Sunday, October 20, 2013

Beloved, Flawed, and Called: A Stewardship Sermon on 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Scripture can be found here...

Whether we know it or not, we are in the midst of a mini-series… I’ll name it, the Rise and Fall of the Monarchy! It began last week with the call of the prophet Samuel, the same Samuel we have in our text today, and it ends November 3, with God’s self-revelation to the prophet Elijah. Hmmmm… Stories of kings bookended with the words of prophets. That fact in itself tells us much of what God’s idea of kingship looks like.

Samuel is all grown up now, a man whose first encounter with God took place as a boy, while he served God alongside the priest Eli. In the intervening years, God has relented—that’s the only possibly way of seeing it—God has given in to the persistent desire of the covenant people to have a king. Samuel is the man standing as the mediator between heaven and earth, and he apparently takes it pretty hard, because God sees fit to console Samuel, and to give him some advice: “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” God goes on, “Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” (1 Samuel 8:7, 9). And, oh, Samuel does.

We’ve talked before about God’s laundry list of the things the kings will do. Things like, taking the people’s sons for his armies and daughters for his harems. Taking their crops and their workers and their money, too. Taking, even, their freedom—turning the people into slaves. (1 Samuel 8:11-18)

Not just some kings. Not just bad kings. All kings. “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That is how one 19th century historian put it.[i] Today psychologists might call it “Acquired Situational Narcissism,” often used to make sense of the bizarre behavior of certain celebrities. God created us, after all, and God is well aware of our flaws.

By the time of our passage, there has already been one king—Saul, chosen by God, and anointed by Samuel, and who, in the end, lost God’s favor and anointing. Samuel is grieving over this. The prophet functioned, not only as the one to lift up and anoint the king and affirm God’s blessing on the king, but also as the most trusted advisor—maybe something like the Chief of Staff, or the First Lady. For you “Scandal” fans: think Olivia Pope, without the tawdry affair.

So once again, God is consoling Samuel. Or, really, telling Samuel to get a move on, get over it, because now there is a vacuum, and another king is required to fill it.

God sends Samuel to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse, where God promises to name a king from among Jesse’s sons. God also helps Samuel with the anxieties that naturally arise when God is naming another king, but the previous king has not yet gotten the memo. Listen to me, God says, and I will tell you.

Then, notice what happens? The sons of Jesse start their walk down the runway, and Samuel looks at the first one, and in his heart he starts singing, “There he is….!” Only God, keeps speaking. “Not so fast, Sparky.” “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

And one by one they all pass by, and Samuel keeps on looking, and God keeps on whispering in Samuel’s ear, “Not yet.”

Samuel keeps looking. God wants Samuel to keep listening.

Many of you are aware that I spent eight days last week in the hill country of Texas, about 80 miles northwest of San Antonio, taking part in something called “Presbyterian Credo.” Here’s the Credo Mission:

To provide opportunities for clergy to examine significant areas of their lives and to discern prayerfully the future direction of their vocation as they respond to God's call in a lifelong process of practice and transformation.

The Presbyterian Board of Pensions got the idea for Credo from the Episcopalians: to seek out clergy mid-career, and do a kind of intervention. After we’ve been in the parish a little while, sometimes it helps to take a step back, not only so that we can look; but also so that we can listen—to our hearts, to others who are seeking to serve God in the church, and, of course, to God.

So, for eight days I was one of thirty ministers at Mo Ranch (a Presbyterian conference center), all of us between the ages of 34 and 50, and all of whom have been in the parish at least five years. We had seven faculty members—all Presbyterian, many ministers, all experts in some aspect of four basic areas: Spiritual Health, Physical Health, Vocational Health, and Financial Health.

When my plane took off from Syracuse-Hancock Airport early on October 7, I thought I knew what was in store for me at Mo Ranch. I thought it was going to be all about my physical health. I have struggled all my life with my weight, and you have all had a front row seat to that particular struggle for the last 6 years. I hoped that my time at Mo Ranch would enable me to find the energy and passion to make the changes I need to make to achieve a permanent improvement of my overall health.

But Credo surprised me. Credo did so much more. If I had to describe the heart of what I heard God whispering last week, it all comes down to one word: Stewardship. Stewardship across all the areas of life. Stewardship is a word that means, according to the dictionary, “overseeing and protecting.” Another way of thinking about that is, “taking care.”

At Mo Ranch I heard God affirm my hopes for better stewardship of my health with a loud, “Yes!” by means of the presence of a terrific doctor on our faculty, who talked with me, and walked with me, and helped me understand what I’m capable of in terms of exercise and increased fitness. It was also affirmed by a terrain in which, somehow, every single building seemed to be uphill from every other building. I swear I walked uphill all week! It was all a part of a wonderful eight days of more physical activity than I’d had in a long time, and it felt great to move. Stewardship of the body God gave me is the first part of my plan of action as I go forward.

Then, to my surprise, my heart was captivated by my concern for the stewardship of this congregation, and our witness of over 190 years here in the Union district of Endicott. This is our stewardship season, of course. Each week we are hearing from members of UPC, telling us how they found themselves at home here, and, either implicitly or explicitly, encouraging you to join in our campaign of giving towards our annual budget. And I want to say a big “Yes!” and “Amen” to all of that!

But the concern that was awakened in me was, not only for this stewardship campaign, in this calendar year, but for our ongoing care of the gifts we have been given for the future.

By now you have all received the beautiful letter sent out by our Finance, Endowment, and Stewardship Committee. That letter contained information about the state of our endowments; more specifically, on the future of our endowments, if our spending patterns don’t change. As our fund manager from Pittsburgh told us at our meeting on Thursday, we are drawing too much from these funds. Well, what’s the harm in that, you might ask. It’s a great question. Isn’t money meant to be spent? Yes, absolutely—and hoarding is no virtue, as the story of the manna revealed to us. But these funds were never intended to be spent down supporting our annual budget. They are rainy day funds, and funds for building maintenance. And, over the past several years, it has rained like crazy, both literally and metaphorically, and we are blessed, blessed, to have been able to lean on the gifts of our predecessors. But it’s time for us to take a fresh look at our spending—thoughtfully, deliberately, prayerfully, and keeping our mission statement ever in the forefront of that effort. It is time for us to begin.

This afternoon, the Presbytery of Susquehanna Valley will install me as your pastor, and I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. I have been grinning ear to ear for months. And it was an incredible gift to me, at Credo, to hear in my heart a prompting that I am pretty sure came from God to look forward with you: forward to many, many happy, and challenging, and busy years together, yes! And also, to look forward to the time beyond my pastorate here, when I will finally have to hang up my spurs at, oh, age 90 or something like that. I want UPC to be here. I want the loving, serving, welcoming witness of this church to the love of God in the world to go beyond my tenure here. I want it to be here for our children, and our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren; I want it to be here for the strangers, the wanderers and the wayfarers of generations to come; I want UPC to be here.

God whispered in Samuel’s ear that David was the one—David, who, as it turns out, was a pretty good-looking guy after all. David went from herding sheep to being a shepherd for God’s covenant people, and he had a good long tenure as king—40 years! David was God’s beloved, but he was not perfect. David was God’s beloved, flawed, and called servant, and despite his foibles, his missteps, his sins and his crimes, he remains the most celebrated king of the Hebrew Scriptures.

We too, are God’s beloved, flawed, and called servants. We are called to stewardship in every area of our lives—to care for the bodies God gave us, to care for our spiritual growth by listening for God’s whispers in our hearts, to care for the work God has called us to do, and to care for our own finances and those of the organizations we love. I am so glad to be here. I am committed to working with you to ensure that UPC will be here. I pray that the Spirit of God might come mightily upon us, just as it did upon David, to give us strength and joy for our work together. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[i] John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902).

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Bread for the World: A World Communion Sunday Sermon on Exodus 16:1-18

Scripture can be found here...

Look at it from God’s perspective.

These people are a bunch of whiners.

God, over the many chapters we have skipped to get here, has responded to the groaning of the people in slavery with as great a display of power as anyone could imagine—no, greater.

·      The appointment of the nobody/royal insider Moses as their leader. (Remember, Moses was raised by the daughter of a Pharaoh.)
·      The empowering of Moses and his brother Aaron to present themselves to the Pharaoh, at the risk of their lives, with their bold entreaty: Let my people go.
·      The demonstration of God’s fearsome (and persuasive) power by means of the plagues.
·      The parting of the sea so that God’s people could escape Pharoah’s armies, and then, the releasing of that sea, so that Pharoah’s warriors and charioteers could be drowned and God’s power even more mightily displayed.

I’m not going to lie to you—some of those items include a God I don’t much like to ponder, a God who is willing to kill some to demonstrate power, a God I have a hard time getting my head around. But ponder these words, from one of the scholars I’ve read this week:

This is a revolutionary act. Slaves are ignored and irrelevant in the course of history. Gods do not act for slaves, but for kings and empires. This [God] has turned the world and its rules upside down.[i]

Look at it from God’s perspective: These people are a bunch of ungrateful whiners. God has turned history upside down by being the God of the least powerful. And these people are longing for the fleshpots of Egypt.

Now, look at it from the people’s perspective.

They are hungry.

Not in the way we feel when we walk into a bakery—or coffee hour!—and take a whiff of the aromas of delectable foods. Not in the way we feel when lunch is a little late, or when we skip a meal and come to the next one with cranky stomachs. Not even in the way we feel after a couple of hours spent exercising, or a morning spent stripping wallpaper and painting a room. This is real hunger. This is what is known as “food insecurity.” The US Department of Agriculture, which is shut down this week, describes a family as being very food insecure when, “at times during the year, eating patterns of one or more household members [are] disrupted and food intake reduced because the household lack[s] money and other resources for food.” When you are in this state, your stomach is empty, and you are weak from hunger. You don’t have a clue when you will eat next, or how you will legally get that food, for yourself and for your loved ones.

Look at it from the people’s perspective.  They are hungry. And the memory of the fleshpots of Egypt—which is a fabulous word that means, basically, pots of stew with plenty of meat—the memory of them suddenly seems to mock the former slaves’ newfound freedom. Even the memory of something inextricably wrapped up with the memories of oppression starts to sound good, it makes it seem like it wasn’t all that bad, really. That’s what hunger will do to you.

And, of course, hunger is not a problem unique to the ancient world. The hungry are with us still. I know you know that. Sometimes hunger comes to a family during a recession; someone is laid off, and before you know it, someone—sometimes just the adults, sometimes the whole family—has to skip a meal, or even a whole day’s worth of meals. Sometimes food insecurity comes to families as a result of even more sinister economic forces. In Cameroon, the country that gave birth to the wonderful anthem that was our introit this morning, wealthy merchants hoard crops and speculate on their prices, which means that chronic hunger exists in large segments of the population.

But look at it from God’s perspective. This is all about trust.

When God gave the hungry Israelites the gift of the manna, it came with strict instructions. Gather enough for today. On the day before the Sabbath, gather enough for two days, and no more. God’s response to the hungry people was to answer their cries—again—but also to try to coax them into a more intimate and trusting relationship. And just to put a nice, fine point on it, when the people did gather more than they should, when they didn’t trust that the manna would be there the next day… it grew worms. It started to smell bad.

This is all about trust.

It is not easy to trust, apparently, not even to trust a God who has given vivid displays of power. The Israelites wavered in their trust, as food supplies dwindled and disappeared in the harsh, unforgiving climate of the wilderness. And still God continued to demonstrate the divine intention that everyone should have enough, even these wilderness wanderers. As for the rest of us, God has created a world in which there is enough. There is enough farmable land to grow our crops. There are enough seeds to be planted. Most years, there is enough water to help the crops grow. But we know that the food is not necessarily getting into the hands of those who need it. This is where we come in.

To help the people in Cameroon, the Presbyterian Hunger Program, which is supported by our Peacemaking Offering, establishes community-run grain banks, so that the monopoly on grain is broken, and the people can eat. To help the people of the Southern Tier, the Broome County Council of Churches collects food and money to assist those who are food insecure in our midst. In 2012, 22% of the children in the United States were food insecure. That translates to 2900 children in Endicott, 3292 children in Johnson City, 6021 in Vestal, and about 10241 in Binghamton. Twenty thousand children within a few miles of this sanctuary. That is a lot of hunger. That is a lot of need. That is a lot of opportunity for us to make a difference in people’s lives.

Look at it from God’s perspective. God has given enough food for the world. We who already have enough are invited into the holy work of God’s creation and re-creation, as we learn ways to help that food get where it needs to go. It’s like that wonderful song by Saint Susan Werner, in which she sings:

I got plenty and then some… what do I do?
I got plenty and then some… what do I do?
I got plenty and then some… what do I do now?
I go out and help somebody get plenty and then some too.

If I’ve got ‘plenty and then some…’ why wouldn’t I want to help somebody else to have the same?

In a few moments we gather around this table, to be fed bread from all around the world and the fruit of the vine. We did nothing to earn our place at this table. None of us is here because we are good. We are here because God is good. The gift of this table is pure grace, just like the gift of manna to the whining Israelites. We can trust: there is enough. There is enough for us here, and there is enough for God’s vision of plenty to be realized throughout the world. This is where we are nurtured and strengthened for that work. This is where we are fed, so that all God’s people might be fed. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Beth Tanner, “Commentary on Exodus 16:1-18, Narrative Lectionary/,