Suggested Gratuity

Ancient Testimony ~ Jeremiah 29:1-7

October 18, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Today is Stewardship Sunday, when we ask you to give money to Judson. Consider this a short economic lesson in spirituality. Or a short spiritual message on the economy. I hope you will want to pledge to Judson at the end of it and I hope you will want to pledge to Judson for really good reasons. There are a lot of bad reasons around to pledge to us—like you think we provide good service and you want to pay for it, or you think you should be taxed for what you receive here. Neither are good reasons. Let me tell you why.

I worked too long as a waitress to have much respect for tips. They create an intimate economic arrangement between the server and the served and then go on to allow a complicated, unregulated, private exchange. No one knows what you give the waitress or the waiter. Except for him or her. Way too often, even today, even in New York, even down the street, a person can serve a whole table and find out that they are just out of luck (i.e. cash) at the end of the meal. I hear way too many stories from servers who tell me they were stiffed by a large table or a single individual. Because we don’t pay enough for food in this country, at home or when out, restaurants allow these private arrangements to flourish and keep servers in the servant seat. The same is true of farmers and milk and migrant workers and tomatoes and wonderful grocery stores who refuse unionization. Food is cheap in the U.S. and, for the most part, it also tastes cheap. So if you think your give-back to Judson is a kind of suggested gratuity, spend a little time with me today rethinking that. There is a big difference between a tip and a pledge. A tip, or suggested gratuity, is a dumb way to run a business or a railroad or a restaurant. At brunch today, do tip generously. But don’t confuse a tip with a pledge. Also, don’t confuse a pledge with a tax. A pledge is different from both a tax and a tip. A tax is something a country extracts for the public services it provides. Taxes are regulated. You can get in trouble for not paying them. You can get in moral trouble for not leaving a good tip and you can get in legal trouble for not paying your taxes.

We live in a funny time in a funny nation where the largest political battles are around taxes. The tea party anti-tax campaign is a general assault on the public realm. The health care debate is more about taxes and the proper role of government than it is about health. It is so odd that we can rarely get to the real conversation.

Unlike many Americans, I love taxes. I not only think food prices should be higher so as to better pay the people who produce and deliver our food, I also think taxes should be higher so as to allow the strong to share their bounty with the weak in regulated ways. If we had higher taxes, we’d have better schools and trains, more and better personal and public security, better cancer care and better health care. So a pledge is not a suggested gratuity, nor is it a tax. A pledge is a promise to build a house and live in it, not only for your generation, but also for those to come. Pledging is a green form of giving. It is an institutional form of giving. If you haven’t read Hugh Heclo’s new book, On Thinking Institutionally, check it out. Pledging is intentional institutional generosity (as though generosity is a virtue) (which it is).

In both tipping and taxing, we use the naughty strategy: we assume that we need moral regulation because otherwise we won’t want to give. Without punishments and coercion, morally or legally, people are assumed to be built to just hoard. I think we are built very differently. I think people are built to want to give. We are built, as Marge Piercy puts it so well, as oxen looking for a cart to pull. As pitchers crying for water to carry. We are people who want to be of use. Our deepest sadness comes when we offer a gift—of time or money, a dumb idea or a good idea, an outstretched hand or just a smile on a subway directed to someone who has clearly just had it—and that gift is rejected. We are actually gift-carrying machines. We want to be of use. When that spiritual energy is stifled, we turn inside. We curve in on ourselves. We get rigid and bitter. Our larger worlds get nastier and nastier. When the naughty strategy is used on us, we become naughty ourselves.

I believe the phrase “naughty strategy” was coined by a City official. The City sometimes uses this strategy to save energy in smaller low-rises. They make elevators smaller and slower, less efficient, so as to discourage people from using them so as to save money on energy costs. Karen Lee, deputy commissioner for the department of Health and Mental Hygiene, calls these tactics “the naughty strategy.” I remember also hearing about something akin to the naughty strategy when I worked with people on welfare in a small rural county in Pennsylvania. When I suggested to the commissioner of welfare that we should not make people wait so long for their checks, he responded that if we didn’t make them wait so long for their checks, they’d get more checks and that would cost the government money and we didn’t want that to happen because it would mean more taxes. Providing bad service can be intentional. It assumes a human being who is trying to avoid work, to avoid being of use, who is incapable of socialized choices. I assume, when I ask for your pledge for Judson, that you are capable of making moral and wise choices.

I make that assumption with Marge Piercy when I believe human beings all have gifts they want to give and that to deny these gifts is to harm human beings.

So let me say more about what a pledge is. It is not a tax, even though taxes are good things. It is not a tip, even though tips, generously given, can be good things, even if they start out as a dumb and finally cheap way to exchange goods and services.

A pledge is something we do to create positive energy about ourselves and toward others. It is a halfway form of economic and spiritual interaction. Pledging is something we do in what sociologists call “intermediate institutions.” Judson is an intermediate institution. We are not a service, nor are we a business, and we are certainly not a state. We are the cartilage that greases the loneliness of the private life, by our mission in hatching, matching, and dispatching. We help at life’s moments of transformation, like when a baby is born, a couple is married, a death occurs, or people just don’t get along. We grease the wheels between the state and the family. We follow the advice of the Jeremiah text. Take a look at it from the point of view of an intermediate institution.

The people are in exile. They understand what Barbara Brown Taylor says when she says she has been lost in more ways than she can count.1 The prophet advises that they stop fighting the prospect of getting or being lost and engage it as a spiritual practice. What does the prophet want us to do when lost? We are to build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce. Please note, all my fellow activists, that this is a prophet giving very personal advice. We are not to change the world so much as learn to live domestically beautiful lives in it. We are not bad if we are not changing the world. The world is not a giant home improvement project. We are to build houses and live in them. We are to encourage the generations to be born, even into a world that likes to exile its peoples. At 1:30 this morning, my first grandson, Caleb Benjamin Luria, left the security of his mother’s womb and woke up in the oxygenated air. I could obviously go on and on about this experience, including the 14 hours of sitting in the St. Vincent’s birth center playing gin rummy with Warren and Katie and Sara’s divorced parents and my own fast beating heart. But let me try to connect it to the text. We are to build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their produce. We are to take wives and sons and daughters and carry on. We are to hitch our ox up to a heavy cart and move this generational thing on, even if we are in exile, even if there is a chance our grandson will live to see 2110 and be in a world under water or still stiffing servers or refusing to be taxed for the privileges of its states. I look at my grandchild or your grandchild or if you are without children, the future of your world, and say, Oh my god, what are we thinking about? How could we dare to leave a world so diminished and ideas so diminished and produce so diminished to someone as beautiful as a 7 pound 8 ounce infant?

I have had a couple of near brushes with death in my life. Very simple ones, but real. Each time I thought I would never see a grandchild of mine breathing on his own. Each time I was wrong.

I can’t tell you my joy at this error of mine.

What are we to do? We are to live. We are to build. We are to find water for our pitcher, carts for our oxen. We are to be of use. At Judson we create and massage and ritualize the spiritual content of intermediate institutions. It’s not much. Just a little piece. Like lawyers help us love the law and doctors help us love medicine and teachers help us love ideas and waitresses and chefs help us love food and garbage trucks help us love our streets. We do this because others gave a great pledge to the future when they bought this corner and built this building—and we do this for the next generation who will follow us. What Hugh Heclo says is that we are to think institutionally, not about institutions, but with them about them.

The reason I love parish ministry so much is that from my little perch I get a multi-faceted view, both backwards and forwards, both publicly and privately. I get to do the memorial service of a person the size of Marilyn Clement and then go talk to my senator about immigration policy. I get to read the scriptures with you. I get to ask you for your pledge and to hope that you will understand it is not a suggested gratuity or a tax but instead a chance for you to build a house and live in it. Note that the text goes on to take a very public approach to intermediate institutions. We are not only to live beautifully and privately and extravagantly and aesthetically with our own intimates; we are also to seek—not assure, but seek—the welfare of the City, where we have been sent into exile. Why? Because in its welfare is our welfare. Judson is here to remind people of the source of their welfare. The source of our welfare is in the City.

So many congregations are so privatized. What privatized congregations sell is privacy, protected. There are a few good reasons to enjoy privacy, protected. But only a few. Here we do not sell privacy so much as a bridge between our private lives and our public lives, a bridge that seeks the meaning of these matters. If you find yourself in a life that needs a little welfare from your city—and I don’t mean the kind that used to come with a check but the kind that is large and spacious and beautiful, that makes exciting parks and joyous schools, sophisticated subways and compelling art institutions—give us a pledge. We will help you seek that welfare. And if you find yourself in a life that feels cramped at the intimate level, because you just don’t play well with others or others don’t play well with you, give us a pledge. We’ll give you a way to give your gift in such a way that others can receive it. We are here to release your gift.

One more thing about that grandbaby of mine: I owe it to him, genetically and spiritually, to respond to the joy of his being alive by not leaving my house in a mess for him. Oddly, this week I talked to quite a few people whose parents were leaving them a cluttered mess. Either the parent hadn’t bothered to “throw anything out,” a phrase which has ample meaning and I don’t have time to address it fully today, or the parent left behind debt or injury or just plain neglect. For some reason I had a spate of these people this week: adult children of adult parents who hadn’t manage to create a future for the child, who is now a harmed adult. The metaphor holds for the nation as well, as debt increases, no one has the political courage to raise taxes or discipline corporations. Today when people say to us, “My house is a mess,” they usually mean it. We owe it to ourselves to build houses that we can live in. We owe it to ourselves to manage our own clutter—and, yes, that means throwing many things out. The prophet wants us to keep up our places. We have no right to leave our children a crappy place to pick up. Your pledge will help assure Judson that it will not be a place whose clutter and mess curses our children.

For our girl children, that means not leaving behind a culture where Hiram Montserrate or Eliot Spitzer or any of the new round of characters who think it is right to use women are part of their heritage. For those who serve us at table—and by the way that includes most leaders of most not-for-profits—we don’t need to leave behind a suggested gratuity but a real paycheck. Why would we not tax ourselves to cure AIDS? Or cancer? Or, for that matter, swine flu? These matters matter to the welfare of the City, in this generation and the next.

So don’t tip us and think it’s a pledge. And don’t think you need pay your taxes to us, in the form of a pledge. There is no tax on worship here. But do pledge. Do give us your pledge.

If you are looking for the end of personal and public gridlock, give us a pledge. We don’t guarantee to give you what you are looking for, but we do guarantee to live well with you in exile. Amen.

1Barbara Brown Taylor, Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (HarperOne, February 2009), pages 72-73

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