October 8, 2012
Dear Colleague in Ministry,
Last Friday, Jean, my spouse, received notification that her job was being moved to the east coast, and that she was welcome to move there (at her expense) to keep it. Although we’ve been talking about her retiring in the next few years, this isn’t exactly how or when we planned for her to quit working.
After some initial feelings about loss and being abused by corporate greed, we‘ve begun to regain our perspective. We realize that our resources are much deeper than those of Northrop Grumman. We really are incredibly blessed/fortunate. Some of her younger colleagues who received the same news are in a much tougher position. We have food, a home, family, health care, our health, each other, wonderful friends – and the list goes on and on.
I’m feeling pretty grateful today.
Grace and Peace,
Living in God’s Grace
If you were the rich man in this week's Gospel reading (Mark 10:17-31), what would be your response in hearing Jesus' words: "go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me"? Theologian/activist David Janzen suggests a few: "'What I earn and own is my own business.' 'Who'll take care of me in my old age?' 'Giving up my things would make me so unhappy, and God, you surely don't want us to be miserable.'"*
Jesus' command of complete divestment of riches seems too harsh. How could such a command be an expression of Jesus "love" (v. 21) for the man or anyone else? (John Wesley's love for the "people called Methodists" also compelled him to make similar divestment demands -- i.e., his call to "give all you can!") We can try our best to soften Jesus' words, as so many people have done throughout history.** Regardless of how hard we try to soften them, their penetrating truth continues to send many of us away (like the rich man) "shocked" and "grieving" every time we hear them.
As Christian stewards, we must seriously consider these words -- we can't just turn our backs on them and say, "No thanks, Jesus, I don't want this kind of 'love.' It's too harsh and it leaves me too vulnerable." Such love radically strips us of all non-eternal securities, pretenses, prestige -- it completely exposes our vulnerable selves to Grace alone and saves our stubborn, precious souls time and again. And, in the process of saving our souls, such love ensures the survival of the poor and all of God's beloved. May this be so
In God's Grace,
Tanya Barnett & Tom Wilson
Northwest United Methodist Foundation Staff
*David H. Janzen, "The Empire of Mammon and the Joyous Fellowship," Sojourners Magazine, September-October 1973.
**Some commentators point out that such divestment would have been reasonable -- and perhaps a reality -- for the earliest Christian communities (like Mark's) who believed in the imminent return of Christ; but, some argue, Jesus' words aren't reasonable in a contemporary context. Also, Richard Donovan writes, "People sometimes try to soften Jesus' words about the eye of a needle by suggesting that the word should be 'rope' instead of 'needle' − or [the enduring medieval notion] that the 'eye of the needle' was a low gate in the city wall − but there is no justification for either of these explanations."
Photo: Paul Jeffrey, ACT International
The words that Jesus speaks to the "rich man" should be heard in light of those he spoke in the immediately preceding passage: "whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10:15). James Edwards comments, "How profoundly ironic is the kingdom of God. The children in the former story who possess nothing are not told that they lack anything, but rather that the kingdom of God is theirs; yet this man who possesses everything still lacks something! Only when he sells all he has; only when he becomes like a vulnerable child; will he possess everything."*
*James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 312.
From theologian David Polk*:
"God invites us into a relationship of trust toward the One who promises us a future, but we place our trust instead in the capacity of our material possessions to secure that future for us. God invites us into an ever broadening interrelatedness with other persons and with the whole world, but we sacrifice mutual connection on the altar of independence and self-sufficiency."
From poet Elise Maclay**:
I'm giving away my things
And it turns out to be
As much of an occupation
And as much fun
As collecting them was.
I browse among my friends the way
I used to browse in shops.
I try to decide who should have the cameo
I wore as a bride, who would like
My Chinese Vase. I go through closets and drawers
And am amazed at what I find.
So many objects, I am ashamed
To have so much when so many have so little.
Worse still, there are a lot of things I hardly ever use.
...It takes forever,
Sorting things, I stop and think about where and when
And I find myself thinking, I may have use for this again.
Nonsense, I don't bake angel food cakes anymore,
Give the pan away. Funny, I thought I'd feel a sense of loss
With fewer of my things around.
I feel exhilarated, free.
Is this why You told the rich man to sell his goods?
I used to think You meant to help the poor.
I think now Your command
Was meant to help the rich man more.
What "material possessions" (if any) provide you with a sense of lasting security? In what ways do such things truly enhance your life and the lives of others? In what ways do they tend to deplete life?
*David P. Polk, "The Shalom of Stewardship: Stewardship from a Process Perspective," Journal of Stewardship, Vol. 40, 1988.
** Elise Maclay, Green Winter: Celebrations of Later Life (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1995).
Reflections on the Lectionary
Stewardship reflections on readings for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Revised Common Lectionary Readings for October 14, 2012: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
In the Gospel reading for this coming week, we come across one of the most essential stories in the discussion of Christian stewardship: the story of the rich man who asks Jesus "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Like last week's text from Job (and this week's as well), a main character in this Gospel story comes across as a good, "Law"-abiding person. Certainly, in his day, many would have seen this man's wealth as a sign of God's approval of his righteousness. So, why would such a person -- from the most powerful socio-economic stratum of his day* -- be worried about inheriting eternal, abundant, Grace-filled life? Could wealth possibly get in the way of experiencing life abundant?
Such counter-intuitive questions surrounding wealth (i.e., that it's an impediment to experiencing life abundant) persist throughout every generation of Christ's followers. As residents of the wealthiest country in the world, we must continue to address these questions today. We offer this extended quote from UMC Bishop Kenneth L. Carder (as we so often do in Radical Gratitude)** -- a quote that sheds the light of our Wesleyan tradition on these enduring questions of wealth and true abundance:
"John Wesley considered affluence to be the most serious threat to spiritual health. [***] He observed that Christianity has within it the seeds of its own demise. He found that Christians become diligent, frugal and disciplined; but as they become diligent and frugal, they tend to become affluent. Once they become affluent, one can say good-bye to doctrine and discipline. He feared that the people called Methodist would become but a dead sect, having the form of religion but lacking its power. That which threatened the movement's power was the growing affluence of the Methodists.
"Why? What are the perils of riches? One of prosperity's perils is a false sense of security and self-sufficiency. ...Such a stance of self-sufficiency and self-produced security cuts us off from grace. Life becomes an achievement earned or a commodity purchased, rather than a gift received and celebrated. ...
"The rich young man [in Mark 10] assumed salvation, wholeness, abundant life, was a commodity or an achievement. He had put his life together that way. Treating life as a gift to be given away, a gift available without price threatened the essence of his being. So, he turned away. After all, if it is all a gift, there is no entitlement. Sharing, passing on to others, humility, and thanksgiving replace hoarding, self-sufficient arrogance, and smug pride."
*For discussion on property ownership as socio-economic power, please see Ched Myers' Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus, p. 274.
**From Bishop Carder's presentation, "The Perils of Riches," found at Day1.net; bold added for emphasis.
***Three of Wesley's most relevant sermons on this topic are "On Riches" (reflecting on Matthew's account of today's Gospel reading), "The Danger of Riches," and "On the Danger of Increasing Riches."
Image source: Hermanoleon Clipart.
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’s been a pretty dry summer here in the west – resulting in a lot of fires. Not so in the Philippines, where typhoons battered parts of the island nation this summer. But you are there, through UMCOR, in the name of Jesus Christ, providing on-going assistance to survivors.
So today, as we bring our gifts, tithes and offerings, let’s do so in celebration of our ministry on the far side of the Pacific Ocean.
Awareness and Action
John Wesley defined a rich person as, "anyone that possesses more than the necessaries and conveniences of life. [That is to say,] one that has food and raiment sufficient for himself and his family, and something over, is rich."* While we might prefer to avoid identifying with the rich man in this week's reading from Mark, most of us are materially rich -- at least from Wesley's perspective and from the perspective of our brothers and sisters throughout the world (e.g., the average amount of pocket money for American children -- $230 a year -- is more than the total annual income of the world's half-billion poorest people**). And yet, with all of this material wealth, many of us Americans find this reality to be true: "...though we've more than doubled our material standard of living since 1957, fewer of us call ourselves happy."*** How reminiscent this is of the young man in Mark, who possessed all wealth and virtue but still hungered for eternal, abundant life.
Christmas can and should be a time of year when we open ourselves up to the Jesus' loving invitation to feast on eternal, abundant life once again. It absolutely shouldn't be a time of year when stress, debt, relational brokenness, etc. distracts us from this feast.
The PNW Conference Stewardship Emphasis has produced a group study guide for Advent that accompanies Bill McKibben's book Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas. Our hope is that this study resource will help us all to "...emerge from Christmas relaxed, contented, happy to have kept this season. To emerge closer to your family than you were when Advent began. To emerge with some real sense that Christ has come into your world."***
Please visit our Foundation's website to download this study guide and to learn how to obtain a copy of McKibben's book.
*From Wesley's sermon, "On Riches."
**Source: Alan Durning, "Asking How Much is Enough," in Lester R. Brown et al, State of the World 1991 (New York: W.W. Norton and Co. Inc., 1001,) p. 153.
***Source: Bill McKibben, Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998) p. 47.
****Ibid. p. 92.
“For God all things are possible.”
--Mark 10:27b, NRSV
Asbury United Methodist Church, Oklahoma City, expanded its Thursday ministry for young people by planting a community garden this year. United Methodist connectionalism is helping as that garden grows disciples as well as produce.
Two years ago, the congregation began Thursday Night Fun Night, a safe alternative to unsupervised outdoor activity. Neighborhood children and youth gather with adult volunteers at the church every Thursday and play games, do crafts and talk about their week and challenges they face. Attendance ranges from 25 to 70 people.
Students of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Oklahoma in Norman volunteer in the program every Thursday evening, said the Rev. Dawn M. Richards. Once a month, they paint and do other upkeep at the church. They also dig the gardening work.
This year, Hillcrest-Fuente De Vida United Methodist Church joined in this ministry.
The Wesley Foundation at Oklahoma University helped purchase most of the plants. All ages prepared and tilled the ground and planted the garden, at the back of the church property.
Over six months, the children and youth have weeded, watered and maintained the garden. The gardeners planted cayenne, habanera, jalapeño and poblano peppers as well as tomatoes, onions and a watermelon plant, Richards said. All of the produce goes home with the young gardeners.
“Alone, Asbury could not have managed this garden or our fruitful Thursday evening ministry,” Richards concluded.
--Adapted from the Oklahoma Annual Conference Contact, Sept. 21, 2012
When Bobby Lee Smith first moved to Nashville, Tenn., he worked in fund development with a community organization. After a layoff, he began volunteering at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church and was instrumental in organizing our Room in the Inn ministry. While working to build this ministry through United Methodist Men, he joined the General Council on Finance and Administration staff.
Under Bobby’s guidance and organization, all units of Clark Memorial are involved with Room in the Inn. The agency is a blessing to the homeless clients served and to the “servants” who reach out to them. The agency provides crisis support, hospitality, education, shelter and long-term solutions.
With Bobby’s generous giving of himself and his talents, he has helped our traditional church become an outreach haven through risk-taking ministry. Many of the men and families served through this ministry have become regular visitors, and some have joined our congregation.
Thanks to Bobby, we are living into the mission of the church with open hearts, open minds and open doors.
--Amelia Tucker-Shaw, United Methodist Communications
In love, You once said to a rich man:
"go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven;
then come, follow me."
We don't want to face the fact that
You really might have meant what You said,
or that -- relatively -- we too might be rich men and women,
or that Your love for the poor might be this strong,
or that Your love for us might be this powerful.
In this gesture of offering please help us to face these facts
and to discover where it is that our true security lies.
In Your name we pray, Amen.
from Radical Gratitude
Caring God, thank you for the people who find – and take – the time to share their talents and their love with others. Help us to quit making excuses for not getting involved. Inspire us to reach out with compassion. In your holy name, we pray. Amen.
from United Methodist Communications
Almighty and most loving God, we approach your throne of grace with boldness, knowing that the gifts we bring are gifts that came from you. Not a fraction of what we have, but all that we have belongs to you. We give thanks for the love that has filled our lives with good things. Yet no gift can match the gift of your Son, our High Priest who intercedes for us, Jesus the Christ. In that holy name, we boldly pray. Amen. (Hebrews 4:12-16.)
from General Board of Discipleship
"That which I am and the way that I am, with all my gifts of nature and grace, you have given to me, O Lord, and you are all this. I offer it all to you, principally to praise you and to help my fellow Christians and myself."
-- Unknown English Mystic (14th century)