July 4, 2015

Mutual Ministry: The Community of Generosity


Text: 2 Corinthians 8:13b–14a: “...it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need...”

Four years ago I had the opportunity to travel to the northeast corner of Tanzania, in the region known as Tanga, as part of a non-profit that I’ve been involved with. The villages we were going to visit were very small, usually fewer than a thousand people, and the people who lived in them were subsistence farmers, for the most part. It’s not stretching it to say that even within their own country they were relatively poor, and on a global scale they are among the poorest of the poor.

We were traveling to visit sites where our little organization was engaged in trying to help folks become more self-sufficient by building partnerships and creating local growers’ collaboratives. And there came to be a kind of predictable routine that would happen when we arrived.

We would be shown in to the home of the most prominent person in the village, maybe the elder or the priest or the man who owned the hand-turned grist mill. We’d be shown to seats around the periphery of the single room in the front of the house. Whoever owned the house would offer a prayer—sometimes Christian, sometimes Muslim. And then we would be served a meal of a roasted chicken, rice, and boiled greens of some kind.

It didn’t matter where we were, or who owned the house that received us; the meal was nearly always the same. At one point I remember a small giggle going around our circle as the women of the house came around with large platters, and there it was again—roasted chicken. Rice. Greens.

I finally asked one of the folks who was part of our team and worked on the ground in the town of Korogwe, something like the county seat of the region. Why always the same meal, no matter where we go?

My colleague explained to me that this was a meal that signified the presence of a dignitary—of an honored guest. It was our hosts telling us in the language of their own culture that we were being received as the most important visitor they could imagine coming.

And then I learned one thing more. Because my colleague explained that the cost of putting on such a meal for us would almost certainly mean that our hosts would spend the next week, and maybe longer, eating nothing but boiled greens and a starch called ugali, something like grits. That was it.

Of course I protested this. Our whole mentality was that we were there to help. It made no sense if our presence was causing even more of the poverty that we were trying to reduce.

But my colleague, who knew the culture far better than I ever will, pointed out something that would never have occurred to me. “You need to understand that they felt so rich by having the chance to us,” he said. “They’ve probably never felt so wealthy.”

I still think about that conversation. It shaped my whole experience of Tanzania, for one thing. I realized that even though the people I met lived in houses built of sun-dried mud bricks with earthen floors, even though they worried about having enough clean water go get their families through the day, even though most of them went hungry for at least a month of days every year, I never met a single person who thought of themselves as poor.

That made all the more impact on me when I returned home, and realized that I almost never met anyone where I live and where I work who thought of themselves as rich.

The generosity of my Tanzanian hosts has stayed with me, not just as an experience of someone else’s culture, but as a lesson in ministry. Generosity is a powerful thing. It can make the poorest people on the planet feel wealthy. It can make the most marginal and unheralded people know themselves to be empowered and capable.

•   •   •

Generosity is really a kind of paradox. When you give whatever you have very carefully and prudently, you manage to be aware of how much less you have than you did when you started. But when you give whatever you have fully and freely, suddenly you realize how powerful you really can be—how capable you really are.

The most powerful demonstration of this in the otherwise oppressively sad stories of the past week or two has surely been given to us by the families of the martyrs of Charleston, who one by one spoke directly to the man accused of murdering their family members and spoke through their tears words of forgiveness. How powerful they have shown themselves to be.

Their generosity is perhaps not so powerful as to be able to change the past. But it is already changing the future. It is already changing how people see and symbolize their own history. It is already making all of us more aware of the circumstances of people we can too easily forget.

Ministry of any kind, and mutual ministry most of all, has a directly proportional relationship to generosity. The more of it you manage to unleash, the stronger and more vital the ministry of the community will be.

But there’s a kind of irony there, one we have learned about here. Mutual ministry is a way of doing ministry that under most circumstances begins as an experiment in a small church. At Trinity Church in Copley Square they may worry about many things and do many things, but they probably don’t have to worry about mutual ministry. They don’t have to share the roles, the risks, and the rewards of ministry the way we do.

Small churches, we think of ourselves as living on thin rations. We have a way of writing a story about ourselves that starts with how big we used to be and continues with how much things have changed and ends with how little we have and how much we wish things were different.

Once you tell yourself that story enough times, you start thinking that generosity is a danger, not an opportunity. If you don’t have enough in the first place, you’d be crazy to give anything away.

But then I remember my Tanzanian hosts. And I see that there’s a discipline to generosity that begins turning the cycle around.

That is what we have learned here, and it humbles me to be a member of a community that has acted on this understanding of generosity. Instead of turning inward we have risked giving. We keep giving—to the food pantry, to the soup kitchen, to people who need us. We give to each other—our care, our concern, our willingness to connect. We make a practice of generosity through hospitality, which is an always a simple and unambiguous act of giving.

Whenever people visit here and give us a second or third date, when I go to visit them what I always hear is how welcome you make them feel, how willing you are to give them your attention, your interest, your help. We think it’s something so simple. But it’s not simple at all. It’s rare. And it’s powerful.

As long as we give eagerly and happily whatever we have—our treasure, our time, our attention, our care—we will do the work God wants us to do. As long as we make a practice of that kind of giving, we’ll be ready to give even when giving is hard, or maybe sacrificial, or even, as it surely must have been for those families in Charleston, painful.

When our first response to someone is an act of generosity, we not only equip them for ministry—we make it more likely they’ll share in ours with us. The teaching of Deuteronomy turns out still to be true: Give generously, and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.” If we keep that directly in front of us, we will flourish in the way God intends. Amen.