The theme of this clergy conference was "Future Church." The lections appointed for this day were Tuesday in the Second Week of Easter.
One of the things that the Global South seems most annoyed about is our economic system. They’re not alone, even if Occupy has been fairly quiet recently. It’s pretty clear that the early Christian community did have a fairly communal attitude toward private property and personal possessions. It’s also clear that there was resistance – remember Ananias and Sapphira? And it’s also evident that there was only one brief, shining moment of Christian clarity about this kind of stewardship of God’s gifts. The Ananias and Sapphira story is a tale about how difficult it was to achieve and sustain this model. Tithing is a puny, bean counting imitation.
But that image of “all things held in common” has not been completely forgotten in Christian history. It underlies the monastic tradition of more or less radical poverty, as well as the practice of some Anabaptist communities and the more recent Bruderhof. Today we are seeing something like this in the Episcopal Service Corps and other emerging quasi-monastic communities. Fully communal property tenure and management is rare in the wider society, but there are an increasing number of co-housing and sustainable living initiatives. There is a growing hunger for a saner way of living in the face of a kind of consumerism that seems increasingly demented. Yes, demented – and I’d invite you to think about the Harry Potter kind of Dementors who suck the life and creativity out of living beings. Particularly in a world faced with unsustainable population growth, unchecked global climate change, and ever-widening gaps between rich and poor, the kind of consumerism we see around us, and an economic system based on ever increasing consumption, is ultimately a recipe for death.
The whole of the Abrahamic tradition has always insisted that caring for the poor is one of the most fundamental ways to love God and our neighbors as ourselves. Yet we have often assumed that putting our dollars in the offering plate or running a soup kitchen once a month was enough. Some have learned to ask the more dangerous questions about why some continue to be poor. Dom Helder Camara is renowned for many things, among them this remark, “when I feed the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist.” I had a high school summer camper raise the same question a number of years ago. We talked about just what got Jesus executed.
Our future as a church, and as a movement of Jesus followers, has a remarkable opportunity to offer a different vision, based on God’s love for creation and all humanity. We affirm that this is the meaning of incarnation, and that Jesus’ death and resurrection changed the future – a future that intends the reconciliation, healing, and restoration to right relationship of all that is. Our post-establishment future contains the possibility of a counter-witness to what the world sees around us.
A great part of that transformative counter-example concerns our attitudes toward the common good, and how we share responsibility for the oikos – the earth as household, and the garden in which we’re set. That witness has to do with economics, politics, planetary ecology, and the thriving – or not – of human and other communities. Just what do we believe about abundant life, and how to find it? Our work as leaders in this Jesus community is about being born from above, as Jesus puts it. We’re meant to be poured out for the life of the world, so that others can also discover the well of truly abundant life.
The Acts community that held all things in common, in which some sold what they had for the good of the whole, is an image of being born from above, of being poured out for the life of the world. The story uses some challenging language about laying things at the feet of the apostles, language and images that are pretty tough for people of the west with a focus on individualism, rights, and rational and mathematical processes. More communal cultures generally do a better job in decision making for the good of the whole, although they may deny full parity to all the members. We haven’t yet found a perfect human community.
When the members of that Acts community are said to sell their assets and lay the proceeds at the feet of the apostles, that’s submission language, and it’s not exactly popular in the land of the free and the home of the brave. I don’t know if that word submission is redeemable or not, but maybe we can notice that it includes that word mission. Those gifts at the feet are given in the cause of God’s mission – they are offered or submitted for mission, and they’re not submitted to individuals. We talk about the apostles in the baptismal covenant as the ancient community of wisdom, that teaching, praying, and worshiping fellowship that helps connect us to the well of life.
We are moving into a future that’s going to need a broad willingness to offer our many gifts for God’s work of reconciliation, to lay them at the feet of the apostles for the good of the whole creation. Some of those gifts will indeed be monetary. Money is a sign of the ways in which we partner with God’s gifts to make a living. But even more important will be the gifts of creativity that most directly image the divine economy. I want to encourage you and the many other leaders in this community to offer your gifts in helping us to find a more abundant future for all people and all creation – and to do it kenotically. Set your gift down in the midst of the community and let it go. Let your ideas spark creative responses from others, and the outcome will not only belong to the community, but it will be far more inspired and abundant than the produce of any one person’s mind – it will be augmented, not demented! We’re being invited into a future that celebrates community creativity, rather than individual patents, and we need to cultivate kenotic ways of decision-making, that seek community justice rather than individual rights or ownership.
Let me tell you two stories about individual patents that raise some interesting questions and alternatives. One is the story of a woman and the cervical cancer that killed her. During her medical treatment and even after her death, her cells were harvested by medical professionals, without her knowledge or that of her family. Some of you know about HeLa cells, the first human cell line to be cultivated in the laboratory. Those cells produced enormous wealth for the companies that figured out how to grow them and develop diagnostic tests and diverse treatments for cancer. They have produced great good as well, though not for the person or family from which they came. Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman, who couldn’t access the same level of treatment as her white neighbors in 1951, and her late diagnosis and death were likely related to that reality. The benefits her cell line has produced are still not equitably shared. This would be a different story, at least in part, if her cells had been given rather than taken.
Another story is about a congregation in the southwest that received a half-million dollar donation from a parishioner to support a green energy initiative. They put up solar panels to supply about three-fourths of the energy needed to run the congregation’s physical plant. The leaders there were surprised that the donor had the kind of wealth to do this – her manner of life apparently gives no indication of it. Her capacity derives from a couple of dozen patents she holds.
In God’s economy, all things are held in common, for the flourishing and abundant life of the whole creation. How will we model, invite, and facilitate the sharing of creative gifts for the good of all God’s people and all creation?