A funny thing happened on the way to healing | 13 October 2013

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-19

We regularly include a time for sharing joys and concerns during the worship service, but today, in addition, you are invited to hold all that you carry with you in a little different way.  After the sermon there will be an opportunity to come forward to receive anointing with oil and prayer for yourself, or on behalf of another person.  I consider this a congregation wonderfully conscious of and concerned about and engaged with the world.  So many of you are givers, spending your energy and time on behalf of others near and far.  Today you are invited to draw a smaller circle.  To pray for and speak to the Spirit on behalf of yourself, your family, friends, those dearest to you.  This could very well include an area of social justice or a situation far away, but will more likely involve tuning in to the spaces of your own heart, listening to what you are hearing there, and offering that up to the light.  You are hereby given full permission to think small, to think really really local, and to relax into whatever that needs to mean to you right now.

Today the lectionary gives us the story of the healing of Naaman.  The Bible contains many healing stories and from our 21st century perspective, it’s not always easy to know how to read them.  For those of us used to jumping on WebMD or Wikipedia to read up on physical or mental health conditions and illnesses, these biblical stories come across as remarkably unconcerned about the biological details of healing.  If we would tell a story about the healing of Ila, or the healing of a cancer, or a broken toe, or a depression, the story would be laced with references to anatomy and medicines and treatment plans.  But in the story of the healing of Naaman, the actual description of the healing takes all of one verse, almost a footnote in the overall narrative.  “So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”  It sounds…easy…too easy!  We’re not used to healing happening this quickly and thoroughly, in such unsanitary conditions, and we scratch our heads wondering what this story is really about.

When we are introduced to Naaman, we meet a person who is difficult to categorize.  He is a wealthy and powerful man, an army commander, beloved by his king.  But he’s also an outsider, the commander of the army of the opposing team, the Arameans, Syrians, an enemy people of Israel.  He’s a mighty warrior, as the text says, but he also has a dreaded disease: Leprosy, a skin disease that brought with it not only physical debilitations but also all sorts of social stigmas.  He’s the top soldier for the other side, and he’s stuck with the one thing nobody wants and everybody fears.  Are we sympathetic?  Does it serve him right, that marauding menace of a man?

What’s more, he’s defeated Israel in past battles and has taken one of the conquered people into his home – a young girl, an Israelite captured from her family, now his household servant.  And it’s a good thing, for him.  Because she knows something that can help him, and she speaks up on his behalf.  “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!  He would cure him of his leprosy.”

The problem is that Samaria is in Israel, and so Naaman goes to his king who promises to give Naaman safe passage by writing a letter to the king of Israel on Naaman’s behalf.  But Naaman is packing more than just this letter.  He takes with him ten talents of silver, which was about 750 pounds of silver;  six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.  Naaman is really wealthy, getting his wealth from who knows where and what spoils of war, and he is making sure he doesn’t miss out on the opportunity to have access to the best health care silver, gold, and garments can buy.  He’s got money and a letter of recommendation from his king.  He’s a person of privilege.

The first road block he runs into is that the king of Israel, when he receives the letter, interprets it as some kind of trick, some kind of foreign relations maneuver on the part of the king of Aram to have grounds for the next war.  The king of Israel dreads that he’s now responsible for healing this foreign general, has no idea how this is possible, and goes into a royal rage anticipating the fallout.  “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?  Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

Fortunately for all involved, Elisha, that prophet from Samaria, gets word of this letter, and being slightly less paranoid than the king, Elisha invites Naaman to come and see him.

The text says, “So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.”  These horses and chariots would be those same horses and chariots used as instruments of war.  We learn a little later that Naaman has also brought a whole entourage of his company with him.  This is a highly managed tight security operation, and we can imagine the equivalent of a whole caravan of armored vehicles with tinted windows, security guards barking out details broadcast into the earpieces of their teams, with a helicopter with snipers scanning the landscape  flying overhead and hovering right over the entrance of Elisha’s little house.  There is nothing subtle about this.  The general has arrived, and would like to have his healing now.  Please.

Elisha, ehh, sends out an underling, a messenger, to the door who tells Naaman to go take a dip in the Jordan River.  The tiny, muddy, Jordan River.  Seven times.  “and your flesh will be restored and you shall be clean.”

Naaman, as you might imagine, becomes rather angry, and in what is truly the great line from this story, blurts out: “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy.”  It sounds like Naaman came for a magic show.  And if there is to be a river involved, there are rivers in his country way better suited to healing than this dirty little trickle in Israel.  “Are not the Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?”  He leaves in a rage, and his entourage with him.

Naaman would not have made the first step of this journey if it were not for an anonymous young girl, a servant in his household, who pointed him in this direction.  Now another anonymous servant, or multiple servants, as the text indicates, approach him and speak another word that will keep him on the path. “Sir, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean?’”  Sir.

The next verse is that one I read earlier, when the physical healing actually happens.

It might or might not matter that it was in the Jordan River rather than any other river.  It might or might not matter that he had to be immersed seven times rather than three, or ten, or forty times; or once facing south, twice facing east, north, and west, followed by reciting the correct prayer in the correct tone in the correct posture.  The text certainly doesn’t give a whole lot of weight to how he was healed and seems openly against any kind of magic formula for how healing happens.  We can imagine Naaman, perhaps still fuming, perhaps now a little less reluctant, perhaps having even a tinge of hope, leave his horses and chariots, and guards, and silver and gold on the shore, plod through the mud into this foreign creek of a river, and take the plunge, seven times.

Studying this story reminded me of a TED talk given by Brene Brown.  For those of you not familiar with TED talks, they are events which are video recorded and archived online in which leading thinkers and doers in their field are invited to give an 18 minute talk that summarizes their best stuff that they have learned.  The talk by Brene Brown is one that has received a lot of viewings, over 11 million, and is called “The power of vulnerability.”   She is a social researcher and set out to understand all the dynamics that go into the experience of shame.  She dedicated six years of her life to this, collecting stories and looking for common themes that would help her parse and categorize and classify and deconstruct her subject.  And what she discovered, she says, changed her life.  Of all the people whose stories she heard, she kept encountering what she later called “whole hearted” people.  People who lived life fully despite experiences of shame.  The key to their whole hearted approach to life, she discovered, was vulnerability.  People who were willing to be vulnerable with themselves and others were able to experience joy and resilience in a way that those who masked, and medicated, and covered over their shame didn’t.  What was life changing for her in her research was that she recognized herself as someone who had been absolutely opposed to any form of vulnerability; and she had a personal conversion into vulnerability that has affected how she goes about her work, friendships, marriage, and parenting. I recommend the talk and will include a link to it on the sermon blog.

Note: To watch the video above it seems you’ll need to press the full screen button at the bottom right of the window.  Otherwise only audio will play.  Not sure why that is.  My tech limitations are now exposed…

I wonder if this Naaman story is just as much about vulnerability as it is about healing.  Or, about how vulnerability, even if one resists it at every turn, is a potential companion to healing.  There certainly seems to be more effort put into describing the security Naaman had built up around himself than the problem of the leprosy.  Dr. Elisha’s prescription is just as much one for the humbling of Naaman as it is for the healing of Naaman.

Jesus references this Naaman story when he was visiting him hometown of Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry.  This is the time when he stood up in the synagogue and quoted Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free.”  It was a popular and maybe even a feel good message until Jesus reminded the crowd that this meant letting down their guard that held in place the order of things, that foreigners and outsiders were included in this good news. Jesus went on to say: “There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”  Apparently, this was a highly threatening story to be reminded of, because they just about throw Jesus off a cliff for saying it.

The funny thing that happens on the way to healing, and on the way to welcoming the healing of others, even if they are our enemies, is that we become aware of how very vulnerable we are.  We want that magic hand to just wave over the spot and make everything better, so we can go about our lives unchanged.  But instead, we walk through a whole journey of the soul that shifts the way we relate to ourselves and others and reminds us of our utter dependence on the generosity, care, skill, and hospitality of others.  Whether healing comes in the form we were hoping, or not, we are changed.

This may or may not be the time and place to be openly vulnerable.  But you are welcome to come forward and voice something for which you would like prayer, for yourself or another person, and receive an anointing with oil and a blessing.  You may also choose to simply come in silence or to stay where you are.  What you are encouraged to do is to open your heart.  To step away from the horses and chariots and armed vehicles and be available to the movement of the Spirit.  We’ll begin by singing together “Healing of our every ill,” after which there will be instrumental music and if at any point during the singing of that song or the music that follows you feel compelled to come forward to any of the three of us who will be available, you are welcome.  I would just add one note which is that you will be anointed on your forehead, unless you prefer to be anointed on your palm, in which case you can simply hold out your palm to indicate that wish.

Life Transfigured – 2/19/12 – 2 Kings 2:1-12; Mark 9:2-9

The scriptures for today speak of grand visions: flashes of light, chariots of fire, mountaintop transcendence, voices from beyond, being overshadowed with cloud and light and fire.  The stories of Elijah’s parting and Jesus’ Transfiguration speak of the complex relationship between master and student, Teacher and disciple.  They speak of partings; of blessings, double blessing; and lead into the difficulties that lie ahead, as Elisha continues on, bearing the mantle of the departed Elijah.  As Jesus begins to reveal to his disciples what has been revealed to him: that the Human One must suffer and be treated with contempt, and rise from the dead.  They do all this through these mystical narratives in which the borders between heaven and earth are overcome, if however briefly.  We in the church prepare for the season of Lent – the season of fasting, prayer, and repentance – with these grand visions of divine glory.

We Anabaptist minded folks are not used to thinking of Jesus in this way.  We are accustomed to thinking of him as the one who teaches and tells parables.  Jesus the healer, compassionate – or was it angry? – who touches the leper and makes him clean.  Who hangs out with the tax collectors, argues with religious leaders, challenges social norms, and sees that there is bread and fish for all – men, women, and children.  What’s Jesus doing with his head up in the clouds? his dusty road-worn clothes now dazzling white?

We’re pretty sure we know what to do with the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, but not quite sure what to do with the Jesus of the Transfiguration on the Mount.

It’s the same with Elijah.  We like our prophets out in the public square, condemning injustice, offering words of comfort to the oppressed.  Spinning out poetry about God overturning the order of the world and raising up the lowly and pulling down the powerful from their thrones.  Using that prophetic imagination of theirs to broadcast a vision of God’s dream for the world when swords will be beaten into plowshares and nations will live in peace.

We’re not as sure what to do with a prophet carried up into heaven in a fiery chariot pulled by fiery horses.

Or maybe it’s not so much a matter of being a practical-faith minded Anabaptist as it is a matter of being a citizen of the modern, rational, world.  Where do those gravity defying horses and chariots of fire think they’re going anyway?  Heaven is a whole lot further away than it used to be.  It’s a big universe, getting bigger by the nanosecond.

It is a happy coincidence that Transfiguration Sunday rolls around not long after Mennonite Arts Weekend.  We are a practical people.  And yet quite recently, we have been reminded that we too can be transported.  That something beautiful and transcendent can break in and take us to a different place.  Or, better, take us more deeply into this very place where we are right now.  Lift the veil and help us see glory.  When Debra Brubaker, the director of the Goshen College Women’s World Music Choir was introducing the singing of Ave Maria, she noted that the song is arranged in such a way as to evoke the beating of the wings of Gabriel in his visitation to Mary, announcing the invitation for her to give birth to Christ.  I don’t know about any of you, but as those sopranos kept elevating higher and the Aves started getting more layered, piercing the air, I was pretty sure something like an angelic visitation was in the works.

Even though we do not always lead with it, there is a place in our souls for mysticism.  For transcending the finite matter of our bodies and touching the infinite.  For Transfiguration.  For fiery chariots that transport its riders to the heavenly realms.

The story from 2 Kings tells of the parting of Elijah, witnessed by his disciple in training Elisha.  Elisha does not want his master to go.  He keeps getting increasingly saddened and perhaps annoyed by those who remind him that Elijah is going away soon.  “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?”  Yes, Elisha knows, and isn’t in the mood to talk about it.  Not from the company of the prophets in Bethel.  Not from the company of the prophets in Jericho.  Don’t speak of it, he orders them both.  Who has ever wanted their master to go?  Who has ever wanted to lose a mentor, a father-figure, a protective mother whose fierce love reminded you that there are soft and gentle places in this difficult life?

Elijah wishes to ease the going.  To have Elisha stay behind, to say goodbye under more predictable circumstances, before the very last minute forces an unceremonious and choiceless goodbye.  “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.”  Elisha replies: “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”  “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.”  Elisha persists, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”

Elisha will not leave his master.  He is clinging to his master and won’t let him out of sight.  Not yet ready for the leaving.  It might be a matter of determined faithfulness, staying by his side to the very end;  or it could be a matter of fear of the unknown, uncertain of what else to do except latch on.

When Jesus goes up the mountain he takes with him his inner circle of disciples-in-training: Peter James and John.  On this mountain, Mark mentions, almost casually, “and there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”  Though to us this may sound unreal, commentator Richard Swanson helps us understand the poetics of the story and the mind of the ancients.  He says: “Moses and Elijah…are characters from some of the oldest stories told among Jews. They are more real than Peter, James, and John….more real than Caesar…Quirinius…Pontius Pilate…” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke)  In this encounter Jesus is going deeper into the real, with Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets, as his guides.  And they are hearing echoes in the heavens of those baptismal words first spoken at the Jordan River: This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.”  How much more real can you get than Beloved?

Peter and his companions have no idea what to think of all this.  “Terrified” is the word Mark uses.

This Transfiguration story is told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with Luke adding an interesting detail not present in the others.  He notes that while Moses and Elijah are speaking with Jesus on the mountain that Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep.  Sound familiar?  It highlights an important part of this story more implicit in the other tellings, alluding to that other time when Jesus is with these disciples on a Mount, intensely communing with God, and they cannot keep awake.  The Transfiguration story not only points back to the Jordan, the beginning of the call and the naming of Jesus as Beloved, but also points forward to Gethsemane, the final night of Jesus’ life, when he is arrested, tried, and crucified as a common criminal on a Roman cross.  Moses and Elijah are not just providing a word of temporary encouragement, they are illuminating the entire arc of what Jesus must do, where he must go.  The Transfiguration is that suspension of time, between the Jordan and Gethsemane, when both Belovedness and suffering must be accepted as being part of the same path.  The mystical is not an escape from reality.  It is a going deeper into reality, which includes belovedness, suffering, even physical death.  This too is a story of parting.  The disciples just don’t know it yet.

One of the joys of Facebook – if you want to call it a joy – are all these different cartoons and images that get posted and reposted by different people.  These are often funny, or witty, or political in nature.  One from this past week had a different tone.  It made the rounds on Valentine’s Day.  It had six frames, each with silhouetted figures of a tree, a male, and a female.  In the first frame the tree is small and there is a boy and a girl playing with balloons.  In the second frame the pair has grown to be teenagers, and they are holding hands, walking alongside each other.  Next they are young adults, facing each other and looking into each other’s faces.  Next they are an old couple, slightly bent over, leaning on canes, still underneath this tree, which is now full grown.  In the next frame the elderly man is sitting under the tree, looking at a gravestone.  And in the final frame, with the tree holding no more leaves, there are two gravestones.

Kind of a beautiful, and sobering image for Valentine’s Day.

A friend of our family from my home area, who is my parent’s age, commented on the post and said: “Thanks (for posting).  Wish I was (back) in the second picture.”  So, for all you teenagers and young people out there, take note.  There are times when adults look back longingly on those days of youth, perhaps especially as we become more and more aware of our own mortality.  So you can treasure your youth as a great gift, and don’t try and grow up too fast.

This progression is also a kind of link between Valentine’s Day and upcoming Ash Wednesday, which begins Lent, when we say to one another, “Remember that you come from dust, and to dust you will return,” and receive the ashes on our foreheads as a testimony to our acceptance of our own mortality and our surrender to the eternal grace of God.

 

I wonder at what point along the way this beloved silhouetted couple had their experience of Transfiguration, whether it happened all at once, or gradually over the years.  When they were visited by Moses and Elijah and not only re-heard the words from the beginning, that they are Beloved and Chosen, but the words about the full arc of their lives.  That their life together will not only involve joyful companionship, but also times of shared grief, and suffering, loss and loneliness, and death.  That they are walking this fearful and holy path with very little assurance that it will all turn out as originally planned.  That they are held, tenderly, but firmly, within this eternal dance of life, and that from here on out, once they descend that mountain of Transfiguration, living between the Jordan and Gethsemane, their life is an offering.

When Elisha is about the say goodbye to his master and friend, he has one final request.  That he receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit.  That a double blessing be passed from Elijah to him for the work ahead that Elisha must do.  Elijah comments that this is a hard request, but that if Elisha is able to see, able to see Elijah as he parts, that this double blessing will be granted him.  And Elisha does indeed see.  He sees horses and chariots of fire.  He sees glory.

If you have looked deeply into this place, into this time, this splinter of heaven; if you have looked and have seen the glory, then you have what you need for the journey ahead, difficult though it may be.  Moses and Elijah are over you, giving counsel.  Gabriel’s wings are beating around you.  Jesus the Christ is going ahead of you.  And you walk with a blessing.  Even, a double blessing.

Seeing the Light: Anxiety and Abundance – 1/22/12 – Stewardship Sunday – 2 Kings 4:1-7; Matthew 6:19-34

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.