Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, November 6
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
God Is Near to All
Almighty God, you hold all the powers of the universe within your hands, and we are your children. Turn us to the splendor of life in you, transforming us through Jesus Christ our Savior, and strengthening us in every good deed and word. Amen.
Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21
I will extol you, my God and Ruler,
and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
and praise your name forever and ever.
Great is God, and greatly to be praised;
God's greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
In every way God is just,
and kind in every action.
God is near to all who call,
to all who call on God in truth.
God fulfills the desire of all who fear God;
God also hears their cry, and saves them.
God watches over all who love God,
but will destroy all the wicked.
My mouth will speak the praise of God,
and all flesh will bless God's holy name forever and ever.
All readings for this Sunday
Haggai 1:15b-2:9 with Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21 or Psalm 98 or
Job 19:23-27a with Psalm 17:1-9
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
1. If abundance is God's big idea, why do we seem more ruled by a scarcity mentality?
2. Are the words of this psalm lovely thoughts, but irrelevant to how we order our lives, as individuals and as a community?
3. Why do you think the psalms speak of God "destroying" some people?
4. Do you think of happiness, and prosperity, as a reward for faithfulness?
5. Do you believe there is "elemental generosity at the root of our human life"? Why or why not?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Psalm 145 may be one of the last psalms, but it goes back to the very beginning of it all, to God as Creator and Source of abundant blessings. In this season of thanksgiving and generosity, especially, it would be good to read the entire psalm, not just the lectionary verses, to hear again and again of God's goodness and tender care for God's creation, including each one of us.
The voice shifts back and forth, from talking to God, to talking about God. Of all the books in the Bible, the psalms are the only one addressed to God, but there are verses within them in which the psalmist seems to turn away from his prayers to address the audience, too, perhaps because he just gets carried away by how great God is, and has to tell everyone about it.
Choices have consequences
At the heart of our Jewish ancestors' faith, and at the heart of our faith, is the conviction that God has created us in love, that God remembers us, and that we need God and are expected to respond to God. There's a hint of the reverse of that, or the consequences of such a reversal, in verse 20: "God watches over all who love God, but will destroy all the wicked." As so often happens in the psalms, we're going along and everything is lovely, and suddenly the talk turns to God destroying people.
Does it make sense to wax rhapsodic about God's love for all of God's people, all humankind, if God destroys some of those people? J. Clinton McCann, Jr., has a persuasive response, claiming that faithfulness brings happiness because it connects us to God, and unfaithfulness, then, does the opposite: that's our choice. He likens it to Augustine's famous words about our being created by God for God's own self, and our restlessness until we rest in God. It seems that we have to be careful not to look in all the wrong places for what will make us truly happy.
How will we respond to God's generosity?
In this "season of stewardship" (actually, every season is stewardship season, since it's an everyday spiritual practice), Psalm 145 is a wonderful gift, proclaming God's abundant generosity and overflowing gifts, the starting point for any reflection on our response to God through generous giving. Giving to the church, after all, is not about paying the bills or covering a budget (or making up a deficit): it's our participation in the beauty of the creative process that continues even today, God's creative hand at work in the world. It's our response to everything in this psalm: God's goodness and the vision of how things are supposed to be, of how God intends them to be.
Walter Brueggemann has written extensively on the theme of God's abundance and how things are supposed to be: "Israel reflects on the free gift of food: the earth germinates, the seasons work, water, sunshine, breeding, production, nurture, availability....There is elemental generosity at the root of our human life in God's world. There is enough. Israel sings its lyrics of abundance."
Israel doesn't look around at what it has, and take credit for the beauty and wonder of creation. Israel looks at creation and its own life, and gives God the glory. Israel understands that God is the source of life, and its prayer life, the life of its community and its observance of the Law, are a song Israel sings to the God who has provided so richly for humankind.
Our worldview and our giving
"Elemental generosity at the root of our human life in God's world": does our worldview begin with such an idea? Certainly the world's worldview doesn't. Do we say these words, or at least hear such promises spoken in church each week, but live our lives on very different assumptions? Is there a connection between our worldview and our giving? Does our giving have anything to do with who we think God is, and who we think we are in the light of God's love?
And in the bigger picture, does what we do with all of our money have anything to do with the creative processes of God? There's never enough, we think and hear, never enough in our society to make sure everyone is fed and sheltered and clothed and educated and given the medical care they need. And in the church, there's never enough to do the ministry we might do, so we cut back and cut corners--it doesn't feel very much like abundance and it doesn't sound much like this psalm, does it?
A song of "exuberant trust"
Long ago, in a land and culture with far less in terms of material possessions but perhaps far more in terms of spiritual wisdom, Israel's song of "exuberant trust" praises the way God set things up, Brueggemann writes, the way God established "a coherent, viable, life-giving, life-permitted order--a place for life." A place for life. Is the church "a place for life"? Are our cities and neighborhoods and the world "a place for life"? What's keeping us back from making it so? What has damaged God's plan, and subverted God's intent for the world?
We might begin, as the psalmist often does, with the earth itself and the beauty and abundance of the creation on which we depend. The growing awareness of the earth's distress isn't about God's actions but ours, and this is an important part of our stewardship reflection. How we care for the earth is related to how we view the origin and purpose of everything. If we think the point is to amass more than our share of "the goods," then stewardship of the earth is no more necessary than giving away our money. Or at least it hasn't been, until now, when our very survival is at stake.
The point of the psalmist, about our dependence on what we've received, is even stronger. We didn't create all this, but, ironically, we do have the power to destroy it. The question then is whether we are willing to hear the Stillspeaking God calling us to care lovingly for the abundance we've received, and to share it with one another. How will we respond in this season of grace? (Like stewardship, every season is a season of grace.)
The little ones holding on to faith
This good and loving God of Israel didn't give us all these abundant gifts and then leave us on our own. Clearly, this God still cares about what we do with our gifts. And this God cares about those who cannot get their share or even get a footing in the world. Little Israel, much of the time, even while recognizing God's goodness, was one of those "little ones" that struggled, but Israel's struggle, Brueggemann says, was marked by trust in God, who was a God of justice as well as faithfulness, "Israel's only line of defense" against everything that would destroy it. God as an "only line of defense." We're God's agents in the world, and there are folks who need a line of defense against poverty, hatred, hunger, and war. How will we participate with God in providing that line of defense?
God is full of power and is in charge, but God's power is one rooted in goodness and generosity and love, not in the way we often feel power exercised, as brute force or cold self-interest that steps on others, like the empires, one after another, that conquered Israel. That's not how the God of abundance intends the world to be. Instead, Brueggemann reminds us that God wants us to live without anxiety, because we know that God is good. God is good, all the time, and all the time, God is good. If we approach giving as a free response to God's generosity and an expression of our "exuberant trust" in God, there will be more than enough for the church to do powerful, life-giving ministry in this world that God loves.
Stewardship as hope as well as generosity
Stewardship is hope for the world, it's gratitude for what we've received, and it's sharing the overflow of blessings from God. We hear about God in this psalm, but we also hear a call within it, an expectation of our participation in God's plan, as stewards of creation entrusted with this abundance. Brueggemann waxes poetic as he describes our response to these gifts that mysteriously participates in that ongoing creation, even after the music ends: "We are left with courage, freedom, and imagination, and we are given sufficient energy to care for the humanness, the humaneness, the humanization of the world"; in that grace-filled music, creation and praise go on and on, just as God intends. Stewardship, generosity, giving: the song that we sing in the church.
Stewardship, then, is prayer as well. Brueggemann has written elegant prayers rooted in Scripture, and one of them draws on Psalm 145: "When we sound these ancient cadences, we know ourselves to be at the threshold with all your creatures in heaven and on earth, everyone from rabbits and parrots to angels and seraphim...alleluiaÖ.We join the angels in praise, and we keep our feet in time and placeÖawed to heaven, rooted in earth" (his book of prayers, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, is a beautiful resource for our spiritual lives). As we bring our gifts and pledges forward today and every day, we are thanking God, praising God, and expressing our longing for the dream of God, for what is yet to be. We can rely on God in all things, with an exuberant and heartfelt trust indeed.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the retired dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Mother Teresa, 20th century
"Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God's kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile."
Albert Camus, 20th century
"You are forgiven for your happiness and your successes only if you generously consent to share them."
Susan Sarandon, 21st century
"So I would hope they would develop some kind of habit that involves understanding that their life is so full they can afford to give in all kinds of ways to other people. I consider that to be baseline spirituality."
Alexander Pope, 18th century
"Many have been capable of doing a wise thing, more a cunning thing, but very few a generous thing."
Anabel Proffitt, 21st century
"May you stay in that place of wonder and wisdom that lies between the uncertainty of the world and the dependable grace of our God."
Barbara Bush, 21st century
"Giving frees us from the familiar territory of our own needs by opening our mind to the unexplained worlds occupied by the needs of others."
Elie Wiesel, 20th century
"When a person doesn't have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude."
J. K. Rowling, 21st century
"Abundance is the quality of life you live and quality of life you give to others."
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