Word Cloud (Wordle) of Sermon for Nov. 1, 2009, All Saints Day

Wordle: Stewardship sermon #3

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Sermon for Nov. 1, 2009 All Saints Day, Stewardship Sunday #3, Haggai 1:1-11; 2 Cor 9:6-15

Lamentations 2:18-19

Haggai 1:1-11

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

Discovering New Love and New Mercy

harvest.001

 

 

I was an assistant pastor in the Chicago area before going overseas as a missionary.  When the senior pastor went on vacation, I was the one on-call for pastoral duties.  In my first year there I got a call from a local funeral home needing a pastor to conduct a service, so I agreed.  I did not know the family or the woman who died.  As we spoke together I told them that I was sorry for their loss.  One of them replied, “Oh, we lost our mother long ago; she had alzheimer’s disease.”

Some of you have been in their circumstances; you know what it means to journey with a parent whose memories fade away; it is a difficult journey indeed.

We know who we are because we know our own story.  When we meet people and introduce ourselves, we select bit of our story to tell them; we compare notes with them about the bits of the stories they tell of their history; we look for places of overlap: “You had knee surgery?  Me too.”  It is our common memories that bind us together.

How would we tell the story of our church here in Gulf Shores?  Would we begin 53 years ago when this church was founded?  Should we begin with the early  Presbyterians who came to the new world from Scotland?  Should we begin with the Reformation in the 16th century?

Reformation Sunday

This Sunday is significant for this congregation for a number of reasons. This is the Sunday on which we are celebrating the Reformation in which the Presbyterian Church was born.  On October 31st, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the Wittenberg church door, and thereby initiated a process of reform that would spread around the world.

Exactly 500 years ago, in 1509, John Calvin was born.  He was the Reformer whose written work, especially his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” gave definition to the Reformed Theology, which is the theology of the Presbyterian Church today.

Our story as a church, in other words, the definition of who we are now, includes that time of Reformation which was a time of new openness to the Spirit, new attention to the words of Scripture, and new commitment to faith in God through Jesus Christ.  They left us with a legacy that gives shape to our identity today.  The motto they handed on to us is this: “The church, reformed, always reforming, according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.”

All Saints Day

This Sunday is also significant in the life of this congregation because it is the Sunday of All Saints in which we remember and give thanks for the men and women who have now finished their race and have gone on before us to be with the Lord.

As we look back on the life of this congregation and of the Presbyterian Church, we can decide how we tell our story.  Do we tell our story with a sense of nostalgia or even sorrow at what has been lost to the past, or do tell it as a celebration of the sacred memories of lives lived in faithfulness to God which helped to bring us to where we are today?  We are people of memory: stories of our people, the people of God in the past help give shape to our identity in the present.

Israel’s story

We read a text from the Old Testament prophet Haggai which is powerfully important to us today.  In his day, the people who had been exiles in Babylon had returned to the Promised Land.   They had come back after 70 years – the vast majority had been born in exile.  Their only knowledge of the the beautiful city of Jerusalem and the magnificent temple Solomon had built were from the stories their families told.  Perhaps they expected things to be easier in their generation, or to get better faster – who knows? – but in any case, they were not going well.  There was frustration at the difficulty and cost of re-building.  Priorities had to be made; budgets were tight.

The question is, what do you do when the money is tight?  We need to look at this story, part of our story as believers, and learn from their experience.  When those people chose to leave their center of worship in ruins while they built their own houses, the prophet asked them: how is this working for you?

4 Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?  5 Now therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared.  6 You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.

When the values of the community are distorted, there is no sense of well-being – even in the paneled houses.   All the sowing, eating, drinking and clothing just left them feeling empty.

They desperately needed to review their story, starting not just with the past glory days of Solomon, but further back, to their founding story; they were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt.  They became a people in the land of promise because God redeemed them “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

Their story was not a glory-days lost story, it was a redemption story!  Telling that story would enable them to honor the God of their redemption by getting priorities straight as they re-built their society in the land.  Even if it took more than one generation, their responsibility in their generation was to build the place where future generations could meet God.

Our story is similar: we are not here to tell a tale of lost glory days of the past, or even of present hardships: we are here to tell a redemption story and to build for a future that may not even be completed in our time on this earth so that future generations can meet God through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s story

There is another powerful story we need to hear, from our family’s past: it is the one we jumped into the middle of when we read from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.  That story was about Paul’s two year effort to take up a collection from the gentile churches that he founded on his missionary journeys to take back to the mother church, the Jewish believers in Jerusalem.  Paul wanted to show, in the dramatic way that money can show, what those new Gentile Christians believed; that the two vastly different peoples, Jews and Gentiles, were actually one in the body of Christ – all of them redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Messiah; God’s son.

Paul knew the “law of the harvest.”  With words remarkably similar to the words of the prophet Haggai, Paul spoke of financial gifts in terms of “sowing and reaping.”  There is, he teaches, a direct correlation between the quantity sown and the quantity reaped; sow much, reap much;  sow little, reap little – the “law of the harvest.”  When God who redeemed us is honored by our priorities, then we experience blessings that far outweigh the investment.

Our Story

We are a people of memory: a people who know who we are because of how we tell our story: ours is a redemption story.  We are here today because of a steady stream of faithfulness.

  • We have been blessed by the people we remember today who this past year went home to be with the Lord.
  • We have been blessed by the courage and dedication of the people who 53 years ago founded this congregation.
  • We have been blessed by the generation of people who established the Presbyterian Church in the difficult conditions of the new world.
  • We have been blessed by the courage and faithfulness of the Reformers of the 16th century, Martin Luther, John Calvin and many others.

Our story is a redemption story: we are people who have been redeemed by God’s great steadfast love and mercy, shown most dramatically through Jesus Christ.

Now, in our generation, it is our responsibility to build the church for the sake of future generations so that they can discover God’s love and mercy.  We do not give to the church like a charitable contribution, based on how much expendable money we have left after all the bills are paid.  Rather, we are people who know the law of the harvest: that we will reap bountifully when we sow bountifully.  We believe that the God who redeemed us is honored when we give back to him the first 10%, the tithe of our annual harvest.

Our story is a story that is not afraid, even in difficult circumstances to assert boldly:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning.  Great is your faithfulness.”

Stewardship Sermon #2 New Love and New Mercy, even after… 2 Kings 25:1-21; Lam. 3:19-25; John 3:16

2Kings 25:1-21

Lam. 3:19-25

John 3:16-17

New Love and New Mercy, even after..

new growth
new growth

It seemed so simple: long ago God made a promise to Abraham:

Gen. 12:1-3

Now the LORD said to Abram,

“Go forth from your country,

And from your relatives

And from your father’s house,

To the land which I will show you;

2 And I will make you a great nation,

And I will bless you,

And make your name great;

And so you shall be a blessing;

3 And I will bless those who bless you,

And the one who curses you I will curse.

And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

The promise was renewed to Abraham’s descendants in each new generation: to Isaac, and to Jacob, the father of 12 sons who became the 12 tribes of Israel.

But it was never so simple.  Famine in the land that was promised forced the clan  to migrate out of their land, to Egypt.  Their thanksgiving for that rescue from death by starvation became cries of lament one short generation later, as they were reduced to slavery under Pharaoh; 400 years of slavery.  “How long, O Lord?”

But the God who made that promise to Abraham was able to do something new; God was able to deliver them from the hand of Pharaoh and his mighty army with its shiny chariots.  God called to Moses, from the burning bush, and told him to go to Pharaoh and say, “Thus says the Lord: let my people go.”   That was not so simple either.  But in the end, they did go – as slaves set free; free to go back to the land of promise.

And free to doubt the reliability of the God who had just liberated them; free to forget – quickly – the work of his “mighty hand and outstretched arm” that had defeated the world’s only Superpower.  Free to fear the Canaanites in the promised land – and so, free to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.

But the Lord is a God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, (Ex. 34:6).  A new generation came of age who did believe, and led by Joshua, they took possession of the land promised to Abraham so long ago.

Receiving a portion; an inheritance

This was a moment of triumph that had waited for hundreds of years to be fulfilled since that original promise was made.  Finally, Joshua was able to distribute to each tribe their own portion of that land.  That portion was their gift from God himself.  They were to treasure that portion and never sell it. They were to hand it down the generations; their portion became their inheritance; the lasting witness to God’s steadfast love and mercy, his faithfulness.  The people treasured that inheritance above all; not for its cash value, but because that inheritance was God’s gift.

That should be the end of the story, but things are not so simple.  In a few short generations that group of tribal families became a monarchy.  As the kingship passed from generation to generation, more often than  not they turned their backs on the Lord and worshiped and served the gods of the pagan nations around them.

The nation broke apart; the Northern kingdom was no match for the mighty Assyrians who conquered them and brutally ended their existence.  The Southern tribe of Judah remained a little while longer, but eventually they succumbed to the onslaught of the Chaldeans from Babylon, or Babylonians as they are also called.  We read the final chapter in that story; the two year siege, the starvation, and finally the capture and brutal treatment of the king, the killing of his heirs to the throne, the snuffing out of the last candle of hope.

Understanding that (and our) story

How do you understand that story?  This is what the majority of the Old Testament is about: the people of God, trying to understand that story; their story.  Where was God in that story?

Our stories meet this story at the point of this question.  Everyone of us has a story to tell of our lives and our family’s life; and like the Israelite’s experience, it is not a simple tale.  There have been complications.

I know some of your stories.  You have told me about some of the things you have experienced that have caused great pain.  Some have told me about war experiences.  Others have lost children; some have lost spouses.  Some had to deal with illness, with divorce, some with times of poverty.  Some have struggled with internal issues – doubt, depression, anxiety, addictions.  No story is simple.  Our question is the same as the Israelites asked at the moment of their greatest calamity: where is God in this?  Why did this happen?  Is there a reason to hope?  What happened to the promise?

The story’s last word

Israel tried to tell her story first as a rather simple one: “If we would have done what was right, we would have continued to enjoy the blessing of our inheritance, our land.  But we often failed to trust God, and hence we brought this destruction upon ourselves: we are under his curse.”   Some of you may feel the same; you may feel that the bad experiences of your life are God’s punishment.

But nothing is so simple.  In fact, as Israel told her story, it became clear that over and over again, after they had been bad, after they had broken faith, failed to trust, after they had experienced some of the consequences of their failure, God never abandoned them.  Punishment was never the last word.  God always came back, without any justification, and offed them new love, new mercy.

3 Requests Granted

If I were to give you an index card right now and ask you to write down three things that you would ask God for, if you knew you could receive from him just these three, what would they include?  Picture yourself taking that card and writing three requests: what are they?

I doubt whether you imagined writing down that what you wanted most from God was a nicer home, or a car, or even money.  I bet you thought of your relationship with God, about your family, kids and grandkids.  I bet the things on that card are really not the kind of things we spend most of our lives worrying about.  I believe that if we were given enough time to think about the requests on that card, we may all have written that what we want is to be certain that we are in the hands of a good God, and so to be confident of his loving care for us and for our loved ones.

Jeremiah’s conclusion

This is what Jeremiah concluded as he looked out on his battle-blackened city; Jerusalem, reduced to rubble, still smoldering and stinking of death.  He looked out on his portion, his inheritance, the land of promise that now was not his nor his people’s and said:

The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” (Lam. 3:24)

“All this time,” Jeremiah is saying, in effect, “we thought the main thing was land; and we lost it.  But land has never been the main thing; “stuff” has never been the highest good.  What we have needed all these years is the Lord himself.  He himself is the source of everything, his presence is the fundamental blessing.  What is my source of hope?  It is not the land, my inherited portion;” rather, Jeremiah says in that moment of pain and loss:

The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

As he looks over that devastation, he remembers his family’s story – he remembers other times of calamity and loss when hope was gone; and he remembers that judgment never has the last word.  “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” So he says:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

Proof of new love, new mercy

The fact that we are alive and here today bears witness to this truth.  There is new love and new mercy, even after loss and pain.  God gives new love and new mercy even after suffering the consequences of our own failures.  God gives new love and new mercy even after our sinful participation in the evil of our times.

We know this even better than Jeremiah did.  We know that God acted again in an amazing way, sending us his very own Son, the Lord Jesus:

16God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  (John 3)

Stewardship?

What does this have to do with our stewardship campaign?  Everything!  Because the fundamental issue of stewardship is all about the answer to the question “What is important to us: most important?  It’s about the requests on that index card.  It is all about stepping back from the hamster wheel of daily life and asking: where is my hope?  Where is my deepest heart?  What do I value most?

When we think of the three things on that index card, as people of faith, we are able to say with Jeremiah, “the Lord is my portion”. When my life is over, it will not matter how much land I have, or how many zeros are behind the numbers on the financial statements.  What will matter is whether I was a person of faith who lived out that faith, trusting in God whose “steadfast love is new every morning.”

Session’s commitment to the vision

I must say at this moment that I am so proud of what session has done with our budget.  We met together this past week.  We read scripture, we prayed together, and we talked about what is most important to us.  We talked about what our mission statement means: that we are people committed to “Loving God, Growing in Faith, and Sharing Christ’s Love.”  As we did, we reflected on our history of giving to missions; we reaffirmed our desire not to allow that commitment to be shaken, even in difficult times like these.  We discussed ways of taking on more responsibility ourselves – yes, us – a congregation whose average age is 75  years old, to reduce our spending by doing more with volunteers.

We re-affirmed that God has called us here to be a congregation in Gulf Shores for a purpose, and that a huge part of that purpose was to make sure we were significantly involved in mission.  We are depending on the faith that God is a God of New Love and New Mercy, and will be faithful to us as we commit ourselves to being his faithful disciples.

I am calling all of us to this same level of commitment that session demonstrated.  We are not asking for charitable donations – the amount left over for giving to worthwhile causes after the bills are paid.  We are people who believe in and practice the harvest principle: everything we have his the Lord’s.  He allows us to use 90% of it for ourselves, but he requires that we set aside the first 10%, the tithe, dedicated to him.  I guarantee that we will never miss that 10%; we will, instead, experience the blessing of having our hearts in the right place, free from the anxiety that we are alone in this world.  We are not alone.

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

Sermon for Oct. 18, 2009 Stewardship Series #1 Dan. 9:15-19; Lam. 3:21-24

Luke 12:42-48

Dan. 9:15-19

Lam. 3:21-24

Tapped into God’s Love and Mercy

Kurtz family sod house: Kansas
Kurtz family sod house: Kansas

The earliest record we have for our family is Ulrich Kurtz, born in 1610.  Some of you can probably trace your families genealogy much earlier, but that’s as far back as we know about.  I only know bits and pieces of the family story: it starts in Switzerland, moves to Germany, and crosses over to America, around Lancaster Pennsylvania.  A later generation took advantage of the offer of land in the expanding West and moved the family to Kansas.  In my generation we came back east, as far as Ohio.

My father has a photograph of a primitive prairie home made of stacked sod with a tin roof; the family’s  first dwelling in Kansas.  The story I was told was that after they became established, they eventually built a home that was quite a bit nicer – probably most everything in it was made by hand.  But then the Great Depression came and they lost that house.  Eventually they were able to replace it with a more modest home in which my father and his brothers and sisters grew up – and in which my uncle lived until he retired.

I do not know many details of the stories of those generations, but one thing is clear; over those many years, each generation  was able to affirm: “Great is thy faithfulness, O God.”  The many biblical names they gave their sons testifies to their faith: there were boys named Adam, Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, Peter, Mark, Steven; it continues in my family with Benjamin and Nathaniel.

Somehow, even in the pain of a the Great Depression, they found the grace to tap into a vein that was deeper than the present; they tapped into the vein of God’s love and mercy – ancient as Creation, but which is renewed every morning..

My family story

The part of my family story I know best of course is my own.  I can look back on my life and affirm, “Great is thy Faithfulness” over and over.  There was the time when I was on summer break from college.  I was working hard every day to save up for the coming school year, when suddenly, one Sunday afternoon, while playing a little back yard softball, I tore the cartilage in my knee.  That was before the age of arthroscopic surgery.  It was weeks before I could return to work – now without the possibility of earning enough money.

That summer a family friend sold his business and retired.  He was committed to “harvest principle” of tithing one tenth of the proceeds of the sale, out of gratitude for God’s faithfulness to him and his business over the years.  He heard of my need, and wrote me a check for more that the amount of my lost income.   I went back to school that fall saying “Great is thy faithfulness, O God.”

It is easy to bring gratitude to God for his faithfulness when things work out, but my family has known of God’s faithfulness in hard times too.  In the Great Depression when that house was lost, they knew that God was with them, and had a future for them.

Israel’s family story

The Great Depression was bad – severely for some – but yet nothing like the devastation Israel witnessed during the Babylonian conquest.  Looking at the smoldering ruins of the once elegant city of Jerusalem, Jeremiah sees the fire-blackened stones where homes had been, the streets still battle-stained but eerily empty, save the scavenging dogs.

During the siege he witnessed nobel people reduced to ignoble acts in vain survival attempts.  He saw the lives of young men and women brutally extinguished.  He saw the temple invaded by infidels, desecrated, looted, and finally set ablaze and demolished; priests and prophets not spared.  He can only weep as he cries a long, agonized lament.  From the depths of his agony, from his lamentation we hear these words:

this I call to mind,

and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

great is your faithfulness.

“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,

“therefore I will hope in him.” (Lam 3:22-24)

Somehow Jeremiah had the grace, in that moment of pain, to tap into a vein that was deeper than the present; he tapped into the vein of God’s love and mercy – ancient as Creation, but which is renewed every morning.

Daniel’s story

During that same conquest, one of those young men, ripped from his home and family, captured and dragged hundreds of miles away in chains to Babylon to become a slave of a foreign empire was Daniel.  We heard his lament today, his cry to God from the land of exile, his confession of sin and prayer for deliverance.

18 Incline your ear, O my God, and hear. Open your eyes and look at our desolation and the city that bears your name. We do not present our supplication before you on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of your great mercies.

Along with Jeremiah, Daniel, the prisoner, the slave, the homeless refugee can use the word “mercies” because he knows God as steadfast in his love.  Daniel knows the family story of the people of Israel, and even in his prayer of lament and confession he recites the narrative of past faithfulness:

15“O Lord our God, who brought your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and made your name renowned even to this day…”

Did you hear what he was able to say, from Babylon: even to this day…”.

Somehow Daniel found the grace, even in his pain, to tap into a vein that was deeper than the present;  he tapped into the vein of God’s love and mercy – ancient as Creation, but which is renewed every morning.

Our Theme Song

People of faith are not fickle people.  We are not the kind of people who take for granted all of the past evidence of God’s mercy and faithfulness as if we were here today by our own design.  Gratitude is at the heart of all of our lives, not because the sun is shining today, but because we are here, alive today by the mercy of God.

It is not just within the church on Sunday mornings that we sing the song that will be our theme this month of Stewardship emphasis, “Great is thy Faithfulness” – but we sing that song from hospital beds and from empty rooms of grief and loss because we understand that every breath we draw is a sign of God’s mercy and love.

Somehow, even in the pain of a bad economy, we find the grace to tap into a vein that is deeper than the present; we tap into the vein of God’s love and mercy – ancient as Creation, but which is renewed every morning.

Stewardship Season

Today we begin our stewardship emphasis.  We are at a critical moment in the life of our country and in the life of our congregation.  There is nothing like an economic crisis to force us to examine priorities and values.  When money has to be cut from budgets, it is painful and it forces the question: what are we all about?

Many people were not happy with the proposed budget’s cuts to mission.  I was not happy either.  Session was not happy.  No one wanted that outcome.  At the end of a long meeting, we agreed that other than cutting personnel, there was no other choice.

But long meetings have a way of strangling creative thinking.  Exhaustion can lead to decisions that might not have been made otherwise.  After we passed our proposed budget last Sunday, in conversation with several elders, we began to look for alternatives.  We believe we can find them, so I have called a special session meeting for Tuesday to reconsider every corner of our spending.

I believe that we must do this because of who we are; we are a people who like Jeremiah and like Daniel know our story.  It is a story of redemption and forgiveness; it is a story of nurture and guidance; it is a story of countless occasions on which we have been recipients of grace upon grace.  We have been given much – and as our Lord said,

to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded (Luke 12:48)

I believe that we will finish this process with a budget goal that is in greater congruity with our vision and our values.

But what will this process look like?  Each year a church constructs a budget and then asks for pledges and faith promises.  The last step of the process is to compare the paper budget with the total amount of pledges and faith promises to see if the budget is realistic.  This is made more complicated by the fact that some choose not to pledge, even though they give faithfully.   Nevertheless, the final budget is one that the officers of the church believe is realistically attainable.

Now is the time in our life as a congregation to prepare to make those pledges and faith promises.  This is a time to reflect, not just on the state of the economy, not just on our assets, but on our values, our vision, and even our identity.  This is why stewardship season is so crucial – it goes to the heart of who we are as a people.

We are people of faith in a faithful God.  We are people who have been redeemed by God’s mission of Love – in Jesus Christ, and so, we are a people in mission.

Harvest Giving, the tithe

In the church, we do not believe in “charitable giving” – adding up what may be left over after all of our bills and entertainments are paid for.  Rather we are people who believe in the “harvest principle:” that to God belongs the first fruits of the harvested income.

Just as the farmer only knows the value of the crop after the harvest in the fall, so we may not be able to predict the exact amounts of our incomes, which is why the people of God have always used the system of percentage giving.  We believe that everything that comes in from the harvest is a gift from God, who graciously allows us to spend 90% of it as we wish.  He has called for the first 10% to be set aside first, as our sacred offering.

I am calling on all of us to examine our hearts in these next four weeks: some may be giving regularly but at a percentage below the tithe.  Perhaps giving a full 10% seems to scary.  Then take the faith-challenge to grow to the 10% level.  Whatever the percentage you have been giving, increase it by two percent per year until you reach the full 10% tithe.  I promise you, you will not miss the money, but rather you will experience a new level of freedom from its dominating demands.

When we come here with our pledges and faith-promises in several weeks, let us come as the people of faith who know the truest truth: that we worship and serve a God who is full of mercy and compassion, a God who has a reliable record of faithfulness in the past, and whose mercies are new every morning

Somehow, even in the pain of a bad economy, we will find the grace to tap into a vein that is deeper than the present; we tap into the vein of God’s love and mercy – ancient as Creation, but which is renewed every morning.  As Jeremiah said:

this I call to mind,

and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

great is your faithfulness.


Blog Action Day ’09

Poets of sacrifice and sacred spaces

Dead Sea area
Dead Sea area

Psalm 24

The earth is the LORD’S, and all it contains,
The world, and those who dwell in it.
For He has founded it upon the seas
And established it upon the rivers.

In the ancient world of the Near East, Israel’s neighbors believed that all of nature was filled with gods. No; that’s not quite the way to say it. Rather, we should say that they made no difference at all between the natural and the divine realms. The sun had a name; the sun-god had a name: they were the same name. To say “sun” was to say “god”. Same with the moon. Same with the sea. Same with the river. Nature had a capital N. The gods of sun, moon, rain and storm could like you and help you, hate you and kill you – it was little matter to them – what mattered was that they get their pound of flesh from you; sacrifice; meat cooked into the form they could consume: smoke. The ancient language of sacrificial smoke feeding the gods through aromatic enjoyment finds its way into biblical poetic imagery. The Lord speaks to Moses and says:

“Command the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be careful to present My offering, My food for My offerings by fire, of a soothing aroma to Me, at their appointed time.’ -Num. 28:2

An Israelite sits uneasily with this imagery. There is a story so fundamental to Israel that it must be told first; in fact it is the story of the first moments of the world, the time “when God began to create the heavens and the earth”, the Genesis story. Hearing the story of the God who spoke creation into existence cannot help but subvert the metaphors of sacrifice – images of a hungry God, looking for human help towards a satisfying meal. It’s hard to square with a God whose creative action is the reason every meal exists to be cooked and eaten. And so the poet of Psalm 50 reflects on sacrifice with an eye towards Creation and says, as if speaking for God:

“For every beast of the forest is Mine,
The cattle on a thousand hills.
“I know every bird of the mountains,
And everything that moves in the field is Mine.
“If I were hungry I would not tell you,
For the world is Mine, and all it contains.
“Shall I eat the flesh of bulls
Or drink the blood of male goats?
“Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving
And pay your vows to the Most High;

There is a better way to give to God what God wants than to catch it, cut its throat, lay it out on an alter over a fire and turn it into smoke. The poet shows us that there is a way to offer to God something God wants but cannot have without humans: un-coerced love, becoming visible on lips moving in the motion of gratitude, of praise; a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

“Consider,” says Jesus, another poet of creation, “the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. – Luke 12:27

It took courage to compare the national hero to a field flower and have him come up the lesser; Solomon – bested by a budding field-flower. But who could dispute it? Silk and tapestry in the most opulent monarchical wardrobe pale next to colored canyon walls, desert shadow symmetry and leaf veins.

We come back to Psalm 24 again:

The earth is the LORD’S, and all it contains,
The world, and those who dwell in it.

We are the subjects of the second line: we are “those who dwell in it.” We are the inhabiters of space that belongs to Another. We are the campers at the park who gather the circle of rocks, build the fire, and leave in the morning. Our sojourn in this land that-is-not-ours is brief – but not insignificant. We have learned to bang rocks into sparks, kindle sparks into flames, boil water into steam, power cities that never sleep and machines that need no rest. We have become like gods to the world that we dwell in, capable of changing it beyond un-changing. But “it” is not ours. The earth is the Lord’s. “Consider the lilies” that used to grow where our feet now stand. Consider whose land we stand upon. “Bring a sacrifice of thanksgiving” while we still may.

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