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Over the past five weeks, we have followed the narrative arch of the scriptures, beginning in Exodus with God hearing the cry of the oppressed and responding with liberation and love. This God of justice, this God of mercy, this God of grace and peace will not give pain, suffering, or oppression the final say.
From oppression, God brings us into freedom, but not a freedom for ourselves, it is a freedom for the ever-expanding love of God. After the exodus from Egypt, God makes a covenant with the people, and that covenant begins with ‘if’, with God reminding us that we can choose to go any number of directions. In this covenant, God’s grace is made manifest in our lives because God has always been looking for partners. The life that God wants for us in not an idea but an experienced reality. We are freed, we are blessed, not simply for our own benefit, but so that we can be partners with God in sharing this grace with others.
Sometimes we get this right. Sometimes we don’t.
We saw what happened when Solomon got things wrong. The temple to the God of liberation was built by slave labor while Solomon became an arms dealer with Egypt. Actions, especially those that cause pain and oppression, have consequences, and one of the consequences that we see in the scripture is exile.
Sometimes we can feel like strangers to ourselves. That’s exile. The confusion, the doubts, the questions, the worries, the cries. There are times when we hang up our harps because we can’t sing of joy. Sometimes, all we can do is cry out.
But what did we learn about our cries? God hears and God cares.
In the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Scriptures, we see the prophets hold up a mirror to the people. The prophets persist in reminding the people who God is and who God has called us to be. Even in exile, the invitation is to return, to find our way back to the goodness that God has created us for. There is this hope, this promise that we see in the Bible of a new and greater exodus, not merely from a place, but from the Egypt, the oppression, the sin, that lurks within us all.
When I was a kid, I’d sometimes play a trick on my younger sister by telling her that I wanted to play a game was called ‘who can punch softer’. I’d tell her that the goal of the game is to be as gentle as possible.
If I could talk my sister into playing who can punch softer, I’d let her go first, and she would ball up her fist and touch my arm as lightly as possible.
When it was my turn, I would hit her in the arm as hard as I could. Technically, my sister won the game, but I was the only one without a bruise.
As far as examples for sin go, an older brother being a bully is pretty light, but the nature of sin remains the same, we reduce individuals into objects.
The struggle with sin is that we all know it doesn’t have to be this way, and yet it still is. None of us want to think we’re doing the wrong thing, we believe in our own best intentions. Solomon had to think they were doing the right thing, just like I thought I was doing the right thing when I’d ‘apologize’ to my sister for playing a trick on her and I’d convince her to play another round with me, but this time I would go first so she could take a swing at me. At that point, because we were tied at one win each, we’d have to have a tie-breaking round, and because I went first in the last round, it was her turn to go first this time…
We need an exodus, we need to enter into this liberation and love that frees us from the sins the separate us from God and one another.
Jesus, fully human and fully divine, shows us that in the fullness of our humanity we can enter into the fullness of God’s dream, we can fully enter into, experience, and expand this grace and peace.
No matter how we might have wandered away, regardless of how we miss the plot, Jesus is calling us back to the covenant and this promise of God’s grace reaching the ends of the earth.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus shows us what it means to remember what we read earlier from Deuteronomy, “When you eat, get full, build nice houses, and settle down, and when your herds and your flocks are growing large, your silver and gold are multiplying, and everything you have is thriving, don’t become arrogant, forgetting the LORD your God: the one who rescued you from Egypt, from the house of slavery; the one who led you through this vast and terrifying desert of poisonous snakes and scorpions, of cracked ground with no water; the one who made water flow for you out of a hard rock; the one who fed you manna in the wilderness, which your ancestors had never experienced, in order to humble and test you, but in order to do good to you in the end. Don’t think to yourself, My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me. Remember the LORD your God! [God’s] the one who gives you the strength to be prosperous in order to establish the covenant [God] made with your ancestors—and that’s how things stand right now.”
One of the most vivid examples of Jesus pointing to this idea comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 12.
If you have a Bible, I’d invite you to open it up and follow along with me, we will be in Luke, chapter 12, starting in verse 13. If you don’t have a Bible and would like one, please let us know and we will be sure to get a Bible to you.
As you find your way to Luke 12:13, I just want to share a few statistics with you, because we all know that this last year has been hard, but because we’re distanced, online, and not interacting like we’re used to, even though we know we’re in the same blizzard, some of us have a snowblower, others have a shovel, and some don’t have a coat.
We all know that life before covid wasn’t perfect, and we all know that this pandemic only amplified the struggles of society.
According to the most recent census data, the poverty rate in Iowa is just over 11%. That figure comes from data prior to the pandemic and we can be fairly sure that the poverty rate in our state has increased in the last 10 months because food insecurity has continued to rise. People in poverty already don’t have enough to eat and in Polk County, in 2016, 22% of our neighbors were food insecure. 1 in 10 of our neighbors lives at or below the poverty line and 1 in 5 of our neighbors isn’t sure when they will have their next meal. Throughout Iowa, demand at food banks and pantries has risen by a third in some communities to 50% in others.
On an average week, about 240 people watch Grace online on Facebook or Youtube. If those statistics are true about our community, then 24 people watching a screen right now live at or below the poverty line and nearly 50 people watching right now are food insecure.
Anyway, Gospel of Luke, chapter 12, starting in verse 13, “Someone from the crowd said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’”
This is a very odd demand to make on Jesus because Jesus was a religious teacher, a Rabbi, and dealing with this dispute wasn’t really in Jesus’ job description.
The person asking the question doesn’t really want Jesus to make a decision as much as they want Jesus to agree with what they already believe.
Inheritance, in the ancient near east, was, more often than not, land. Your family farm was passed down from one generation to the next and, often, the oldest child would inherit a little bit more than the younger children, but it was, as far as we can tell, a fairly even split that often wasn’t much of a split because in an era before John Deere, you needed all hands on deck. Multigenerational families were the norm, everyone needed all the help they could get. One of the reasons why Jesus spends most of his time with people in poverty is that in the ancient near east, nearly everyone lived in poverty.
When it comes to the person that asks Jesus to make their brother divide the inheritance, we don’t know what the dynamics of this family are, but it’s clear things are not as they should be. It also seems clear that this person’s motivation is greed. They just want theirs.
This is how Jesus responds, “Man, who appointed me as judge or referee between you and your brother?”
When Jesus said, “man” do you think that it was a silent with a sigh, like, ‘man’ or do you think it was an exasperated, ‘MAN!’?
Either way, Jesus goes on to say, “…who appointed me as a judge or referee between you and your brother?”
If the person that asked the question would have been a little faster on, they could have responded to Jesus, “Well, you are Jesus” but they couldn’t get a word in because Jesus starts to tell a story.
Jesus says, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions…”
The word that Jesus uses for life in this passage, in Greek, is ζωὴ (zoe). Bio is the Greek word for life that most of us are familiar with – biology, after all, is the study of life, or bio. ζωὴ (zoe) is something different than bio and we feel that difference every time it seems like we are existing instead of living. Zoe is a vitality, purpose, vigor, energy, excitement.
We all know that money can’t buy happiness. Money can buy a jet ski and I’ve never seen anyone frown on a jet ski, and yet, a jet ski doesn’t have much of a purpose in Iowa this winter.
You can’t purchase ζωὴ (zoe) and no amount of possessions will give you this gift.
Jesus continues and starts to tell a story, “A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop. He said to himself…”
Jesus does something very subtle at the start of this story to make us question this person character and it is probably not what you think. Jesus saying that this person is rich isn’t a big detail because the Bible doesn’t condemn wealth, the Bible condemns greed.
I know extremely wealthy persons that are generous just like I know very poor persons that are greedy. No matter how empty or full your wallet is, you can live with a closed or open heart.
What Jesus says to set apart this person is, “He said to himself…”
In a culture where families had to live together for generations, when the land that you cared for was cared for collectively, there wasn’t much reason to think to yourself, especially when it came to what your land produced. When it came to what happens with the crops, the decision affected everyone, so this wasn’t a decision that was made by yourself.
On top of that, one of the most consistent ethics that we see in the Bible is around hospitality, not just making sure that people are taken care of, making sure everyone knows they are welcomed and cared for. If you had a good crop, but your neighbors didn’t, your excess became their sustenance because who knows how the next harvest is going to come in, and if the tables are turned, you’d hope your neighbor would care for you just as you would care for yourself.
This person in this parable, apparently, has amassed so much wealth that they are disconnected from the community. They are isolated, their greed has separated them from not just their neighbors, but their family. In this parable, the only person that this rich man thinks of is themself, which is why they think to themself, “What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! (it’s like they went to the refrigerator at the middle of the night, saw how filled it was with food, and thought, there’s nothing to eat) Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store my grain and goods. I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink and enjoy yourself. But God said to him, ‘Fool…’
In this parable, I like to imagine that God is played by Mr. T.
Ἄφρων (Aphrōn) is the Greek word for fool. The prefix ‘a’ in Greek, means without and phrōn comes from the Greek word that literally translates as diaphragm or guts. In ancient Greek thought, the center of your being, the core of who you are, was found in your diaphragm, this place within us where air and life came into our being. The core of who we are is in this area around your heart and lungs because throughout the ancient near east is was thought that here was where your wisdom and understanding and passion come from.
But the person in this parable, they don’t have wisdom, they don’t have understanding, they don’t have passion. They think to themselves, the barns that I already have aren’t big enough, so I’ll tear them down and build even bigger ones for myself.
God (played by Mr. T in this parable), says to the rich man, “Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’
God doesn’t just use an interesting word when God calls this person an Ἄφρων (Aphrōn) because the word that Jesus has God use for die in this parable is fascinating. That word is ἀπαιτέω (apaiteó) Apo is a Greek prefix that means from and paiteó means to demand or request. It means to recall, to demand something in return. It was a legal term in the ancient near east, where if you took out a loan there were conditions that had to be met otherwise what was loaned to you would be ἀπαιτέω (apaiteó)-ed.
In this parable, it is as if Jesus has God say, your life has been on loan and I want it back.
Jesus ends the parable saying, “This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.”
I don’t know what bothers you about this teaching from Jesus, but what terrifies me is that Jesus doesn’t finish the parable by saying, “Don’t worry, it’s just a story.”
If you look through the rest of Jesus’ parables, I don’t think you will find another parable or teaching where Jesus lifts up something so awful, so sinful that in that very moment God strikes them down.
What is it that is so awful, so against the expanding grace and peace that God wants for us and for everything else that God decides that’s it?
We’re fairly comfortable with the idea that wealth is a gift from God, the tradition of praying before a meal comes from seeing food as a gift from God, but this parable is about life itself being a gift from God and God being offended when this gift is not shared or appreciated the right way.
Nearly 40% of all food in the United States is thrown away even though one in five of our neighbors doesn’t have enough to eat. Nearly one billion people in the world live on less than a dollar a day. Another two and a half billion people live on less than two dollars a day, resulting in about 40% of our global neighbors lacking basic sanitation while in the United States we annually spend more on trash bags than what nearly half of the world spends on all goods.
“When you eat, get full, build nice houses, and settle down, and when your herds and your flocks are growing large, your silver and gold are multiplying, and everything you have is thriving, don’t become arrogant, forgetting the LORD your God: the one who rescued you from Egypt, from the house of slavery; the one who led you through this vast and terrifying desert of poisonous snakes and scorpions, of cracked ground with no water; the one who made water flow for you out of a hard rock; the one who fed you manna in the wilderness, which your ancestors had never experienced, in order to humble and test you, but in order to do good to you in the end. Don’t think to yourself, My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me. Remember the LORD your God!”
The majority of the Bible was written by a minority people living under the rule and reign of massive, wealthy, mighty, military empires from the Egyptians to the Babylonians to the Romans.
2000 years later, when you benefit from citizenship within the wealthiest, strongest, and most powerful nation the world has ever seen, it is easy to miss the central story of the scripture without careful study, reflection, humility, and consistently remembering the Lord your God who hears the cry of the oppressed.
The way of Jesus, the promise of this new exodus that leads us back to Eden is marked by our willingness to never be so isolated and privileged with our wealth that we, like the rich man in Jesus’ parable can think to ourselves I have more than I need so I’ll build a bigger barn instead of sharing a bigger table.
On the night that he was arrested, Jesus took bread, broke it, gave thanks to God, and shared it with the disciples saying, take, eat, this is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me. At the end of the meal Jesus took the cup, gave thanks to God and shared it with the disciples saying, drink this, all of you, this is the cup of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins, do this in remembrance of me.
What does it look like when we break our hearts open and pour ourselves out for the healing and hope of God’s love extending to the ends of the earth?
My hope is that the measure of these sermons that I share with you is not if they affirm what you already believe. My hope is that this sermon is not just another piece of content on the internet that you can like and share, even though I hope you will do both.
This gathering exists to bring us back to the table, to center ourselves in God’s grace and peace. It is a time that we have to be reminded, to be inspired to participate in the healing and the hope that God has for us and for everything else.
A worship service isn’t the end, it’s always a new beginning. That’s why Christianity insists that that Sunday, not Monday, is the first day of the week. We are just getting started, we are putting things into perspective, we are remembering, we are being provoked, comforted, even challenged, to share this eucharist and extend it wherever we go.
In the Bible, we see the story of Egypt to Exodus over and over again, because salvation is what happens when we find ourselves in Egypt and cry out.
We all have our own Egypt. From addiction to anger to rage to envy to hate to dishonesty to greed to lust – we all have our Egypts that show us the injustice in ways that make the headlines every day, to the smallest details of our lives that only we notice because it’s at the core of how we think and feel and act.
At the center of our story is crying out and being heard by God. Trusting that God is doing for us what we can never fulfill on our own, rescue, redemption, grace and peace.
We move from Egypt to Sinai and we find our purpose, we find our identity in the God that reduces us so that we might help rescue the world. We join god in hearing the cries of the oppressed and responding with liberation and love.
But sometimes we lose the plot. We can start to feel entitled, we can become accustomed to abundance, finding ourselves isolated instead of engaged.
But God is never isolated. God is always engaged, so when we cry out in our exile, God hears us and invites us back to Sinai.
This eucharist that we share, it not just about saving the world, it’s about finding ourselves in the salvation of God, finding exodus from our empires of indifference, making our way home out of the exile of irrelevance.
Jesus wants to save Christians because Jesus wants to save us from standing at a distance from this life. We may have to be physically distanced but that doesn’t mean we are disinterested and disaffected.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, abandoned, denied, and crucified, with all those that would turn away, Jesus still welcomed each and every one of them to the table and said do this in remembrance of me.
We can think of ‘do this’ as eating dipping some bread in a cup, we can also think of ‘do this’ when we reflect and remember, when we sing and pray and sit in silence, when we take part in this two-thousand-year-old ritual that challenges, humbles and brings us together, to not just know about the body and blood of Christ, but to be it with and for one another and all of creation.
There is a Rabbinical tradition of learning to read the scripture like you are looking at a diamond. No matter how it spins, you can see the brilliance shine through. There is no one right way to read the Bible, but there are some wrong ways and we can find ourselves reading like that when we think to ourselves that’s not my concern, those people aren’t my neighbors, and do this in remembrance of me is just a nice metaphor and not a way of life continually transformed by grace and peace.
May we keep finding our way back to this table, so that wherever we go, we can do this.
February 8 – 13, 2021
Click on the day to expand the guide.
Read – Matthew 7:1-5
Notice – Has someone ever judgmentally tried to remove a “speck” from your “eye?” How did the experience affect your desire to try to live up to what they claimed was God’s standard for your life? Has anyone ever graciously, compassionately offered you an insight about yourself while honestly admitting their own struggles and issues? If so, how did that experience differ from having someone judge and condemn you? Clearly, someone with a log in their eye can’t remove a splinter from someone else’s eye. Yet we are sometimes tempted to judge others failures while ignoring or excusing our own. Why do you think we are so inclined to do that? How can you remember Jesus words today?
Pray – Jesus, help me live authentically in your love and grace, letting go of my need to try to make myself look better than I am. Teach me to own my struggles, claim your power to transform me, and share that with others. Amen.
Read – 1 Peter 1:18-2:3
Notice – Peter referred in 1:23 (as well as earlier in 1 Peter 1:3) to Christians having been born again. Too often in the church and popular culture, “born again” has come to represent everything that is wrong with Christianity, being unloving, judgmental, and hypocritical. In contrast, what qualities did Peter say characterize a person who has been born again by God’s power? Peter told his readers (and us) that hypocrisy (which can include deceit, envy, and unkind speech) make up a worthless, empty way of life. How can you sense that God has made your life better by replacing those negative qualities with a divinely given capacity to love? In what areas of life do you want God to help you grow by filling you more fully during 2021?
Pray – Jesus, I want your love and goodness to fill me all the time. But I’m not there yet, and when I’m tempted to fake it, that can get ugly. Keep me growing in expressing your love authentically. Amen.
Read – Philippians 1:3-11
Notice – We don’t always link “love,” “knowledge” and “insight.” Paul did: “We think of [love] as having to do with emotion and affection, not with knowledge and wisdom. For Paul they are all bound together: what we call the ‘heart’ and what we call the ‘head’ were not separated.” * When has learning more about Jesus’ God-empowered mission to the world (i.e. everyone, everything, God’s grace and peace reaching the ends of the earth) caused your love for Jesus to grow “even more and more rich”? Paul’s prayer for love led on to prayer for the “fruit of righteousness.” “‘Love’ is an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22), enabling all other spiritual virtues to be exercised properly (1 Cor 13:1–3). Without it no Christian is spiritually complete (Col 3:14)….Paul desires that when his readers stand before Christ, their lives will have been filled with….the spiritual fruit that comes from Jesus Christ, produced in them by the Holy Spirit.” ** How have you seen Spirit-produced love grow other spiritual fruit in your life and the lives of others?
Pray – Jesus, I’m not interested in pretending to be spiritually complete. I want a life genuinely filled with the spiritual fruit you wish to grow in me. Shape me as you did Paul and his first-century friends. Amen.
- *Wright, N.T., Paul for Everyone, The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 85). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
- ** Homer A. Kent, Jr., comment on Philippians 1:9, 11 in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Abridged: New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994, p. 791.
Read – Matthew 6:16-18
Notice – Jesus spoke about fasting, a spiritual practice that usually meant, and still means, not eating for some amount of time. Some Christians may choose to fast from social media, TV or even recreational shopping. The purpose of fasting is to focus on God’s presence in every space of our lives. If you fast from food, when you feel hunger you remind yourself that food is a gift from the good creation of God. With the time you would spend cooking and eating, you are invited to pray/meditate/read the Bible or other devotional materials to center yourself not with a meal but the grace of God. Some churches put more emphasis on fasting than others. Many spiritually and mentally healthy Christians practice it regularly, but for others it has negative, almost medieval, overtones. Have you ever fasted? If you haven’t, are you willing to try? Is there something in your life that you value but could give up for a short time to focus your attention more fully on God?
Pray – God, if I fast, or if I don’t, draw my attention toward your grace. Whatever spiritual disciplines and practices shape my faith, may they be used to witness to your love and not my personal achievements. Amen.
Read – 1 Timothy 6:7-12, 17-19
Notice – Well-meaning people often misapply verse 10 of this reading. It said “the love of money” (not money) is the root of all evil. This passage warned about temptation, priorities and pride. Consumerism can be an infectious lifestyle, and many of us are more deeply infected than we realize or admit. Is our trust in God limited only to ‘spiritual’ things, or does God really promise to provide for our necessities? If we trust God to hear the cries of the oppressed and respond with liberation and love, do we trust that God will hear our cries, too? What are necessities? At what point do we cease expanding our ‘needs’ list? Do you believe generosity and sharing allow you, as one of God’s people, to “take hold of what is truly life”?
Pray – God, help me to always put my trust in you rather than in money. Keep my priorities kingdom focused, rather than investment focused. Free me from the inner grip of “the next thing I think I need to buy.” Amen.
Read – 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Notice – Paul was not a rich person by earthly standards, and yet Paul writes, “God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace” (verse 8). “You will be made rich in every way” (verse 11). Paul’s specific focus was an offering from Gentile Christians to support poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Yet he focused on what God gives us: “everything you need always,” “every kind of grace” and “You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous in every way.” When (if ever) have you received a gift that “left you speechless,” that words couldn’t fully describe? How would you compare that feeling with God’s gift(s) of which Paul spoke?
Pray – Jesus, you gave, literally, all you had to give for me “for the sake of the joy” (Hebrews 12:2). Teach me more each day about the joy of generosity and the gift of sharing your grace. Amen.