Monday, August 10, 2009

Don't Shake the Olive Trees

I know we don’t hear much from Deuteronomy in our usual worship and most preachers’ preaching. The book has a long-standing reputation of being somewhat of a bore – a list of rules and commandments ordering all sorts of aspects of daily and not-so-daily living.

But Deuteronomy is really so much more than that. It could be called God’s vision statement. It’s a statement longer than most consultants would recommend, but God has a big job to do. It can also be roadmap for avoiding the sort of rags to riches pitfalls we’re used to seeing as celebrities rise quickly to fame and financial fortune, but forget or never bother to remember that their new financial freedom comes with responsibilities, too.

Newly freed from slavery in Egypt, God gives the Israelites commandments to guide their life and their society before they take the final steps of their journey into the Promised Land. Listen now for God’s wisdom and vision.

READ Deuteronomy 24:10-21

Loans and wages and justice, oh my! Loans and wages and justice, oh my! Who know all this was in here? Who knew God had something to say about banking and pay schedules and collateral and the random olives left on the trees? And why does God bother?

Because you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. God said it in there twice. It must be important. Because you were a slave, and because I redeemed you, I care. Because you were a slave and you were mistreated, because you were a slave and your wages were withheld, because you were a slave and I brought you out of slavery for a life better than that, I care. Like a mother might say to her child, “I raised you better than that.”

Loans and wages and justice, oh my! What are these rules of economics really all about?

First of all, they assume that the hearers are the ones making the loans, paying the laborers, and reaping the harvest. The burden of a just economic society, the burden of organizing sustainable life and communities according to God’s wisdom is on the people with the economical and political power . The rules don’t tell the poor how to beg. The rules don’t tell the aliens and foreigners how to fit in and measure up. The rules don’t tell the widow how to find respectable work. The rules don’t tell the orphans to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The rules and commandments of God tell the lender, the employer, the landowner how to be gracious and merciful and generous with what they have.

Because I was gracious enough to pull you out of slavery, because I was merciful enough to redeem you from Egypt, because I was generous enough to shower you with manna from heaven and water from a rock, you also should use your power, your position, your blessings for the benefit of those who have none.

Secondly, the rules aren’t about hand-outs that strip the recipients of dignity and promote the givers to the throne of the divine. The commandments don’t tell the people of God to organize bread lines that dehumanize or donations that create second-class citizens. The rules are about loans that will eventually be paid back. The rules are about wages that are earned through honest labor. The rules are about food that is gathered by the ones who will eat it or sell it for profit to make a living. The rules are about respecting the people who live alongside us as people created in the image of God with the same hopes to earn a living, the same goal to provide for family, the same dreams to contribute to society as those who are already doing so.

God’s commandments describe the ideal world, the world toward which we strive, but the world we have not yet reached, the world in which those who are poor and strangers and widows have a chance to work honorably and productively, just like the rest of society; the world in which those with the means to lend and hire and grow do so with generosity and grace, because they know that what they have comes only by the generosity and grace of God. The lenders and the employers know they aren’t the source of their blessings, but they remember they were once slaves and the Lord saw fit to redeem them.

In his series of books about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith tells the story of Precious Ramotswe, a single woman, past the “usual” marrying age in Botswana, who, unusually, but blessedly, lives independently. Alone and in a modest home, with no husband or children to care for or clean-up after, Mma Ramotswe employs a housekeeper. In her first person narration of the stories, Mma Ramotswe acknowledges the way this may look wasteful or over-the-top to the outsider.

But she sees it entirely differently. She sees it as her duty. Mma Ramotswe may not have much to clean or a complicated life to keep organized, but she recognizes that she has been blessed with more than enough for herself. She sees it as her DUTY to employ someone because she can. She can afford to give another woman work to do. She can afford to pay wages that will benefit another family, lifting them out of poverty and into a life of dignified work and compensation. Because she knows that the position she occupies is one of blessing and even simple privilege, she knows it is her call to make sure that another human being is able to work, be paid, and live a productive life with dignity and honor.

Mma Ramotswe, in the words of Deuteronomy, isn’t shaking the olive trees to gather the last few fruits for herself. She isn’t picking over the vines for the grapes that were left behind. She has taken what she needs from what is hers, what she has earned, and she is finding a way to make sure others can live off the blessings she has received.

“Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I COMMAND you to do this.”

Lastly, these commandments tell us that what exists is enough. The poor will have food, the orphans will be sheltered, the strangers among the Israelites will have work, the widows will be clothed and taken care of out of what already exists. God doesn’t ask that new fields be planted for them. New cloth is ordered to be woven. What is already lurking around our economic system, what we have planted in the fields, the fruit growing on our vines and trees, the clothes on our backs, in our closets, on the racks in the stores is enough, MORE than enough to meet the needs of the world.

What we have has been generously given by God, and all of creation will continue to receive blessings upon blessings. There is enough that the lender need not keep the borrower’s cloak overnight. There is enough that our storehouses will be full for a rainy or disastrous day. Lest you fear that I am using this pulpit to preach socialism, communism, or any other –ism, hear me say there is even enough for some to enjoy luxuries, while others live more simply. There is enough for all of this, and enough to meet the world’s needs when people are treated justly, equitably, and compassionately.

Remember, out of God’s great love and compassion, we who were once slaves, have now been redeemed. Because of this, we have these commands to obey.

In a study guide written in November of 2006 by the National Council of Christian Churches, US churches were reminded of our American history: “More than 100 years ago, workers caught in the machinery of early industrialization were ground down by 12-hour shifts and seven-day workweeks. Families were broken by absent or exhausted parents. Workers with disabilities were summarily dismissed and devalued. Retired works were left without pensions. Children worked when they should have been at school or at play. At the same time enormous wealth was generated. That wealth, however, was distributed to a relative few, primarily the owners of industry.”

The description of the turn of the previous century was clearly meant to echo the economic climate of the contemporary day, almost 3 years ago. However, the foreshadowing language is even more poignant today as we have seen the struggle of workers in our own community, even in our own congregation, intensify since November 2006. The 20th century was ushered in by the industrialization of the world’s economy, and the 21st has rushed in with technology none of us would have ever imagined and globalization like the world has never seen. Neither of these transitions has happened without a struggle. Neither of these transitions has been without their negative impacts on the national and global economy.

This is not the situation God desires. This is not the society envisioned by the commandments God gave through Moses as the Israelites looked into the Promised Land. This is not the life for the world that God intends. Olive trees are being shaken in such a way that the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. The vineyards are being picked clean by machines or desperate, under-paid practically slave laborers who have no way, no voice, or no hope to speak against the economic pressures they feel. In the midst of excitement and joy celebrating individual freedom and wealth, those who live in comfort, maybe even some of us who live without worry, have forgotten the wisdom and commandments of God.

Enough IS enough, God says. Take what you need, enjoy what you earn, but leave some for others. Give them opportunities to work as you have worked. God’s blessings are generous, we heard in Matthew (20:1-16), beyond what the world calls fair. Take what I have given, and from it take what is enough for you, God says. But remember God tells us, all of us – you, too, were once a slave. We, too, were once held captive, bound by others, bound by sin, bound by blind ambition. We are warned, don’t now be bound by greed. Work while we can, even enjoy the fruits of our labor. But we are commanded this, too, “Do not deprive others of justice. For you were a slave, and I redeemed you.”

We have known God’s generosity and mercy. In knowing it we are called embody it, making commitments to God’s commandments, striving to align not just our actions and behaviors to God’s desires, but striving to transform the society in which we live, the economic systems in which we participate.

Responding to the situation of their day, the churches of the newly formed Federal Council of Churches in 1908 put in place social principles that were to guide the Council’s work in the succeeding years – principles, you may say, that would lead to a sustainable and Spirit-led industrialized society. This Social Creed was a concise and practical summary of what a “Christ-like God” wills for those seeking “to reduce the hardships and uphold the dignity of labor.”

The working conditions and specific problems have changed, but similar economic problems persist today that existed 100 years ago: injustice in the workplace, growing social inequities, and the intolerably high percentage of people living in poverty in the United States and in other nations. Responding to the situation of our day, in time for the 100th anniversary of the first Social Creed, the National Council of Christian Churches developed a new Social Creed. It was approved in a number of denominations in subsequent years, including our own Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2008.

This week and over the next two weeks in worship we will confess portions of this creed together. Affirming our faith, professing our love, and praying with hope that the world God envisions will be visible in our beliefs and actions.

A Social Creed for the 21st Century
Background to Social Creed received for study by NCCC, Nov. 9, 2006

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