Sermon for Pentecost 18 Narrative

Genesis 39:1-23

Today we move from God’s call to Abram and Sarai down through several generations to a story of one of Abraham’s great-grandsons, Joseph. A LOT has happened in between these two stories, so I’m going to try and hit the high points for you, and not get bogged down in too many details. After a long time and a couple of trips down to Egypt when there were famines in the land of Canaan, as well as Abraham having a son named Ishmael with Sarah’s slave, Hagar, Abraham and Sarah finally have a son named Isaac when Abraham is 100 years old and Sarah is 90. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to him and, at the last minute, spares Isaac’s life and has Abraham sacrifice a ram instead. Sarah dies, and Abraham sends his servant back to his home country to find a wife for Isaac. The servant comes back with a woman named Rebekah, who marries Isaac. Abraham dies, and after this, Rebekah has twin sons, named Esau and Jacob. Jacob, the younger of the two, tricks his older brother Esau into giving him his birthright, and then tricks their father Isaac into giving him the blessing instead of Esau. Esau starts making death threats against Jacob, and Jacob hightails it back to the home country, where he meets his mother’s family, Laban and Laban’s daughters, Rachel and Leah. Jacob falls in love with Rachel, but Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah first, since she is the older daughter, and then Jacob gets to marry Rachel. Over the years, Jacob has twelve sons and one daughter with Leah, Rachel, and two concubines. Eventually Jacob returns home with his large family, and he is reconciled with his brother Esau.

And now the story narrows in on Joseph. Joseph is the favorite son because his mother was Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Jacob gives Joseph a multi-colored coat, and Joseph starts telling his brothers about dreams that he’s had where he is ruling over them. One day, the brothers have had enough of their snobby little brother who’s too big for his britches. They sell Joseph to a caravan of slave traders who are heading down to Egypt, and then they trick their father Jacob into believing that Joseph has been killed by wild animals. In the meantime, the caravan of slave traders has reached Egypt and has sold Joseph to Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, Potiphar. This is where today’s story begins.

There are a number of reasons why the story that we have heard today is very troubling in our 21st century North American context, but perhaps the primary reason is that it involves a story of sexual harassment and a false accusation of attempted rape. It sounds familiar to our ears today, except for one thing: the person who is in power and who is doing the harassing and the false accusation is a woman, and the person who is the victim is a man. In our society, it tends to be the other way around. Now, let’s add another thought to this: the person who wrote this story down was most likely a man living in a patriarchal society who perhaps wanted to make Joseph look good, since he was the hero of the story. Could there have possibly been some truth to the accusation of attempted rape that Potiphar’s wife makes against Joseph? And could the author have rewritten the story to cover up what really happened and make Joseph into the victim rather than the perpetrator?

Well, those questions on authorship are probably best left to the scholars writing Ph.D. dissertations. I will say that it is okay to regard today’s story with a bit of suspicion, but for lack of proof, we will need to take the story of Joseph’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife at face value and wrestle with it for a blessing, to use a metaphor from one of the stories about Joseph’s father, Jacob. And the first thing I want for us to notice about the story is the power differential. Joseph rose up through the ranks of Potiphar’s slaves relatively quickly until he was the overseer, because, according to the story, God was with him and caused all of his work to prosper. But, even though Joseph was the overseer, he was still a slave. When Potiphar’s wife approached Joseph and commanded him to lie with her, Joseph had a choice: He could say yes and perhaps gain more favor from his master’s wife. But then he would risk Potiphar finding out and probably killing him. Or, Joseph could say no, risking the woman’s anger but preserving his integrity and his life. This is the textbook definition of a no-win scenario. Faced with this no-win situation, Joseph chose to keep his integrity and risk the anger of Potiphar’s wife, and he said no. From then on, he did his utmost to avoid her, but that was going to be hard when he was performing his duties as the overseer. And then, one day, she caught him alone, and the rest was history. This time her proposition must have involved actual touching, for he left his garment in her hands and fled. Now she has the evidence to frame Joseph for attempted rape and get her revenge on him for refusing her.

In this case and in all cases, sexual harassment is not about genuine love or even desire for another person. Rather, it is about one person who is in power over another seeking to exercise that power in unholy ways. And, even though in today’s society, most cases of sexual harassment happen with a man who is in power over a woman, there are some cases, as demonstrated in this story, where it happens with a woman who is in power over a man. And this misuse of power demonstrates itself by the person who has power seeking to use that power in the most sacred space: power over another person’s body, so that the person who is harassed will feel as if they don’t have the freedom to say no and as if they don’t have power over their own lives. This is what sinfulness looks like.

Looking at the general age of people in this congregation, you might think that this is not relevant to you. You might be tired of hearing everything in the news about #MeToo, about the sexual abuse scandal among priests in the Roman Catholic Church, and about the current nominee to the Supreme Court. I admit that I am a bit weary of it all, myself. But even if something like this has never happened to you, I guarantee that it has happened to someone you know. And I’ll briefly tell my story right now. I was the recipient of unwelcome touch by a man in a congregation that I served many years ago. I went to the pastor, trusting that he might speak to this man and tell him that he needed to stop. I found out that mine was not the first report by a woman about unwelcome touch from this man. But the pastor did not do anything about it. So, then I spent Sunday mornings trying to avoid this man, who was actually a prominent member of the congregation. I felt as though he was more important to the pastor than I was. And I did feel like my personal, sacred space, had been violated. And so, I will tell you now, that if any of you comes to me with a report of someone violating your boundaries, I will believe you. I will listen to you, and we will confront the situation. God has created each one of us as beautiful human beings in God’s sight, and in God’s church, we will respect one another. We will not abuse our power, perceived or real.

In our story today, when Potiphar’s wife makes her accusation against Joseph and tells Potiphar about what happened, Potiphar throws Joseph into jail. Yes, this is unfair, but again, there is a power differential going on here: Joseph was a slave, and even if Potiphar might have suspected that his wife was making this story up, he needed to make sure that Joseph knew his place: Joseph was still a slave. And as we look at Joseph’s life up to this point, we see him going from beloved son to nameless slave, then rising to overseer and going once more to nameless slave, this time in prison. We might think that Joseph just can’t win—except for this one line that the text gives us: But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love. The LORD loves Joseph and stays with him and loves him no matter what.

And that is the good news for us today as well. The Lord is with us in every situation in life and loves us no matter what. If you have ever been sexually assaulted, no matter when it happened in your life, God is with you; God mourns for you and with you, and God loves you. And as God’s beloved community, we are called to love, support, and advocate for those beloved children of God who have been sexually abused and assaulted. We are called to say to these beloved children of God that we believe them—no matter what their gender or sexual orientation is—and to say that we mourn with them, that God loves them, we love them, and we will give them whatever help we can.

At the end of today’s story about Joseph, we read that God is raising Joseph up once more, so that he gets put in charge of the care of all of the prisoners. And, we don’t get the rest of Joseph’s story, but Joseph will eventually get out of prison and be raised up to be Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and Joseph is able to preserve the people—including his family, who comes down to Egypt—during a famine. While God does not cause bad things to happen, God is able to bring good things out of bad. God is able to bring good things out of something even as bad as sexual assault. It may take a long time—and for many survivors, it takes a very long time to heal. God is calling us to be part of that healing process by surrounding survivors with hope, love, and advocacy, and thus participating in the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. So let us help bring that healing, love, and hope to this hurting world around us. Amen.

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Sermon for Pentecost 17 Narrative

Note: I have two small churches in two slightly different contexts. This week’s sermon had the same beginning and ending for both, with the middle section differing. I’m placing them both here so that you, gentle reader, may see how the same Biblical text could address each context.

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

Genesis 12:1-9

Today we move from the story of Noah to the call of Abram. And, there isn’t a whole lot to fill you in on with the chapters that we’ve skipped over. After God makes a covenant with Noah and all the creatures of the earth not to destroy the world again with a flood, we have a strange little story of Noah getting drunk and how his sons treated him when he was drunk. I don’t know quite what to do with that story, other than to say if I had been through what Noah had, I would probably want to get drunk myself. So, we’re just going to leave that there for another time. Then we have one of those genealogies that we don’t know quite what to do with, other than to say Noah’s sons had sons, and the world was populated once more. Then we have a story of how all the human beings used to speak one language, and how one day they all got together and decided to build a tower reaching to the heavens in order to make a name for themselves. God decides to drop by, sees what they’re doing, and confuses their speech, so that work on the tower is stopped and everyone now speaks different languages. We then get another genealogy, this one narrowing in on the descendants of one of Noah’s sons, Shem, and ending with Abram, who is one of the main characters in our story today. And I want us to take particular note of Genesis 11:30, which is not in today’s reading: “Now Sarai (that’s Abram’s wife) was barren; she had no child.” And after that, we get introduced to the man named Abram.

There is no particular reason that God chose Abram. Out of the blue, we see God speaking and commanding Abram to leave his father’s house and go to the land that God will show him. And God makes three promises to Abram: First, that Abram will become a great nation. Second, that God will bless Abram so that he will be a blessing. And third, that Abram’s offspring will inherit the land. Now, I find a few things about these promises very interesting. First, we just heard in chapter 11 that Sarai, Abram’s wife, was barren, and Abram himself was 75 years old at this time. So how on earth is God going to give Abram offspring and make of Abram a great nation? Second, God never promises that Abram himself will own the land that God is sending him to, and indeed, at the end of Abram’s story, we find that he only owns the land in which his wife is buried. And finally, and most importantly, that, in spite of his age and in spite of the fact that he has no children and doesn’t seem likely to, Abram believes these promises of God, packs up his family and his belongings, and travels to Canaan. That is a tremendous amount of faith being displayed there.

And so, Abram journeys to the land of Canaan, trusting only in the word of God that he will one day have children, in spite of the odds being stacked against him. This journey that he starts out on in today’s reading, and that continues on in many stories after this, will be a journey from barrenness to fruitfulness, and it will take many unexpected turns. The blessings that God has promised to Abram will not look like what Abram thinks they will look like. Abram will give up hope of having children with his wife, Sarai, and when God comes to remind Abram and Sarai of that promise, they laugh in God’s face. Abram will have sorrow and pain in his life when he bargains with God over the lives of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah, and then looks and sees the destruction of the cities and does not know if his nephew Lot and Lot’s family have survived. He will have further pain when, because of Sarai’s jealousy, he is forced to banish Hagar his concubine and Ishmael his son. Abram and Sarai will eventually die without seeing the fulfillment of the promise God made to them to make of Abram a great nation. But, they will also know God’s blessing in the birth of Isaac to them in their old age, and they journey through their life together sometimes believing, sometimes not, but somehow trusting and hoping beyond hope that God will fulfill these promises that God has made to them, and that their descendants after them will be blessed so that they may be a blessing to all of the families of the earth.

As spiritual descendants of Abraham, we too are on a journey from barrenness to fruitfulness. And like Abraham, our journey will take many twists and turns, and the blessings will be found in unexpected places. Our congregations of Salem and St. John’s are small, and in many ways, they may seem barren, especially as we see our membership and our attendance on Sunday mornings get smaller. The blessings, when they come, don’t look like what we think they will look like. But God is faithful to God’s promises, and God has promised us, as those spiritual descendants of Abraham, that we will be a blessing to all of the people around us.

 

Salem

For those of you who haven’t heard from the members of the council who gathered here on Monday night, I have asked our leaders to consider either closing this congregation, or possibly merging with another congregation in the area. I want you to know that I have not come to ask this of you lightly, and that it has nothing to do with our finances, which are still stable. This has come over the last year and a half that I have been with you, watching the congregation slowly fade and lose energy for its mission. I have seen you all exert tremendous amounts of energy for the fundraisers that you traditionally do, and I have heard you worry about not being able to get as many people to help out as you have in the past. I have struggled to find new ways of doing mission in this community and have even brought in folks from the Synod to try and help figure things out, and we are all at a loss. My heart aches for all of you, because I know that you have gifts to share for ministry, and I would love to see you use them in places and in ways that would yield more fruit.

I did not ask on Monday night, and I am not asking you today, for any kind of decision or vote. I am simply asking all of you to be in prayer and discernment about the future of Salem over the next few months. I am here to listen to you and answer any questions that I can answer, but please know that maybe right after worship is not the best time, as I have to get down to St. John’s. My phone number is in the bulletin; please call me and set up a time to meet with me. I believe that, just as Abraham was on a journey from barrenness to fruitfulness, so too, are we on that same journey. God has fruitfulness in store for all of us here at Salem. But also, just as the blessings for Abraham did not appear as he thought they would, those blessings and that promised fruitfulness may not look like what we think it will look like. God may be calling us on a journey to a new and strange country, and a journey that we ourselves will not see the end of.

 

St. John’s

And I see this blessing that God has given St. John’s played out in so many ways. If I may be so bold as to say this, I think that we have taken the promise made to Abraham seriously, and we know that we have been blessed so that we can be a blessing to others. Richard Jorgensen, the Synod’s Director for Evangelical Mission, likes to ask congregations this question: If we had to close tomorrow, who in the community would miss us? Well, here are a few groups that I thought of:

First, Safani, the daycare that our building hosts. Without us, they would have to look for another space. Next, everyone who comes to our monthly community breakfast. Some months we don’t serve as many people as others. But for everyone who comes, we have given them at least one free meal for that day, which may ease some budget woes for that person. And, I’m beginning to see a core group of “regulars” who come each month—even though they don’t make the transition over here to worship on a Sunday morning, they are forming a community that is beginning to know one another. With the monthly community dinners starting this month, perhaps that community can become even stronger. Another group who would miss us is the people who come looking for financial assistance to help with a utility bill, or groceries, or some other need. As the pastor who gets to help the people with the donations that you all place in the jar at the back, words just don’t do justice to the sense of gratitude and relief that I see on people’s faces when they know that they have money to pay whatever bill is hanging over their heads or to get food to feed their family. Yet another group who would miss us is Family Promise. Without the use of our building and without our support, Family Promise would lose a key spoke in their wheel that might not be easily replaced. These are just a few examples, but I want us all to take note of them when we start to get discouraged about our small numbers. Just as God did great things with Abram and Sarai, who by all worldly accounts were barren and dried up, God has done and will continue to do great things through us, even though the world may count us as dried up and barren.

 

Both

We are the spiritual descendants of Abram and Sarai. We, too, are called to have great faith in God and to believe in those promises, even when it seems like all hope is lost. And, we are called to that journey which may surprise us when blessings pop up in unexpected ways, which may cause us sorrow and pain when life doesn’t go as expected, which will almost certainly bring great moments of unexpected joy and wonderment, and which we may not see the end of. But, like Abram and Sarai, we know that God’s promises are true, and that we are blessed to be a blessing. And we also know that, when our faith falters, we are not alone—God is with us, and the community of believers around us will carry us along. So, let us have no fear. Let us continue on this journey in faith, remembering the example of Abram and Sarai, and trusting that God is with us and loves us—no matter what. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 16 Narrative

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Year 1

Pentecost 16

Genesis 6:5-22; 8:6-12; 9:8-17

Today we begin a new cycle of readings in the narrative lectionary. Again, the idea is that our readings will take us roughly in the order that the Bible goes, just as we did last year, from Old Testament through New Testament, with the summer being short sermon series on different books of the Bible or topics that have relevance to our life in the church. And this year, our cycle of readings begins with the story of Noah. So, briefly, I would like to summarize what has happened before this in the book of Genesis. In chapter 1 through the beginning of chapter 2, we hear how God created the earth in six days, and how on the seventh day, God rested, thus making holy the seventh day. In chapter 2, we get a different story of how God created the earth; this one starting with God creating man, then planting a garden in Eden, and then, seeing that the man was lonely, bringing each living creature to Adam to name. And when none was found to be a fit companion for Adam, God put him to sleep and created a woman from Adam’s rib. In chapter 3, we hear the story of how the serpent tempts the woman to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and how she gives the fruit to Adam, who eats, and how God pronounces a curse upon them and drives them out of the garden. But, in the midst of that, God still cares for them and provides them with clothing. In chapter 4, Eve gives birth to Cain and Abel, and Cain murders his brother Abel. Chapter 5 traces the family line from Adam to Noah.

And so, we arrive at today’s story of Noah. What Genesis has done for us so far is to show us that God created the earth and everything in it, but the creation went astray from God’s plans for it. And so we get this ominous opening line, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”

With such an opening as that, and with the story following, I often wonder why we have made this story one that we always teach the children in Sunday school; why we decorate children’s Sunday school rooms with the animals heading up into the ark two by two; why we focus on all the cute animals and write poems about how the unicorns didn’t believe the news, didn’t get on the ark, and were drowned in the flood. (You can read that poem in Shel Silverstein’s collection of poems entitled, “Where the Sidewalk Ends”.) We focus on Noah and his family floating along with all of these animals, and we don’t think about the death and destruction that God caused with the flood. I read a story this week about how, in a children’s sermon, the pastor asked the kids to imagine what it must have been like to be on the ark during the flood, and one of the kids said, “I hear the people in the water outside the ark screaming for help.” That certainly doesn’t fit the cheerful, cute picture we have in our minds of the Noah’s ark story.

So, I think we need to talk about this death and destruction for a moment, because, just as we can’t have the resurrection of Jesus without first going with him to the cross, we can’t get to the rainbow in the sky without first going through the flood waters. In 6:11-13, the Hebrew word that gets translated as “corrupt” appears several times—first in connection with how humans have corrupted the earth, and second in connection with the destruction that the flood waters are going to bring to the earth. The use of this word throughout these sentences implies that, even though God is the one who brings on the flood waters, the flood is also a direct consequence of the corrupt behavior of humans. I want for us to keep this idea in mind as we move forward through this story.

So, that’s the bad news. What’s the good news? God is not ready to give up completely on the creation. He sees that Noah and his family are righteous, and so he chooses them and commands them to build an ark. And in this ark, God preserves Noah’s life; seeing them safely through the flood waters. This image of preservation in the face of destruction is so profound that we use it in our liturgy for the sacrament of baptism: Just as God preserved Noah’s life when the waters around his ark raged, we give thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit who preserves the life of the person being baptized and welcomes that person into the life of the community of God’s church. And the further good news is this: after the flood waters have subsided, God makes a covenant with Noah and with all of God’s creation that never again will God destroy the earth in a flood. God loves the creation, and God finds a way to preserve it, even in the face of the wickedness of humankind.

So, what are we to do with this story today? The first thing to remember is that our actions have consequences. God has made the creation so interconnected that everything we do has consequences for another part of the creation. Climate change is upon us, and the consequences of what we have done to the earth are starting to be felt. Because we have warmed the atmosphere with our fossil fuels, the ice caps are melting and ocean levels are rising. Miami, Florida, now floods even on sunny days, and it is having consequences for people who live in those areas as they are trying to move to higher ground. Kiribati, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, is in danger of being completely wiped off the map because of the sea level rise. Venice, Italy, also deals with flooding in their city. And polar bears are in danger of becoming extinct because of the ice melting, causing them to become cut off from the areas they need to be in order to get food. God may have promised never to flood the earth again, but God never said anything about human beings never causing floods to happen. We are suffering the consequences of our lack of good stewardship of this earth.

The second thing to remember is something from our stewardship series: nothing that we see around us really belongs to us; we are merely the caretakers, or the stewards, of God’s creation. And as good stewards, there are things we can do to reduce our impact on the creation around us. The mantra that you may have heard before is this: reduce, reuse, recycle. First, reducing: as one example, it is hard to avoid plastic. I know, because I have tried. But here is one thing you can perhaps start with: stop using straws. I know there’s been a lot of media attention lately on California banning the use of plastic straws. There’s a reason for that decision. Straws are not able to be recycled, and they end up in our oceans where marine life swallow them and choke on them. When you go out to eat at a restaurant, don’t use the straws that the waiter brings you. Or, if you really need to use a straw, and this brings us into the reuse part of the mantra, they are making reusable metal ones. You can get them for $10 on Amazon and then get in the habit of bringing them with you to restaurants. This is one small thing we can do to help be better stewards of the environment. And, finally, wherever possible, recycle as much as possible.

But the third and most important thing to remember is that God loves the creation. In the Noah story, God makes the covenant not to flood the earth again not just with Noah and his family, but also with every living creature that was with Noah, “the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth.” God loves the creation and everything in it, from the praying mantis that I found on my door the other day, to the polar bear looking for food in the Arctic, to the wolf howling in the West, to the wild turkeys that show up in my neighborhood from time to time, and even to those insects like roaches that we find detestable. God loves every bit of it, including you and me. And even in the face of changes in the environment that we are seeing now, I believe that God will find a way to preserve the creation and that God will be with us through it all. So, let us have no fear, but rather, boldly make those changes in our lifestyles that we need to make in order to be better stewards of the creation that God has loaned to us. Trusting in God’s love for us and for all creation, we know that God is with us always. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 15 Narrative

Note: There are times in the life of the church where words that apply to one congregation do not fit so easily for others. The bulk of this sermon was the same for both Salem and St. John’s, but there were some particular issues that I needed to speak to Salem about on Sunday that related to hoarding. Thus, I decided to only include the St. John’s version on my blog. 

Luke 12:13-34

Last week, when we talked about Jesus telling the rich man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, I told you about all the books I had, how each one was important to me, and how I would have a hard time giving them all up. Today, as we hear the parable of the man who decided to build bigger barns to keep all of his grain in, I have another confession to make: I hoard books. Along with all of the books that I have read, I have a large pile of books that I have not yet read. And, courtesy of my brother, I have an Amazon Kindle. And on that Kindle are even more books that I have not yet read. The Japanese have a name for this condition that I have: tsundoku. It means letting books pile up in your home without actually reading them. Believe me, I do have every intention of reading these books that I have acquired. It’s just that I get busy and don’t get around to it. And what’s even worse is this: even though I have this pile of books that I haven’t read yet, I still go into bookstores and buy more books to add to that pile, and I still download books on my Amazon Kindle to read. And my dream is to have a room big enough to house all these books and to have loads of bookshelves to put them on, where I can go in and not have a cell phone, not have a TV, not have a computer, just the books and the Kindle, and read for days on end. You know, I don’t need a big fancy Japanese word to describe this. Let’s just call it what it is: I hoard books. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all hoard something. Here in America, hoarding is such a problem that in some cases it has become a legitimate mental disorder, with people not being able to throw anything out. There have even been reality TV shows done on hoarding. So, what is at the root of this hoarding behavior? Why do we hoard? The answer is fear: fear of not having enough.

Our Gospel story today shines a light on this behavior. And it starts out with a problem that some families today still have: that of dividing an inheritance. There’s something both comforting and frightening to know that fights about property left to you by your parents when they die have been going on since at least the 1st century! I imagine Jesus’ response as being very irritable when he asks the person who made him judge and arbitrator. But he uses this as a teaching opportunity, and tells a story about a man who had an abundant harvest. I’d like to look at this story a little bit more closely so that we can try to understand what Jesus might be saying to us.

The land of a rich man produced abundantly, Jesus tells us. And the rich man realizes that he does not have enough room for all of his crops in the barns that he currently has, so he decides to tear his barns down and build bigger ones, and then he can rest and take it easy. There are a couple of warning signs about this man in just these opening lines. First, there is no climate control in these barns and no way of keeping critters out. And so we wonder if the man is really going to be able to eat his way through all these stores by himself before the critters and the mold get to them. This leads us into the second question: the man seems to be by himself, without even family to share his abundant harvest with. He may be rich in stuff, but he seems to have gotten all that stuff at the expense of relationships with other people. This man puts me in mind of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: rich in material wealth and poor in relationships with other people. The third thing that we should note that is wrong with this man is this: he may have an abundant harvest this year, but that doesn’t mean he will have abundant harvests in future years. What would happen if he had poor harvests in the future and then had too much space to store it in? In just these few lines, we can see that the man seems to be thinking only of the present moment, not the future, and he’s thinking only of his self-interest.

And then, Jesus tells us, after this rich man decided to build bigger barns for his grain and store it all up, using it all for himself, God tells him that on that very night, his number is up: his life is demanded from him and he can’t take all of his stuff with him. And all of that stuff that he hoarded up for himself? Whose will it be now? Again, a scene from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol comes to mind, where Scrooge is shown the future, when he is dead, when the only emotion that anyone feels is relief and hope now that he is gone, and when the servants—those poor people that he so despised—come in and divide up his belongings among themselves. Jesus ends his parable about the foolish rich man with, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”

What does it mean to be rich towards God? When we discussed this in our stewardship classes at the Synod office, the image that came to my mind in contrast to Jesus’ rich man in his parable was the image of Boaz. If you remember from the sermon series that we had on the book of Ruth, Boaz was the rich man in Ruth’s story, who, even though he was rich, instructed his reapers to leave plenty of barley for Ruth to glean and who went out of his way to be kind towards Ruth. Boaz was not afraid of not having enough for himself; instead, he shared generously of what he had with those who did not have enough, trusting that God would provide for him. He knew that God was bigger than any fear he might have felt. And fear is what lies behind hoarding. If we go back to my hoarding of books, I think that perhaps I am afraid that I won’t find that particular book at that particular price again and that I will miss out on a good story, and that fear is what leads me to pile up books and hoard them against a day when I might read them. But when we truly trust in God, we have no fear, and we can relinquish our tight grasp on the stuff that we hoard and share with others who don’t have enough.

 

 

 

I want to say that we as a congregation have made a good start on cleaning out our church building; being bold and saying that you know what, we really don’t need those 8-track tapes that have been sitting up in the church attic for years and years anymore. And I’m proud of how we cleaned out the library to make room for a TV lounge for our guests from Family Promise. I think that we can continue to take stock of the things that we have and assess whether or not we really need them for the ministry that we do in this building.

And so, I want to focus on another aspect in our life together where we might be hoarding. We’ve been talking about money for the last couple of weeks, and so I want to put this in front of us today for us to consider. Yes, it is prudent to save money. It is prudent to save for retirement, so that you have something to live on when you are no longer working, and it is prudent to put some money away for large, emergency expenses, such as car repairs. But what we need to wrestle with is that line between saving and hoarding. I’ll be honest: I don’t know where that line is. That might be something that we each, individually, have to answer for ourselves, and as a congregation, we may need to wrestle with that line as well. I think the answer to that question comes as we pray and ask God to help us figure out when it is best to save money and how best we can give to help others. It is always good to remember that we won’t always get it right, and that with God, there is mercy and forgiveness.

As we close out this short stewardship series today, I want to end with a reminder of what stewardship is. Stewardship is realizing that everything around us, everything that we say we own, actually does not belong to us. Our possessions, our money, even our skills and talents, all really belong to God. God asks that we be good stewards, or caretakers, of God’s creation and all of the material stuff within it. Material things are not bad in and of themselves. It is when these things become more important to us than our relationship with God that we have problems. So, today, I’d like for us to remember Jesus’ words at the end of the Gospel text: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” As a people who trust in God to provide for us, we should not give in to our fears of not having enough. God desires us to share what we have with one another, so everyone has enough. Now, I am the first one to admit that this is easier said than done. But God will be with us, and the Holy Spirit will remind us of Jesus’ words not to be afraid. So, let us have no fear, for God is with us. Amen.