Reflection for September 18, 2016

Amos 8:4-7, 1Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

     Today let’s work on the reading from Timothy. This is the second of a series of assigned readings from Timothy. We’ll devote this one Sunday to reflection on the entire book of I Timothy.

I think the most important questions about the book are who wrote it and when. The first verses say it is written by Paul to his younger colleague Timothy. But many who look at the book think that it was not written by Paul to Timothy, but is dedicated to Paul. It appears to be written after Paul’s life would have been completed.

In Paul’s time the church is a gathering of local folks figuring out how to get organized. In Timothy, the church has pastors, deacons, and bishops.

The book appears to come from a later time when the church is not starting up, but is more highly organized. It has administration or bureaucracy. For example, in Timothy that Paul is appointed for his ministry. The original Paul would have said he was called by God. Appointment is a later term that implies an administration or bureaucracy exists to make such certifications.

The book appears to come from a time when the big issue facing Paul, the racial challenge of Jews and Gentiles getting along, is no longer facing the church. Actually the issues seem more everyday and personal in Timothy. And Paul’s original concern for a trusting faith in Christ has now become something called right doctrine. People seem to be quarrelsome, and bishops are primarily people who spend most of their time on church conflict.

The book appears to come at a time when people no longer left their families to become Christian but were raised by their families in Christian communities. Timothy is raised by his mother and grandmother in the faith. It is written to second or third generation Christians who are raising their young people as Christians.

And it appears to be written at a time when men are taking over the leadership roles of the church. Paul and Timothy work with strong women leading Roman households and funerary societies in the start-up stage of the mission. It’s hard to imagine these strong founding women suddenly being told to be quiet and obey the men as they are in this material.

Perhaps a little should be said about the original Timothy as well. In this book Timothy comes across as the new young enforcer sent in by church headquarters to clean up things that have, well, gotten rather sloppy. And Paul comes across as the giver of advice which is mostly proverbial stuff about being good and getting and keeping people in line.

But the Timothy we first see in Acts 16 is way different from that. He may have been younger than Paul, but we notice three things about him in the older material. First, his mother was Jewish, and his father was Greek. That meant that he had a foot in both worlds. And in the beginning of the church, that meant he had experience and credibility with both the Jews and the Gentiles as they struggled to hammer out how to live and work together in fledgling congregations. His bi-ethnic background made him the ideal early organizer who was able to blend divergent values and practices into one missional fellowship. He was gifted at working in racial conflict. This, rather than enforcement of the rules was his specialty.

Second, he batted clean-up in the line-up. Timothy is the one who is left behind after the group gets started or sometimes the one who comes later to visit the congregation started by Paul and or Barnabas. He is gifted at moving the group from its beginning into its daily practice. To be honest, Timothy probably knew more about managing churches than Paul did. He would not have really needed this kind of advice.

All in all, I think what we have in the book of Timothy is something that comes later in the life of the church, at a time when the church has shifted from its initial start-up into that struggling time when things need to get organized and the issues become often tedious, complicated, and thorny.

It comes from a time when the church is becoming an institution. It is shifting into prescriptive rules and regulations regarding how people should behave, standards of belief or right doctrine, and how it is to project its public image.

In projecting that right public image, in today’s reading we see how worship has now become public, and how prayer for the well being of civic leaders is to be part of Holy Communion. And in other places in Timothy, as the church is now moving out of its original households and funerary societies into the more public arena, men are lifted up as important for leadership. In the empire, women ran the societies and households out of which Gentile Christianity grew. But men were in charge of public affairs. The emphasis on male leadership is part of the church’s movement into the public arena.

I think that the most important thing for us today has to do with this institutionalization of the church, and the issues, transitions, and problems that all institutions: government, economic, political, educational, social, and religious, face.

These days one might be tempted to say that all institutions are bad. Distrust of all institutions including the church is at an all time high. We are all well aware of how easily bureaucracies can make life difficult if not impossible. Especially among the young, distrust of institutions is extremely high. And yet, all human activity requires organization, administration, regulation, and management.

There is a balance that must be struck and then re-calibrated over and over between two forces in all human systems. One force is generativity. The other is prescription. Generativity is the capacity to ground people in the founding vision or ultimate purpose of the group. Even this piece of first century bureaucratic regulation attempts to do that by appealing to the figures of Paul and Timothy, and by describing Paul as the one who grapples with the faith that embraces all, especially sinners. That is founding vision stuff, and that is generativity.

But the other side of human organization is the need for the prescriptive: the laws, boundaries, the rules, the regulations, the forms, the guidelines that we all need to make things happen and to sort our way through delicate disagreements. There is a balance that must be re-calibrated over and over between generativity and prescription in all administrative systems.

And the second reading speaks to a time when that balance was recalibrated; and was shifting to the bureaucratic and authoritarian side. We may not agree with the calibration as it is expressed in this material, but it is instructive to recognize that from the beginning the church, like all human endeavors, has struggled to be a vital community focused on faith while trying to shape guidelines and boundaries needed in the face of human limitations. Recalibrations are always challenging in every institution. This is more art than science. Too many rules will kill any enthusiasm left in the room. And too little organization is the best way to insure that nothing gets done.

The balance between generativity and prescription. It is something we face in our relationships, our families and households, our society, our political life, our economic endeavors, and especially the church. And God becomes particularly present and active when this balance is recalibrated. This is a difficult thought, but important: God is found, not so much in our visioning, nor in our rules, but in their interplay and interaction. The God of reconciliation is constantly at work in the reconciliation or recalibration of generativity and prescription.

As many of you know, St. Johns has several ministries to care for those in need. One is distribution of funds for those who need financial assistance. The generative vision for this emergency relief is caring for the poor. It is a very important vision for this congregation. It energizes us. And may it always do so.

But at the same time, this program in the last few months has needed to update and revise the ways, guidelines, and methods we have used to distribute funds. We used to write checks to people from a checking account set aside for that purpose. These days the numbers at the bottom of the checks are occasionally copied and used for fraud. Too much check fraud makes the program difficult.

So we have been recalibrating, if you will, how we will distribute funding to those in need: setting up accounts with various vendors and organizations which supply fuel, utilities, id assistance, repairs, rent, and prescription drugs. As the funds are set up, we will be paying vendors large sums who will then issue us plastic cards to distribute to those in need as we have funds available. The details of the new system have been worked out by the staff, and at the Outreach Committee meeting on October 18, Hasan will outline the new system to the committee for review. In some ways the recalibration changes our ability to be responsive to those situations not covered by the vendor system and also our capacity to generate reports on how funding is used. In short, the new system is more secure. But it also recalibrates our response so that it is slightly more bureaucratic and less flexible, even as we do not lose sight of our generative purpose: people of faith caring for those in need.

There is a balance that must be re-calibrated over and over between two forces in all human systems, whatever their intentions. And in that reconciling space we encounter an active God. We need both prescription and generativity. As you go through your own times of recalibration in all areas of life, may God be with you, and give you the wisdom you need.

 

 

 

 

Reflection for September 4, 2016

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

Let’s begin with the third reading, the gospel reading today from Luke. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell a different story of the life of Jesus. The Jesus portrayed in each gospel reflects the challenges, values, and programs of the congregation out of which it comes.

In last year’s readings, we looked at the gospel of Mark, a gospel that remembers Jesus as healer, as one whose healing will get us through dark times. We focused our understanding of Mark in light of the healing and caring ministry of that ancient congregation as it struggled with a plague in one of the intensely urban cities of the Roman Empire. The community of Mark was focused on its healing and caring ministry.

But Luke and Acts (they are volumes one and two of the same work) have a different focus. But again the focus may be more practical than theological. In Luke, Jesus does heal. But there is a high concentration of material in Luke regarding money and economics. Throughout Luke, Jesus’ stories involve wealth, distribution, or money. Sometimes Luke’s concern for the financial is found in the small details. In Luke the beatitude is blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew removes the economic implication by changing the beatitude to blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. In Matthew the Lord’s Prayer is about trespasses. In Luke it is about debts. And then notice the last line of the story today. For Luke, the implication of the story becomes financial: sell what you have and become a part of the community. Otherwise you will not be finishing what God has started in your heart.

Then in volume two, in Acts, we have a description of the economic communities formed by the early church in Luke. People actually did sell what they had and gave it to a common treasury; forming a commune, using the labor and resources of its members, as the commune bought, sold, and prospered within the larger economy of the Roman Empire. Congregations in Luke were patterned after large Roman households which involved the mutual support of the members of the household, common meals, and sharing labor, responsibility, and resources according to need and ability. Historians have made much of the first churches being formed as households. Roman households were often small business units which produced things that were then sold in the larger economy. It is this life together in an economic sense that undergirds the economic vision of the gospel.

Now in Luke and Acts there is a solution to poverty. It is not the welfare state. Luke does not call for government support of anything. But it is also not free enterprise capitalism with a trickle down system that always leaves only a scrap for those at the bottom. Luke is not interested in either of those things.

What Luke is calling for is a Christianity practiced as an economic household or commune. People literally did give everything to the community of faith as they joined the Christian fellowship. And within the Christian community, there was no longer such a thing as poverty since things were equally shared. And within the Luke communities there was no such thing as the 1 percent and the 99 percent or whatever.

I also think it should be said that Luke and Acts show no interest whatsoever in overhauling the Roman economy in which they found themselves. That was not their purpose or mission. They accomplished their economic good through communal living. And this communal living is seen as the ultimate goal or purpose of the whole project of believing in Jesus.      Today, we might ask why people would give up all their possessions and join a commune. This seems strange to us. Where first century Christians all hippies? What would be the motivation for this strange economic activity? But perhaps in the first century urban empire this was not strange at all. It was probably the best strategy for survival in first century Roman cities. In his books, The Rise of Christianity, (Princeton University Press, 1996) and The Cities of God, (Harper One, 2006) Rodney Stark describes the horrible economic conditions in times of want or famine in the typical large Roman city in the first century. There was no social safety net. In times of want, people starved. Individual small households were subject to a great deal of theft and violence. Banding together for mutual support was essential in extreme conditions.

Christianity responded to this situation by forming urban communes in which the risks were shared and resources were distributed to all members in times of want. This particular form of first century insurance made the church attractive to many, and was one of the reasons people joined the movement. And with the sharing of resources in times of famine, more Christians survived and the church compounded its growth rate. There was a good reason for the economic message of Luke.

But there was something else that bullet proofed these Christian communes in times of want, drought, or famine. They were networked. Christianity was not a series of isolated organic survivalists, running off to the hills, as they waited for the end. No, it was a network of congregations in different cities connected by people writing and traveling throughout the empire. In times of need, resources were shared not only within the community but between communities. We see this networking in the writings of Paul, like the short letter we have today in the second reading: Philemon. This is the story of the return of a runaway slave from one commune to another. It is inter-commune correspondence. In Philemon, there is no implication that Christianity should change the slavery economy of the empire. But there is the implication of doing something more: that Philemon will change the status of slaves in his commune, so that the community no longer is filled with masters and slaves, but people working side by side. Onesimus left as a slave. He will come back to the commune as a brother, a fellow worker with us in the kingdom of God. Of all the gospels, Luke and Acts share this vision of first century Christianity. For Luke, sharing in the name of Jesus makes not only the most economic sense, but gradually expands the moral imperatives by which the community is to live.

Our faith builds a community of sharing that will enable us to prosper. That is the economic foundation of Luke and Acts. It is the specific point of the story from Luke today. Our faith builds a community of sharing that will enable us to prosper. That is also the implication of Deuteronomy. This first reading comes from a different culture and time, when the nation of Israel is recommitting itself to its principles of following the sacred path, caring for the widow, the orphan and the stranger. The Deuteronomist is declaring: if we do these things, if we build our community of faith, our community of compassion; we will prosper.

Nineteenth century Finnish Lutheran immigrants to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan formed communes much like those in Luke, centered on the village hall, village meetings, and the community sauna; to face the formidable task of making it in the north woods of America.

Thrivent financial is well on its way to becoming yet one more investment banking firm. As if we need another one of those. But it has Lutheran heritage. It was once a mutual insurance company formed by Lutheran’s to share in common their financial risks as they migrated from Europe to America and started their families. Before it was called Thrivent, it had names like Lutheran Brotherhood and Aid Association for Lutherans. It started as a way for the Lutheran communitas to pull together to share the risks of life in America. It is that spirit which Deuteronomy, Philemon and Luke lift up for us.

These days, as we all think more globally, it may be the case that Luke was right. This blue marble is one community. We will prosper as a community as we learn to share, as we renew and then expand those principles of faith that move us deeply into the compassion of God.