In 2 Kings chapter 4, we are given a story that goes something like this: There is a woman whose husband had been a member of the company of the prophets, something like a guild of the up and coming Israelite prophets that would have trained and traveled together, and shared similar concerns. And this woman’s husband, the bread winner, dies, leaving her a widow and single parent, with no means of income. This woman appeals to Elisha, the current dean of the prophets. She says, “Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves.” The woman has experienced a tragic loss, and, on top of that, the bank is now breathing down her neck threatening to seize her assets to repay loans that she and her husband had taken out. Apparently there wasn’t much money in the prophetic business, so the family had needed to go into debt at some point to get by. And since they were poor, the only assets they had were the labor abilities of their children, who could be sold as slaves so that bank could recoup some of the loan.
Elisha is up against some pretty powerful forces. He asks her: “What shall I do for you?” A prophet himself, he most likely didn’t have much by way of cash reserves. But, then he asks her another question: “Tell me, what do you have in the house?” Let’s get a list of your assets and see what we can do. The woman replies, “Your servant has nothing in the house…except a jar of oil.”
Elisha has no cash, but he does have faith. Having discovered that one asset that she has, he instructs her to go outside and borrow all the vessels she can find that her neighbors might have. All the barrels, all the jars, and the cooking pots, whatever can hold liquid inside of it – to ask her neighbors for as many as they’re willing to lend her. And then she’s to go inside, with her children, and start pouring. Pour out that one jar of oil into these vessels. She and her children do this, and her neighbors give her lots of different vessels, and they go inside, and pour out the oil, and the oil keeps pouring until they’ve brought the last vessel. And as soon as that last vessel is full, the oil runs out in that original jar.
The extent of the abundance of her own meager resource, extends as far as the generosity of her neighbors in lending her their vessels. Or, to put it another way, these collective acts of neighborly sharing, add up to a miracle which creates wealth where before there was scarcity. And, when she and her children are in their house, surrounded by these borrowed vessels full of oil, Elisha tells her – rather than having to sell off your children, sell off the oil, use the proceeds to pay off the loan, and keep the change for you and your children, who will not be sold into slavery but will live with you.
I spent the first half of this past week at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia at their annual School for Leadership Training. The speaker was Walter Brueggemann – Bible scholar, author, Cincinnati resident, and general provocative presence – speaking on the theme: “God and Mammon: Reframing Stewardship Amidst Abundance, Scarcity, and Conflict.” There were about 200 people attending this event which also included a number of workshops on the same theme of stewardship.
As you can imagine, there is much to process after a week like this. Worship committee’s call to have a stewardship focus on this Sunday gives an opportunity to do some of this in an initial kind of way. I am not going to try to compact three days of Walter Brueggemann into a 20 minute sermon, but do want to try and pass along some of the challenges of this past week in regards to the kind of Christian stewardship that is asked of us in these times. What I’d like to do is to put this under three different headings and think out loud with you about these three different areas. The first is directly from the ideas that Brueggmann presented. This is The Narrative of Accumulation vs. The Narrative of Abundance and Generosity. The second has more do to with some of the material presented in the workshops, which appeared in many ways to address the kind of attitude we have toward money – a money negative attitude, or money positive attitude. The third area wasn’t addressed specifically this past week, but is a reflection coming out of one of the key stewardship passages in the New Testament – from the Sermon on the Mount, which addresses anxiety, and how we live in relation to today and tomorrow.
I should also say that personal stewardship is often divided into three different areas, which can be remembered as three T’s – time, talent, and treasure. How we care for and share our time; our talent, our skills and gifts and abilities; and our treasure, our money, our liquid and material assets. We are stewards of all these. All three of these aspects of personal stewardship pertain to these other three areas, but the emphasis will be on money.
So the first area we can think about briefly is what Walter Brueggemann calls The Narrative of Accumulation vs. The Narrative of Generosity and Abundance.
If we have the eyes to see it, Brueggemann teaches, we can imagine the entire story of scripture as being a Narrative of Abundance which is told over and against the Narrative of Accumulation. We are creatures who think in terms of stories, who make sense of the world by fitting small scattered experiences, into larger, coherent stories, which give us meaning and guiding principles about what is normal and what is good. The standard narrative for the last 5,000 has been The Narrative of Accumulation, which says you aquire, and preserve, and defend, because there’s not enough for everyone, and the safest way to save yourself and your people is to accumulate. It is a narrative which begins with the assumption of scarcity, functions on the energy of anxiety, and leads to violence.
Brueggemann says: “How we regard our money depends on the narrative in which we lay our money down.”
In the Bible it is Pharaoh who is the quintessential figure head of the Narrative of Accumulation, running a pyramid scheme, imagine that, where he is at the top, and the purpose of the slaves at the bottom is to funnel up wealth, in the form of buildings and gold, and food, which gets put in bigger and bigger storehouses.
For the Hebrews on the bottom side of the narrative of accumulation, the demands of Pharaoh come to them in the form of the commands: make more bricks, make more bricks, find your own straw to make the bricks and make more bricks.
When the Hebrew slaves cry out, they are heard by Yahweh, who not only challenges Pharaoh, but challenges the entire Narrative of Accumulation, by delivering a people to live out a different narrative – The Narrative of Abundance and Generosity. This is what the Hebrews learn in the wilderness – the desert, a place with no viable life support systems. A place of apparent extreme scarcity. When they are given manna in the desert, they are told to collect only what they need for that day. They are explicitly banned from accumulation, in order to unlearn the patterns of Pharaoh that had been engrained in their psyche, the only way they’d ever known. Even if they try and accumulate, it doesn’t work, because the manna has a use by date of 24 hours, and spoils the next morning. And so the Hebrews are called to become a people who are a light to the world, having been delivered out of the Narrative of Accumulation and having been presented with the possibility of another story, another way of making sense of the world. A new story, of contentment and abundance, and daily bread.
The story from 2 Kings of the widow and Elisha is an example of this narrative of abundance in full play, which depends on neighborliness, which transforms scarcity into abundance, turning a small asset into a source of great wealth. The same dynamic is at play in the feeding of the 5000 in the gospels. A small gift is multiplied to provide for all that is needed, with change left over. It is a gospel dynamic that gets played out time and again among those with faith in the possibility of generosity and gratitude and abundance.
Brueggemann suggests that the narrative of accumulation continues to be the predominant story by which our culture operates, and notes how easily the church is coopted by such a story.
A quote from him: “I think church people are terribly innocent about systemic matters.” We do a fairly good job at being generous people, extending charity to poor people, within a system that keeps chewing up and spitting out victims.
We have a long ways to go before we live out fully the narrative of abundance as an alternative story in history, which presents alternative structures which give life.
Another Brueggmann quote: “We must be more truth telling about the deathliness of the normative system.”
Christianity has a wonderful word for our transition from accumulation to generosity. We call it conversion, and this is a lifelong process that we undergo as we live out our baptismal vows.
OK, now that we got the light weight stuff out of the way, we can dive right in to the second area: Money negative vs. money positive attitude.
This was not a specific theme addressed at any point throughout the week, but was something that seemed to be more an underlying current of several of the workshops.
There is an inherent tension in how we view money. One side is probably expressed best in the brief statement by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” You cannot serve God and Wealth, God and Money. You can’t have it both ways. Money is like God in that it promises security, safety, and protection, calling for allegiance, having authority in our lives. It is, perhaps, our greatest temptation into idolatry. Letting something take the place of God which is not God. When the church, or, at least preachers, talk about money, we often highlight this negative aspect of money. It’s powerful, it’s dangerous, it is subtly seductive, especially when it works for us. When it does give us security, safety, and protection, we are further tempted to lose touch with those for whom money simply hasn’t worked. Those on the bottom of the pyramid. The Bible’s loud cries of justice for the poor, the widow, those who, through tragedy or life circumstance have lost the means of meeting their own needs – these continuous cries make for many a sermon which colors our attitudes toward money in a negative light.
The other side of this is the more neutral, or positive possibilities that money presents. How was Jesus, a wondering itinerant preacher, able to do what he did without any recorded instances of having to beg for money or getting some temp jobs doing carpentry work? It turns out, as best we can tell, he had some investors in his ministry. The beginning of Luke 8 tells about various women who followed Jesus, saying that these women “provided for the disciples out of their own resources.” This provides potential for a much more money positive attitude.
There is a lively conversation going on in the church between business leaders – people who manage, invest, and create wealth – and pastors and theologians.
I find this conversation very hopeful. Wealthy people do not find it particularly inspiring or consistent when they hear wealth condemned in church, and then are the first ones that the church comes to when funds are needed for a mission or building project. All of a sudden, all this money is fantastic with endless potential for good!
Business and faith values are converging as businesses commit to a triple bottom line – profit, being one, but also people and planet. Success is defined by enhancing and serving all three. These things seem to always come in threes and be alliterated – time, talent, and treasure; people, planet, and profits.
It’s one thing to choose simplicity and minimal involvement with the systems of money that we have, it’s another thing to walk down a vocational path where one does have a fair amount of money. Is it harder to be faithful with little or to be faithful with a lot? I think one of the things the conversation helps point out is that faithfulness takes the form of many different lives engaging the world at every level, each having its own set of challenges to use money with a spirit of generosity and abundance and not get caught up in the narrative of accumulation.
A final area I want to address gets more at this inner attitude and orientation toward stewardship:
Maybe we could call it Today vs. Tomorrow
Humans are remarkable beings because of the way our level of consciousness allows us to experience time. Moreso than any other animal, we have the ability to imagine and plan for tomorrow. We are not restricted to present moment consciousness. We can tell stories about the past, which illuminate the meaning of the present, and we can project needs, desires, wishes, into the future, to set a trajectory toward a desired outcome. This is a powerful, precious, gift. When we do it well, we are not stuck in the confines of the present, seeing only a few inches past our nose on the trail of time, but are able to look out on the broad horizon of expectation and possibility.
This is a gift that not everyone gets to experience. At this last Community Meal I was in conversation with a woman and her partner who had been homeless for the last several months, out on the streets after he lost his job. They were almost out of money, exhausted from being on the move, catching sleep when they could in 24 landromats or wherever they could find a place to rest for a few hours. From our church Love Fund we gave them a bit of money for a hotel room that night. When I was talking with the woman I asked her what her hopes were for the next several months, thinking this might be a way to help her see a light at the end of these troubles. But as soon as I asked it, even before she responded, I knew it was the wrong question. She answered by saying the only thing you can say when you’re poor, homeless, hungry, and exhausted. That she can’t even think ahead a few days, let alone a few months. For her right now, it’s all about where the next meal is coming from and where the next warm spot is going to be to catch a few hours of sleep.
When you’re poor, you’ve got all you can handle, plus some, in the present. The widow comes to Elisha and needs funds to pay her creditor now, because tomorrow her two kids are sold into slavery.
To be able to see and live into tomorrow is a great gift, except that this practice, this gift of time consciousness, gets contaminated – by anxiety. Jesus says, “Do not worry, do not have anxiety, about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” Even when we have enough, when we are seduced by the narrative of accumulation, we project anxiety forward and create a future in our minds that is characterized by scarcity. In fact, counter to what we might think, there’s pretty good evidence that the more we have, the more we have accumulated in the present, the more temptation there is to live in a state of anxiety, to believe that the future is a place of scarcity which must be remedied by frantic activity in the present.
Do you have more or less worries than when you had less stuff?
Only when we accept the present as a place of abundance do we know how to live with tomorrow in sight. Our planning doesn’t need to be just for ourselves, but for the community, for the neighborhood.
Throughout this part of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus repeatedly says, “Do not worry.” “Do not be run by anxiety.” Instead, look at these birds, and these lilies, completely caught up in the glory of today. God is providing for them out of the abundance of creation. It’s something of a reversal of the drive toward accumulation. Rather than the perception of scarcity, which produces anxiety, which leads to violence, there is the perception of abundance, which produces gratitude, which leads to generosity and celebration and building up the community.
So sandwiched right in all this talk about our treasure, and anxiety, and today and tomorrow. Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body.” If the eye is good, you have light, if the eye is bad you have darkness.” We are invited to allow our eyes to undergo conversion, to perceive the abundance among us – all of these vessels that surround us that are ready to be filled, through the miracle of generosity and neighborliness, which produces just what we need, plus some more left over. This is our gospel faith, which makes very little sense unless you have the eyes to see.