Pointing the finger

By Richard E. Helmer

If you remove the yoke from among you,

the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness

and your gloom be like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you continually,

and satisfy your needs in parched places,

and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water,

whose waters never fail.

Isaiah 58:9b-11

In a tense time like ours, the “pointing of the finger” seems to be one of the primal ways the world around us relates. This could not be truer in this season of contentious elections where partisanship is running rampant. Some point at Washington to place blame for all that faces us, others to extremists of every stripe, others to big business, others to various social policies and those who promote them. The threat of a single fundamentalist pastor to burn Islam’s holy book in a tiny never-heard-from-before church in Florida made international headlines recently. This incident broke open the raw areas in our collective consciousness where freedom of speech, religious conscience, and common decency meet. But it also reflected back to us our deep tendency to blame others for our ills. . . to point the finger, to shout past one another, to paint one another up in caricature until we lose sight of our common humanity.

Anyone who hangs around the Church very long knows that we are all too often no better. In a recent exchange of emails characterized as a Christian “Tea Party” moment, I watched the painting up of ecclesiastical tensions simply as a conflict of congregations vs. the diocese. The odd thing about that, of course, is that we are all the diocese, and moreover, we are all the Church together: congregations, dioceses, ministries, members, clergy, laity, staff. But the “us” vs. “them” mode is so much easier. It gives us someone to hold responsible for all our troubles.

It gives us a direction to point the finger.

One way of viewing Christianity is that the pointing of the finger leads ultimately to the cross. The crucifixion is our tradition’s ultimate expression of blame, heaped upon our God in Christ on the cross, who willingly bears that blame into death. Whether it’s the crowds stirred up by religious authorities and Roman imperialism in the first century; or it’s the clamoring for attention by blaming the other – from immigrants to Muslims – in our age, pointing the finger is an almost innate characteristic of our broken humanity, the summation of our hostility and our divisions as a people in search of a way out of our brokenness. And it is this brokenness that sacrifices Christ. And it is out of that sacrifice that God opens for us a new Way.

Our message as Christians is this: For the ancient prophet Isaiah and for us in community around Christ today, the life-giving alternative to pointing the finger is generosity.

Many of us in congregational ministries are moving into our pledge campaign season at this time of year. In the midst of a fractious world where people cling tightly to their resources out of fear, we are calling one another out to be generous in the midst of community. We continue with our ministries to feed those who are hungry. We continue in our endeavors for justice: to seek out and satisfy the needs of the afflicted. By living into a community of generosity, we help shoulder one another’s burdens, easing the pressure of the yoke. We learn to listen to one another with generous hearts, bringing healing and light in the midst of a shouting darkness. The generosity that is crucified rises again into new life, and we become like a watered garden – where the blessings of our baptism overflow into abundant grace.

If the world is calling us to the pointing of the finger this season, the Church is calling us towards generosity. For our hands were made by our Creator not to point in blame or cling out of fear, but to share. And it is in that sharing that we find God’s abundance for everyone. And that is good news: Gospel for a world that needs it now more than ever.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

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