Sunday, November 19, 2006

Sharing the Gift of God

Deuteronomy 16:13-17

What are you thankful for? That’s a question we normally ask on Thanksgiving Day, but since I probably won’t be with most of you on Thursday, I’m asking it today instead. Now before you start responding, I’m asking this rhetorically. I expect that if I opened up for responses this service would never end. That’s why the feast of booths went on for seven days.

So, what are we thankful for? Good health, good friends, shelter over our heads, and having enough to eat. Could it be that we’re thankful for living in a country that allows us the freedom to worship, to speak, and to think as we wish? Is it the freedom we have to vote as we wish? Each of us has something different to add to the list.



A CALL TO CELEBRATE WITH THANKSGIVING

Deuteronomy 16 is a summons. It invites the people of God to gather at festivals of thanksgiving. In ancient Israel, the men came together at least three times a year to give thanks for God’s blessings, and when they came to the feast, they weren’t supposed to come empty handed. They brought offerings to these harvest festivals as a sign of their gratitude, each of them giving "as they are able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you" (Deut. 16:17). The feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Booths celebrated the harvest, but they also reminded the people that God had been active in liberating them from bondage in Egypt.

Thursday is our harvest festival and it’s also our celebration of human freedom, something we Americans claim to hold dear. It’s not always easy being true to these freedoms, especially during times of war or when a dark cloud seems to hang over the nation. Too often we let fear get in the way or we let prejudice keep us from seeing the full meaning of our national purpose. History reminds us that there were once walls placed in front of women, Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and African Americans. The Founder’s dreams of liberty took time to bear fruit. Sometimes we forget that Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and many other Founders were also slave owners. Although Thanksgiving has essentially become a secular holiday that has more to do with football games and a big dinner, it’s appropriate that we come here today and give thanks with grateful hearts for all of God’s many blessings.

This spirit of celebration is lifted up in Stephen Schwartz's song "All Good Gifts."



We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,
but it is fed and watered by God's almighty hand.
He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
the breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.
All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above,
So thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord, for all his love.
We thank thee then, oh Father, for all things bright and good,
the seed time and the harvest, our life, our health, our food.
No gifts have we to offer for all thy love imparts,
but that which thou desirest, our humble thankful hearts.
All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above,
So thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord, for all his love.1

THE SOURCE OF EVERY GOOD AND PERFECT GIFT

When children are small, parents try to teach them to say please and thank you and we encourage them to write thank you notes. I must confess that neither our children nor we adults, always follow through on our training, and therefore we need occasional reminders.

Several years ago a letter to the editor appeared in the Disciple Magazine. It lamented the seeming disappearance of this tradition of saying thank you. The letter writer was a Korean pastor who’d come to the U.S. about forty years earlier. This pastor wrote about how impressed he was with the way people would always say thank you, no matter where he went. He wrote:


"I thought it was a beautiful custom. I remember wishing we were more like that in Korea, where I grew up as a child."

But unfortunately, it seemed to him that this wonderful custom had fallen by the wayside. To prove his point he gave two personal examples. The first concerned a wedding gift he and his wife had sent to a young couple. No one ever responded to this gift. Now it’s possible that the gift tag got lost, but his story isn’t unique. Then he told of a funeral he had conducted for the family of former church members. He wondered why weeks went by with no acknowledgment of any kind.
These two stories remind me of the story about how Jesus healed ten lepers, all of whom went away joyfully, but only one of whom returned to give thanks. Pastor Ha makes a wonderful comment about the need to stop and give thanks.




To be human is not only to know how to thank each other, but also to acknowledge God as our creator and give thanks to the giver of all good gifts -- the source of all our blessings.2

Yes, giving thanks is more than proper etiquette; it’s a recognition that we’re recipients of something special. The King James Version translation of James 1:17, says: "every good and perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." Everything good and perfect is God’s gift to us. And so it’s appropriate to stop and give thanks to God for our blessings, and when we come before God we shouldn’t come empty handed. In ancient Israel, the people brought the first fruits of the harvest to the festival. We do the same, as we bring into the storehouse, the offerings of our hearts. They are a way of saying thank you to God for God’s many blessings.

As the song says:



"We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,
but it is fed and watered by God's almighty hand."

Therefore:

"All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above,
so thank the Lord, Oh Thank the Lord, for all his love."



May our gifts be a sign of our gratitude.



1. Stephen Schwartz, "All Good Gifts," in New Wine 2, (LA: UMC, 1973), 9-11.

2. Young Chang Ha, "Don't Forget Thank you," The Disciple (November 2000): 36.


Preached by Robert Cornwall
At: First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc, Ca
Thanksgiving Sunday
November 19, 2006

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Greater Gift

1 Kings 17:8-16; 12:38-44

Although there’s some debate as to the meaning of the law, the recently enacted Federal bankruptcy law makes it more difficult for people to give to charity after they declare bankruptcy. You see the creditors want to be reimbursed first, before God gets paid.

I’m not sure if the two widows described in today’s readings had declared bankruptcy, but they were in bad financial shape when they gave their last pittance to charity. Although these widows have little to commend themselves to our attention, Scripture honors both for their willingness to give. But why give everything away, if death is the result? Of course, maybe that’s the point. They knew they had nothing to lose. So, even though their acts of generosity may seem odd, they are our models of faithfulness.

THE SACRAMENT OF GIVING

Like most preachers, I’m not thrilled about giving stewardship sermons. Talking about money seems self-serving and may even be on the verge of meddling. But money, as they say, makes the world go around. You simply can’t do much in life without it. In our world, the more you have, the better life seems to be. Or, so they say.

There is a counterpoint to this belief. The Bible says that the love of money is the root of all evil. Not money itself, you see, money is benign, but when our desire for money takes hold of us, it can cause a lot of problems. Money can cause problems, but it doesn’t have to be dirty. While I’m not sure that God wants us all to be rich, I’m not sure God wants us to be destitute either. And so, I have to wonder about Jesus commending this widow to us.

There’s a back story, of course, to these comments about the widow. In Mark’s account, Jesus seems to be condemning the Temple, which had been recently destroyed by the Romans by the time Mark was writing his Gospel. Mark also has a negative view of Scribes, who were among the religious leaders of the day. The question is this: Who best represents the faith? The rich religious leader or the poor widow?

Although Jesus was critical of the religious system of his day, he commended this woman for her faithfulness. She came to the Temple and gave her pittance because she saw this as an act of worship. There’s a trend among some churches to get rid of the offering. The idea is that people get turned off by churches always asking for money. I see the point, but there’s another side to this. That weekly offering is also a reminder of whom we owe our allegiance. It’s not always easy to put that offering in the plate, but somehow in this act of giving we experience God’s grace. Besides, even if a church doesn’t take an offering, that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in your money. They just have to find other ways to get into your wallet. Bills, after all, are still due.

If all we’re doing by passing the plate is getting money to pay bills, then probably there are better ways to get the money than passing the plate in worship. We could, and maybe should, set up automatic tranfers or annual billings, maybe we could even take credit cards. But, if what we do in passing the plates has sacramental value and can help counteract our inclination to make money and success our idol, then maybe it is an act of worship.

William Stringfellow wrote that our giving has "little to do with supporting the church." That might seem like an odd statement, because the money we give pays the bills. A church after all is an institution. But he says this because he believes that the "the church's mission does not represent another charity to be subsidized as a necessity or convenient benevolence, or as a moral obligation." Therefore, the offering is "integral to the sacramental existence of the church, a way of representing the oblation of the totality of life to God." This means that our offering is a confession of faith, a statement that "our" money doesn’t belong to us, even as our own lives don’t belong to us, but instead, our money and our lives belong to the world itself.1 In their own ways, these two widows, the one who gave her last bit of food to Elijah and the widow who gave her last few coins to the treasury, recognized that what little they had, belonged to God.

SACRIFICIAL GIVING

If our act of giving is a sacrament, then how should we give? Jesus criticized those who made a show of their giving. As big as their gifts were, they came out of their abundance. But the widow gave everything she had. Once those coins were dropped in the treasury, starvation wasn’t far away. Now, two pennies worth of bread won't stave off starvation for long, but her willingness to part with everything she had has great symbolic power. She didn't give so the Temple could run more effectively, she gave to honor her God.

There’s a flip side to these two stories about widows who gave their all. Remember what James wrote: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (Jms.1:27). That’s the message of the prophets as well. Scripture speaks quite clearly about how we’re supposed to care for those who are in distress.

We know how easy it is for people to fall through the cracks, and when they do, we rarely miss them. This was true then, and it’s true now. Back then the only social security available to a widow was a male head of the household. That’s why Naomi sent Ruth to Boaz. If Ruth didn't find a husband, she and Naomi would starve. The widow from Zarapeth was in a double bind. Not only was she a widow but she faced a severe drought and had a young son to support. It seems presumptuous of Elijah to ask her for bread when she didn’t have enough to feed herself or her son. But, she acted in faith and God provided for her needs even though she wasn’t a worshiper of Yahweh.

Mark’s widow also gives sacrificially, but we don’t know what happens to her. I wonder whether she went off to die of hunger or whether the people listening to Jesus went and cared for her in her distress. The answer to these questions must be left to the imagination, but hopefully it will encourage us to respond to those in need.

These two incidents remind us that what we have is not our own. Although I can't promise you that God will multiply your gifts a hundredfold, because that would be presumptuous of me, if our giving is a sacred act then surely we’ll be blessed. Because where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. These two women in their own ways laid up treasure in heaven, because that’s where their hearts were (Mt. 6:19-21).


1.William Stringfellow, quoted in Pulpit Resource, 28 (October, November, December 2000): 30.

Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Lompoc, CA
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
November 12, 2006

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Journeying Together


Ruth 1:1-18

If you look closely at Matthew’s genealogy, you’ll find four women listed -- Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, and Ruth. Have you ever wondered why these particular women are mentioned? If you know their story, you know that each story has a dark side. But, despite the dark edge, each woman plays an important role in the biblical story.

This morning we read about Ruth. Her story begins when a Hebrew woman named Naomi moves to Moab with her husband and two sons to escape famine in Israel. It’s strange that they’d go to Moab, since the Hebrews believed that this nation was cursed by God for not helping them when they wandering in the wilderness. But that’s where they went, and during their sojourn, Naomi’s husband dies and her two sons marry Moabite women.

Do you see a problem brewing? I do! And the problem is, good Hebrew men didn’t marry Moabite women! But these men did just that! And then tragedy struck again when Naomi’s sons die leaving her alone, destitute, and with two daughters-in-law to support. With no husband and no more sons to support her or give her grandchildren, Naomi cries out in despair.

Realizing she had no future in Moab, Naomi decided to go home. Knowing she couldn’t provide for Orpah and Ruth, she tells them to return to their families. Orpah tearfully obeys, but Ruth remains committed to Naomi. Although she would be an outsider in Israel, she pledges her undying loyalty and service to a woman who could give her nothing, a woman in need of her own redemption. Although Naomi tries to dissuade her, Ruth persists and declares: "where you go, I will go" And "your God will be my God." With this, Naomi and Ruth begin a journey of faith together, a journey that started with little promise, and yet it’s a journey that leads to the redemption of Naomi, Ruth, Israel, and in the end, humanity. You see, the story of Ruth is a story of conversion, covenant, and community.

Conversion

We usually think of conversion in relationship to God, but in this story conversion begins with a commitment to another human being. Ruth, the Moabite, commits herself to Naomi, the Hebrew. Her conversion to Yahweh only begins after she sees Yahweh in Naomi’s life, and in committing herself to serve Naomi, she also declares her allegiance to Naomi’s God. Now the question is: Why would a Moabite woman leave behind her own gods and embrace the God of Naomi, especially, when it seems like Naomi’s God had failed to take care of her? Despite everything Naomi had gone through, Ruth saw something worth embracing in Naomi’s life.

I think that’s the way conversion often happens. It doesn’t start with intellectual arguments, it happens when we see the grace and compassion of God in the life of another person. And when that happens, when we see the light of God present in this other person, we embrace it. That’s what evangelism is really about. It’s about sharing the life we know in Jesus Christ with a person who wants to have that relationship with God themselves.

Covenant

In her conversion to Naomi and to God, Ruth makes a covenant: "Where you go, I’ll go. Your people will be my people, Your God will be my God," In making this covenant, Ruth commits her life to the service of her mother-in-law. Now, we’ve all heard lots of mother-in-law jokes, and I suppose some mothers-in-law can be a problem, but that doesn’t seem to be true here. There’s a love here that can’t be broken, even by death, and that’s what a covenant relationship is all about.

When God made a covenant with Israel, God said, in effect, I’ll stay with you through thick or thin. And God did! When Jesus made a covenant with humanity, he said: I’ll never leave you nor forsake you. In our baptisms, we accept that covenant with God for ourselves, and in doing so we commit ourselves to serving God by loving our neighbor.

Ruth exemplifies living in a covenant relationship. Although Naomi worried about providing for Ruth, in marrying Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, Ruth redeemed Naomi, by reversing Naomi’s fortunes. Then, Ruth became an ancestor, first of David, and then of Jesus, and in doing this she reversed the fortunes of Israel and of humanity.

Community

As Christians who live in a covenant relationship with God, we commit ourselves to being part of a community that’s concerned about the welfare of others. Naomi probably told her daughters-in-law to go home, because they would be a burden to her. It’s also possible that she would be embarrassed that her sons had defied the Law and married Moabite women. Whatever Naomi’s reasons, Ruth made it clear that now she was part of Naomi’s community: "Your people are my people. Where you’re buried, I’ll be buried."

Covenant commitment is the foundation of Christian community. In the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, we see that the Christian journey of faith isn’t an individualistic trek, but instead it’s one we take together. Ruth understood this truth better than Naomi, but in the end Naomi came to see that their futures were connected. No matter what might come their way, they were in it together.

Our journey, as Christians, is much the same. The church is more than just a religious organization, it’s a community of people committed to sharing life together in the name of Jesus. Instead of being nomads our spiritual tourists, we can become pilgrims who take the journey of faith in the company of others.* Traveling alone might seem quicker and even easier, but Ruth understood that the easy way might not always be the best way. In the end, both Ruth and Naomi found blessing in each other’s company. Ruth would gain a husband and a child, while Naomi got the child she wanted to carry on the family name. And then there are Ruth’s descendants, David and Jesus, who would in their own ways reverse the fortunes first of Israel and then humanity.

With Ruth I invite you to make your covenant with God and with God’s people. No matter where we go, no matter what happens to us, in Jesus, we’re linked together. With Ruth as our guide, we hear the call to commit ourselves to serving one another. As Jesus himself said, the reign of God is based on two commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. As we sing our hymn of invitation, "I Am Thine O Lord," let us say to each other: Where you go, I will go. Your God will be my God!

*I take this image from the title of the book – From Nomads to Pilgrims, edited by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking (Alban Institute, 2006).

Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
November 5, 2006