This post first appeared as the cover article in The View, the parish newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, AL. To read more of what is happening at St. John's, click here.
On my first morning in Salt Lake City, I stopped by the Starbucks on my way out of the hotel. I did not want anything fancy—just a cup of drip coffee—so I handed the barista my reusable cup and three dollars. When she gave me back a handful of change, I reached over to drop it in the tip jar, but, as the coins left my hand, I saw something that gave me a jolt. Written on the clear plastic cube were the following words: “Karma Jar—tips are greatly appreciated.” I sighed a long, slow, achy sigh and thought to myself, “We still have a lot of work to do.”
I carried the image of that tip jar and its pseudo-spiritual proclamation with me every day at General Convention. For me, as a preacher of the gospel and a missionary for grace, it was the clarion call that crystalized my focus during those two weeks, helping me leave behind all that was dross and take up the cause of all that is uniquely Christian in our efforts. There are many institutions in this world who work for the betterment of humanity, and their efforts should be applauded and aided by our church. As Jesus taught us in Matthew 25, we are commanded to give food to the hungry and drink to those who thirst, to welcome the stranger, and to visit the infirm and imprisoned. Social work, therefore, is gospel work. But our approach to making the world a better place—a place we call “the kingdom of God”—is radically different from that of all other organizations and philosophies.
To my knowledge, the gospel stands alone in the history of humanity as the only institution that proclaims the precise opposite of karma. If there are others out there, I hope you will share them with me, but Christianity at its core is the only approach that I know of that teaches that you do not get what you deserve. Karma, of course, is the religious concept shared by Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Taoism that teaches that the actions of this life affect the nature and quality of both this life and ones future life or lives. To put it simply, if you do good, good things will happen to you, and, if you do bad, bad things will happen. This logic seems infallible and inescapable. It is as ancient as humanity. And it is precisely the logic that Jesus Christ came to undo.
Before his conversion on the Damascene road, the apostle Paul was steeped in the Hebrew version of getting what one deserves. In his impassioned plea to the Philippians, he wrote, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more…as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” In other words, Paul was as confident in his religiosity as anyone. Yet, when confronted with the gospel, he threw it all away: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:4-8). Blinded by the light of Christ, Paul discovered that, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, he had been set free from the expectations of what goes around comes around, and he spent the rest of his life sharing the good news of God’s grace with the world.
By invoking the concept of karma, the Starbucks tip jar was a light-hearted way of inviting customers to consider whether their charity would come back to them. As far as I could tell, it was in no way intended to be a religious statement. It was merely fun and playful, but to me it was yet another indication that the world still trusts the old philosophy of just desserts. Like a barometer of grace, that jar was a sign to me that even in Salt Lake City—or perhaps especially in Salt Lake City—the good news of Jesus Christ needs to be proclaimed. And what is that good news? That God’s love for us is not a reflection of what we do—good or bad—but is purely reflected in what God has already done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of his son.
Christianity is the only faith that I have found that is built upon radical unconditional love—a concept which we call grace. Grace is the belief that we do not get what we deserve. Grace is the belief that what goes around does not come back around. Grace is God’s way of telling the world that his love has no limits. As long as people still believe that God rewards those who are good and punishes those who are bad, we will have work to do, which is to say that we will have work to do until Jesus returns. The good news, though, is that our work is delightful. What could be better than telling others that they are loved no matter what? That is good news indeed.