Give and Take

Give and Take

Is 9: 1-4; Ps 27: 1, 4-9; Matthew 4: 12-23


One thing we know by now about scripture is that there are many parts about which we are unclear as to what really happened. Occasionally, we are also left to wonder if something really happened because of discrepancies between historical records and religious accounts. But one thing is certain. The number of times something surfaces in the text lends weight to its importance to our discernment, such that we conclude that ours is a God of love and that Jesus came to save the world from injustice.

Jesus’ call of his first disciples is found in each of the gospels. By the frequency of its telling, we are helped to understand that Jesus calls us one by one to discipleship and his vital mission of spreading the good news of salvation – healing, as we come to understand – with the world.

But you will be interested to know that I’ve come across an interesting piece of information. Peter and Andrew, James and John, were not Jesus’ first disciples. This might get me into trouble with the scholarly types, as it is a little known fact that Jesus’ first disciples were actually Give and Take – Give and Take being ancient Hebrew names that have been long expunged from the Greek New Testament. There is a reason for that… You see, Give and Take were a handful for Jesus, let alone their mother.

Here’s the backstory: Jesus had a plan to mend the brokenness of the world. He went so far as to relocate to Capernaum and make his home in a land that would influence future generations’ understanding that he was the one who would fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah and the vision of God. And in his plan to enlighten the world of what God was requiring of us all, Jesus knew that a little Give and Take would go a long way. Give and Take would be the kind of men who would negotiate deep chasms of understanding. In a politically tense situation, Give and Take would help him bring people together and fill those nets, if you will. Give and Take would be vital Jesus followers, keeping all of those soon-to-be-called fishermen calm while Jesus went about the task of proclaiming, healing and curing – those saving acts that he was brought to earth to do.

But what Jesus soon learned was that for Give and Take, discipleship was a zero sum game. In their minds, a win for Give meant a loss for Take and they communicated the score card loudly: Who got to a suffering one first; who pitched Jesus’ message most – or most expediently; who helped others better or more often or with greatest intentionality; who helped more generously or with more focus. You get the idea.

Jesus could see that Give and Take were actually becoming a drain on the movement – their constant competition churning the waters from the outside in. For Give and Take, this netting of wins against losses was affecting a battle for their very souls. Jesus decided to cut them loose to explore what life might mean for them outside of the community.

Ah, yes, it was such a sorrowful loss that the early church communities vowed to never speak of the two again.

You see, life in Christian community is not a zero-sum game. One person’s gain must not result from another person’s loss. The converse is also true: one person’s loss must not result from another person’s gain. We depend upon a system of mutuality and support, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, if you will, such that any person’s sorrow weighs heavily upon the rest just as any person’s joy is cause for great celebration. Life in Christian community brings to earth the kind of otherworldliness that Jesus spoke of and that seems to be fading into relative obscurity within our world.

Our own world is divided into very different worlds on one planet. In advance of the 2014 World Economic Forum that convened in Davos, Switzerland on Wednesday, Oxfam International released a report which describes the grossest inequalities in the world. The 32 page report is called “Working for the Few” and can be found on Oxfam’s website. Summaries are all over the popular press.

Here are a few points from the executive summary of the report that you might have heard over the airwaves this week.

  • Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
  • The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to US$110 trillion.
  • In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of the post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer. (Joe and I were talking about how tech stock IPOs such as Facebook, Google and Twitter have accounted for so much of this.)
  • Here’s the one that became the loudest soundbite for talk show hosts: The richest 85 people in the world own the same as the bottom half of the world’s population. Said another way, the richest 85 people have greater accumulated wealth than over 3.5 billion of the poorest people.
  • Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years. (The United States is included in this list.)

Acknowledging that some economic inequality is necessary to incent growth, Oxfam also warned that extreme levels of wealth concentration “threaten to exclude hundreds of millions of people from realizing the benefits of their talents and hard work.”

On the surface, the data are so alarming that one might conclude that the purpose of Oxfam’s report is more to evoke an emotional response than practical opportunities for change. But the truth could just as easily be that this report embodies a call for discipleship from even the likes of you and me. Because it is incumbent upon the church of Jesus Christ to hear such news as a cry for each member to leave his net like Peter or Andrew, James or John, and in unquestioning compliance to Christ’s claim on our lives to spread the good news of Jesus Christ – take action and lend voice to close the gap of economic inequality in this world. – economic inequality that rips at the fiber of worldwide society, encouraging child trafficking and prostitution, sweat shops and drug dealing right under our very noses. – Economic inequality that compounds other inequalities, such as the inequality between men and women in the home or workplace, or religious institutions and even playgrounds, and the inequality of political representation and influence and government spending in towns and states and even across states. – Economic inequality that undermines the potentiality for democracy that the United States spends trillions of dollars attempting to promote worldwide – dollars that could be redirected to provide direct aid to the poor were we to have a more sustainable balance of power in and between nations. Because the kind of gross financial concentrations of the sort that we read about every time a company like Twitter goes public is not only morally questionable today, it has ramifications on social, economic and political viability around the world well into the future.

While this might seem like a hyperbolic idea that could further drive the despondent among us to their dens, there is a powerful many among us in this congregation of saints gathered in Washington, DC – the Capitol of the most powerful nation in the world, who are in positions of direct influence of legislation, finance, our legal system, education, agriculture, child welfare, diplomacy, coffee shops, and book clubs – I could go on – positions through which even subtle acts of influence will help reverse the gross disparities of the world and further the work of Jesus Christ to bring about the beloved kingdom on earth. This extends the work of the church through the economics of poverty into the economics of rebirth.

We’ve spent a good amount of time at Western recently talking about our hands-on mission work as individuals and as a church. Just a couple of weeks ago, for you who weren’t here, we had a congregational dialogue that, in part, lifted up the number of volunteers and volunteer hours this congregation supports at many important organizations around the District. One of the tensions that I heard was the tension between the desire to use our hands and feet in grassroots service and the fact that so many among us have work and community responsibilities that keep us elsewhere throughout the week. To our call to use our influence, Miriam’s Kitchen has a new strategy for its workplace that I believe we could leverage as a congregation of Christians here at Western Presbyterian Church. Miriam’s has realigned their human resources so that while a clear majority of the staff provides day-to-day, hands-on support for the hungry and homeless, an expanding team of Miriam’s Kitchen employees is focusing on advocacy work and grass tops meetings to amplify the voice for ending homelessness, and specifically ending homelessness in the District by 2017. Our second Miriam’s Kitchen Sunday will be held in just two weeks on February 11th – if it’s anything like last year’s, you won’t want to miss it. I’m sure that Scott will be speaking of this strategy shift when he is in the pulpit, and I know that Miriam’s leadership team intends to give us some more information and answer questions in the Free Inquiry class before worship that day. In the meantime, Claire Cumberland (a Case Manager at Miriam’s) is here today with her laptop ready to sign everyone up to participate in the Way Home Campaign to end homeless by 2017 that’s been listed in our bulletins these last couple of weeks.

What Miriam’s has determined and we can leverage, too, is that one call to hands-on discipleship does not obviate the need for another call for discipleship at the grass-tops level – influence and advocacy, in particular, conveying the priority of Christ to eventually bring economic equality here and around the world. This is not a zero sum game of give and take as using our influence is not to be perceived as a distant act of charity or a lesser work of love. That our influence is not labeled by Kraft or Hilton doesn’t mean that it won’t eventually translate into food and housing. As a congregation replete with influencers at every level and corner of society we are in positions to affect great change. Ultimately, our well placed influence will help bring an end to unjust systems that make it possible for people in cardboard bungalows to get their warmth from the sidewalk grates of the underground ventilation and heating systems of the US Capitol building.

We live in a world of Give and Take. The systems of the world thrive on capitalist structures and human frailty that substantiate Christ’s foreshadowing that we will always have the poor among us. But like the woman with the alabaster jar of expensive perfume poured her offering upon the Servant’s head, we are called by Christ today to pour the riches of our lives to meet the needs of the world – from top to bottom – that those people who are living in darkness may see the great light of Christ’s love as the kingdom of heaven draws near.

Thanks be to God!