This morning’s Scriptures give us two glimpses of life in community. The first may be familiar by now – from Acts 2. Not long after Resurrection, in those first days of Pentecost, the community lives life figuring out what life empowered by the Spirit of the Risen Christ looks like. They devote themselves to Christ’s teaching, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. They live life together – and they hold – they share – their possessions in common. They sell their possessions as anyone has need. Signs and wonders abound, and everyone is in awe. They break bread together in their homes with glad and generous hearts – and day by day, they welcome more people in.
It is what I would call “a touchstone text.” The early church turned to this Scripture again and again – “Remember: This is what life in Christ looks like.” It’s a Scripture we have considered before – and to which, on down our days together, we will turn again and again. This year, it is the source of our stewardship theme: “With glad and generous hearts.” A glimpse of what life in Christ looks like, lived out in us. A touchstone.
Deuteronomy 15 gives us another glimpse, from an earlier day. It takes us to that moment when the people have finally come through the wilderness. They’ve been enslaved in Egypt. God has heard their cry, and brought them up out of Egypt, out into freedom. They have wandered in the wilderness for 40 years – just them and God – learning to live life together day by day – with just enough manna in the morning, with water from the rock. And now, they’ve come to the threshold of the Promised Land.
And Moses stops, and in Deuteronomy, gives a few speeches – describing to them: “This is what life will look like. You’re no longer enslaved. You’ll no longer be wanderers.” In those first days of freedom in a new land, this is what life will look like. It’s what one writer calls “a manual for living on the land.” Moses describes the law of gleaning we discussed two Sundays ago in the story of Ruth – Leave some of what you gather for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in your midst.
And then he sets out this particular law for the cancellation of debt. As you develop your economic systems – we know how those work – don’t let anyone slip back into slavery. To make sure of that: Every seven years, all debts shall be cancelled. And the details are clear: Every debt. All of every debt. Not just the interest. The debt is cancelled. Forgiven. You shall no longer require any payment. And don’t try and game the system – Don’t get to Year 6, and say to someone in need: “Oh, no way I’m going to lend to you this year, because next year I know it will be cancelled.” Every seven years, every debt shall be cancelled.
Don’t be hard-hearted or tight-fisted. Open your hands to your neighbor in need. Freely lend whatever they need. And if you do this – and all of these other things I’m commanding – there should be no poor among you.
Both of this morning’s Scriptures give us a glimpse of life in community. Both of them place at the heart of life in community the practice of generosity. “They shared with each other as any has need.” Don’t be closed-fisted – but open-hearted, and open-handed – give to your neighbor as anyone has need. God has given you enough – for everyone. Let God’s generosity abound in you – live life with glad and generous hearts.
Now, I was born into American capitalism. Before we let our inner critics start trying to puzzle out the capitalist practicalities of this – “Cancelling all debts every seven years? – well, that could never work – lending-capital would dry up in a nanosecond....”
If we really did what the Bible says... Wow. Whew. Eeesh.
Let’s hold that for a second. Maybe put it over here.
And let’s consider the logic of what Moses is saying: Moses begins with God’s generosity. Everything we have comes from God. Everything you see, smell, taste, feel – it all comes from God. “The world is God’s and everything in it.” Everything we have – not only possessions – but life and love – everything is a gift from God.
o Remember: God brought you up out of slavery in Egypt. Freedom.
o Remember: Water from the rock, and manna in the morning.
o Remember, this land – milk and honey – a place to call home.
It all is a gift from God – not yours to be hoarded, or stockpiled. If you remember that, there should be no poor among you. God always gives enough.
But. This story in Deuteronomy – it’s actually being written down a couple centuries after they enter the land – looking back – and the writer knows – the writer knows that the people aren’t going to be successful at living this out. The economic systems that they will build – as they encounter wealth – will grow up with oppression built in. Just like ours. They’ll never quite get away from tightfistedness: This is mine. And this. And this. And this. So that some will have much, and some – maybe even most – will have barely enough to get by.
The broken systems we build misallocate resources, compounding and exacerbating the cycle of poverty, inequality, and indebtedness. There’s this fascinating progression in this Scripture – did you notice? In just 11 verses, Moses says, with all God has given you “There should be no poor among you.” And then, “If there is someone poor among you...” And then, ultimately, there will always be poor among you. Did you catch that? This is the Scripture Jesus quotes when he says: “You will always have poor among you” – not as a glib dismissal of the poor – but as an indictment of the systems we have constructed – and a not-so-subtle suggestion that we need to get to work to make it better.
So Moses says, you also have to build in a practice of generosity.
At the heart of community there must be a practice of generosity. The systems you build will tend toward brokenness and indebtedness – you have to build in a corrective: Every seven years all debt shall be cancelled. It has to be built-in to the system.
And notice how it gets built in. By the letter of the law – the system itself has to be reformed – and also – check out the body language. Do not be closed-fisted. Be open-hearted. Be open-handed. Or, you could translate it more actively: Don’t close your fists. Don’t harden your hearts. Open your hands. Move through the world with an open-handed, open-hearted generosity.
One writer says it like this: “Compassion and open-heartedness are the order of God – attitudes that work themselves out in the action of the hand, which, like the heart, must be open and not closed.”
God’s generosity gets built-in not only to the system –
it gets built-in – embodied in – us.
In our Wednesday morning Transition Support Group, we’ve been reading Wendy Farley’s new book on contemplative practices in an age of disruption – Beguiled by Beauty – and talking about “habits of the heart.” Dr. Farley suggests that the practices we live out day by day can help us cultivate habits of heart that we then live out in the world. One of those habits she talks about is “generosity.” She describes generosity as our “fervid response” to the needs of another, “a degree of self-forgetfulness when another person’s situation [and pain and need] invades us in such a way that we feel compelled to respond” – a gut connection to the needs of another.
Wendy Farley – who will be leading the Women’s Retreat in May – Wendy Farley suggests that we can cultivate that by living it out throughout our daily days – practicing generosity –with our time and attention, and our resources. In the ordinary moments of ordinary days: Give to the person who asks. Buy the Girl Scout cookies. Volunteer. Drive someone to their doctor’s appointment. Shower with your water bucket – be generous to a parched earth. Also, engage the macro- issues of our day. Work for change – even for the dismantling and reform of systems. Day by day, these practices “enlarge the heart so it has the courage to take in more – to do more.”
Researchers are looking at the power of generosity lived out in all manner of organizations and communities. In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant looks at how people interact particularly in workplace and business communities, and identifies what he calls givers, and takers, and matchers. Grant says that, in our competitive culture, we may think that the takers are going to be the most successful, but it’s actually the givers. Giving – responding to the needs of others – generosity – lived out over time creates something in the world – it creates networks of trust and relationship – it creates space for the free exchange of ideas – for collaboration. Space for liberation.
The practice of generosity has creative power. Generosity is generative – they come from the same root word. Generosity births something into the world. Generosity – this moving through the world with open hearts and open hands – generosity opens up good in the world.
But before I get too far afield, I want to re-ground us in this text. This Scripture insists that the practice of generosity lies at the heart of life in community – AND – we can’t forget this text is about economic injustice. It is about the daily habits we live out – and, it is about the systems in which we live and participate – systems that left unchecked and unreformed – distort the generosity that God has let loose in the world.
Harold Bennett reminds us that in approaching Deuteronomy – and really any Scripture – we have to consider it from the viewpoint of those who are marginalized – from the viewpoint of the poor and the disenfranchised.
So as we consider this text that commands the cancellation of debt – we have to consider how it would have been experienced, by those with the least power, those with the least hoarded wealth, those with the most debt. Think of the family with a bare patch of land that they farm for survival – in debt to a larger landholder – about to lose what they have – and move into perpetual indebtedness. What would this command that every seven years all debts be cancelled have meant to them? What might they have had to say about the broken system that necessitated this rule in the first place?
Or today. Think of the millions of folks living under the burden of crushing student-loan debt. Think of folks who have experienced health traumas while less than fully insured – the medical debt that has crashed in on them along with their illness. Think of poorer nations that struggle under debt to wealthier nations – debt that can’t realistically ever be repaid and that locks them interminably into a debtor status in global relationships. All those folks. What might this command that every seven years all debts be cancelled mean to them? What might it have to say to the broken systems that shackle people and peoples with debt and all manner of economic oppression?
What might it mean if we really did what the Bible says?
What these touchstone texts tell us is that God’s generosity requires the practice of generosity at the heart of community, in the systems we inhabit, and in our everyday lives. We’ve covered a lot of ground – and that’s a lot to take in – we have some weeks to think about all this – so I want to suggest a practice for us, as we begin this series – a practice for living with glad and generous hearts. It’s a three part practice.
First, begin each day receiving the new day as a gift. In African American church traditions, I’ve heard it prayed: “Thank you, God, for the gift of this day. This day wasn’t guaranteed, but we are glad to receive it.” Begin each day with God’s generosity – acknowledging the gift of a brand new day.
Then, move into the day with the practice of generosity. Move into the day with open hearts and open hands – open to the needs of others. What need – whose need – is moving you to respond? Think of the practices Wendy Farley described. What are concrete actions you can take – small and not so small – micro and macro – engaging the deep need of another – engaging the deep need of the world?
And then at the end of the day, name your gratitude, and give thanks. For what experiences of the day are you grateful? What generosity did you experience? What opportunities did you have to practice generosity – to live it out? Where did you live with open hands and open hearts? And if something you didn’t do comes to mind – remember, Grace Abounds – and tomorrow morning will bring with it – through God’s generosity – the gift of a brand new day.
1. Receive the day as a gift.
2. Move into the day practicing generosity – with open heart and open hands.
3. Complete the day in gratitude.
We return to these touchstone texts again and again, because they remind us of God’s generosity – and they call us into our own. They remind us that we are made in the image of God – made in the image of a God who created all that is and shares it broadly for the well-being of all people – with open heart and open hands. They remind us that we are created for community. By the power of the Spirit – we are the Body of Christ – given the gift of living this life together – given the gift of living this life “with glad and generous hearts.”
© 2021 Scott Clark
 Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990)  See Ronald E. Clements, “The Book of Deuteronomy,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. ii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), pp. 402-409.  See Miller, p. 134.  Miller, p. 136.  Wendy Farley, Beguiled by Beauty: Cultivating a Life of Contemplation and Compassion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020).  Farley, p. 111-113.  Farley, p.112.  Id.  Adam Grant, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (New York: Viking Press, 2013).  Harold V. Bennett, “Deuteronomy” in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), pp. 100-106.