Building on the Cornerstone

ImageWhen I was in seminary, Nelson and I had the opportunity to meet with a financial coach, as part of the seminary’s attempt to acclimate pastors to the realities of the pastoral lifestyle. One of the things that we took away from our time with the financial coach was the concept of abundance and scarcity. For many reasons, from childhood experiences to family attitudes to temperaments, different people develop very different perspectives about money. Some people tend toward a perspective of abundance. They always feel that there is going to be enough, rarely worrying about future shortage, and as a result, when they have money, they usually save it, or at least spend it frugally. Others tend toward a perspective of scarcity. They worry more about whether there will be enough money, and tend to assume that what there is will run out, and as a result, when they have it, they spend it. Most people fall somewhere along this spectrum, but this lens of abundance and scarcity informs financial decisions large and small. And using this lens has given Nelson and me a helpful tool to use when we have financial decisions to make together. We now recognize that there has to be some negotiation between abundance and scarcity, whether we’re deciding how much to spend on a home, whether to buy a new car, or how much to give to the church and charity. It makes for difficult discussion, but having this information also pushes us to be more understanding of one another, and to ask ourselves more frankly how God might want us to approach money matters.

I don’t think the abundance/scarcity lens is reserved for money matters, though it is maybe most obvious there. I think for most of us, we approach every aspect of life with a question of abundance versus scarcity. Will there be enough for me? Enough love? Enough security? Enough recognition? Enough gratitude? Enough space? Enough beauty? Enough health? Enough time? Enough connection? Enough grace? In each of these areas of our lives, and probably many more, we tend to fall into one view or the other. Either there is an abundance, or there is a scarcity. And how we live, the practical reality of our day-to-day lives, is radically a result of that perspective. If we buy the common argument, the media marketing message that there is never enough, we will live our lives as though we must always be scrounging, hoarding, and struggling across the desert of life to the next oasis, where we can pause for a moment before starting again to fight for the feeling that we have found enough. I find this to be a fairly bleak prospect, but the marketing geniuses have managed to make it look like fun, even glamourous, so it seems like a significant number of people have hopped on that bandwagon. Even in the institutions of the church, we have become obsessed with the question of scarcity. There’s not enough money, there’s not enough people, there’s not enough room in the building. Open any magazine aimed at church-going Christians, or look at the sidebar on my facebook page, and you will find ad after ad for church growth programs and classes on expanding your congregation through social media. Scarcity becomes the rallying cry of the consumerist culture, and the church has bought into it right along with everyone else. But if this is the way that we plan to sate our needs, if this is the way that we as individuals, as a society, and as a church, have decided to fill the emptiness, then we are in trouble. Because at some point we will have to ask, “when is enough, enough?” Is there ever a point where we can stop trying to get more? Will scarcity ever suddenly feel like abundance? No. It won’t. Because it’s not a problem of supply. It’s a problem of demand. And the worldview, the lens that we have been taught to use, the lens of scarcity, always demands more, regardless of actual need.

Using that lens, the lens of scarcity, we turn everything that we see into a demand, a lack, an insistence that we must do something, in order to have enough. Enough love; enough gratitude; enough money; enough stuff; enough salvation. We take even a passage like today’s gospel reading, and turn it from promise to command. Jesus tells us, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” And it’s hard to get a more promise-filled sentence – God came into the world, precisely in order to fill the hole, in order to abolish the scarcity, in order to provide us with a completely new lens on life, so that we can stop chasing after the next satisfaction, because God has promised to be that satisfaction. And yet, so often I have heard this very sentence used to reinforce the lens of scarcity. Jesus said we should have abundant life, so we’d better go out and earn it! If we please God, Jesus will give us abundance. This has become the basis of a prosperity gospel so insidious that best-selling books turn God’s plan for salvation for the whole world into an individual self-help mantra of your best life now.

That’s not the gospel. That’s not what Jesus is promising here. Jesus is not promising an if-then proposition. This is not, “If you jump through the God’s hoops, then I will give you stuff; love; beauty; health; happiness.” God’s name is not, “I might be.” God’s name is “I AM.” And that is the name, the credentials, that Jesus pulls out in this passage. “I AM the good shepherd.” And what does a good shepherd do? Provides for the sheep, gives them what they need, so that they do not have to wander off in search of greener pastures. Everything is provided – food, security, comfort, love, even someone who will lay down his life for the sake of the flock. Jesus is describing what abundant life looks like. The people who heard Jesus speak knew the psalms. They knew the 23rd psalm. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. We can stop looking at the world through a lens of scarcity. God’s lens is the lens of abundance. God prepares a table for us, so that our cup is running over. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, we need not fear. God walks with us. That is abundant life, life beyond measure.

I grant you, this is a tricky promise. It is hard to look at the world, to see how many people are starving and living without abundance, without even enough, and then to hear God’s promise of abundance. How is God fulfilling that promise, when there are children dying every day because they do not have enough? And the only answer I have, really, is, “that’s on us.” Because we continue to live with a lens of scarcity, rather than with God’s lens of abundance. Because people continue to take more than enough for themselves, just in case; when our cup overflows, we get a bigger cup; rather than trusting that God is at work refilling our cup, so that our overflowing cup might fill others’ cups.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus is the manifest promise of that abundant life. Jesus is God’s promise that there is enough – enough grace that God would come into the world and become human; enough beauty that God would see even the most wretched among us and name them as God’s own; enough health that God would allow power to flow out of Jesus and heal an anonymous, powerless woman;  enough recognition that Jesus would know and call Nathanael from afar; enough connection that Jesus would eat with tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners of all kind, and draw them into community, even as the community shunned them; enough love that Jesus would go to the cross, and die there, for the sake of love, for the love of each and every one of us; enough life, abundant life, such that the grave could not hold him, and death had no power over him, and God would break loose into the world.

And this promise – this promise of abundance – this is the cornerstone. This Jesus is the cornerstone on which we build our church. But we have to be careful, because over time, that cornerstone might get buried, hidden behind the work we do. If you look for the cornerstone of a building, it is sometimes hard to find, because people have lived in the building and around the building, and they have put in gardens and plantings, and the cornerstone has become obscured. And even the most faithful communities have done this with the cornerstone of the church. We have built up ministries and done wonderful and faithful things, building the church and growing in community and in faithfulness and in knowledge, baptizing and teaching and making disciples, exactly as we have been called. But when those things begin to obscure the cornerstone, as they do sometimes, it is easy to lose sight of why we are here. It is easy to begin to believe that we are here for the sake of growth, or for the sake of the Sunday school, or for the sake of maintaining a property, or for the sake of shoring up our investments of time, talent and treasure. We’re not. And if we are, then we need to stop, and pull back the gardens, and take a look again. We are here for the sake of Christ, for the sake of him who is made the sure foundation, for the sake of the cornerstone. And Christ, our cornerstone, is God’s promise to us that we will have enough, and more than enough; that our cup will overflow so that we can share God’s abundance with our neighbors. It’s not about money, it’s not about stuff, it’s not even about having a pastor or a building or the recognition of the community that we are a good church doing good work. Those are all great things, and I think we want them and we want to work for them. But if they are not built on the cornerstone, if they obscure the cornerstone or make us forget why we are here, then I don’t want them. But if we build on the cornerstone, if we build on Christ, if we build on God’s promise of abundance, then it will not matter whether we have $1 or $1,000,000, we will be the church, with Christ as our foundation.