Embracing Responsibility

Today is the last Sunday of May. This month, we have focused on the theme of embracing life. Life is a complex partner in an embrace. I imagine it as perhaps a beautiful, charming, delightful and loving person whose clothing happens to include many sharp spikes. You have only two choices – embrace nothing or embrace everything.

For this final service of the month, we turn to another aspect of life that we often find challenging to embrace – responsibility.

Today is the Jewish celebration of Shavuot, the day marks the story of God giving the Torah to the Jewish people at a place that the bible calls Mount Sinai.

The Torah is another name for the first five books of the bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. If you’ve ever read these books, you will know that some of them are absolutely loaded with laws – regulations, requirements, obligations...

One of the reasons that people today don’t have much time for religion is exactly those kinds of commandments. Don’t eat pork. Don’t eat meat on Fridays. Fast for Ramadan. Pray five times a day. Don’t work on the Sabbath, don’t drink alcohol... it all seems pretty arbitrary.

The rules found in the Torah also include that set of rules that we have come to call the Ten Commandments.

When we look at those ten, we find that most of them tell us what not to do – they are negative commandments rather than positive ones. They say what we should not do. Do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not lie, do not covet, do not have other gods, and do not use God’s name in vain. They don’t say how we should live exactly – they say what action is forbidden.

The positive commandments among the big ten are fewer: honour your parents and keep the Sabbath.

Of course, the bible and other religious texts do include many, many positive rules. Muslims are required to pray five times daily, to voyage to Mecca if they can, to fast for Ramadan, and to give charitably.

Judaism counts 613 separate commandments! They range from the absurd – not wearing clothing made of mixed wool and linen – to the sublime – giving to the poor to meet their needs.

Whilst many of these religious laws strike us as quaint at best and just plain ignorant at their worst, some of them – if adopted – would certainly mean a better world today. We find these among the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures:

• Intervene to protect endangered human life
• Do not libel or slander
• Do not gossip
•  Let go of hatred
•  Don’t bear a grudge
•  Dedicate some of your earnings to the poor
•  Give charitably
•  Don’t do any wrong in commerce
•  Forgive the debts of the poor
•  To forgive debts each seven years
•  Treat the powerful and weak equally in the courts

In the past few thousand years the world has changed enormously. Our relative comfort means that we are not nearly so dependent on one another as people once were. In fact, we have been taught to be fiercely independent – dependence is increasingly understood as weakness in our society.

The indoctrination we receive from this world of commerce tells us to think of everything as a transaction rather than as relationship: I give you money and you give me your work. You give me money and I give you a product or a service.

This attitude has come to pervade other areas of our lives too. We begin to understand kindness and compassion as a kind of barter. As if examining yet another product for sale that promises to make us happy, we ask “what do I get out of it?”

Do we have positive commandments to live by in our times? Is there any strong pressure to be a kind person, a caring person, a compassionate person? Is there any force that commands us to be honest, to be polite, to give up our seats on the bus to someone who can’t stand easily or to turn down our music to avoid disturbing others?

The only real positive responsibility that’s mandated now is to pay taxes if you earn enough money. Although paying taxes is how we take care of each other and especially how we take care of those who are less fortunate, we don’t exactly take kindly to taxation.

In the US, the lack of a sense of interdependence and mutual responsibility is never as clear as at election time. The candidate who promises to lower taxes has an enormous advantage. As long as voters only see tax cuts as hurting other people, they are enthusiastically in favour of them.

I don’t for a moment want to suggest that there should be laws to regulate our kindness or our compassion.

There is, however, something terribly important missing from the lives of many, many people in much of the developed world today. That something is a deep sense of responsibility for each other.

Now, I fully expect that when I talk about responsibility that it makes many of us uncomfortable.

To some extent, talk of responsibility has been hijacked by the right. They use that word to talk about how the poor and underprivileged need to be more responsible – need to pull up their socks. It is talk of responsibility used to relieve others of any feeling of responsibility at all.

The responsibility I mean though is not the responsibility each person has to take care of themselves – that individualistic sense of responsibility is a big part of what ails our society today.

Instead, I mean our responsibility for one another. And that is a radical idea in these times.

And I don’t want to talk about responsibilities that are imposed – responsibilities accepted grudgingly – but rather responsibilities that are taken on voluntarily because of something that is more important than the notion of commerce in human relationships.

In his Nobel Prize speech the Dalai Lama called us to take seriously our responsibilities to one-another and to the natural world. He said not to expect our elected leaders alone to bring peace to our world, but recognised that even this is a responsibility we all must share.

Now, I don’t want you to go home with “world peace” at the top of your to-do list for tomorrow, but it is also not enough to believe that someone else will take care of everything.

I want turn from the world stage to one closer to home now.

This congregation does not fit in the usual modern way of thinking about things. It is not a business. You don’t come here to pay for a particular product or service. You don’t charge admission at the door and I don’t charge people by the hour to come and talk with me.

This is an odd place where you receive and are not required to give. Yes, you are asked to give – but only to give as you feel drawn to do.

This is a different place. It is a place of mutuality. We come not only for ourselves, but also for one another. We are here to receive and to give, but not to keep track of the totals.

Each of us that join this congregation becomes an equal owner, and we each take on our share of the responsibility for this congregation, for these people, and for the ongoing work we do in the world.

We should not expect that to be easy. In a world where we are taught to look out only for ourselves – to get the best value we can for what it is that we personally want – the idea of contributing without expectation is completely foreign.

But then, we need to think about what kind of a community and what kind of world we want to live in.

Do we want to live in a world where each person thinks only of themselves or thinks of all humankind – present and future?

Do we want to live in a world where we will be valued only for what we have to give or for who we are?

Do we want to live in a world where everything is calculated and tallied or where gifts are given freely?

We are creating the world of the future each day, with each action, and at every moment.

Let us begin to create that generous, loving world we long for. Let us live the life of mutuality and interdependence. Let us live for one another and for that which is greater than any of us alone. Let us live for that great love.

Let it begin here and let it begin now.