A Preferred Future
July 5, 2020
2 Corinthians 8:8-15
Our next scripture for this morning is 2 Corinthians 8:8-15. And I want to preface it a little bit, because in the progressive American church, we tend to treat Paul like the original Bernie Bro—someone who stans for a peace-and-justice ideology, but layers a bit too much of misogyny on it.
We hear all of Paul’s words through a pre-emptive cringe. But in this passage, he’s making a very focused socioeconomic argument, which is rooted in his understanding of Jesus. And yes, it’s a bit pretentious and dense, but that was also the Greek literary style.
And what’s important to note is that this is a message specifically for the church at Corinth. Corinth is a port town in southern Greece, located on a little isthmus in the Mediterranean Sea, which made it an important commercial trading hub, and an urban metropolis with that drew together all the diversity of the Roman Empire. The small church Paul founded echoed this diversity—from Jewish immigrants to Greek athletes to Roman bureaucrats and their slaves—there was a wide ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in the church at Corinth. And all these perspectives created a lot of tensions in the little house-church. No wonder Paul needed two letters to get them all on the same page. But in this passage he isn’t addressing the cliquishness or the drunkness at church gatherings or the sexual abuse members were experiencing. In this section, he’s thinking about the other churches in Jerusalem, who are in the midst of a severe famine and urgently in need of funds to purchase food.
So, in the middle of all of that, here is what Paul says:
It is not an order I am giving you, but the opportunity to test your generous love against the earnestness which others show. 9 You are well acquainted with the favor shown by our Savior Jesus Christ who, though rich, became poor for your sake, so that you might become rich by Christ’s poverty.
10 As I say, this is only a suggestion—it’s my counsel about what is best for you in this matter. A year ago, you were not only the first to act, but you did so willingly. 11 Finish that work, so that your eagerness to begin can be matched by your eagerness to finish, according to your means. 12 For so long as the heart is willing, it’s what you have that is acceptable, not what you don’t have.
13 This doesn’t mean that by giving relief to others, you ought to make things difficult for yourselves! It’s just a question of balancing 14 what happens to be your surplus now against their present need; one day they may have something to spare that will supply your own need. That is how we strike a balance.
Most practitioners would say Paul’s strategy, as a district minister, is questionable. I have not asked Doug Luginbill, Central District Mennonite Conference executive minister, about this directly. But I’ve asked Doug a lot of questions, enough that I am confident that if I asked him, “What would you say to a church with layers of abuse, a controlling congregational leadership, and severe wealth disparity?” he would not say, “I’d tell them collect more school kits for MCC.”
Paul sees all that’s going on in the Corinthian church and he tries to address it, but he also tries to do the difficult pastoral work of getting a conflicted congregation to look beyond itself. Because Paul has big dreams for the Corinthian church.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president of Liberia, and first female president on the African continent, said, “The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.”
Maybe Paul heard something similar from one of his first-century mentors, too, because he pitches a big vision to a church that’s barely holding it together.
You might say that Paul
He exhibits no restraint.
He takes and he takes and he takes
And he keeps winning anyway.
He changes the game.
He plays and he raises the stakes.”
And I will be the first to say Mennonites should not observe the Fourth of July, but you didn’t think we were going to get through this day without a Hamilton reference, did you? Paul is planting churches and following Jesus and he’s not throwing away his shot to rectify economic inequality when he can.
And I admire this about Paul. Because one thing I have noticed, in my 7 years working in churches, is that churches are not very good at thinking beyond themselves. At least, not in the structure of the American church.
We’ve developed a model of church where the focus is on reacting and stabilizing.
If I asked any one of you, individually, what you want your life to look like in 10 years, you’ll have a ready answer. It will probably include a change in household configuration—children will move out of the house; or perhaps you’ll have a child, or a grandchild; perhaps you hope for a partner; a very small but honest number hope for their marriage to end. And it will probably include a change of income—for most, a desire for greater financial resources and for some, moving into retirement, an anticipation of reduced resources. And you probably have a vision for your work—a new job; ending a job; beginning school; finishing school. You have a rough sense of where you want to be in 10 years.
If I asked you, what does your place of employment want to look like in 10 years? Most of you will have a ready answer for that, too. “We’ll be producing x many products” “We’ll have x many employees” “We’ll be educating x many students who know a, b, and c.”
But if I ask the question, What do you want Shalom to look like in 10 years?
the answers become more hesitant, vague. There will be some new faces. And… some folks will say they hope the church is bigger; some will hope it stays the current size. Most imagine we’ll still be at Green Wood, assuming that rental relationship becomes long term. And maybe some vague sense that “we’ll be more engaged in the community.” Beyond that? What do you wish for Shalom? If I had asked you 10 years ago, would you have had a different answer? Or has the answer pretty much stayed the same, year after year?
What do you hope the church is like in 2030?
If you are drawing big blanks—that is totally normal. Most folks in church, in this country, don’t think about where their church is going. What the vision is. We think about whether someone is scheduled to preach on Sunday or who is going to bring a meal to so-and-so or how so-and-so’s father is doing. Most churches are very good at maintaining the current system—at making sure something happens on Sunday, and these is an annual retreat. And they are very good at reacting to change—welcoming new babies, accompanying a grieving member, organizing meals and fundraisers.
But churches spend very little time thinking about what they are becoming. And as a result, they get stuck in a cycle of maintaining and reacting and forgetting to dream about what it looks like to co-create a future.
Let me be clear: maintaining is important. Reacting is important. But we also need a dream.
2020 has been a rough decade, and we’re only halfway through. The headlines—and the changes in our own lives—are so consuming that it’s hard to do anything more than maintain and react. But it’s hard to make change when your framework is reactionary. It’s hard to follow Jesus when you spend more time reacting to non-Christian ideas than fleshing out your Christian principles.
And so we come to our new series: Engaging the Present Church Scattered, Imagining the Future Church Gathered.
This summer is for dreaming. Imagining what in strategic planning circles we call “our preferred future.” There are many possible futures. But the one we reach tends to be the one we talk the most about. If we talk about the kindom of God, we tend to reach it. If we talk about The End Times (in caps), we tend to reach it.
What does our preferred future look like if we allow ourselves to dream as big as God does?
At my old church, there was an enormous grassy field sprawling behind the building and pooling into the front. When I was there, I had big dreams of planting a prairie with prayer stations embedded in the walking path; converting the front yard into a low-maintenance permaculture food forest for the neighbors and church members; and then installing beehives on the rooftop, to pollinate both the prairie and the produce, and harvesting a ration of honey for every family each year. These dreams got as far as an 8×10 garden path that the Bible school children planted two years in a row.
Not every dream gets achieved. But, as the saying goes, you miss 100% of the baskets you never build to shoot your shot into.
What could Shalom become? What are we called to be? A vision might not get us there in 10 years. But without a vision, we will not much get anywhere in the next 10 years.
Here are some of the imaginings I have for Shalom:
- the congregation that chooses to become the closest companion of the A2 Carbon Neutrality plan, advocating and laboring to bring it life.
- the first church in Mennonite Church USA to invest $100,000 in reparations within Mennonite Church USA.
- The primary congregational collaborator with Friends of Restorative Justice, joining a national movement to build a restorative justice center in Washtenaw County.
- An abundant, overcrowded church that finally splits into an Ypsi and an Ann Arbor congregation, maintaining a close sister-church relationship as we double the Anabaptist presence in Southeast Michigan.
- A partner of Living Peace Church of the Brethren, accompanying that congregation in their discovery of new ministry opportunities and frequently exchanging guest speakers from our congregations throughout the year.
- A musically diverse congregation, where piano is no longer the only instrument that’s expected on Sunday mornings, but instead, there are four rotating folk and rock and even a polka music group that rotate music leadership.
- A congregation that reflects the racial diversity of Washtenaw County, a roughly 76% white congregation, largely non-Mennonite; however, we find that more and more students who grew up in Black, Latinx, or multiracial Mennonite churches make their way to Shalom when they study at U of M.
- A congregation that becomes so socioeconomically diverse that every year, the scholarship fund for campers at Camp Friendenswald is tapped out and every year it is replenished.
- The congregation that becomes an active partner of United Way of Washtenaw County, advocating for policies and promoting their vision that by 2030, your zipcode will no longer define your choices in life.
We cannot do all of these things. But we can do some of them. And we are called to something more than maintaining and reacting.
Right now, our nation is drowning in intersectional crises: of race; healthcare; poverty; education; access; connection; hope.
Christianity has an intersectional response. The church at Corinth has an intersectional response. The cultural function of the church is to imagine a future of flourishing.
Behold, says God,
19 I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?