The father's pleasure

August 6, 2007

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure
to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms.”

To
hear this strangely beautiful instruction addressed to us and not to
somebody else requires some imaginative work. To begin, we will need to
learn how to hear the scriptures as a church rather than as a
collection of individuals. Jesus is talking to a gathered community of
followers. He isn’t telling me to sell my possessions; he’s talking us.
This will require hard work. We do not yet know how to hear
collectively, as one body.

I
worshiped recently at Reba Place Church in Evanston, Illinois, a
Mennonite congregation in an urban setting. Reba Place is closely
associated with an intentional community of the same name. Members of
this fellowship have sold possessions, moved into shared space, and
practice economic sharing and alms-giving. To worship with Reba Place
is to begin to see what it might be to hear and read scripture as a
church, rather than as a collection of individuals.

We will need
to imagine the church as a political body, not just a spiritual
improvement society. “Flock” sounds like a harmless enough word, but it
requires a shepherd, and the Good Shepherd in the Bible is a royal
figure, a challenge to the king. With some imaginative work, a “little
flock” could be seen as a subversive threat to the reigning political
order. On the outside wall of Reba Place is the inscription: “God bless
our country, our world, our enemies.” The last sentence spoken in
worship was, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” When they said it that they were
making a political, not just a spiritual claim.

In order to
hear the scripture as a church, we will need to imagine an alternative
to the reigning economic vision. The kingdom begins with a gift from a
Father who is pleased to give it. A gift is not a pay-off or a
hand-out, but something else. It’s not easy for us to imagine an
economy where such giving is possible. Ours is an economy of market
exchanges in which we hardly know the sacrifices that bring us the
goods which we consume. A gift requires knowledge of the giver. Our
economy is governed by the self-interest of competing individuals, but
the economy of the kingdom is built on God’s pleasure and selfless
donation.

Toward the end of the service at Reba Place there was
a time of sharing. Individual members spoke of their needs, and one of
them actually asked for monetary help, admitting that she didn’t have
enough money to meet an important family need. This would have been
difficult in my church, where we prefer to remain anonymous with our
gifts and needs. We would be reluctant to look the congregation in the
eye and ask for help. But Reba’s common life enables a whole new
economic order to come into view.