June 25 2023 “Seeing Abundance”
Part of my seminary education was something called “CPE”, when you learn pastoral skills. I did my CPE at a place called Youthlink, a day service center for young adults experiencing homelessness, and my role was to be a spiritual listener for them. While I was there I got to know a young woman named Cassidy, whose mother had told her she would never be any good to anyone except on her back. But Cassidy had a dream. She had a dream of creating an organization where hurt and abused kids could work with hurt and abused animals, and how they could both be healed in the process. It was a brilliant idea, and I could only imagine the life experience that led her to come up with that idea. At the time, I had no practices that would have helped me imagine what I could do to support her dream. My CPE experience ended, and Cassidy and I drifted apart. I have no idea what happened to her.
Most of the time, what we focus on in white mainline churches is addressing peoples’ needs. We focus on scarcity. How can we help? We create food shelves, and these are desperately needed. We offer programs in which we teach people things. But I’ve wondered, to what extent are these offerings generative? Do they make a difference in the future of the people they serve? Do they help end poverty, for example?
There is a pastor named Michael Mather, who has served his entire life in the inner city, and who wrote a book called Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places. He tells the story of how he gradually came to understand that by seeing the needs of people experiencing poverty instead of their gifts, he was not making a measurable impact on their future. In their food shelf, they had to ask people questions about their poverty. How low was their income? Instead, they began asking people questions about their gifts. He would ask them, what are you good at? What do you know how to do well enough that you could teach it to someone else? And then he would find a way to pay them to do those things. One woman said she knew how to cook. He said, “prove it,” and bought the ingredients for her to cook a meal for him and his staff. When they found that the meal was incredibly good, he hired her to cater an event where a lot of people were gathered, and he paid for business cards for her to hand out at that event. Pretty soon she was making a living cooking for people. After a few years, this woman opened a restaurant in the neighborhood and flourished. He had asked about her gifts and then used his own resources, not to be the savior or lead actor, but to be a support person in which she was the main character with gifts and resilience and abundance. He didn’t create a program or figure out some innovative new way of offering services to the poor. He just saw her gifts and supported them.
There is a lot in our liturgy that talks about scarcity. We pray for the poor, the sick, the troubled. And we should. But what if the Spirit is asking us to make a major paradigm shift, a shift in which we learn to focus on the giftedness and sacredness and abundance everywhere, and use our time and resources to support that?
Today we celebrate our patron saint John the Baptist. John’s role was to prepare the way of the Lord, the coming one. He spent his entire life in the wilderness until it was time for his public ministry to begin. When it did, he preached repentance—a change of life for people. He told people who had two coats to give one away. He told soldiers not to abuse people and tax collectors not to collect more than the taxes that were owed. The repentance he called for was contextual to his time and space and came out of a lifetime learning in the wilderness about the world God created, which gave him fresh eyes to see his own tradition and his own people.
For us to honor St. John the Baptist in today’s world, in our own context, we could start by asking what repentance is called for, since that was his primary message to people. Repentance is not a very fun word. But all it means is to turn around. To move in a different direction. Last week I preached about the Doctrine of Discovery, and its continuing impact in today’s world. One of the key ingredients in the doctrine of discovery was the belief that other people are inferior, that they are missing something that we have. What if an opportunity for us, mimicking John the Baptist, is to change that core paradigm and instead see abundance and giftedness everywhere, and find ways to quietly use our relationships and resources to support that?
John the Baptist spent his life in the wilderness, and this is not an accident. In the Hebrew, the word for wilderness is derived from the word “to speak”—because in the Bible the wilderness is always the place you go to hear the voice of God. But it would be a mistake, in my view, to think that God is somehow separate from the wilderness or that the wilderness is an empty vacuum in which God appears to people. The wilderness is actually teeming with abundance and life, and God speaks to us through it.
For example, this past week I was in Ely, where we recently bought a tiny off the grid cabin. I was kayaking one evening, very quietly and slowly, hugging the shoreline of a huge lake with lots of bays and inlets. I rounded the corner of one of them and saw a beaver standing on a rock jutting out of the water, eating some water lilies. It saw me and started swimming away from me, and smacked the water three times with its tail to warn others that I was there. The trees and undergrowth grew all the way to the very edge of the shoreline. A loon and her little baby were gliding on the water on the other side of the bay. Wild rice was growing near the shore. Birds were everywhere. There was a raucous explosion of abundant life as far as the eye could see. When I got out of the kayak at the end of my ride I discovered a fishing spider the size of my palm that had been quietly sitting behind me in the kayak the whole time. My point in all this is to say that one of the things I perceive in the wilderness of Minnesota’s north woods is the utter abundance of life that is everywhere, where each kind of creature plays an important part in the whole. There is no waste—everything nourishes everything else in life and in death. And it is endlessly generative. One generation gives rise to the next and the next and the next. The wilderness teaches me that if we get out of the way and perceive each life form as a unique gifted being with spirit and purpose in the web of the whole, life will flourish.
Recently I got a call from a man who had been a youth at Youthlink ten years ago when I was there. He just got out of a several year stint in prison and still had my number, all these years later. He called because he wanted someone to help him stay out of trouble, someone to help him have any kind of chance at stability. What if I approached him, not from the place of what he is missing, but what his gifts are, and sought a quiet backstage role in helping him be his unique gifted self and make a living doing so?
What if we at St. John’s began to try to make room, in the way we operate, for each of us to notice the gifts of the people around us, and to support those gifts for the good of the whole? What if we found ways to streamline our operations so our primary work at St. John’s isn’t to make coffee or count the offering or serve on the vestry, but to see and support abundance and giftedness wherever we go?
When it is time for us to take the offering today, I am going to do something really, really different. I am going to ask you to do two things. In the pews you will see pieces of paper and pens. I am asking you to write down one thing you know how to do well enough to teach it to other people, or one thing you are good at, or one thing you passionately love to do, even if it has nothing to do with church. Maybe you know how to build stuff, or play Minecraft, or knit. Then, when the ushers pass the offering plates around, please put those pieces of paper in the offering plate.
And secondly, instead of asking you all to offer money this week, the ushers are going to walk around and give each family $20. And I am going to ask you to try to use this $20 in a way that is generative. And by “generative” I mean two things: to support someone’s giftedness, not to fill their need; and, in a way that is relational—in a way that connects this person with other people. And then, I’m asking you to tell me and the rest of the St. John’s community your story. To do this, you will have to begin by listening to other people. To find out what their passions and dreams actually are, not what you think they should be. We are giving $20 per family because we hope the whole family will get involved in this. If you are here solo, please invite other people into this with you—your friends, or family who are at home, or other St. John’s people who are here solo. And if you need ideas about how to do this well, get a copy of the book Having Nothing, Possessing Everything by Michael Mather, and start reading it. It is a very compelling read and is full of amazing stories.
This is an experiment, and like many experiments, there will probably be trial and error with this. In fact given St. John’s current financial situation it may seem like plain bad stewardship to do this. But my hope is that this experiment will be generative for St. John’s. I heard at least one other church that tried this in a way that sparked amazing things. I pray that the stories we tell and what we learn will be inspiring of things we haven’t even dreamed of yet. Perhaps we will learn to connect with and support people like Cassidy, the young woman I spoke about at the beginning of this homily who had an incredible dream. Let us follow St. John the Baptist’s example and turn from seeing the world in terms of scarcity and ourselves as saviors, and instead look for the gifted, unique, abundant life that is all around us. Amen.