembering that conversation. It makes concrete a story that we can often see as an abstraction. After all, in our day-to-day lives we don’t think of ourselves as rich. When pressed we acknowledge how much better off we are than the rest of the world. But just on a day-to-day level, we don’t think of ourselves as rich. There’s always a Gates or a Soros or a Buffett out there; and in contrast we can always say we’re not really rich.

But we say that knowing that we are – we are in fact rich. Oh, there’s always someone with more, unless you actually are a Gates or a Soros or a Buffett; but we know that in fact by the world’s terms we are rich. One of the aspects that we value of being part of a worldwide Church in a worldwide Communion is the awareness it offers of how our brothers and sisters in Christ fare in the rest of the world. And so we can learn what’s happening in Sudan or in the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti. We know that in fact by the terms of some even of our neighbors we are rich. I remember that wonderful quote from the musical, Finian’s Rainbow. Finian’s daughter asks him “In America are there are no ill fed or ill clothed or ill housed?” His answer: “Yes, there are. But they are the best ill fed and the best ill clothed and the best ill housed in the whole world.” And we know that in many cases that’s actually true.

Yet, even knowing that we’re rich, it’s hard to imagine giving it all up to follow Jesus, even for the promise of treasure in heaven. It’s so hard that the Church is troubled again and again by those who preach a “Prosperity Gospel:” God doesn’t want you to be poor, and if you’ll just trust God enough and contribute enough to my church, God will provide for your physical needs.” In places in Africa such churches are competing with Anglican churches. But this is not new. I remember well the ministry of the Rev. Ike, and this was his promise: that those who believed God would bless with material sufficiency. He’s still around: you can find his web site here.

But I stand by my question: what must I be willing to let go of for justice? How am I willing to fall so that another may rise? God’s grace may be sufficient, may be free and equally available to all. Unfortunately, in this fallen creation nothing else is. God may escape the “zero-sum” game, but we cannot. We’re reminded of that regularly by those who we elect to govern. Universal health care? “Sadly, there’s not enough money.” Truly well funded public education? “We don’t have the resources.” Childcare to help the working poor? “We have to set limits somewhere. The funds just aren’t available.”

And yet politicians continue to make promises, and some things do get funded; and heaven help the person in government who suggests we raise taxes to pay for other programs. It is the economic parallel of a war on terror that doesn’t need national service or increased taxes. Some want to tell us we can bring up the poor without having to give up anything ourselves, that we can give enough to others without having to lose any privileges ourselves. But in this fallen world, there just aren’t enough resources for that.

Jesus told a rich young man to sell it all and give it to the poor, and then to come and follow. He told the disciples that those with worldly wealth could only get into heaven by God’s grace, because the great had to become small – even as small as the eye of a needle. He said here and in many places that a better, more just life in this world would require not just our good wishes, but also our sacrifices; and not just sacrifices offered to God, but sacrifices offered to serve the least among us.

We Christians, we are the people who know that God’s grace is in truth sufficient. We are the people who know that we need not fear going through the eye of the needle, because it is not just possible but is promised by the God who loves us. That shouldn’t make us less concerned about losing what we have to benefit someone else. It should encourage us – literally, it should give us courage – to let go, to trust God, and lose something – some money, some privilege, some power – so that someone else might have more. After all, if God’s grace is sufficient, why do we need so much? If God’s grace is sufficient, why do live as is he who dies with the most toys wins? Jesus tell us he who dies with the most toys has no advantage, because it’s only by God’s grace that a rich man – or anybody, really – will get into heaven.

Jesus said to the rich man and says again and again to us, “What are you willing to give up, how are you willing to come down, so that another might come up?” Can we let it go and follow? Or will we also just walk away, sad?


Susan Palwick said...

Lovely, Marshall. This reads like a homily; are you giving it somewhere today?

In any case, thank you.

Marshall Scott said...

Actually, Susan, it did become my sermon for this morning. I preach extemporaneously, but I've found recently that some reflections that end up on the blog also end up in sermons.

I'm glad you liked it.

Anonymous said...

You have my thumbs up too Marshall.

One of the last things to be converted is our wallets, and often they never are.

I think, perhaps that if you wanted to curse a nation you could not do much better than provide it with extreme wealth.

I tithe - but am very aware that all I am doing in that is giving my basic due out of the super-abundance that we have.

And the prosperity gospel - don't get me started there - get close enough and you can smell the sulphur...

Marshall Scott said...

Peter, thanks for the visit and the comment.

On a tanget to a conversation we've had elsewhere: I have posted before ( a reference to the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a Nigerian pentecostal church that is establishing a presence in North America (they were in Texas before formalization of CANA). I have heard, although I cannot confirm, that they are associated with the Prosperity Gospel. Certainly, I've seen concerns expressed about the rapid growth of such churches in Nigeria and elsewhere in West Africa. Now, it won't be new here; as I said, Rev. Ike is still out there. But, it's hardly progress.