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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Abundance in an Economy of Scarcity - This Week's Lectionary

The US economy is in quite a bit of trouble with investment houses, insurance companies, and banks failing and teetering on the edge of failure. Even government bailouts seem to have had little positive effect in curbing the panic on Wall Street and around the globe. Today the market fell another 450 points, which, in real money, totals $700 billion. That's a lot of zeroes. That's a lot of money. That's a lot of scarcity. Our lectionary readings for this Sunday may have more important and direct relevance this week than on other Sundays.

If you are following the continuous reading, this week's scripture is Exodus 16:2-15 - the story of manna from heaven. This lesson instructs, tells, and reminds us that God's economy is not bound by the economies of our making, which are based on a zero-sum society - a place of scarcity. God is a different power that makes life abundant even in lean times, even when we are in the wilderness, even when the stock market tumbles. Our text this week is not about a Santa Claus God, but a God that calls people to structure their lives around a different economy that believes in abundance such that all are cared for during lean and difficult times. In God's economy we both receive a gift from God and we are required to share the plenty with others. God's economy reorders how we structure the world and it calls into question our reliance upon certain ways of believing and behaving.

When Christians read stories of our ancient mothers and fathers, we often pass them over too lightly. We miss the depth of life they offer us. Even the stories that make for good Sunday School get dumbed down and prettied up. Take the story about manna falling from heaven. This comes right after Miriam dances for joy after the people pass through the Red Sea and Pharaoh's army is swallowed by the water. The people move from a time of joy at their good fortune to despair at perceived scarcity. They say, "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpot and ate our fill of bread..." (v2b). Pharaoh's economy makes sense. In his book "The Covenanted Self" Walter Brueggemann says,
"People in our tradition of faith have endlessly struggled with a departure from the myth of scarcity, a liturgical, imaginative, political, economic act of resolve to situate our lives outside this powerful ideological claim. Did you notice I used the word 'departure?' The Biblical word for departure is Exodus. Exodus is not just a geographical event. It is an economic act. It is an imaginative act, to begin to live without permitting the necessities of Pharaoh to dictate the circumstances of our life. Pharaoh, then and now, is endlessly powerful in his definitions of reality, and it is not easy to depart"(pp 113-114).
Brueggemann finds the answer to Pharaoh's strong grasp in a three-fold communal response of "counter-practice" that is a turning away from Pharaoh. In order to break from the economics of scarcity, Israel had to "leave" Egypt, they had to "believe" that "food will be given" to them during their time in the wilderness, and then they had to "share" (pp 114-115). He goes on to say, "Sharing in covenantal solidarity is what distinguishes Israel from the 'atheists of scarcity' who turn neighbors into competitors for bread and finally into enemies with whom there must be endless wars for control of the bread supply" (p 117).

It's no less difficult for us to believe in God's ability and agency today. We live in a world completely circumscribed by production and consumption. Furthermore, Americans have created a myth about ourselves that declares the unlimited potential and ability of each person to accomplish on his or her own whatever he or she would like, if only enough work, know-how, and good ol' moxie are employed. In many ways this is a wonderful characteristic, but it has its limitations. It also inscribes in our hearts a reluctance to believe in the agency of another, particularly God. The idea of receiving a free gift from God seems, somehow, wrong, unfair, ridiculous. People get what they work for. People receive what they make in life. While on many levels we know that people don't always receive what they deserve - for good or ill - on a deep and primal level we do believe this. We have structured our whole economy, our whole lives, even our churches on this premise.

Is it possible to live lives of counter-practice when certainty has transformed into uncertainty? Can we believe in God's agency, in God's abundance, in God's economy when our own economy is in shambles? I believe we must do just this and more. It's time for congregations to enact policies of abundance during this time of scarcity and to make real in people's lives the claim made in the Exodus story. It's time that we allowed God to move among us in unexpected ways, offering us wonderfully fragile bread for a journey to places unknown through territory that can be daunting and stark. In the end this is an invitation to a life of Sabbath and not just a weekly observance of it. Receiving from God the necessary bread for the journey as a free and unwarranted gift is a radical departure from the normal way of operating. It is counter-intuitive; it is counter-practice. Sabbath, if you want one word for it, is God's Economy.

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