June 25, 2012
Dear Colleague in Ministry,
I’m on vacation this week – nothing planned, just a break, a little Sabbath. As soon as I click on the send button in just a minute, I’m going to forget about work for the rest of the month.
And, I’m grateful.
Grace and Peace,
Living in God’s Grace
Theologian M. Douglas Meeks contends, "Pastors and bishops may preach on virtually anything in the market society except economics. Stewardship is thus typically limited to raising the church's budget. The problem, from [John] Wesley's perspective, is that we cannot speak of God biblically without speaking of economy comprehensively."* For various reasons, many of us will go out of our way to avoid the topic of economics; we might say, "oh, that's a topic for experts, not me" or "we really shouldn't talk about economic things in church." But, Meeks reminds us that economics fundamentally has to do with "access to the conditions of life and life abundant." As God's people called to participate in God's work of redemption (i.e., working to ensure that everyone and everything has access to life abundant), then we must talk about economics. If we leave this conversation to our broader, money-focused culture, then we've lost our ability to proclaim God's redemptive vision.
In one way or another, this and every edition of Radical Gratitude calls us to reclaim our "ability to appear in the world as an alternative economy serving God's redemption of the world." May we all hear this call with fresh "ears": to be representatives of God's alternative economy.
In God's Grace,
Tanya Barnett & Tom Wilson
Northwest United Methodist Foundation Staff
*All quotes in this introductory section come from Meeks' article "Sanctification and Economy: A Wesleyan Perspective on Stewardship," in Rethinking Wesley's Theology for Contemporary Methodism, edited by Randy L. Maddox, pp. 84 & 85; bold added for emphasis.
Ordinary Time allows us to explore "the mystery of Christ not in one specific aspect but in all its aspects. The readings during the liturgies of Ordinary Time help to instruct us on how to live out our Christian faith in our daily lives."* In this season, Paul's letters to some of the first church communities help to inform us of how our earliest Christian sisters and brothers wove the mysteries of God's Grace into their daily lives.
This week's reading from 2 Corinthians (please see the reflection below) gives us a particularly informative glimpse into what was required for the day-to-day survival of the entire Christian community, not just a few socially/economically privileged. This informative glimpse centers on the community's economic practices -- practices that address the fundamental question: "Will everyone in [God's] household get what it takes to live, will everyone survive...the day and, where possible, flourish?" The early church was made to be "...an alternative economy serving God's redemption in the world" -- an economy in which everyone and everything had "enough" to survive, and even thrive.** If the geographically, culturally, socially, economically diverse early church was to model and perpetuate the sort of reconciliation that Jesus birthed, then day-to-day economic matters had to be addressed.
Such was also the case with the very first "people called Methodists." John Wesley (a founder of the United Methodist tradidtion) was so inspired by the radical, equitable sharing that took place among the earliest Christians that he based the "connectional" structure of his movement upon it. Wesley believed that the earliest church was "so open and responsive to the Spirit that they were unanimously and immediately transformed into full holiness of heart and life, and that a primary expression of this transformation was the members' love for one another, which constrained them to hold all things in common. ...[H]e lamented the way that the later Christian church had fallen from this pristine [early church] model, and he longed for his Methodist movement to become the pioneering community that led to the church's recovery."*** And, in many respects, the Methodists would become a pioneering community -- modeling an economy in which all of God's beloved (especially the marginalized) would have access to God's abundant Grace, access to "enough" to survive the day. UMC Bishop Kenneth L. Carder helps us to understand how this took place:
"Stewardship is at the heart of the Wesleyan revival, and John Wesley considered it an integral component of Christian discipleship. ...The class meetings had their origin in meeting financial needs. An initial purpose of the classes was collecting money for the benevolent ministries [e.g., hospitals, employment opportunities, schools, etc.] of the connection... each class leader was to collect a penny a week for the connection; and the leader was expected to contribute when a member was unable to do so. The weekly visit to collect the contribution led to the class meeting becoming a means of growth in discipleship as the class leader encountered the members in their home and saw the need for spiritual support and discipline. 'Watching over one another in love' included accountability for ones stewardship practices."****
Today, our unique connectional structure persists as a tool to help us model God's alternative economy. In this season of Ordinary Time, may we be struck by the extraordinary opportunity and responsibility we have in being this model.
* From the Catholic site, CyberFaith.
**Both of these quotes come from M. Douglas Meeks' article "Sanctification and Economy: A Wesleyan Perspective on Stewardship," in Rethinking Wesley's Theology for Contemporary Methodism, edited by Randy L. Maddox, pp. 84 & 85; bold added for emphasis.
***Randy L. Maddox, "Visit the Poor," in The Poor and the People Called Methodists, edited by Richard P. Heitzenrater, p. 66.
**** From Bishop Carder's presentation, "A Wesleyan Perspective on Christian Stewardship." You may want to read Ed Paup's article on the United Methodist Church's commitment to ministry with the poor,Looking Poverty in the Face.
Bruce C. Birch, in "Economics and Faith in Biblical Perspective":*
"...what we have been picturing is none other than the nature of the community of stewards we are called to be, living in a manner that sets the community of faith apart from the self-centered and materialistic patterns of the world in which we live. ...We have received the vision of shalom and know God's saving activity even in our brokenness. We are called to respond as a covenant community of stewards who take responsibility for that vision and seek to actualize it in our use of God's gifts. But the world will always call us to the alternatives of our own self-interest. If stewardship is our calling, then we must recognize this as the pattern of the world that destroys covenant. It tempts us with the lure of privilege ('we deserve it'), but oppression (injustice) and the domestication of God are its companions."
In what ways do we - - as individuals and as church - - clearly set ourselves apart from the "self-centered and materialistic patterns of the world in which we live"? How does our daily use of God's gifts reflect God's vision of shalom, God's redemption of all creation?
*Birch's article first appeared in the Journal of Stewardship, Vol. 38, 1985.
Reflections on the Lectionary
Stewardship reflections on readings for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Revised Common Lectionary texts for July 1, 2012: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
(As mentioned in previous editions of "Radical Gratitude," during Ordinary Time lection texts are typically considered independent from one anther. This week's reflection will focus on the reading from 2 Corinthians.)
At first blush, chapters 8-9 of 2 Corinthians may seem to be little more than a fundraising appeal on behalf of the Jerusalem church. But, Paul was seeking more than just money from richer Gentile churches (like the Corinth church). He was seeking to make the entire geographically/socially/economically/religiously (Jews and gentiles) -disparate, fledgling church an icon and agent for Christ's reconciliation of the world. From Paul's point of view, the very existence of economic disparity among the early Christians undermined the church's ability to be this icon and agent. Such disparity announced to the broader world the community's lack of solidarity, mutual caring, and trust in the sufficiency of God's Grace.
The early Jerusalem Christians experienced poverty for a variety of reasons.* Some had been impoverished by the city's frequent inflationary prices and excessive taxation under Roman rule. Some posed an economic threat (e.g., not abiding with Temple sacrificial practices) to the ruling Jewish elite, and thus were denied access to basic economic necessities (e.g., jobs). Some were displaced from their homelands due to a variety of economic, political, and religious pressures. Considering Jesus' appeal to the socially and economically disenfranchised, converts to the early Jerusalem church were -- more often than not -- economically deprived. How could a church that consisted of poor, disenfranchised people support itself and its growing appeal among the poor? This is where Paul's request to the church body beyond Jerusalem became necessary.
Paul does not "command" the churches to give (2 Cor. 8:8 and 9:5-7) nor does he base his appeal on guilt, despair, patronizing charity, pride, or self-interest. He bases his appeal on the existence and nature of God's abundant Grace. Throughout chapters 8 and 9, Paul repeats the word "grace" (charis in Greek) ten times. Ched Myers writes, "Paul, the great apostle of 'grace alone,' here makes it clear that [grace] is not just a theological concept but includes the practice of economic sharing (2 Corinthians 8:4, 6-7, 19), which Christ modeled (2 Corinthians 8:9)."** Through the "poverty" and self-emptying that Christ modeled, all things are reconciled to a place of "richness" and abundant Grace. Paul hoped that other churches -- out of their sheer gratitude for God's Grace -- would naturally respond by allowing God's Grace to flow through their lives. One person's self-emptying, Paul reasoned (in 8:13-14), would allow another person access to God's Grace. This sharing then made it possible for the recipients to reciprocate -- to share likewise in the joy of being channels for God's Grace poured out to all creation. Paul evokes the old wilderness manna story to make his point: because of the fact that God's abundant Grace abounds, community members could do no other than to thankfully receive it and generously share it; and, hoarding doesn't make sense when there's enough Grace/manna to go around. In this manner, the community helped the broader world to witness God's Grace-filled nature.
Such insights are vitally relevant for our existence as God's reconciling agents within a world of crippling economic disparity -- locally and globally. These texts call us to remember our solidarity with the economically disenfranchised and with all of God's creation that lies under the oppressive thumb of economic disparity. These texts also call us to respond to the disenfranchised not from a place of guilt, patronizing charity, pride, etc., but solely from that place in which God's Grace is sufficient for us and for every single member of God's household of creation. These texts call us to be icons and agents for God's reconciling Grace in a fractured world.
*Diane MacDonald discusses these factors in her article, "There Was Not a Needy Person Among Them," Sojourners Magazine, June-July, 1975.
**Ched Myers, "Behold, The Treasure of the Church," Sojourners Magazine, September-October, 1999; bold added for emphasis.
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:
It was a year ago that the Souris River in North Dakota overflowed its bank destroying some 4,100 and 24 churches. Faith United Methodist was one of them. With our help through UMCOR these people are rebuilding their lives, and at Faith UMC – well faith thrives.
Today as we bring our gifts, tithes and offerings, let’s celebrate the connections we share with our sisters and brothers in the Dakotas Annual Conference, building up one another in faith.
Awareness and Action
John Wesley's original hopes for a mutually supportive, connectional church structure continue to live on today. Our unique United Methodist structure strives to ensure that every local church and ministry throughout our Conference (and well beyond!) have the support they need to survive, and even thrive.
Many friends and members of local churches are familiar with the concept of "apportionment" sharing, but many don't realize just how much such sharing seeks to embody the mutually supportive care described in this week's reading from 2 Corinthians. Apportionment sharing helps economically disenfranchised youth to attend our camps, orphans in the Congo to have a safe home, all clergy to receive equitable compensation, and Conference staff to provide resources to local churches -- from accounting to spiritual development. Contrary to Paul's words in 2 Corinthians, many of us may see apportionment sharing as obligatory "dues" and forget that this is really a joyful opportunity to reciprocally share God's grace with God's other beloved children.
As an individual and/or as a church group, take time to read and study the booklet "Why We Apportion: A Theology of United Methodist Giving." This helpful document provides important biblical and historical insights, as well as a glimpse into how apportionment sharing is helping to further God's work of reconciliation throughout the world.
“Now as you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness,
and in our love for you — so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”
--2 Corinthians 8:7, NRSV
The Rev. Phyllis Stelson was the pastor of two small, rural churches in Oregon. One day, Phyllis met Michael at a most unlikely place, the garbage dump in the town of Camas Valley. Michael had broken the law, and as part of his sentence, he had to work for 45 days at the dump. His job was to move tons of garbage, and he felt like garbage. He felt that he had thrown his life away.
Greeting Phyllis, Michael offered to take her garbage. “I am not here for you to dump my garbage,” Phyllis replied. “I am here for you.” Hearing Michael’s story, Phyllis said, “I don’t care what you did. You are a good person, and Jesus loves you.”
She kept returning to the dump to pay a pastoral visit to a person whose life had crumbled under the weight of shame, guilt and the judgment of others. Michael needed the healing that comes when someone — even a complete stranger — cares enough to accept you unconditionally because you are a child of God. Phyllis didn’t wait for Michael to come to church; she took church to him.
Eventually, Michael attended worship and found a caring congregation. Today he is a member of that little Oregon church. He is grateful for the pastor who reached out and brought him new life through faith in Jesus. Michael knows: love heals.
--Adapted from a sermon by Portland (Ore.) Area Bishop Robert T. Hoshibata during the 2012 General Conference
Gary was an exuberant 29-year-old pastor, living life to the fullest, when he was caught in a freak wave while swimming off the New Jersey coast. He was instantly a quadriplegic. Because of complications, he lost speech. He experienced anger, despair and many obstacles. Eventually, he became a resident of a nursing home.
I was visiting Gary with our friend Martha. As we looked around his room, we saw many framed paintings. Gary had learned to paint using a brush in his mouth. When we asked about the paintings, he communicated by following letters on a board with his eyes. “They are Christmas presents. I can’t afford anything else.”
Martha asked, “Do you miss hanging out at the mall?”
He communicated, “I don’t miss anything. I’m more of a minister now than I was before.”
I looked at him in astonishment and said, “Gary, for you to say that is a miracle.”
He replied, “You have to lose your life to find it.” His faith grew because of his circumstances.
--Adapted from a sermon by Harrisburg (Pa.) Area Bishop Jane Allen Middleton during the 2012 General Conference
God of Grace,
You created this church body
to be a brilliant example of life lived differently --
to be a different "economy" in which all participants
have not only enough to survive the day
but enough to thrive tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.
We know that Your economy doesn't come about magically or by accident,
we know that it comes about through radical sharing;
we know that it comes about when we strive to live more like You --
the One whose very nature is to share today, tomorrow, the next day, and the next...
In Your name we pray, Amen.
from Radical Gratitude
Generous God, often we think of giving only in terms of money. Certainly, that is important. However, so is giving from the heart, sharing our love and our talents. Fill us with gratitude and teach us to give wholeheartedly. In your holy name, we pray. Amen.
from United Methodist Communications
God of all grace and healing, your power flows in us and through us, but flows best when we live in the present and move into the future with faith in you. Like the woman who boldly reached for the hem of Jesus' robe and was filled with healing grace, so may we have the faith that this power can flow through us as well. The gifts we give in faith this morning will enable us, through Christ's body the church, to bring healing and wholeness to this community and to the whole world. In the holy name of our savior and great physician we pray. Amen. (Mark 5:21-43)
from General Board of Discipleship
"The church has not appreciated the spiritual impact of money on the believer, and so the church has many immature believers."