September 26, 2011
Dear Colleague in Ministry,
I flew through the airport in Salt Lake City this week. Walking between gates I noticed that Deseret News is opening a store in the airport – “Coming – fall 2011.”
As you probably know, Deseret News is part of the multimedia group of the Mormon Church.
As I passed its new residence (across from a soon-to-be McDonald’s), I wondered if the United Methodist Church has ever considered opening a Cokesbury Store in an airport.
I don’t know that I’m for such an idea (or against it), but I do know that we need to be taking the gospel to the people where they are. I’m grateful for all of you who are finding new ways to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the people of your communities (whether they’re flying or not).
Grace and Peace,
Living in God’s Grace
At times John Wesley (founder of the United Methodist tradition) could be very pesky. For example, in an extensive correspondence with one of his wealthier followers, Miss J.C. March, he relentlessly insists that "the best way to improve her life . . . was to visit the poor."* Relentlessly, she protests his suggestion using all sorts of reasons for why she won't affiliate with those of "lower character." But, because of his concern for "the poor" and for Miss March, Wesley persists. In one letter he writes, "I am concerned for you; I am sorry you should be content with lower degrees of usefulness and holiness than you are called to."** For the sake of the poor (i.e., the gifts of Miss March's "usefulness") and Miss March (her spiritual growth, her "holiness"), Wesley insists that it is necessary that she immerse herself in the lives of the poor. For Wesley, the purpose of such immersion is at least two-fold: (1) to overcome the would-be visitors' "lack of compassion that lay behind withholding aid"* to the poor, and (2) to transform the would-be visitors' "...hearts, to transform our understanding, to transform us into instruments of the divine mercy and justice."***
If Wesley is persistent on this issue,**** it's because his role model, Jesus, is as well. Wesley is motivated by Jesus' persistent, direct (e.g., Matthew 25:36) and indirect (e.g., this week's "Parable of the Wicked Tenants") call for those who have "enough" to immerse themselves in the realities of those who do not. As is the case with this week's parable, it can be very painful to see life from the perspective of the poor and marginalized. And yet - for the sake of the poor/marginalized and the wealthy/powerful and God's economy - this immersion must take place. If and when people like Miss March (in Wesley's time) or the religious elite (in Jesus' time) take this plunge, they will realize that visitation is simply a "gracious means that God has provided to 'free' us to become progressively the kind of people that we really long to be."***** As often as possible, may we all take this liberating plunge.
In God's Grace,
Tanya Barnett & Tom Wilson
Northwest United Methodist Foundation Staff
*Randy Maddox, "Visit the Poor," in The Poor and the People Called Methodists, Richard P. Heitzenrater, ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002) 77.
**Letter to Miss March (10 December 1777), Letters (Telford).
***Theodore W. Jennings, Good News to the Poor: John Wesley's Evangelical Economics (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990) 57-58; bold added for emphasis.
****And, he is persistent on the issue of visitation; for example, see his sermon "On Visiting the Sick."
*****Maddox, 81; bold added for emphasis.
Image source: United Methodist Women.
This coming week, many churches will celebrate World Communion Sunday (Oct. 2) and/or the Feast of St. Francis (Oct. 4). The former is a day to "...celebrate our oneness in Christ, the Prince of Peace, in the midst of the world we are called to serve - a world ever more in need of peacemaking"*; the latter remembers a model Christian peacemaker and steward.
Saint Francis wasn't always a model of peacemaking and good stewardship. Francis (née Giovanni Bernadone) was born into a family of great wealth and privilege; and "'Until he was nearly twenty-five he squandered his time terribly. Indeed, he outshone all his friends in trivialities, suggested various evils, and was eager for foolishness of every kind.' ...[in short, he was] the spoiled son of a wealthy mercantile family."** In his earlier years he romanticized war (which was common for men of means to do during this time of the Crusades) and engaged in violent, bloody combat. It was his grueling captivity as a prisoner of war, serious illnesses, Divine revelations, and experiences of true poverty that forged Francis into the saint we know him to be. After years of transformation, his life was no longer one of extravagance and privilege, but one of intentional self-emptying for the benefit of the poor and for the benefit of his own soul. We share these words regarding Francis' deliberate emptiness, with the hope that they will inspire us yet today:
"For Francis, living in the radical insecurity of poverty was the ultimate act of living faith in the providence of God and the promises of Christ. ...The kind of poverty that Francis [lived and] preached brought forth a paradoxical, but perfectly cogent, conclusion about the world we live in. If one lives purely in the providence of God and after the manner of Christ's self-emptying, one's awareness of the world as gift is sharpened. For Saint Francis, the world was both a sign of the presence of God in itself and - even more fundamental - a sign of God's free gift. It is against this . . . theological background that we must see Francis' great love for the natural world and its creatures [human and non-human]. . . he saw the visible world as a sign of the presence of God and, more specifically, of the presence of Christ in the created world."**
*National Council of Churches.
**Dennis Stock & Lawrence Cunningham, Saint Francis of Assisi (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), 21, 58, 61; bold added for emphasis. The first quote includes words from St. Francis' first biographer, Thomas of Celano.
Mark O. Hatfield:
"Today, our abundance, which has brought material blessings to so many, threatens us spiritually as a peril. Never have we known such wealth, but never have we worshipped wealth more. ...Whereas people once looked toward God for salvation, our culture now propels their daily lives toward the domination of nature and fellow human beings in a ceaseless quest for material accumulation.
"...From such bondage Jesus Christ yearns to set us free. 'Where your treasure is,' Christ said, 'there your heart will be also.' He proclaims unto us who are rich, and unto those who are poor, a jubilee which would liberate us all from spiritual and physical impoverishment."
*Hatfield is a former U.S. Senator (Oregon); he offered these words as part of his address at the 1976 President's National Prayer Breakfast. Bold added for emphasis.
Reflections on the Lectionary
Stewardship reflections on readings for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Revised Common Lectionary texts for October 2, 2011: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12- 20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33- 46
In commenting on this week's passage from Exodus 20, David Wells writes, "The Ten Commandments are a gift to those who have been set free, showing them how they can keep their freedom."* God, who gives the Israelites the gift of freedom from Pharaoh's economy of slavery, now gives them another inestimable gift: ten, crucial "words" for maintaining their freedom, their residence within God's economy of enough-for-all. The covenant's ten words declare: "...you are free not to need any other gods. You are free to rest on the seventh day; free from the tyranny of lifeless idols; free from murder, stealing and covetousness as ways to establish yourself in the land."** By the time of Jesus' parable in Matthew, it seems that God's gift of the ten words - and, therefore, the gift of living in God's liberating economy - has been jettisoned by many. In his parable, addressed to the religious/economic elite of his time, Jesus tells a shocking tale of stealing and covetousness (specifically "as ways to establish yourself in the land"), murder, and perhaps other examples of covenant-breaking. The tale illuminates resulting economic/social injustices in Jesus' time - and, perhaps, in our own. Below, we offer Herman C. Waetjen's*** extended commentary on this parable with the hope that his insights will illuminate the minds and hearts of all of us who are tasked with stewarding God's gifts of liberation and restoration.
"The institution of jubilee and its economic regulations, detailed in Leviticus 25, may never have been put into practice in the history of Israel. But the ideals of redemption and restoration, which it envisioned for the nation's covenantal relationship with God and its attendant establishment of justice, were appropriated and applied by Israel's prophets to the social, economic and political conditions of their times. Jesus' ministry also appears to have been oriented toward the fulfillment of these jubilary ideals. ...At least two of [Jesus'] parables . . . convey central features of this jubilee model. ...[One of these parables,] the parable of the Wicked Tenants, functions as a mirror for the ruling elite confronting them with their eviction from God's vineyard and their replacement by the very people they oppressed and dispossessed, the poor.
"...The conflict in the [parable] is an economic class struggle. ...Historical records indicate that . . . land [originally owned by Galilean peasantry,**** was confiscated by Empire elites and] awarded to officials of the state who derived their income from it by leasing it [back] to the peasantry for a stipulated [and 'exorbitant'] rent to be paid in the form of agricultural produce, money, or labor. ...Jesus' parable of the wicked tenants supports [this] socio- economic analysis . . . A landlord has established a vineyard: vines have been planted, a wall has been constructed, a vat has been dug, a tower has been built, the vineyard has been leased to tenants [i.e., the peasantry who originally owned the land], and the owner has withdrawn.
"...The [parable's] opening sentence, 'A human being planted a vineyard and constructed a wall and dug a vat and built a tower' would almost certainly have evoked the memory of Isaiah's 'Song of the Vineyard' [chapter 5] in the minds of Jesus' audience.***** This in and of itself suggests an irregularity, for it links the identification of the absentee landlord of the parable with the vineyard owner of Isaiah's allegory. To imagine God to be like an absentee landlord would be a disturbing anomaly for Jewish peasants but not necessarily for those who would tend to identify themselves with the absentee landlord and approve of killing the tenants [in Mt. 21:41], namely the ruling elite. "...Jesus' upper class audience would find itself drawn into a story in which they . . . would be forced to identify themselves with the lower class peasants to whom they lease their lands. For them, the absentee landlord would be metaphorically identified with God on the basis of the intended association of the introduction with Isaiah's 'Song of the Vineyard,' and the vineyard must necessarily symbolize Israel. The tenants therefore, can only be those to whom God has entrusted the vineyard, that is, the guardians of society. By being drawn into this identification with peasant farmers, the ruling elite ironically find themselves in an unaccustomed role. Jesus has lured them into an identification with that segment of the lower class which they exploit for the maintenance of their wealth and power by appropriating a grossly unjust proportion of their agricultural produce through exorbitant rent funds. For a brief moment perhaps they may perceive the injustice of the socio-economic system which they themselves maintain. At the same time, they are obliged to see themselves as the tenants of God's vineyard who are not fulfilling the covenant to which they had bound themselves. This double disclosure which is conveyed to them through their participation in the story intimates a circular continuity of cause and effect: their guardianship of Jewish society stands under divine judgment precisely because of their socio-economic exploitation of the peasantry. By being naturally inclined, as members of the governing class, to condemn the peasants for their illegal withholding of rent and their violence of murdering the landlord's slaves and especially his male heir, they would have no difficulty in justifying his revenge; but ironically at the same time they would be pronouncing judgment on themselves for the injustice and violence which they were perpetrating as the tenants of God's vineyard.
"Ingeniously, Jesus has succeeded in confronting the guardians of society with their own injustice. The retribution which the tenants suffer at the hands of the landlord and which they readily affirm will be inflicted on them. As they have dispossessed [the original peasant landowners], so they will be dispossessed: 'And he will give the vineyard to others.'
"Jesus does not identify those who will receive the vineyard. ...[T]he 'others' may, in fact, imply the disenfranchised lower classes to whom the evangelist Mark addressed his gospel. Moreover, originally in the context of Jesus' own ministry, the 'others' were probably intended to be the very people who were exploited by the ruling elite, the peasants whose agriculture produced the wealth with which they were able to appropriate by their office and power. The promise of the jubilee year will be realized. The land will be restored to the dispossessed peasants who as tenants produced the agricultural wealth which the ruling class redistributed for their own aggrandizement.
"...Jesus' parables violated the ordered system of land tenure and economic exchange in the world of his day. ...Under the expansion of God's rule, those who exploit, dispossess and marginalize the weak and the poor, will forfeit all their advantages of power and wealth. In spite of the continuation of the stark realities of the socio-economic pyramid benefiting the upper classes, the realities of redemption and restoration, which the year of jubilee envisioned, will be actualized, not only for Israel but for all the nations and peoples of the world.
*David Wells, "God Spoke these Words," The Christian Century, March 15, 2000, p. 301; bold and underline added for emphasis.
**Thomas Long, "Dancing the Decalogue," The Christian Century, March 7, 2006, p. 17.
***Excerpted from Herman C. Waetjen's "Intimations of the Year of Jubilee in the Parables of the Wicked Tenants and Workers in the Vineyard," The Christian Century, May 20- 27, 1998, pp. 524-531.
****In describing the land struggles of these original, land-holding peasants and the ruling elite, Richard Herzog writes, 112: "Every plot of family land [originally] represented in microcosm Yahweh's macrocosmic allotment of the land to the people. Each peasant farm embodied the covenant. ...[Therefore, the dislocated peasant tenants in this parable can be seen as] heirs of Yahweh's allotment of the land whose inheritance had been stolen from them. The tenants' violent outburst was their way of reasserting their honorable status as heirs, not the shameful act of usurpers. Yet the ruling elites portrayed themselves as Yahweh's rightful heirs and the rebellious peasants as outlaws. Their reading of the Torah justified their acquisitive greed while damning the peasants' outrage." Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech, 112.
*****Jesus' allusion to Isaiah 5 also may have helped Jesus' listeners to identify the crippling social/economic problem decried by prophets throughout biblical history: the hegemonic joining of "house to house" and "field to field, until there is room for no one but you" (Isa. 5:8; i.e., instances of latifundialization).
Telling the Story
Over the years I've encouraged pastors to follow a practice I learned from one of my mentors early in ministry. It's the practice of using the time of the offering to "tell the story." Here's a suggestion to introduce the offering this Sunday:
This Sunday is World communion Sunday. Please use the material below to help interpret the important ministries supported by this offering.
Awareness and Action
"Mission Experiences that Give and Receive"
Most church communities engage in "acts of mercy" (a Wesleyan term) - whether it's through mission trips, serving at foodbanks, or any number of "outreach" activities. While these activities certainly bless their "recipients," the "givers" often miss out on the opportunity to be blessed as well.
- If a meal is part of the event, rather than just serving recipients, join them for the meal, share something of your life story, and invite others to share as well. (Regardless of the event, make time to have un-rushed conversations with those whom you serve.)
- Study the model of the Faith and Money Network's "Pilgrimages of Reverse Mission" - trips that enable "individuals to give and receive the gift of presence, and to experience direct involvement with people who are materially poor and marginalized in places." (You may also want to consider joining one of these reverse mission pilgrimages.)
- After any service event, take time with other members of your church to reflect (e.g., asking questions like "Where did you experience God in this time?") and pray on this experience, and discuss possible "next steps."
“Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”
—Philippians 3:13, NRSV
Jean-Michel Basquin received a World Communion Scholarship (formerly called a Crusade Scholarship) that enabled him to attend South Dakota State University in Brookings. He worked toward a Ph. D. in sociology. He was excited because that scholarship allowed him to pursue his dream of helping people back home in Haiti.
Little did he realize how soon he would be called to do exactly that. Before he had even finished his doctoral degree, the bishop of the Methodist Church of Haiti invited him to direct the Coordination Office for Development of the Methodist Church in Haiti. Basquin traveled home to Haiti to do his qualitative research. After finishing his studies, Basquin became the new director.
Now that he has accepted his mantle as director, it is even clearer that Basquin is an excellent example of the good done by the World Communion Scholarship.
"He's a very extraordinary person as far as his determination, openness and integrity (are concerned)," said the Rev. Robert Osgood, now retired from the New York Annual Conference.
Basquin wants more people to have the opportunities he has had. In "no way" could he have pursued his dreams without the scholarship, he noted. "We are living in one world, and we are all God's children,” Basquin said. “I'm positive there are (other) people who would like to make a difference."
Your gifts on World Communion Sunday change lives!
When Dr. Dennis Marke graduated from the university, he had gained new skills in public health that he could take home to his beloved Sierra Leone.
“Sierra Leone has the highest infant mortality in the world,” Marke explained. “Our poor water supply causes continued diarrhea. Malnutrition is rampant in children. Ignorance, poverty and the war increased HIV, and local drugs are really expensive and often fake.” He decided he needed to “meet people in their communities and empower them with knowledge and programs to help them prevent the diseases that are killing them.”
He was the chief medical officer of the United Methodist-supported Kissy United Methodist Hospital, but knowing how to cure the diseases was not enough, Marke applied for — and received — a World Communion Scholarship. He studied public health in California.
Today, as a health administrator, Marke emphasizes holistic care for his patients “They rely on our care,” he said, “and it makes us proud to be able to help them.”
Your World Communion Sunday gifts make a difference!
--Adapted from gbgm-umc.org and crt.umc.org
God of all creation,
We know that our “blessings” come from the vision, work, sorrows, joys, and hopes of
people, creatures, institutions… that came before us,
and may exist still today.
Help us to honor them and to honor You
by sharing the blessings passed on to us.
May our offerings help grow us into Your living legacies as well
and expand Your realm of joyous self-giving.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
from Radical Gratitude
God of the nations, we confess that we often are stingy with your generous gifts. Teach us to open our hearts and our hands to open doors of opportunity to others. In your holy name, we pray. Amen.
from United Methodist Communications
Almighty God, you gave us your commandments and asked us to live according to your holy will. As part of your design for honorable living, we participate in this simple act of giving. We dedicate ourselves to living lives of honesty and peace. Amen. (Based on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20.)
from General Board of Discipleship
"Giving to God is always about ministry, not money."
-- Herb Miller, Full Disclosure (page 6)