Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
For the Greater Good? Luke 13: 10-17
"Immediately she stood up straight and began praising God." She unfurled, a flower grown in 18 years of pain, finally blooming with praise for the one who offered her release. Her life changed in the instant that he saw her. Or, maybe in changed the instant she chose to go to worship at the synagogue. It is unclear from her story if she knew that the teacher and healer would be teaching at her local synagogue that day. While many others seemed to have traveled there specifically to see him and to be healed, her motives for walking in the door that day are never described. Without any other motivation made explicit, it is simplest to assume that she was just going to worship, as was her practice most weeks, if she had the energy. Chronic pain can be exhausting. Imagine if the pain had been too bad that day. Imagine what she would have missed had she been unable to make the walk to worship.
He had been traveling and teaching. Along the way he had picked up 12 disciples, 70 disciples, and possibly thousands of other followers, people who hung on his every word, crowding around him, often making it hard to breathe. He would sometimes go away to a quiet place and pray to recharge. He would often go to Synagogue on the Sabbath, read Torah, and offer up insight with the other men. Today was another one of those days. So many people had showed up: some seeking healing, some just to listen, some to argue. He seemed to butt heads with the Pharisees a lot. They took God's law just as seriously as he did. But, man, did they disagree on how to follow it. He was in the midst of one of these disagreements when he saw the woman. She seemed at home here. It was probably where she attended each week. Neighbors greeted her with affection as she stooped through the door. She was doubled over nearly in half and shuffled stiffly to her seat. He knew that he could help her. He had to do something to help her.
The Torah had been given to God's people to help them. It was a gift... a way to help organize their whole lives in service to God and neighbor. It also helped them form a common cultural identity, something necessary when you are small country surrounded by large, warring empires. Because it was such a foundational part of the lives, and because they wanted to be attentive to what God asked of them, there was a constant conversation (and sometimes argument) about how to live out all aspects of ones lives guided by Torah. We have some record of these ancient conversations, like the snippets of arguments in Gospel of Luke and in a collection of Jewish interpretations called the Mishnah. In fact, that conversation is still going on in Jewish communities. Just in the last 100 years, observant Jewish leaders have had serious conversations about whether Jello is acceptable to eat (it was until the late 1940's... it isn't now), whether or not turning on an electric light is akin to lighting a fire (which is forbidden on the Sabbath), and whether or not Coke is acceptable to drink (it has been since 1935 when Coke changed it's recipe to get rid of a non-kosher ingredient). Conversations about Torah observance have been woven throughout Jewish life for literally thousands of years. We should not be surprised to see Jesus involved in them. He wasn't the only one trying to figure this stuff out.
The woman might have been surprised to find herself in the middle of that argument. Sabbath services in local synagogues had become the primary way that people held communal worship after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire. Though the temple had been rebuilt, the informal services of prayer, scripture-reading, commentary, and almsgiving continued to be important. As one scholar put it, there was only one temple: A synagogue could develop anywhere where there were ten adult men who wanted to make one. The same neighbors, friends, and families who lived near one another likely also worshiped together. This woman walked into synagogue that day, at the very least, prepared to be with people who had known her a long time and to worship God together. She might have expected that an argument about the Torah could happen, especially with the fiery-eyed new teacher in town. I don't think she could have imagine that her health would become the hinge on which the argument turned.
Scholars I read this week noticed something very interesting about this particular encounter. In a gospel full of people speaking to Jesus in hopes of being healed, this woman, who is described has bearing a spirit that has kept her stooped over for 18 years, does not appear to be showing up to ask for healing. She makes no move towards Jesus. She says nothing to or about him. She simply appears in the room with a body contorted in long-felt pain. Jesus notices her, not the other way around. He speaks to her. He calls her over. She doesn't have to do one thing to receive this healing except for to walk his way when he calls. He heals her. Immediately, she stands up straight and begins praising God. Her response likely makes sense to us. It is easy to imagine ourselves doing something similar if, suddenly, the thing that had warped and twisted us for decades was suddenly gone. I imagine that many of think we, too, would stand up straight and praise God. However, there is another response in this story that might make a little less sense to us, the response of the leader. Why is he so mad that Jesus did this amazing thing.
As you may know, certain behaviors are forbidden on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is intended to be a time apart, a time away from many activities of daily life, in order to reconnect with God. Sabbath resets the human-divine relationship. As such, many things considered to be "work," were not permitted to be done on the Sabbath. They could be done on any of the other six days of the week. Just not on this one day, a day set aside for spiritual recalibration. Healing wasn't just an act of mercy. It required work, both on the part of the healing and on the part of the one being healed. Most of the week was dedicated to work. The leader of the synagogue would have likely argued that the prohibitions against work on the Sabbath gave all parties some rest and reconnection time. When you have so much time for work, like, literally 85% of your time is time for work, why would you need to take away time this short time we have for the Sabbath? If this wandering teacher would have just had enough respect to wait for one day, he could have healed the woman tomorrow. But, no, he had to go against our practice and heal her today. Has he no respect for God?
The roving teacher knows Torah well, and probably expected the leader of the synagogue to he annoyed when he ignored standard healing protocol. The teacher was prepared to respond the leader's critique. He did so out of deep respect for their shared religious tradition. He pointed out that one kind of work is readily accepted on Sabbath: works of mercy. He named a work of mercy that any of these farmers and small town folks would recognize. On Sabbath days, any of them who owned an ox or a donkey would make sure that it had food or water. Any of them would have unbound an animal and let it drink and eat. Why on earth, then, would they object to unbinding this woman from the Spirit that has twisted her up for 18 years? In their quest to honor God, Jesus said that they emphasized the wrong thing. Yes, some time is set aside for work and some time for Sabbath, but as Dr. King said, "The time is always right to do right." God is always honored in acts of mercy. God is always honored in liberation. God is always honored when those who have been bound up are finally set free, even if the unbinding upsets our understanding of what right religion is.
The woman walked into the synagogue bound to her community, bound to God, and bound up by a spirit that was breaking her. She would walk out of the synagogue, upright, a visible testament to Jesus' insistence that mercy is God's primary concern and so should it be ours. I think the question with which we will walk out of here today is how are we making sure mercy is our primary concern, too? How are we making sure that the religious life we construct for ourselves and with one another leaves room for us to witness grace in unexpected places? Are we ready for Jesus to walk in and upset all the notions that we have about what it means to be faithful? Because, that's kind of what Jesus does.... surprise us with grace and mercy and ask us to go and do the same. I bet some of you have felt that. I bet some of you know what it means to stand up straight after years of being bound up. I know that you know what it means to praise God. Let's work together to make sure that more people have to opportunity to have that feeling.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
David Schnasa Jacobsen: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2956
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=4699
Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Gastropod Podcast, "Keeping Kosher: When Jewish Law Met Processed Food": https://gastropod.com/keeping-kosher/
Many thanks to Roxanne French who preached this week while Pastor Chrissy was away.
Forgiveness is not...
"How ya doin' ?" It is so wonderful to be here again at Winthrop Congregational Church. I have missed being with all of you more than you know. During this time that I have been away from you- my body has been in New Hampshire, my heart has been in Maine and my soul has been in the Desert.
When I say "The Desert" , I am referring to the place that we go all go when we are struggling with our spiritual life or life in general. The inner landscape that we may retreat to when we wonder if God has abandoned us or let us down- usually because life has been more bitter than sweet. We may go to the desert when we need to adjust to some big transition or loss, usually not of our own choosing. Often we go to this fierce landscape, accompanied by grief, anger or even hatred.
Now, you might of been in the Desert as well during the last few months, but you and I did not meet as we each sought answers in our respective solitude. The Desert is a lonely, desolate place where we consider our own pain and God's place in our lives- yet there are gifts in that Desert. If we seek the companionship of Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit, we learn ways of coping with life.
A few years ago, when I was ready to leave the Desert, I had a meditation where I saw Jesus. I knelt to my knees at His beautiful, strong feet. I said to Him, "I am so tired of being alone." Jesus replied to me, "We all go it alone." The Master placed His hands on my head and I knew healing and peace.
` We sometimes feel lost as did God's People did in the 40 years between their captivity and arrival at the Promised Land. God was the constant companion to the Israelites in the Desert, even as they were facing deprivation and testing. God provided sustenance in the form of manna and water. A column of smoke during the day and a column of light at night. Yet the Israelites grumbled and wished for more. We might empathize with the People because all have our own moments of ingratitude when we are tempted to seek more or to worship "golden calves". We seek these things to mask the pain or fill the empty void- usually without much success.
As Christians, we are the spiritual descendants of the ancient Hebrews. We recall that Jesus of Nazareth underwent His own testing in the Desert for forty days and forty nights. Temptation came in the form of Satan, who appealed to Jesus' hunger and feeling of powerlessness. Through all of it, Jesus remained obedient saying “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Jesus proved his mettle and began his active ministry soon after this. I believe that Jesus the Man needed this test. God the Father already knew the strength of the Son.
So it was that I arrived in New Hampshire, only to face once again, old problems and troublesome people that I had thought that I had left behind. So much for the "geographical cure". Wherever you are, you are there ? I had to make peace once again with New Hampshire life, to forgive anew, and redefine what a life of service would look like in this place.
I do not know how you would go about sorting all of this out. What I did was throw myself an extended "pity party". No one was invited, but cake and light refreshment (and a very few adult beverages) was available. The ascetism of the saints is not for me. No fasting, no sackcloth and ashes. What I did was pray and complain (or kvetch) to God. The Hebrews kvetched plenty- read Lamentations and the Psalms of lamentation if you doubt this. Not every prayer is one of gratitude and praise.
In this tradition, I invited God into my innermost thoughts- even the ugly ones of bitterness, hatred, and anger. The process seemed to take too long according to my timeline, but I was working on God's time.
After much contemplation, I finally came to the conclusion that I must forgive, even in the absence of earthly justice. The self-torture of re-living past traumas and injustices just took too much energy. The justice is for God (not me) to mete out in ways that I will likely never see play out. It was time for me to trust again in life and find peace.
The forgiveness did not happen all at once. At times, I nurtured a resentment until I was exhausted enough to let it go. In other cases, I just gave an eviction notice to people who lived in my head. (They did not seem to notice.) In a very few instances, I realized that I was not strong enough to forgive- so I left these for later. I expected that God may work within until I realize that the old feelings are gone. I bound my wounds, rather than pick at my scabs.
Finally, it occurred to me that if people had caused me pain, then I was guilty of inflicting harm on others. Would I self-flagelate or seek God's grace ? If all of these folks have received forgiveness, am I not also worthy ? The most important gift of the Desert is that I have forgiven myself ! Self-acceptance and self-empathy are beautiful gifts.
In retrospect, as painful as this time was- I would only do one thing differently. I would be less ashamed of my struggle- and I would ask other believers to pray for me. It is easier to battle the darkness if we have spiritual support. After all, isn't that one of the many reasons that we are gathered here this morning ?
Sermon for August 14th, 2016: Hard Words, Preached by church member, Margaret Imber
Preached by Margaret Imber
Our readings are short, today, but hard, in two senses of the word. First, they are hard to understand - “an assembly of the Gods?” Is this Olympus. Is the god of the Hebrew bible simply a bigger and better Zeus? Was Asaph, the psalmist to whom this hymn is attributed a polytheist? Who was this Asaph? He is credit with the authorship of 12 psalms in the Hebrew Bible. The name Asaph is associated with a guild of temple musicians in ancient Jerusalem, and this psalm is one of 12 attributed to him. Ancient biographical tradition identifies Asaph as an assistant to the very first temple singer appointed by King David. Asaph is credited in the second book of Chronicles as performing at the dedication of the temple of King Solomon. This is an honored and ancient name in the Hebrew tradition. Calling him a polytheist is like calling Donald Rumsfeld a communist. No Way. No Way.
If Asaph isn’t a polytheist then the opening verse is dramatic. He is setting a scene for his audience to imagine:
"God presides in the great assembly;
he renders judgment among the “gods”:
We are at a play. God is the President. The gods of the pagans are seated before God to hear God's judgment. God phrases God's judgment of these gods as a rhetorical question.
“How long will you[a] defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked?[b]
The question serves two purposes. First of all anyone who asks a rhetorical question already knows what the answer is. My mother’s refrain every Saturday morning was, “Peggy, are you ever going to make your bed.” I leave to your imagination the answer she anticipated. Similarly, when God, in this psalm of Asaph, asks, “How long,” you can be sure the answer is, “for ever.”
Next, Asaph imagines God’s exasperation. There is an implied, “This is not rocket science, people,” in his words to the pagan gods.
Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
What a ruler needs to do is pretty clear in the Hebrew Bible. Defend and champion the poor and oppressed. Protect them from the wicked. Note, we could say that this standard is one every individual should aspire too. But it is clear from many other readings in the Bible, that leaders, especially, are held to this standard. It is not simply a standard applied to an individual’s ethical behavior, but to the way a king and his advisors rule a community. It was not uncommon at all for writers in ancient times to suggest that the gods themselves ordained the standards by which kings were judged.
Asaph’s genius here was to blur the boundary between pagan gods and mortal kings. First, the Hebrew God, finally pronounces his judgment on the pagan gods.
“The ‘gods’ know nothing, they understand nothing.
They walk about in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
We hear the scorn of the monotheist for the polytheist here. You have Olympus and its myriad foolish gods, who understand nothing. We Hebrews have Yahweh, who understands all. But now Asaph turns his point against mortal kings:
“I said, ‘You are “gods”;
you are all sons of the Most High.’
But you will die like mere mortals;
you will fall like every other ruler.”
The little scene he set is like one of those great 19th century historical paintings based on ancient texts. At first, you think the painter is depicting Cicero or Demosthenes or Herod, but when you stop and think about it, the lesson of the story the painter shows seems to apply to King George or King Louis equally well. Like these painters, Asaph has taken the standard of governance that Yahweh announced for the pagan gods and used it to suggest that ancient kings who protected the unjust and favored the wicked, who oppressed the weak and the poor, would fall and be forgotten, just like all those ancient Semitic gods the Hebrews had long since abandoned for Yahweh alone.
Asaph concludes his psalm with some very hard words for mortal kings and princes:
Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
for all the nations are your inheritance.
Judge these kings and princes, Asaph prays by the standards you set for gods. And condemn those kings and princes to the same oblivion that condemned all those pagan gods to. Any sensible king, hearing these words, would perhaps shiver a bit. If he had any notion of self-preservation, he might summon his councillors and demand, “What are we doing to the wicked and unjust? What are we doing for the weak and the oppressed.”
We know the way of the world. The councillors would probably say, “um, sir - the unjust and wicked are our friends - we don’t do things to them, we do things for them. If we stopped protecting them, they’d turn on us and you wouldn’t be king for very long.” These would be hard words for the king to hear - as hard as Asaph’s words. For if he does not listen to his councillors, he risks immediate political destruction. But if he does listen to his councillors, Asaph tells him, God will condemn him to eternal oblivion. A just king, a king who would listen to Asaph, must, finally be hard in the way our hymn describes - he must have a faith as hard as oak. He must choose now, when it is costly, to strive for the standard God has set for eternity.
Finally, there is another way in which these words are hard to understand. Why bother to hear them at all? We don’t live in a land of kings and princes - who would Asaph be addressing were he to sing this Psalm to us, today, in our own church? The President, Congress? The Governor, the state legislature? Are they here? If Asaph were singing here today, would he sing in vain? His injunction to defend and champion the poor and oppressed and to protect them from the wicked, what do they have to do with us? We are not kings or princes. And this is a democracy and few of us will hold important offices of state in our lives.
Can we let our minds wander when Asaph sings to us, or should we ask perhaps in our day and our time, God will hold an assembly pagan gods, but of ordinary citizens. Imagine a modern Asaph describing the scene. Perhaps he would say something like this.
“Democracy means the power of the people. If you truly believe you live in a democratic society, then you must believe that each of you wields the power once reserved for might princes and potentates. What have you done with that power?” Imagine God presiding in the assembly and turning to you to ask, do you, Mr or Ms. democratic citizen demand that your politicians, your servants, prosecute the unjust and ban the wicked? Do the politicians whom you vote for, and phone bank for and write letters to the editors for - do you demand that they pass laws and take executive actions to defend and champion the poor and oppressed and to protect them from the wicked.”
These would be hard words indeed for each of us to hear. What would say in our defense. “Hey, God, chill out. I vote most of the time.” I’m not sure that this is enough. If you are facing an eternity of oblivion, I’m not sure, “I vote most of the time,” would be the only piece of evidence I would want to offer in my defense.
If Asaph were here today, would he demand the same of us that he demanded of the kings of Israel. Would he say to us, “your councillors will tell you, Mr. or Ms. Democratic Citizen, your life is better when taxes are lower. And your blood pressure is lower when you turn off the news. Or you only listen to the stations, and read the papers, and follow the blogs of those with whom you already agree. And Thanksgiving dinner and family weddings will certainly be much more enjoyable if we only pretend we didn’t hear some of the things our neighbors and cousins say. You would need a faith like an oaken staff to take these challenges on. You’re life will be so much more enjoyable if you give up the labors of self-governance that a democracy demands of you. So much easier now. But if you think that the words of Yahweh to the pagan Semitic gods, and the words of the God of the Hebrew Bible to the kings of Israel have any meaning today - then, you must wonder what God’s judgment on you will be, when summons the assembly of citizens.
If we find the words of the Psalm to be hard words, then we should turn to Isaiah with no little trepidation. For Isaiah was a prophet of hard words. Hard to understand, hard to live up to, and demanding a faith of good, hard oak. Perhaps the reason for this is that Isaiah lived in what could only be considered very hard times indeed. Israel and Judah were minor players in a might clash of empires between the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The lands were the Hebrews dwelt were subject to invasion by the Assyrians. Even the city of Jerusalem was threatened. The kings and potentates of this part of the world fought with and against each other - in alliance and in betrayal of those alliances - constantly. Isaiah urged the king of Judah to resist the Assyrians and to be the kind of ruler God wanted him to be. He describes the God of the Hebrew Bible as a God of wrath and vengeance. Hard times, perhaps, call for hard measures.
Isaiah, like Asaph, engages us with a dramatic scene and an extended metaphor:
I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
The one that Isaiah loves is God. The vineyard is the world God has given his people. He endowed the vineyard, our world, with everything we could possibly need. The soil is fertile, the planting stock is the best, a watchtower protects the vineyard from any who might attack it. Think of the world we have been given - not simply collectively - the planet - but also the individual worlds we each inhabit. Our planet has an amazingly hospitable atmosphere. The continents are laced with precious metals, the oceans team with fish, the fields are so fertile they can feed a population that is numbered in the billions. Our lives too, are rich. I know none of us feel like the 1%, but if we think of all the billions of people in the world, almost all of us, everyone in this church today, actually are among the wealthiest people in the world. Two thirds of the population of the world hold personal assets worth less than 10,000 dollars. If you own a house or a car, by the stands of the world, you are rich. This is the world God has given us. This is the vineyard that Isaiah describes.
Well, what happens in that vineyard? Remember, Isaiah lived in a time of political upheaval comparable to World War II. From Isaiah’s perspective, God’s people made a mess of the vineyard. When God looked for a crop of good grapes, he found only bad fruit. Bad fruit was how the people of Isaiah’s time described weeds that would invade a field and because they looked like the crop planted would be difficult to remove. Wild grape vines opportunistically infest planted vineyards, and if they are not controlled, they will choke the planted stock and offer up only fruit that is small and sour.
Isaiah then imagines God turning to the people of Israel and Judah and asking them to judge. Who is responsible for the mess the vineyard has become? Could God have done anything more? Remember what I said about rhetorical questions. Isaiah’s asking one here. No, God could have done nothing more. Now comes Isaiah’s hard words. God tells us his judgment for the vineyard:
Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”
Isaiah is not one of those writers who hides the ball. He wants to be sure you understand his message, that you get his metaphor. So Isaiah lays out exactly what he means by the vineyard metaphor:
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Isaiah’s God judges in much the way the God of Asaph judges. He tells us clearly what the standard is and what we’re doing wrong:
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
For Isaiah, God looked at the world he gave Israel and Judah and he saw a mess. A world of warring empires and political betrayal. Kings who did not defend and champion the poor and oppressed.; who did not protect the weak from the wicked. Isaiah warned the Hebrews that God would judge them harshly - lay waste to the vineyard much like Asaph’s God had sent the pagan god’s and unworthy kings of Israel to oblivion.
But what does Isaiah have to do with us? What would Isaiah imagine God saying were Isaiah to sing to us today in this church in Winthrop, Maine. Perhaps he would look at our constant wars, perhaps he would consider the care we have taken of the vineyard. We do not live in a time of global imperial war. We do live in a time of global warming. Perhaps Isaiah would not have to sing on such a grand scale. He imagines God looking for justice and righteousness. God can look for justice and righteousness in Winthrop, or the state of Maine, or the United States. Will he find justice here, in our town, or neighborhood, or block, or within our own home? Will he find righteousness or will he find citizens and neighbors and families where the unjust are defended and the wicked are favored.
Who will be at fault when God comes to judge what we have done with the vineyard he has given us? God? He gave us the choicest vines to plant. What is our harvest? Fine wine or bitter fruit? These are rhetorical questions. We know the answer.
Now, for all the wrath of God that Isaiah describes, he is not a gloom and doom man. For Isaiah, the vineyard does not have to be destroyed. We can fix it. We can weed and fertilize and water and bring the garden back. Isaiah’s song suggests a possible outcome, not a necessary one. Unlike Asaph, Isaiah does not address kings and princes, and leave it for modern citizens to figure out how his words apply to them, what sense we are to make of his metaphor in Winthrop, Maine. Isaiah describes God speaking directly to the people of Israel and Judah. The God Isaiah describes, similarly, speaks directly to us. “Defend and champion the poor and oppressed. Protect the weak from the wicked.” Do we? This is a hard question. We each should give it some thought.
Isaiah’s God, like Asaph’s will judge and his judgment will be harsh. But Isaiah promises us that we can do the work to make the vineyard yield a bountiful harvest. Will we?
Sermon for July 31, 2016- The Best Laid Plans: Vanity and Building Bigger Barns
The Best Laid Plans: Vanity and Building Bigger Barns:
Ecc. 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23 and Luke 12:13-21
They say that there are a few subjects of which one should not speak in polite company. Two of them are money and religion. And, what do we have here: two scripture readings about money and work. That's convenient. I wonder what kind of good news they contain for this fine Sunday morning. Let's look at Ecclesiastes... "Vanity of vanities... all is vanity... seeking wisdom is an unhappy business... I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun... gave my heart up to despair... all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation." Ok. That doesn't really seem like good news at all. It's actually kind of a downer. Alright. Well then. How about the Gospel? Luke usually has some good news. Let's see what story Jesus is sharing with his friends.
First there's an argument that Jesus wants to avoid about an inheritance. Then, he teaches people with a parable about a rich farmer. He had a good year and the land was pretty productive. That seems like good news. Who doesn't like a rich harvest? Jesus said that the farmer talks to himself about what to do with his excess. What he, under the guidance of himself, decides to do is to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to store all of his excess grain and other goods. The scripture tells us that the guy said, "I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, be merry." Nobody else is talking to him in this story. Wait... the next line has another voice. Oh, and it's God. Even better. What is God going to say to this happy man who is talking to himself. "You fool." That's right. God says, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" Wait... did God just say that the happy guy who is talking to himself is going to die? And, did God just chastise him for worrying too much about his own future? Sure sounds like it. In the next line Jesus shares the moral of the story: "So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." Ok then. Turns out that this Luke story isn't real chipper, either. Maybe that's why they say not to talk about money and religion. Things get really intense really fast.
Here's the thing though. I do think money, work, and religion are connected, and not just in a manipulative, televangelist kind of way. Our work and our ability to have the means to survive day to day greatly affect our faith. And, our faith can be a valuable tool in shaping our work and our relationship with money and our possessions. It can be difficult to discern the best way to have these two parts of our lives, our work and financial lives and our faith, intersect and inform one another in ways that are healthy. I think that both of these scriptures can tell us something important about how we work, how we relate to what we earn, and how to connect these things with our faith.
Let's take a moment to look at the passage from Luke. It's starts out with a guy trying to get Jesus to arbitrate a dispute about an inheritance. This is the second time somebody has tried to rope Jesus into a family argument and he won't have it. Rather than get in the middle of an argument this family should be able to manage themselves, he takes the time to talk about the ways that love of possessions can distract you from what is most important in life. He says, "one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." He then told the story about the guy who wants to build bigger barns. A couple scholars I read this week pointed out something that I missed when I was reading this scripture. Did you all notice who the guy was talking to during the story? Himself. Only himself. He talks to himself about his money. He congratulates himself on his good fortune and good planning. He tells himself to relax because he's got his own future figured out. Where is everybody else? I mean, he's a farmer with a lot of land. It is very unlikely that he has done all this work on his own. Have you ever heard of a barn-raising with just one guy? Why isn't he consulting with anyone else about these important decisions in his life?
A couple different scholars that I read this week suggested that the reason this matters is because it demonstrates that this man has forgotten something very important: he's forgotten that his actions affect others. You might wonder if he has a good reason for not talking to anybody else. Maybe he doesn't have any family. He shouldn't be penalized for that. You would be right if that were the case. But, I don't think it is here. I don't think Jesus' intention was to describe someone who was alone. I think he wanted to describe someone who was only willing to think about his own needs. That's why he doesn't consult anyone else. At the end of the story, Jesus' critique of the man was that he stored up treasures for himself and had forgotten to be rich towards God, not that he was lonesome and didn't have anyone to talk to. You might then ask, how would this story be different if the man had chosen to be rich towards God?
Here's one possible alternate reading. A rich man's farm did really well one season and he was able to raise an abundant harvest. Seeing that he had more than he could possibly use, he wondered what he would do with it. He prayed to God, asking for guidance on how to use this excess well. He spoke with the supervisors on his farm and sought their advice. At the synagogue, he spoke with the priests to see if they knew of any needs. In the end, he offered some of his crop to a neighbor who's fields had not been nearly so bountiful. He also gave his employees a bonus, making sure that they, too, profited from their hard work. He gave to the temple, too, offering a sacrifice in thanks for his good fortune. He saved the last bit extra for a rainy day. He knew that not every year would be as good as this one.
Do you hear the difference that adding consultation with God and with others who are affected by your work makes? I think the second version of the story is closer to the ideal that Jesus has been describing to us. With conversation, prayer, and consultation, this is becomes a story not about the farmer's fool hardy planning, but, instead, a story of compassion and generosity. This becomes a story shaped by faith more than fear for the future. This is a version of the story that demonstrates richness towards God and neighbor. This is the version of the story that we are called to live out. But, it is not so easy to live a life of confident generosity. Let us not forget the curmudgeon in Ecclesiastes. We must wrestle with his story as well. He is one who has been burdened by his work. He believes that all the work that he has done has been done in vain. He is frustrated by the idea that someone else will enjoy his work, whether or not they deserve it. Ultimately, later in the book, he will continue the work he has started. However, he does so with a much more cynical view. In light of Jesus' call to be rich towards God, how are we to engage with the cynical account of toil?
Part of me wonders if a major gift of Ecclesiastes is that this book holds space for the grumpy and burnt out and cynical. It serves a witness to what can happen when our work as people of faith in communities of faith feels forced and meaningless. When we hear the words of the narrator, the one often called Qoheleth, we can remember what it feels like when work is only toil and even the search for wisdom feels meaningless. More importantly, we can remember that we can feel all kinds of cynical and still be a beloved child of God. After all, the narrator's testimony is still here... still included for us to learn from. Even the curmudgeon isn't excluded from God's grace. Maybe that's part of the gift of this scripture, too. We will sometimes feel like our work has been in vain. We will sometimes worry about our future and be tempted to store up possessions in order to insulate ourselves from fear. Even then, we will still be beloved, and that love will call us once again out beyond ourselves, beyond the cynicism, fear, and worry, back to generosity, peace, and connection. Love will call us out of the big barns of our own building, back to the tables of fellowship and joy. Whether we are the curmudgeon or the guy with the barns, disconnected from neighbor and not talking to God, we can remember that we are still beloved. We always have the chance to turn back towards that love.
Resources Pastor Chrissy Consulted when writing this sermon:
Meda Stamper: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2923
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4693
Elisabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1725
David Lose: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=720
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.