United Church of Christ

Basking in God

Sunday, November 10, 2019
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27)

Focus Theme:
Basking in God

Focus 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 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 and meditate on the entire psalm, not just the lectionary verses, to hear again and again of God's goodness and tender care for all of 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.

A persuasive claim

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.

McCann likens it to Augustine's familiar and beautiful 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 many churches, this is "stewardship season," but, actually, every season is stewardship season, since giving is an everyday spiritual practice that forms us into generous disciples, as followers of Jesus. We have faith that there will be enough, more than enough, if we all share from the bounty we have received.

Psalm 145, then, 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.

Ancient praise for gifts in every age

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 the 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--it wouldn't even call this "God's world"!

Perhaps the great mystery in Christianity is how we say these words, or hear such promises spoken in church each week, but live our lives based on very different assumptions. Too often, the words of this psalm are lovely thoughts, but irrelevant to how we order our lives, as individuals and as a community.

Illustrating who we are in the light of God's love

There is, after all, a connection between our worldview and our giving, as we saw so well illustrated in last week's story about Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke. Our giving illustrates who we believe God is, and who we believe we are in the light of God's love.

What we do with our money is related to what we believe about the creative processes of God, and expresses our commitment to participate in God's overflowing, "elemental generosity." Indeed, it is a mystery that we seem more ruled by a scarcity mentality than an abundance frame of mind, when abundance is God's big idea, from the very beginning of creation.

There's never enough, we think and hear, never enough to make sure everyone is fed and sheltered and clothed and educated and given the medical care they need. There's never enough, we think, to do the ministry we might do, so we have to cut back and cut corners...alas, it doesn't sound 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, Psalm 145, 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 from making it so? What has damaged God's plan, and subverted God's intent for the world?

The beauty of the earth

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.

We depend on God's gifts

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 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's agents in this world

God as an "only line of defense." We are God's agents in the world, and there are many people who desperately need a line of defense against poverty, hatred, hunger, and war. How will we participate with God in providing that line of defense?

What if we are the ones God uses to repair the damage that has been done, to reach out to those in need, to build a more just and beautiful world? How much of the suffering of the world is rooted in a failure of generosity, in a culture of scarcity-thinking, in a lack of trust in the Giver?

Power, anxiety and public life

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, 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.

How do we handle our anxiety?

Such trust is the perfect antidote to anxiety. Our culture approaches anxiety in a multitude of ways, and not just with doctor-prescribed medication: often, we "self-medicate" with alcohol and drugs, with shopping, perfectionistic habits, and even aggression itself (how many bullies, both nations and individuals, are really afraid, inside?).

The gospel's message of abundance, gratitude, and trust provides that powerful antidote to the sickness of anxiety that permeates the world around us--no wonder we call it "good news."

Psalm 145, then, provides a starting point for the kind of reflection needed in our communities of faith that will ripple out into the wider community and affect the way we shape our public life as well, a shared life in which the common good matters more than simply "making sure that I get mine and protect mine," because there isn't enough to go around, and even the needs, not just the wants, of others threatens my own.

A song of gratitude

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 calls that a song, and he 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, the poetry of our life together.

An ancient prayer of praise

Stewardship, of course, 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...alleluia….We join the angels in praise, and we keep our feet in time and place…awed to heaven, rooted in earth" (his book of prayers, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, is a beautiful resource for our spiritual lives).

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 God in all things, with an exuberant and heartfelt trust.

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel. There is also a reflection on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 by Karen Georgia Thompson.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the 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."

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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Weekly Seeds is a service 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. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.


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