Friday, July 04, 2014

God is a Giver Not a Taker

Sermon preached on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 29, 2014, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY.  Proper 8A:  Genesis 22:1-14; Matthew 10:40-42

          The Bible is the record of a people’s struggle with their relationship with God, so it never should come as a surprise when the struggle that is portrayed is difficult, causing us to enter into our own struggle if we are to grow in relationship with God as our ancestors did.  We would prefer that the Bible was a clear set of guidelines, filled with direct answers to life’s questions, and in one sense it is these things, but only in very round-about ways that cause us to question, “What is really going on here?” and “How does this relate to my own relationship with God and how I live out that relationship in the world?”

          Although it may be one of the most difficult stories in the Bible, the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his own son, is a case in point.  We are tempted to think that the point of this story is that we should have as much faith as Abraham, such willingness to follow God that we would obey God at whatever cost.

          But I am not sure that is the point at all.  The clue to the real point of the story, as it frequently is, especially in the Torah, is found in the name of the place where the action occurs.  The place name is often the answer to the question posed by the story.

          In this case, Abraham calls the place, “The Lord provides,” “Yahweh yireh,” or, what may ring a bell for you, using an anglicized form of Yahweh, “Jehovah jireh.”  I learned a little song in college based on this text that has stuck with me all these years.

Jehovah jireh, my provider,
whose grace is sufficient for me, for me, for me
Jehovah jireh, my provider,
whose grace is sufficient for me
My God cares for me
According to his riches in glory
Jehovah jireh, my provider,
whose grace is sufficient for me

          The question posed by this horrific story is a simple one about the nature of God.  Is God a giver or a taker?

          The answer is a subtle one, but very important.  The story wants us to understand that everything belongs to God.  As much as anything else, that is the fundamental, bottom-line message of the whole book of Genesis.  Everything was created by God and therefore everything belongs to God.  Because of that, God could demand anything from us, even something as dear to us as our own life or the life of one we love.

          Having made that crystal clear, this story and the entirety of the biblical story, wants to also make it clear that it is not the nature of God to take from us, as if God needed constant, tangible proof of our obedience or even the sacrifice of human life to appease him.  No. The nature of God is to create, not destroy, to give, not to take.  “Yahweh yireh,” “Jehovah jireh,” “The Lord provides.”

          That means that the question this story poses to us is not whether or not we are willing to prove our faith in God by meeting impossible demands.  The question posed by the story is both, “Will you accept my provision?” and “Will you share in my provision to the world?”  Will you be a people who provides?

          Which brings us to this morning’s brief Gospel reading, in which Jesus poses essentially the same question, in the form of a very pragmatic statement, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…will not lose their reward.”

          For those of us who live in a land of abundant water, and modern refrigeration, this may seem like no big deal.  But Jesus is speaking in a cultural context where water was a very precious commodity, fresh water even more precious, and cold water most precious of all.  Jesus is asking us to give not out of our abundance, but out of our scarcity.

          What are some ways in our own context might we express what Jesus is asking of us?  One example, I think, would be in terms of time, something that often feels scarce to us.  “Whoever gives even a moment of time to listen to one of these little ones will not lose their reward.”  Whoever takes the time to share in my providing for the well-being of the world will not lose their reward.

          Who are these “little ones” of whom Jesus speaks?  Scholars have long debated the issue, but I think this saying links directly to the Gospel writer Matthew’s most remembered story.  “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?”  And the reply is, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[1]

          The Gospel is not an abstract idea, or a particular philosophy of life, or the particularities of how you get into heaven.  The Gospel is something as simple as a cup of cold water to one who thirsts, an ear and a moment of time to one who needs to be heard, any gesture of giving that is in itself a gesture of God, the God who provides, who is a giver and not a taker.

[1] See Matthew 25:31-46.

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