Paul, Money, and You: A Reflection on Urban Intercultural Stewardship – Chibuzo Petty

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(S)Paul of Tarsus is, after Jesus, the most consequential New Testament figure. Many would, with some validity, claim (S)Paul’s influence on the development of Christian theology has even been greater than that of Christ himself. A prolific writer, he also serves as one of the main characters in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. (S)Paul was born in Tarsus (Acts 9:11) but raised in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). Having Roman citizenship, he was well traveled and one of the most cosmopolitan of the New Testament characters. He was instrumental in the early Church’s shift of focus from Jerusalem to Antioch – though we will see in 2 Corinthians that this is more complex than it immediately seems. Antioch was where Jesus followers were first called Christians and remains the center of Western Rite Syriac Christians.

Ancient Corinth was a major Greek city during the time of (S)Paul. It was his practice to travel to various cities on his missionary journeys. Acts suggests that he would go to cities with stable Jewish populations. Using synagogues as his launching pad, he would reach righteous Gentiles and convert them to Christianity. His letters, including this one, are unique because of his predominantly Gentile audience – in contrast to Luke’s writing, for instance. Because 2 Corinthians touches on so many topics, I have chosen to focus my reflections on 2 Corinthians 8-9.

The selected passage is important for many reasons. First, it is worth noting that, at least at first glance, (S)Paul’s tone might seem more manipulative than a modern reader would be comfortable with. He writes to the Corinthians in several paragraphs about how important it is for them to give, how he’ll be so disappointed if they do not give, how the broader Church will be disappointed if they do not give, how they should be embarrassed if they do not give, and how he is not only writing them to ensure they give but also sending three people ahead of him for good measure. Still, he writes that they should only give gladly and not due to pressure. This seems to border on the absurd. He certainly seems to be pressuring them into giving.

To be fair to (S)Paul, giving is an essential aspect of church life. Giving of time, talent, and treasurer is a vow many take when being baptized, declaring their faith, officially joining a congregation, etc. In our modern context, financial giving not only pays staff, bills, and taxes but furthers the mission of the church through local and global service. Despite financial giving being such a high priority for congregational leadership, it is not a priority for most members. Studies show than less than ¼ of a congregation tithes. 80% of tithers are giving at just a 2.0-2.5% rate. (The Hebrew Scripture’s standard is 10%.) This lackluster giving rate is even below that during the Great Depression when Christians gave at a rate of 3.3%.

There is also some reason to believe that those who have the least to give actually give the most. Broadening the conversation to charitable giving, the lowest income bracket, people making less than $20,000 annually, give 4.3% of their income to charity. Remaining income levels give at an average of 2.3%. Counting the three lowest income levels (i.e., those making less than $58,000), which are the three most generous per capita, they average a giving rate of 3.2% compared to $2.0 for those making $58,000+. This should not surprise us. Nor should it go without recognizing that Jesus praises this sort of behavior. The Scriptures say:

While Jesus was in the Temple, he watched the rich people dropping their gifts in the collection box. Then a poor widow came by and dropped in two small coins. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “this poor widow has given more than all the rest of them. For they have given a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has.” – Luke 21:1-4 (NLT)

This is an important image as we think about urban ministry. While the national poverty rate is 13.5%, the urban poverty rate is 16%. Further, urban poverty is growing increasingly concentrated. In Dayton, Ohio, the urban area nearest me, 60.3% of the poor live in neighborhoods with a 20%+ poverty rate.

Beyond tithing, these chapters illustrate the importance of Christian stewardship, more broadly. I think the most meaningful aspect of the passage for urban ministry is that it illustrates the importance of building a network of support, ideally connected to a sending congregation. I really like the early model of Jerusalem, the mother church, sending apostles out to plant other churches. I appreciate that these congregations did not only have a relationship with the mother church but with one another as well. This relationship included prayer, fellowship, and some degree of shared finances. In a modern context, I believe this model remains relevant. If urban ministry, especially church planting, is to succeed, it will take a lot of prayer. New church starts will almost certainly need connection with other, more established, congregations. And, this connection will almost certainly need to go beyond fellowship to financial support. I have been pleased to see many seminaries, as well as large, influential churches, establishing entrepreneurial ministry training programs in recent years. I think this is a really excellent idea. As I think of future ministry opportunities, money is clearly an object. I do not believe this is my succumbing to modern temptations. (S)Paul understood the power and importance of money in ministry.

Image Credits: Crosswalk, Fuller Youth Institute, and Teen Quest.

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On Hospitality: Banquet of the Absurd (Luke 14:12-24) Pt. II – Guest Blogger, Scot Miller

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This blog post is the second in a two-part series adapted from a piece originally published on Scot’s personal blog (link below). For part one, visit http://www.brethrenlifeandthought.org/2017/04/21/on-hospitality-banquet-of-the-absurd-luke-1412-24-pt-i-guest-blogger-scot-miller/. What follows is a continuation of Scot’s story about serving the water distribution effort last year in Flint, Michigan.

Over the next few weeks, we distributed water, fed children of all ages, homeless persons, and drug addicts, treated a heroin overdose, and began delivering food to folks who were marginalized to the point of being afraid of coming to the church (some distribution points were asking for photo identification). I was able to do outreach and wellness checks to families who made their only income illegally, thus preventing them from seeking some services for fear of opening excuses for home visits from authorities. We served refugees and immigrants who did not know English, and could not get help, or were scared to seek it out. The Church of the Brethren building on Stocker Avenue was a church, and it was contributing to its neighbor’s lives in many ways. The building was truly a place of welcoming and affirmation of all folks from any and every background. We were the church. We were practicing radical hospitality.

We continued to talk about the Bible and what the stories of the Bible meant to us. We also talked regularly about how the church might be relevant in the lives of our neighbors. I also believe we wanted the church to be more relevant to us spiritually. Sometimes, our church experiences left us longing. Sometimes, we felt spiritually malnourished. Mary Lorah-Hammond and Jennifer Betts had been dreaming of doing dinner church, and they also knew that the water crisis brought new nutrition needs to the forefront of everyone’s mind. It was decided that we extend our hospitality to folks at the farm market and our Facebook friends, activist, and professionals who were serving the city to share dinners on Tuesday nights. Flyers were made and distributed, invitations were extended, and preparations were made for a messianic banquet we called “Feeding of the Flintstones.”

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And nobody came.

But we had been reading the text.

The text had answers.

While Mary and Jennifer cooked, I went outside and walked around the neighborhood, inviting every individual or family I came across to come to the church on Stocker Avenue and share a meal. I believe we had 12 that first evening, certainly a number appropriate to our shared narrative. This continued every Tuesday night. Some folks followed up on the invite. More often than not, all of our guests came as the result of someone going out into the neighborhood who embodied the text of Luke 14, which invites all and sundry to experience fellowship without regard to status or ability to contribute to the “potluck” that is a staple of Midwestern hospitality for “those who belong.”

One warm evening, my son Micah and I left Mary and Jennifer to cooking and walked around the west side neighborhood looking for folks to invite for meal sharing. As we walked down Arlene Avenue, I noticed two women in a van parked on the corner of Mann Avenue. I approached the van to invite them to dinner and saw they were both crying. I asked if I could help, and they indicated to Micah and me that one of the women’s family had just moved into an abandoned house, and they had lost their food benefits card, had no cash, nothing to eat, and no electricity. I told them to bring everyone to the church for a meal.

That Tuesday evening, we had more than 20 folks eating with us, eight of them belonging to the woman sitting in the car. As everyone was enjoying food and conversation, Mary and Jennifer were talking with the women; I tried to reach out to the father of the group. He was less than interested in communicating and seemed to feel patronized by me as I served him bread and soup. He was not enjoying my presence, or anyone else’s.

As Now Ministries worked to get the whole family set up for food delivery the next day, it was evident they needed some things that night. I asked the father if he would like to go with me to Kroger to pick some things up, and I could foot the bill. Reluctantly, he made the decision to go. As we drove by ourselves to the grocery store, he began to open up just a bit. When he found out that we shared some experiences of city living, we were able to begin a conversation that, within 15 minutes, turned into a warm experience of friendship.

The fact of our hospitality was the result of reading the text and then trusting that our living out the stories would lend credibility to our actions. In fact, we acted in faith, and our faith was vindicated. But the vindication is by no means represented in a growth of church membership, or big publicity regarding our worship services, or even in miracle funding for more outreach. For the text states that it is of no use to provide hospitality to those who somehow repay you or invite you in return, but rather we are to invite and serve the poor.  We will be vindicated for our faithfulness at the Judgment, but salvation comes immediately to those in need. They are liberated from the bondage of facing the crisis in isolation. Everyone knows that sin is evident, but the opportunity to respond in new ways with new outcomes is what the church is to reveal to those in need. The apocalypse is the unveiling of how the church responds to sin that has not been properly identified as sin. If the economics of food are unjust, the church calls this sin and offers an alternative.

In fact, we are sharing or extending the blessings of faith in a manner that makes the kingdom of God a credible alternative to systematic corporate sin for those most in need of God’s grace and mercy. It is our voluntary sacrifice of privilege and our sharing of resources that makes our claims of the Kingdom of God credible. We embody faith at our expense, and not for reward. This is faithfulness. This is apocalyptic witness. This is the eschatological “end-times” that marks not the end of the world, but more importantly, the end of an age that witnesses the collusion of the so-called Church and State to promote wealth and power rather than the victory of the Lamb over the devil, sin, and death.

An apocalyptic unveiling is not God’s new response to sin, but the church’s identifying and uncovering the fact of corporate sin which has been sold to Christians as conservative religion. Civic Christendom is far from conservative. Rather, it is liberal democracy costumed as Christianity in order to the hide selfishness, racism, and exclusivity that has victimized those who need the church the most. The church has not only colluded with the State, but indeed has colluded with the Accuser. We accuse those left behind as being responsible for the products of our own economic, racial, and militant sin. This heresy is a Satanic reversal of the Gospel call to love one another as ourselves.

The folks of Flint have been left behind, but they have not been left behind to suffer through some apocalyptic Armageddon. They have simply been left behind as “the least of these.” Flint and other places like it have been left behind by Christians who keep promising that heaven awaits them, preaching that if the victims of sin don’t clean their act up, God will leave them behind just as the economy, the judiciary, and education has left them behind.

Indeed, if these so-called spiritual warriors read Revelation more closely, they might see passed the plank in their eyes to see that Christ judges them. The biggest sin of Christendom is the Laodicean error – the error that Jesus would not overlook.

Revelation 3:15-20 (HCSB)

15 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth. 17 Because you say, ‘I’m rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,’ and you don’t know that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked, 18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich, white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed, and ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see.19 As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be committed and repent. 20 Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me.

10271482_694810043912301_8536081974303114262_nScot Miller, of Hastings, Michigan (by way of Flint and Detroit), is a passionate and tireless worker for justice – passions that led him to seek degrees in social work. Having been a member the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for 15 years, he now serve as Pastor of Education and Outreach for Common Spirit Church of the Brethren in Grand Rapids. Scot spent most of 2016 ministering in Flint, Michigan, as a responder to the water crisis there. He served under the auspices of Common Spirit at First Church of the Brethren in Flint, in the neighborhood of his birth. He served as an adjunct professor of social work at Kuyper College for four years, and more recently served as an adjunct professor at the Earlham School of Religion during the 2017 January intensives. He is particularly drawn to Anabaptist theology as well as apocalyptic expressions of early Quakerism. You can read more of Scot’s work at http://www.gospeloftheabsurd.net/.

Image Credit: 2×2 Vital Church

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On Hospitality: Banquet of the Absurd (Luke 14:12-24) Pt. I – Guest Blogger, Scot Miller

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If the end-time fallacies of Tim LaHaye have any interpretive value, I propose a compare and contrast exercise with the city of Flint, Michigan. Flint is home to a people that have been “Left Behind.” While LaHaye’s apocalyptic lack of theological imagination is little more than a lie, the opportunity for the church to recognize our error and reorganize into a truly apocalyptic assembly is fully represented in the reality of living in Flint. The Body of Christ has been lost in the violent maladaptive literary world of dragons and super-whores for far too long, failing to recognize our obligation to embody the gospel in a manner that reveals something far more important than the end of the world; that being the rebirth and a restoration of God’s creation to wholeness.

Flint is the place where the sins of unjust economics, whiteness, and electoral politics have come home to roost. In the midst of a water crisis that has had a catastrophic effect on residents of the city and resulted in corporate trauma, the failure of the church is as evident as the failure of the water system. The residents of Flint were left behind to suffer the consequences of state-sponsored sin, when their water was poisoned, and and when this poisoning was denied by authorities. The people of Flint were left behind to suffer the consequences of institutionalized racism. They were left behind by a changing economy that no one prepared them for nor explained to them, despite promising them new jobs and new prosperity every election cycle. The people of Flint were left behind by the very people who promote Heaven as a reward for worldly suffering while reaping the benefits of wealth accumulated in the midst of such suffering. Flint is far more indicative of the end-times than LaHaye fans want to admit – it marks the end of the church as a relevant institution as we know it in the here and now.

I felt a call to return to Flint, the hometown my parents were forced to leave behind when the recession of the late ‘70’s drove us to Detroit so they could find work. When I heard about the water crisis and thought of the biblical call to deny privilege and serve the least of these, I turned a deteriorating job experience into an opportunity for ministry. I made a decision to go to Flint three days a week and contribute resources to the water crisis response. I was welcomed by First Church of the Brethren in Flint to work with their congregation and the African-American congregation they shared the building with, NOW Ministries.

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B.B and Scot taking a brief reprieve while serving in Flint.

Working with First CoB and Now Ministries, we went from distributing three pallets of bottled water a day to 18 pallets of water a day, three days a week. We also found the resources to provide fresh food to our neighbors, diapers and hygiene products, and provide neighbors with up-to-date information about the water crisis. Along with the work that was being done at the church, we shared with one another our understandings of God and the Bible and talked about what it is that we must do to reflect the love of Christ to our neighbors.

Importantly, the number of folks volunteering allowed for the church to keep its doors open almost every day of the week. As such, the building on Stocker Avenue became much more than a place to pick up water. It became a central location for adults and children alike to experience community. The building’s social significance became evident one night when my 70-year-old water distribution partner B.B. and I were struck with a dilemma. We were the only two folks (left behind) at the church one afternoon, waiting for hours for a water delivery that never came. The state was not sending enough truck drivers to help with water distribution, and deliveries were being held up because the food bank drivers were pressed into double duty. They delivered loads of food to locations around the east side of the state, and then came back to Flint to deliver pallets of water. We received our delivery at 5 pm.

Importantly, the number of folks volunteering allowed for the church to keep its doors open almost every day of the week. As such, the building on Stocker Avenue became much more than a place to pick up water. It became a central location for adults and children alike to experience community. The building’s social significance became evident one night when my 70-year-old water distribution partner B.B. and I were struck with a dilemma. We were the only two folks (left behind) at the church one afternoon, waiting for hours for a water delivery that never came. The state was not sending enough truck drivers to help with water distribution, and deliveries were being held up because the food bank drivers were pressed into double duty. They delivered loads of food to locations around the east side of the state, and then came back to Flint to deliver pallets of water. We received our delivery at 5 pm.Cars were lined up for water, and B.B. and I were having great difficulty keeping up.We were two men over the age of 50, we were wearing down, and our instructions at that time were to not leave water outside. The line of cars grew deeper, and we were exhausting ourselves. As the sun was setting, our neighbors were not unaware of what was happening. First, one teen came over to the church to volunteer help. Then a second. A third came with his sister, who set up a candy and Kool-Aid stand, using bottled water to make the drinks with sugar from her house. It was this evening that we recognized we were making an impact on our block. We had folks from the block, ages eight to nearly 80, distributing water and having fun. Together, we had a purpose.

Cars were lined up for water, and B.B. and I were having great difficulty keeping up.We were two men over the age of 50, we were wearing down, and our instructions at that time were to not leave water outside. The line of cars grew deeper, and we were exhausting ourselves. As the sun was setting, our neighbors were not unaware of what was happening. First, one teen came over to the church to volunteer help. Then a second. A third came with his sister, who set up a candy and Kool-Aid stand, using bottled water to make the drinks with sugar from her house. It was this evening that we recognized we were making an impact on our block. We had folks from the block, ages eight to nearly 80, distributing water and having fun. Together, we had a purpose.

This blog post is part one of a two-part series adapted from a piece originally published on Scot’s personal blog (link below). 

10271482_694810043912301_8536081974303114262_nScot Miller, of Hastings, Michigan (by way of Flint and Detroit), is a passionate and tireless worker for justice – passions that led him to seek degrees in social work. Having been a member the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for 15 years, he now serve as Pastor of Education and Outreach for Common Spirit Church of the Brethren in Grand Rapids. Scot spent most of 2016 ministering in Flint, Michigan, as a responder to the water crisis there. He served under the auspices of Common Spirit at First Church of the Brethren in Flint, in the neighborhood of his birth. He served as an adjunct professor of social work at Kuyper College for four years, and more recently served as an adjunct professor at the Earlham School of Religion during the 2017 January intensives. He is particularly drawn to Anabaptist theology as well as apocalyptic expressions of early Quakerism. You can read more of Scot’s work at http://www.gospeloftheabsurd.net/.

Photo Credits: Scot Miller

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