Hold on to Faith/Praise God

Sunday, November 10, 2013
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Weekly Theme
Hold on to Faith/Praise God

Weekly Prayer
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.

Focus Scripture
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
Luke 20:27-38

Focus Questions

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 Huey

It’s hard to imagine a better text for this stewardship season: Psalm 145, one of the last psalms, 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.

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: “The happiness or prosperity of the righteous is not so much a reward as it is their experience of being connected to the true source of life–God. Similarly, the destruction of the wicked is not so much a punishment as it is the result of their own choice to cut themselves off from the source of life. The compassionate God does not will to destroy the wicked, but their own autonomy gives God no 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.

Abundance: there is no better way to approach our stewardship reflections, and no better text than a song of God’s praises for all of creation and for God’s tender care. Stewardship 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. It is a guaranteed system culminating in the food chain for those in God’s image, the whole designed for us. 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 them 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? Does what we do with our money have anything to do with the creative processes of God? There’s never enough, we think and hear, never enough to make sure everyone is fed and sheltered and clothed and given medical care and educated. There’s never enough to do the ministry we might do, so we cut back and cut cornersÖit doesn’t sound very much like abundance and it doesn’t sound much like this psalm, does it?

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 orderÖa 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.

The little ones holding on to faith

This good and loving God of Israel didn’t give us all these 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 the “God who works equity, righteousness, victory, and justice” as “Israel’s only line of defense against the powers of chaos and destructiveness that make life wretched and finally impossible.” 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.

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. That’s not how God intends the world to be, according to Brueggemann: “The world is ordered by Yahweh so that it provides what all human creatures must have to live.ÖThus human creatures live in a world that leaves them elementally free of anxiety, because of the goodness, reliability, and generosity of Yahweh.” 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 wel 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 the song: “We bask in the overflow of creation; our song enacts the overflow,” Brueggemann writes. “We discover that some of the abundance of God’s generosity has been entrusted to our hand. As the singing proceeds, we begin to notice the grace of generosity emerging in our own life. When the song ends, the conversation in the choir continues. 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 the act of humanizing, the song of praise continues, for the creation does what the creator hopes.” Stewardship, generosity, giving: the song that we sing in the church.

And stewardship is our prayer, as well. Brueggemann has written beautiful 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 seraphimÖ.That is how it is when we praise you. We join the angels in praise, and we keep our feet in time and placeÖawed to heaven, rooted in earth. We are daily stretched between communion with you and our bodied lives, spent but alive, summoned and cherished but stretched betweenÖ” (from his beautiful book of prayers, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth). Each time we bring our gifts forward, each day that we offer our lives to God, we are thanking God, praising God, and expressing our longing for the dream of God, for what is yet to be. We can trust in all that, with an exuberant and heartfelt trust indeed.

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/november-10-2013.html.

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.”

Alexander Pope, 18th century
“Many have been capable of doing a wise thing, more a cunning thing, but very few a generous thing.”

J. K. Rowling, 21st century
“Abundance is the quality of life you live and quality of life you give to others.”

E. E. Cummings, 20th century
“I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.”

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Weekly Seeds is a resource of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.