A Sermon by Kimberly L. Clayton
Covenant Conference 2015
Friday, November 6
Texts: Isaiah 11:1-9; Romans 15:5-7
[Video of the worship service is available here.]
For many of you, this is or recently was, Stewardship season. I myself have preached stewardship kick-off sermons for two churches in the past few weeks! A few months ago, I came across an article in The Atlantic that seemed promising for these occasions. Its title was: “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving.” Isn’t this what every church hopes for—people who give generously and gladly and consistently? The man at the center of this article was from Brazil. Joao (or John), quit his job at an insurance company in Rio de Janeiro and began selling French fries from a street cart. The fries quickly proved popular, in part because they were delicious, but also because he served them for free. All you had to do was ask, and Joao would scoop them into a box, no charge. Earlier in life, he had been stern and serious and a bit miserly, but a health crisis changed him utterly. He wanted to live differently. “I saw death from close up,” he would often say. “Now I want to be in high spirits.” The article was actually about the neuroscience of generosity. As it turns out, Joao’s new outlook was the result of brain damage caused by a stroke. He became, his neurosurgeon said, “pathologically generous”—compulsively driven to give. Even though his brother-in-law, who co-owned the French fry cart, was not very happy with Joao’s business model, Joao literally “couldn’t stop giving.” Even when the cart business failed and Joao had to live with his mother on her small pension, he couldn’t stop giving. It just made him too happy.
Now, surveys conducted around the world have long shown a clear, consistent link between generosity and happiness. The Atlantic article explores the neuroscience behind why giving produces high levels of satisfaction and well-being in the givers. As Joao’s case showed, it seems that generosity is hard-wired into our brains. But generosity also calls on higher level thinking, too. So neuroscience is studying how this urge to give is a blend of both base appetites and refined reflection that have combined to play an important role in human evolution. The article notes that generosity affects our relationships with others, especially the recipients of our gifts. While pathological giving can destroy relationships, normal giving brings people together and even inspires generosity in others. And all of this giving releases oxytocin, a hormone that produces social bonding, trust, and cooperation.[i] So, as your stewardship campaigns are concluding, may the oxytocin levels rise!
Paul, Marci, and I are focusing on three images from the Confession of Belhar. Three images that describe what the church is called to be through Jesus Christ. Paul lifted up the first image: the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Tomorrow, Marci will explore the church’s call to be witness to the new heaven and the new earth. And here I am, stuck in the middle with one that is worded a bit differently. The middle image begins this way: “The church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker.” I am intrigued by this slight difference in wording. This second image does not say what we are called to be, but instead declares what we are. A peacemaker. This clause in the Confession does not call us peacemakers—a bunch of individual peacemakers, each one of us doing our part, making peace in our own little sphere, as helpful as that would be in our individual families, my neighborhood, your school, her workplace, his circle of friends.
No, listen to it again: The church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker. A big ol’ unified peacemaker. We are in this together, united, one, with one another. These days, I’m afraid, the church is called a blessed many things—but I’m fairly certain that a peacemaker is not our best known characteristic.
Isaiah 11 is rarely heard outside of Advent, yet it is one of the most glorious visions of peace in all of scripture. It is the perfect description of a world where the oxytocin levels have reached their pinnacle. Talk about social bonding, trust, and cooperation! Wolf and lamb, bear and cow, little child and snake—all dwell together without competition or danger. This is not only a ‘peaceable kingdom,’ it is also the generous kingdom God desires and is determined to accomplish in all the earth.
Generosity is an essential characteristic for our life together if the church is to be a peacemaker. Neuroscience and theology come together: Possessing and practicing a healthy generosity in the church may even inspire generosity in others. Of course, on our own we can never be generous enough to achieve the pervasive peace Isaiah 11 describes. Only the Spirit of God has the power to transform us so completely.
Walter Brueggemann says this is a poem “of the new incursion of God’s Spirit that breaks open” [the world we think is already set] by the divisions, the animosities and competitions that characterize us.[ii] This poem, he declares, is reality defining for the people of God.
I have kept this little statue (a lion with a lamb resting on its paws) in my office for years as a reminder of the dramatic peace God is bringing into creation. One Sunday, I showed it to the children in worship. I asked if any of them knew what the Bible had to say about it. Jack didn’t wait to be called on, but blurted out: “Well, in the Bible it says the lion will lie down with the lamb … but in the real world, that lion would eat that lamb!”
Isn’t that just it? There is the Bible and then there is the real world. Just before this grand vision of peace, Isaiah 10 describes the real world of the failed Davidic monarchy with all of its excesses and violence and competitive striving. The 10th chapter ends describing God’s terrifying power to lop off boughs and cut down the tallest trees, and hack down the thickets with an axe until there is nothing but a landscape dotted with dead stumps. Then comes chapter 11, with its poem that offers another definition of reality for the people of God. It begins unexpectedly, impossibly.
Out of a dead stump, a small green shoot appears…growing into a branch with healthy roots. The Spirit of the Lord is working its newness. The rule of David ended in disaster, but the Spirit of God is dancing over the stumps. God sends One filled with the Spirit of wisdom and understanding and counsel and might. In this One, righteousness and faithfulness are so pervasive that every judgment, every word, every action has the power to transform people, and all creatures great and small.
By the Spirit’s power, generosity becomes a defining characteristic of the peace God gives. In the whole of creation there is generous space and understanding between the unlikeliest of creatures. Walter puts it this way: “The old enmities, the old appetites of the food chain, the old assumption of the survival of the meanest, all of that is subverted … the young child will toy with the asp and nobody will get hurt because the poison will be removed from the world.”[iii] Christine Yoder agrees that here in Isaiah 11 our relationships and even our everyday activities are changed utterly: “Hostility and violence, predilections to ‘hurt and destroy’ are replaced with ‘living,’ ‘lying down together,’ ‘grazing,’ ‘eating,’ and ‘playing.’ The scene, she says, is one of harmonious relationships, perpetual enemies sharing simple, everyday joys.”[iv]
This vision of Isaiah is our constant advent. It is where we are headed with God. And the church is called blessed because, and inasmuch as, it practices the generosity to be a peacemaker.
It is especially powerful and poignant that this call for the church to be a peacemaker comes from South Africa. A country where, for centuries the church embodied and sanctioned division and separation between races and justified the evil that was apartheid by the use of scripture. It now belongs to us, too, the church that embodied, sanctioned racial division and justified the evil of slavery with scripture. South Africa has borne powerful and painful witness to the need for generosity if peace is to flourish.
Like a green shoot from a dead stump, unexpectedly, impossibly, it was in his long and lonely years in prison, that Nelson Mandela discovered an unwarranted generosity growing in him. “It was during those long and lonely years,” he said, “that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people. White and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred,” Mandela said, “he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness … The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity. When I walked out of that prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.”[v] When others encouraged him, as President, to punish white South Africans, Mandela replied, “We need to be better than that. We have to surprise them with compassion, restraint and generosity. All the things they denied us.”[vi]
It was South Africa that imagined and then organized the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Unexpectedly, impossibly, astounding generosity made space that furthered that society’s evolution into a new future. Perpetrators of crime told the truth of what they had done. Victims and their families listened with horror and heartbreak, yet many times again and again these victims offered forgiveness and grace. Bishop Tutu remarked: “… When people who had suffered grievously, whom you could have said had a divine right to be angry and filled with a lust for revenge came and they told their stories … so frequently you wanted to take off your shoes because you said, ‘I am standing on holy ground.’”[vii]
Given such acts of generosity in this broken and violent world, I wonder why generosity in the church today is in such short supply? Where is there among us a generosity of spirit that makes room for peace? This is the very time we should be watching for the new incursion of the Spirit, who dances over the dead stumps that litter our ecclesial landscape, inviting us into the God-defined reality of peace.
Our struggle to be generous is nothing new, of course. Paul had to urge, implore the Roman church to “Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you.” The largest of all the churches and the most Jewish of all the churches with which Paul had contact, this church also had many Gentile converts. They practiced the moral teachings of Judaism, but did not adopt its dietary and other basic aspects. Their differences led to problems. Each group felt superior to the other.
By the time Paul wrote his letter, it seems they were wearing out their mutual welcome in dissension over scripture, tradition, and competing interpretations of the Book of Order. So Paul writes this long letter, and here, near the end, after all of the lofty theology, Paul reaches his critical, urgent point: Extend Christ’s own generous welcome to one another so that the reality of God’s peace might take root and grow. Welcome one another, he writes, just as Christ has welcomed you both through the same baptism. Without minimizing their differences and disputes, Paul calls the church nevertheless to a “persistent, difficult welcome”[viii] for the glory of God.
This past year, I have been part of a group of Presbyterians that is deeply divided over matters of theology, polity, scriptural interpretation, ordination standards, and the definition of marriage. These are not small differences, but we have committed to practice this persistent, difficult welcome of one another because for some reason, Christ first welcomed us and called us to be church together. It requires a certain generosity on both ‘sides’ and a recognition that the Spirit can and will create a peace more imaginative and pervasive than we will be able to achieve or even desire. It is a witness we make to a world not only divided, but torn asunder.
Near the beginning of the Confession of Belhar, there is a section that contains this cascade of words: one another, unity, unity, unity, unity, one another, one another, one another, one faith, one calling, one soul, one mind, one God and Father, one Spirit, one baptism, one bread, one cup, confess one name, one Lord, one cause, one hope, together, together, together, one another, one another, one another, unity, one visible people of God. And wolf and lamb, bear and cow, little child and snake.
Oh, I know … there is the Bible, and then there is real life. As it turns out, both have been entrusted to us. And the church is called blessed when—no, that isn’t quite right—the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker. We are called to a “persistent, difficult welcome,” for the glory of God.
[ii] “The Poem: Subversions and Summons,” a sermon preached by Walter Brueggemann in Columbia Theological Seminary’s chapel on December 5, 2010. A revised version of this sermon is also found in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Vol. 2, 9-14.
[iii] Brueggemann sermon continued.
[iv] Christine Yoder, “Hope That Walks: An Interpretation of Isaiah for Advent Preachers,” Journal for Preachers, Advent 2001, 20.
[v] Quote from Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela.
[vii] From an interview for On Being with Krista Tippett, March 20, 2014.
[viii] This phrase is from a sermon on Romans 15:7 preached by Catherine Gonsalus Gonzalez for the 2014 Baccalaureate service for Columbia Theological Seminary.
The Rev. Kimberly L. Clayton is Director of Contextual Education at Columbia Theological Seminary and a former Co-Moderator of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.