August 6, 2017 / Pentecost 10 / First Reading: Isaiah 5: 1-5 / Second Reading: Romans 9: 1-5 /Gospel : Matthew 13: 14-21
God is always speaking to us—and sometimes we actually listen closely enough to get the message. God speaks in many and various ways. One way is through the words of our worship, the language in our liturgy. This summer, I keep hearing God speak through the prayer we offer each week after the offerings have been brought to the altar. We pray this prayer together—and it goes like this: “Merciful God, you open wide your hand and satisfy the need of every living thing. You have set this feast before us. Open our hands to receive it. Open our hearts to embrace it. Open our lives to live it. We pray this through Christ our Lord.”
This prayer follows the classic outline of a Christian “collect”/prayer of the day. The prayer begins by invoking the God to whom the prayer is addressed: “Merciful God.” The prayer continues by acknowledging and praising God for who God is and what God does: “You open wide your hand and satisfy the need of every living thing. You have set this feast before us.” In our praise we are reminded that God both creates and sustains all that is.
The prayer then moves to supplication: we ask God to do something on our behalf: “Open our hands to receive it.” (the blessing of grace.) “Open our hearts to embrace it.” (enable us to take the blessing to heart).
The prayer concludes by asking God to help us to do something—recognizing that whenever God blesses us, it is with the intent that we become a blessing to others: We pray: “Open our lives to live it.” Help us to live graciously: to daily live the gospel.
Now this is a prayer that we speak to God. And yet, as with the Psalms, God is able to use our words to God as a word that also speaks God’s word to us. The word I have been hearing loud and clear over these summer Sundays is: “Open our lives to live it.” That sentence echoes the final phrase in our own mission statement: “God calls us to live the gospel.”
Therein lies the challenge—and our daily struggle. We can hear the gospel. And we can believe the gospel. The real struggle comes as we try and go about living what we believe. Which is why we ask God to help us to live as instruments of his grace and peace.
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What makes this a struggle for us? Why do we often find it difficult to live the gospel, to live as God calls us to live? Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has diagnosed the problem. He describes it as a struggle between two world views—between a belief in scarcity and a belief in God’s abundance: “The central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance — and the power of our belief in scarcity, a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly. We spend our lives trying to sort out that ambiguity.” It’s a struggle for all of us.
Brueggemann actually describes it as “the central problem of our lives.” It is certainly not a conflict we can resolve once and for all. Instead, as he indicates. “we spend our lives trying to sort out this ambiguity”, this fundamental tension. Do you feel it? I certainly do.
The world and the marketplace teach us to believe in SCARCITY. And often we do. According to this worldview: It’s every person for himself or herself. Resources are limited. There’s never enough. Better look out for yourself—because no one else will. Be on guard—and anxious! On the other hand, Christ proclaims the good news of abundance. The gospel message is:
The Lord will provide.
God’s grace is unlimited and dependable.
There’s more than enough for all.
Live in the peace and quiet confidence God gives.
There are many familiar images of scarcity:
The jagged line heading downward on the chart of the Dow Jones Average.
Red ink on the balance sheet.
Drought and water shortages: wilted plants.
Most can recall long lines at gas stations not so long ago.
The story of scarcity ends in death. Ultimately, you run out of life—you flat line—so then you better get while the getting is good. The story of scarcity can be vivid and compelling. It leads us to be anxious and suspicious—and self-entered. “Where’s mine?”, we ask.
But consider also the images of abundance: Walking around the Farmer’s Market in Lake Bluff on a Friday morning, I see ample evidence of God’s abundance: fresh sweet corn, piled high, ripe tomatoes and peppers, quart boxes overflowing with blueberries and raspberries, fresh baked bread and local honey. All this appears each and every week.
Hungry people need to be fed—so a faithful group from St. James puts together FOODSTOCK, and $25,000 is raised to support the COOL Food Pantry. The kids in the refugee families need gym shoes for school. We put the word out, and fifty pairs are provided.
My sister-in-law, Linda, died last month—far too soon, just as she and my brother where anticipating sharing many years together in retirement. That sounds like a story of scarcity and loss. It is a sad story. Yet I witnessed the abundant outpouring of love and support from the hundreds of persons who came to the visitation and the funeral. And I was comforted to hear the good news that death is not the end, that God’s love is triumphant, that though Linda’s earthly life was cut short, she lives eternally and abundantly in the presence of God.
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The bible tells the story of God’s great abundance. It’s a story that tells us that our lives begin in the wondrous love of God, who gives life to us, and then gives grace to us at Baptism. And likewise, our earthly lives will end in God—from whose love not even death can separate us.
From beginning to end the bible tells the story of God’s overflowing abundance. Even in the wilderness, when the Israelites felt they were without any resources, God provided for them water from a rock, and manna from heaven. Jesus proclaims that His purpose in coming is that we might have life, and have it abundantly.
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So, the question is: which story will we live by? We see in our gospel for today that the disciples believed the story of scarcity. At the end of a full day of preaching and teaching by Jesus the crowd that had come to listen found themselves in a remote place with nothing to eat. The disciples came to a quick conclusion: “This is a deserted place,” they said, “and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so they may go to the villages and buy food in for themselves. The disciples were pragmatic in their analysis and their solution. They decide that in the face of scarcity, it’s every man for himself—send them away before they get really hungry and things turn ugly.
Instead, Jesus demonstrates the abundance of God. With five loaves and two fishes, he feeds the entire crowd of more than 5,000 people. And when all have had their fill, the disciples collect the leftovers—enough to fill 12 baskets! Extravagant abundance!
While we keep finding ways to worry about the needs of this life, God keeps freely providing all that we need. God gives daily bread. Where will we place our trust? In our own plans and resources—or in our Creator? In the unseen hand of the Market—or in the loving hands of the Father?
All day long we get updates on the market: The Dow is up, the Dow is down. And depending on that status, persons are encouraged or discouraged. Perhaps what we really need is more frequent updates on the goodness and providence of God—regular reminders that God really will take care of us. As Jesus said another time: “can any of you live a bit longer by worrying about it?”
Day by day we live in a world that has bought into the myth of scarcity, a world that runs on greed and anxiety. So, day by day, we need to remind one another of the story of God’s abundance. Which story will shape your life? Where will your eyes be fixed?”: on perceived scarcity, or on God?
I find hope and life and peace in the words of our psalm today, Psalm 145: “The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them your food in due season. You open wide your hand and satisfy the need of every living creature.”
God provides all that we need: daily bread, and abundant grace. May we open our hands to receive it, open our hearts to embrace it, and open our lives to live it—to live abundantly. Amen.