Lying about Generosity

November 16, 2014

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

When it comes to generosity, I find that I have some awkward principles. One is that I fear I give too much. The other is I fear that I give too little. And the third is that it is my job to get to enough.

The widow and her mite is a good tutor. She gave all that she had, all that she could. It was, according to Jesus, enough. He even implies that her enough was more than enough, in a new category all its own.

Another good tutor is a new friend of mine, a Palestinian Imam at the Connecticut state prison. He says that Islam permits lying on at least three occasions. Lying is morally permitted in Islam as follows.

1. You are allowed to lie to your enemy. You can tell your enemy you are out of ammunition even if you are not. You can work on your own projects if your boss is not looking.
2. You can lie to your wife. If she asks if she looks fat in these jeans, you can assure her she does not, even if she does. I am going to assume you can also lie to your husband in the same way, even though he didn’t say that.
3. Finally you can lie to make good what is broken. If your sister in law is not talking to your brother in law, you can tell them they both want to talk to each other, even if they don’t. You can try to bring warring parties together.

I am thinking these principles apply to my generosity quandary. I can lie to myself about excessive action, which is a companion to excessive inaction, because both are a kind of spiritual enemy to me. Overdoing is as much a problem for most of us as underdoing. I can also lie about the hopes I have that people will come together and stop warring. I can do things that are more than I can do, most of which probably won’t work because at least I am making the effort to reconcile. Isis comes to mind. Beheadings come to mind. Broken immigration policies come to mind. In these settings, why would I not over reach? How could I not, the gap being so large? And finally, I can lie to myself or others to make them feel better, especially if I love them. Why would I not exaggerate praise for my beloved?

Yesterday we had the annual E.F. Schumacher lectures here in this cold room. Our guests complained while generously understanding – and both of the key speakers announced methods to close the gap between cold economies and warm economies, love and hate, tyrants and widows. Matt Stinchcomb of the very successful Etsy site – which sells arts and crafts on line – joined Caroline Woolard – an Occupy Artist who has more than matured – to both speak about the matter of size and appropriate technologies to get to the right size.

Their question is mine and ours at Judson: how to get big enough to matter and stay small enough to be real? Repeat: How to stay small enough to manage and get big enough to matter? You will ask yourself that question about your pledge today – I hope. Pledge is just a promise to be a paying member of this body. I hope you will pledge the right size for you today. That you will get to enough and forgo the need to lie to yourself or others about what is enough for you. Generosity will be served, appropriately, if you do and can. Now to even more important subjects:

Another voice is what Caroline Woolard spoke of as the great gone wrongness for her generation. She spoke about student debt being a noose around the neck of her creativity. About high rents and low pay, already taxed by deep debt. She declared that the amount of debt her generation has is similar to the amount we paid forward in the Louisiana Purchase. Two hundred years ago we bought land forward for the next generations. It made our country rich and secure. Today we have no forward, so taxed are we by student debt. We’ve sung this song before here in this room. And we need to sing it again, especially during pledge and capital campaigns. How can we ask the widows of today to mite mightily, when they may not be able to take care of themselves? Caroline went on to ask the question of what art is in the age of an art degree that doesn’t provide a job for artists but instead a credentialed debt? She not only asked tough questions about debt and money and mites and mightiness. She also answered them with a kind of do it yourself collectivity, which you might imagine Schumacher himself would enjoy. In case you don’t know him, he is the author of “Small is Beautiful.” Caroline and Matt both argued that getting to small is beautiful. Their question is ours: How do you grow big and stay small, stay small enough to manage and big enough to matter? How do you give enough to feel generous without hurting yourself?

Let me continue with a harder, more interesting and more pregnant problem than what we do about our pledges. We have been invited to provide physical sanctuary for an immigrant about to be detained or deported. We have invited our partner churches to do so as well – or instead of us. They have so far declined. Nationally the New Sanctuary Movement has 9 people in physical sanctuary, in Tucson, Philadelphia, Portland, Miami, Chicago and more. Several of the harbored people have already gotten release from the orders of their enemy. One was transported in a church van yesterday to a medical procedure and returned safely to sanctuary. Here at Judson, we have strong lay leaders in charge of both the board and the new sanctuary task force. They may be presenting us with a decision about whether to accelerate our current offerings of sanctuary to more physical ones. Currently we provide moral, spiritual, economic and political sanctuary. We also help to provide accompaniment to people who must face their enemy – those just doing their orders – regularly. We even have some political victories in what was announced Friday which is removing ICE from Rikers altogether. And we still have no bill to reform the broken system. And we have no guarantee that our President will act, although increasingly it appears he will act on behalf of some immigrants, potentially even a sizable number.

Are we doing too much with immigration? Or are we doing too little? That is the question that will confront our generosity soon. That generosity of space and organization and modest risk is one that is as important as your pledge. Judson always has to confront the question of its size. So do you. So do I. Too much or too little? Too little, too late? How do we get to the right size, the appropriate tool, the widow’s mite?

Personally, I am convinced that physical sanctuary is the widow’s mite of the moment. It is the right next size for our work. My biggest fear about our doing physical sanctuary is that we would get all puffed up about it, as though we were doing something much too terribly important. When we get our generosity right, we stop lying about it. We get to the right size. We realize that in physical sanctuary the person taking the real risk is the guest, not the host. We do what we can with humility and not braggadocio, even of the very popular form on the left. “More radical than thou” is the name of that game. We realize that no one is coming to save us, as Caroline said yesterday, and so we come to save each other and ourselves. When she first articulated the do it yourself notion of social change, I had a profound feeling of loneliness and sadness, even helplessness. But as she went on to give examples of right sized connection, I found my strength renewed instead of depleted. One of her cafes charges a roll of toilet paper for the cover charge. Here at Judson, we are already overcrowded, over spent – and that is probably the key reason we should try to do more, if properly connected to each other. The old fashioned words “Right relationship” come to mind, with each other, with our mites and with God’s world.

We really don’t want to look fat in those jeans, which is why we ask each other for confirmation. What we want most of all is confirming connection with each other, with our mites and with God’s world.

Thoreau put it like this: "Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. " Stephen Covey says that we each have a circle of influence – where we can make a small difference – and a circle of concern – where all we can do is pray and hope.

When you think of your pledge, note where your circle of influence stops and starts and where your circle of concern stops and starts. Boundaries are much better than lying about generosity. If you can give more, either in democratic decision making and participation about physical sanctuary, or serving coffee, or giving money, great. If you can’t, help us close your gap between your wealth and your poverty. Many of us here are very poor in spirit as well as pocketbook. Likewise some of are very rich in spirit, even pocketbook. We are here to get to enough, in a do it yourself kind of way. We are here to help people face their enemies, to bring people to reconciliation, to help each other feel better about being who we are, fat or skinny. Jesus approves of these goals in the same way he approved of the widow’s mighty mite: it was enough. When we live in enough, we sometimes stretch to more. That more is what the widow experienced and gave. She received by giving and gave to receive. It is a different kind of generosity. It is a truthful generosity. Amen.

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