Monday, August 31, 2009

Liturgical Two-fer

I'm pretty excited that this Sunday we are celebrating BOTH sacraments in the same service. In my former life we completely discouraged this, wouldn't allow it, in fact. The timing didn't work out because what then would we do about the sermon and how would it come together for the broadcast?

I feel so blessed to be freed from those kinds of contraints, and pretty excited to figure out what I'm going to do with worship this week. Yes, the preaching time will hve to be less, but, despite the usual length of my sermons, I do believe that sometimes less is more. It seems like a good time to address the connection and common threads of meaning shared by our two sacraments, but I also don't want it to be too teach-y. Maybe the connections can come in the liturgy instead of the word preached. Or maybe I can do two different sermonettes one at the font and one at the table. Hmmm...I'm leaning toward the liturgy so that I'm less tempted to say too much!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Doing Faith - Deu. 4:1-2, 6-9; James 1:27-47

You know how I first knew I was a mom? I mean, REALLY REALLY knew it? It wasn’t when I held our baby for the first time. It wasn’t when she said her first word or even took her first step. It wasn’t even the first time she called for me when she was happy to see me after time apart. Those were all moments when I knew in more and more depth each time that I was a MOTHER. But do you know how I first knew I was a MOM?

It’s when I did this – (LICK THUMB and MIME WIPING A FACE) – for the first time. THAT’S when I knew I was a mom. When I somehow began to believe that my saliva had magic properties for cleaning ketchup off faces and smoothing down stray hairs, THAT’S when I knew I was a mom. I mean, I had had quite a career of babysitting in my day, all the way up into my mid-20s as a seminary student. I took care of countless children in every town that I lived, but no matter how comfortable I got with those kids, never once did it cross my mind to use that to clean any of them.

But when I became a mom, the things I did changed. The things I never thought I’d do, I did. And I’d bet if you saw me, or if you see anyone else doing THIS when you pass them by, you know he or she is a dad or a mom, or a grandpa or a grandma. There are just some things that we do that tell everything about who we are.

Moses knew it, and that’s why he gave them EXTRA encouragement to listen to what he was going to say, to listen AND obey the words God gave him to speak. The people around the Israelites were watching them. This rag-tag bunch of men, women, and children were wandering around in the wilderness. They were getting ready to enter a land they claimed was theirs, but they hadn’t had relatives in those parts for centuries. The people in the Promised Land were watching the Israelites, and Moses knew that the way they acted, the things they would do, would tell more than anything they said.

He wanted, God wanted, to make sure that their actions, their lives, sent the right message. Moses wanted, Yahweh wanted, to make sure that the things the Israelites did accurately reflected the god to whom they belonged, the faith which they proclaimed with their lips. Moses and God knew that what the people did really mattered.

I read this week from a preaching colleague that one of the sermons she remembers best is a sermon she never heard. The worship service began and progresses as usual, but when the expected sermon time came the preacher offered only a few introductory comments, and then sent the congregation out of the sanctuary and into the community, to be “doers” of all that we proclaim in church each Sunday. One church member said afterwards, “Every week, we hear the sermon. This week, we lived it.”

I had similar plans for our worship this week, but I’m not quite THAT brave. Over the last four weeks, I have addressed issues at the center of sustainability in our worship from, I believe, a Christian point-of-view. Particularly we have heard about the just some of the ways our Scripture, tradition, and God speaks to the role of human beings in the economy, the environment, and society. I have read and studied and prayed and talked a LOT. Many of you have heard a LOT.

But admittedly the things I have said and the things you have heard, have not been very hands on. We’ve heard about God’s claim that enough is enough. With faithful and compassionate practices there is enough money, enough work, enough food to be enjoyed and to go around. We’ve heard that God has blessed us with the power to make changes in our environment, for good or for bad, and charged us with the responsibility to work and preserve creation. We’ve heard that the society that pleases Jesus is one in which friends carry each other to places where they will find the healing and wholeness that will meet the needs in their lives.

We have heard about all these things, but we haven’t talked too much about how we can really DO them. But that’s what we’re going to do today. Coming down the aisles, in sort of a reverse offering style, will be some sheets of paper and pencils. I want you to pass these out among yourselves down your row.

Today we are going to proclaim the Word to each other, we are going to hear the Word spoken through our whole congregation, but not in vague ideas or generalities. We’re going to HEAR the Word by sharing ways we can DO the Word.

Here are your instructions. First, take a moment or two to reflect on one or all of these aspects of community life – the economy (jobs, housing, lending, industry, service, food), the environment (the physical earth, the atmosphere, plants, animals, water), and society (education, the arts and culture, healthcare, religion and faith life, children, the elderly) . Second, I want you jot down on your paper by yourself or in small groups, families or friends (it’s really OK to talk), specific things you can do to be DOERS, not just HEARERS of God’s word.

If it helps, the Scriptures we heard each week will be on the screens in front of you. The goal here is to be specific. If I were really to end this worship service in this sanctuary and ask you to continue your worship with your actions on any of these topics what could you go DO, or what specific change could you make, to be doers of God’s word. Include the children near you in this conversation. Instead of writing their answers they may choose to draw a picture of their actions.

After a few minutes, I will invite anyone who wishes to share to do so, and then later, during our offering, I’m going to ask that you make an offering of your ideas by placing them in the offering plates. We will share these ideas with the congregation in a variety of ways in the coming weeks. Friends, we are called to be HEARERS and DOERS of God’s word. Our life of faith before God and all of creation is incomplete if we are doing just one and not the other. Our faith is not just a thinking faith. It’s not just a hearing and speaking faith. The faith we are called to, the religion that is pure and undefiled before God, is one that cares for those in distress, one in which we DO what we say we BELIEVE. Let us dedicate our lives and actions to this call from God.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Carrying Each Other

Mark 2:1-12
I don’t know that I have that kind of strength. Just yesterday our family went on walk in Willow River State Park. I had enough trouble carrying a 30 pound 2 year old up the stairs to the north look-out. I can’t imagine carrying a full grown man on a mat anywhere. That must have taken some kind of strength.

He hadn’t moved on his own in we don’t know how long. Maybe it was a lifetime, maybe it just seemed like one, but he hadn’t been able to move himself off that mat in way – too – long. I’m sure his friends and his family thought they had exhausted all possible options. The priests couldn’t do anything. Sacrifices at the temple hadn’t changed his legs. Their prayers offered daily, twice a day, every time they saw him and wondered would this ever change, never seemed to make any difference at all.

His life had to have been unimaginably difficult. There weren’t wheelchairs to assist him. There wasn’t a desk job for him to turn to for work and pay. In fact, there was hardly a livelihood or a lifestyle in his rural experience of the ancient world that would accommodate his physical limitations. He couldn’t farm crops in the field. He couldn’t harvest olives from the trees. He couldn’t herd sheep in the pastures. Labor in a village or city was out of the question because he couldn’t move himself from jobsite to jobsite or even around a workshop. Other New Testament stories about men who were paralyzed shows them sitting at the gates of cities, waiting for handouts from anyone who might pass by on their way somewhere else.

The man’s need was obvious, but the solution was harder to realize. Really, he needed a miracle. He needed to walk, but even getting to the one who might provide that kind of healing seemed impossible. Although it was very early in Jesus’ ministry, word had already spread about the miracles he worked and the things he said. The friends of the paralyzed men knew that if he were to have ANY chance at all, he would have a chance with this Jesus. So they carried him. They carried him on his mat, out of his home, on the road, and right to the very house where Jesus was staying.

Only there was one problem when they got there, and a large problem at that. They could barely even get THERE, because of the countless others who got there first. The friends were not discouraged, or if they were, they rose above it. Literally. Seeing no other way to get their friend to the one thing he needed, they climbed up on the roof of the house and carried their friend up there with them.

A few years ago I first heard the story of Team Hoyt – a father and son, Dick and Rick Hoyt, who recently completed their 1,000th race together when they competed in the Boston Marathon this spring. I’m sure there are other father-son pairs who have raced together, maybe over 1,000 times, but there are very few who have done it the way Dick and Rick have done it more than 1,000 times since 1979.

Rick was born in 1962 and complications during his birth left him, according to his own description, a “spastic quadriplegic, cerebral palsy, non-speaking person.” Experts and specialists told his parents that he would never live a normal life, never be able to communicate with them, never understand what was going on around him. They advised the Hoyts to institutionalize their son for life.

To make a long yet inspirational story short, the Hoyts refused to take the doctors’ advice. They raised their son in their own home, and with persistence and the help of dedicated men and women along the way, they worked to develop computerized ways to communicate with their son. When the lines of communication were finally opened for him at age 10, instead of greeting his parents or brothers with his first words, out flowed evidence of Rick’s love for sports.

As a teenager Rick convinced his father to enter them both in a charity running race to benefit a local lacrosse player who had been paralyzed in an accident. As their website says, “Dick, far from being a long-distance runner, agreed to push Rick in his wheelchair. They finished next to last, but they felt they had achieved a triumph. That night, Dick remembers, ‘Rick told us he just didn’t feel handicapped when we were competing.’”

That first race met a need in Rick, the need to feel not handicapped, and it awoke a desire in him to experience that feeling as often as possible. Dick and Rick are sort of a modern day version of Mark’s story about the man on the mat. The need was obvious – Rick needed to feel included in the world that until then had been one experience of exclusion after another. And also like Mark’s story, the solution was much harder to realize, but not impossible. In fact, Dick, like the man’s friends in the gospel, very literally carried his son where he needed to go.

There are needs in the people, in the society, all around us. There are needs that hold each of us. Some of them are obvious. I would venture to guess that just about every one of us in this sanctuary knows someone who is struggling to find work or keep I, or we are those people ourselves. We know of people who wonder how they will pay for their next prescription, the doctor’s appointment they haven’t yet made, the bill for the hospitalization last month, or these worries keep us up at night, too. But we also know there are people who are gripped by needs that are less obvious – those who wrestle with depression or divorce, grief or addiction. We know people who need more education to reach their full potential, people who crave just a moment of rest and relaxation to save their sanity and their spirit.

We also know about the needs of the world beyond those we see on a regular basis. We know about the need for safe and fair elections around the world. We know about the need for equal opportunities for girls and boys, women and men, in education, employment, and status before the law. We know about the need for medical care in both rich and poor countries. We know about the need for peace in areas ravaged by war and terror.

We know there are needs in this world, but the solutions seem far beyond what we can imagine. That is unless we remember what we have read this day in the gospel according to Mark. That is unless we find in this account, the key to sustainable life in our local and global society.

The friends of the paralyzed man knew his need, and they carried him to the one who could meet it. They did EVERYTHING in their power, they worked to overcome every obstacle the faced, to meet the needs of the one whom they carried, to reach the source of the healing they sought.

The mark of the society that is sustainable, the mark of the society that will live on in a way that is beneficial both now and in the future, is a society which carries those in need to the places where they will find healing and wholeness. The sustainable society, the society that is affirmed and blessed and DESIRED by God, is the society where those who are sick are carried to places of healing, those who mourn are carried to comfort, those who are hungry are carried to food, those who live in fear are carried to peace, those who are oppressed are carried to freedom.

Since their first race in 1979, Dick and Rick Hoyt have competed together in 5Ks, 10Ks, half and full marathons. They have competed in 6 Ironman distance triathlons – that 2.5 miles of open water swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and 26.2 miles running – ALL IN ONE DAY. In 1992 they biked and ran across the entire Unites States, 3,735 miles in 45 consecutive days. In each of these races Dick pushed his son’s wheelchair, pedaled his bike while Rick sat in a seat pod on the front, or swam while towing his son in a raft attached to a headband.

It has never been easy. It has never been a walk in the park. But Dick carries his son where he needs to go. Dick carries his son to a place of wholeness, as 4 men carried their friend along the road, up to the roof top, and lowered him into the presence of Jesus, as we are called to carry those in need around us.

As people who proclaim faith in God whose creation is good, Jesus Christ who heals the sick, and the Holy Spirit who renews the world, how can we do any less? How can we do any less than see the need in the world around us, in the people sitting in the pews next to us, and in those we hear about in lands far away? How can we do any less than see their need, our need, and carry one another to sources of healing, restoration, and wholeness? The society that does this will be sustained for generations. The society that does this will be blessed.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Two are Better Than One

Mark 10:35-37, 41-45
Genesis 1:26-28, 31
Genesis 2:4-8, 15

We have this children’s story book at home that drives me a little crazy. I know it’s my own problem and very few people would have this issue, but, well, studying a little too much Genesis will do this to you. I find the pictures BEAUTIFUL and the rhyming verses telling the creation story are well-written. The kids have loved it over the years, so I guess I should just be happy about that and move on. But I can’t. Every time someone picks it out I sort of cringe inside.

You see as this book moves through the days of creation according to Genesis 1, when it gets to day 6 it all starts to fall apart.
“Then God got creative, with camels and cats,
Zebras and weasels and beavers and bats,
Puppies and ponies and rabbits and rats.
But God wasn’t finished, you know
Day Six had a long way to go.
Next, Father and Son, with a plan they discussed,
Created, a man out of nothing but dust.
They called the man “Adam” and asked for his trust.
God told him to name every pet.
Still God wasn’t finished just yet.”
That was it! Did you hear it? No? That’s what drives me crazy! I told you no one else would care! Did you even notice?

That second half of Day Six seems so innocent. It’s something we do all the time. The story of Jesus birth gets told the same way. We take a little of Luke, sprinkle in a little Matthew. It’s all OK, in the name of telling the complete story (and making sure every kid gets a part in the Christmas pageant). But here in the story of creation in Genesis it seems different. To me anyway, it seems more wrong, because in the Scriptures we don’t have just one story of creation. We have two, and really, they don’t exactly tell the same story. The actual order of creation is slightly different in Genesis 1 and 2, not just the level of detail, as is the focus of each story.

Some people think these differences are something to hide or try to fix, but to me that doesn’t seem necessary. I don’t look at the Bible as a science book, or even always as a history book in the conventional sense. I look at the Bible as a book of faith. It’s a book full of the stories, poems, prayers, teachings, laws, preachings of the people of God, written down to share their understanding of God and, with the Holy Spirit God’s understanding of us.

The fact that we have two different stories of creation is not something I have felt the need to hide or correct by mixing the two together. I have never felt the urge to squish the creation of Adam and Eve into the numbered, ordered days of creation (AFTER the animals, which Genesis 2 tells us were created AFTER Adam). We have two different accounts of how the world began, and both of them communicate God’s Word to us. Both of them speak to the human participation in the created order and our special call from God relating to it.

Let’s look first at the account in Genesis 1. It is ordered. It is rhythmic. It almost reads on its own like a children’s book -
“And God said,” “Let there be…,” “And it was so.” “And there was evening and there was morning; the first day.” It is ordered. The ordering of creation, the placement of light here and dark there, the sun here and the moon there, water here and water there, dry land here and wet oceans there, the ordering of chaos is told in an ordered way. The message is there to receive in more than one way. Chaos is calmed by God. Creation, the origin of life, is a story of obedience to God.

We Presbyterians, as theological children of John Calvin, love love LOVE our doctrine of the sovereignty of God, and if it is ANYWHERE it is here in Genesis 1. God is sovereign over all the earth. God’s very WORDS called creation into being out nothing. God’s very WORDS told the chaos where to go, and chaos listened. In Genesis 1 God didn’t even need hands to mold the world together, to piece together the birds of the air and the cattle of the ground, but the command of God, the breath of God, the Word of God was all that needed to be spoken, and the world and all that is in it came into being.

This is God of power! This is God of life! This is God who creates all and rules over all, bringing life where there was none before, bringing order where there was chaos.

It is at the end of this creation account that God creates the human species, not as an afterthought, but maybe as a capstone. The scenery has all been set in the divine drama. The mountains constructed, the fields painted, the oceans set in rolling motion. The animals are creeping and slithering, splashing and fluttering, gliding and sliding through the elements of earth, air, and water, so now it is time to put a fine point on it.

God creates humankind, creates them in God’s image. God creates them and gives them a charge unlike any other element of creation received, “Let them have dominion…. Fill the earth and subdue it.” Sure other organisms were told “Be fruitful and multiply.” Others were blessed as they were called good in the eyes of the Creating God.” But no others were given this charge in the created order. “Have dominion and subdue.”

Unfortunately, misunderstandings and, I believe, arrogance, has caused us humans to use this charge in all sorts of harmful ways. We have interpreted it as a right, not a responsibility. Citing these verses as excuses or permission, human beings have taken advantage of creation, plundering resources, abusing land, decimating populations of other created organisms. We have “claimed our rights” to rule over the rest of the created order, to dominate it, to subdue it, control it, to greedily take what we want even beyond what we need from it without regard for the needs of other creatures or the inanimate creation itself. Historically, these verses have even been used sinfully by certain “faithful” populations to arrogantly assert themselves over so-called savage, or less-human indigenous people on this and other continents.

And, we have done all of this without paying attention to the delicate balance of creation, without honoring and supporting the careful order with which God spoke it all into being. Is this really what God meant when we were given dominion? Is this really what God intended when we were called to subdue?

I can’t imagine it is. God has dominion, and this doesn’t happen. God subdued chaos and instead of death, life came into being. As members of this human family we have been blessed with a special place in creation. The call to dominion and the responsibility to subdue is not given lightly. These are powerful words in Scripture. In Psalm 72, where a king has “dominon” his "foes bow down before him and his enemies lick the dust.” And in Joshua, subduing the land means to conquer it. When God gave humankind dominion to rule and the call to subdue, God gave us GREAT power…and in this account of creation, seemingly little direction of how or when to use it.

Which is exactly why I like having two creation accounts. They are different, yet their differences inform each other – not, I don’t think, so that they can be squished together to make one seamless story, but so that they can be held next to each other, read together, and given a chance to speak to each other and together to us.

Genesis 2 has a different feel to it all together. For all the cosmic power and supernatural energy in Genesis 1, Genesis 2 has personal attention. A man is formed by the hands of God out of the dust of the earth. God’s breath is breathed into the man’s nostrils. He is placed in the middle of a luscious garden where every tree was made to grow by God’s will, where rivers flow with water abundant, beautiful and precious metals and stones adorn the land around. Animals are created one by one, each as a gift to the man, formed carefully with God’s hopes and understanding of what the man will need in mind. The woman is lovingly and delicately brought from the man’s flesh and bones, a perfect partner for life in Eden’s garden.

When compared to Genesis 1, in Genesis 2 the human beings receive a very different charge relating to the rest of creation. The man and his partner are placed in the verdant garden in order to till it and keep it, to serve and preserve it. The charge, the responsibility here is one of great care and protection. It is, in the words of United Nations’ definition of sustainability, the responsibility “to improve the living conditions of the present generation [in a way] that does not compromise the ability of future generations.” The man and, by extension, the woman created as his working partner, are given the job of tilling the garden, of tending it, encouraging it, using its resources for their well-being and their pleasure, but they are also given the job of keeping it, preserving it, making sure that it lives on, grows on, exists and flourishes in abundance as God created it for the generations that will continue to come.

The power and might of Genesis 1 are tempered with the tenderness and care of Genesis 2. Humankind, we have seen, as been given the ability to make dramatic changes to the creation around us. God GAVE us that ability. God blessed us and called us to use our lives to lead creation, even to join God in changing creation with power to rule with God within it.

Through dominion and subduing, yes, but tilling and keeping, too. Working the land, cultivating the plants that feed humans and animals, nurturing the gardens planted by the will of God. Helping things grow and bloom and thrive on the land and seas that God molded with hands and love, the love only an artist can feel for her beloved creation. Keeping the land, protecting it, guarding it, preserving and conserving it, that it may be a blessing to us, generations beyond us, and all that shares this earth with us. These are our calls; these are our responsibilities as humanity created in the image of God, for the purposes of God in relationship with the rest of creation.

We heard these paradoxical calls echoed in the gospel lesson this morning. Jesus and his disciples were making their way to Jerusalem, on their way there to where Jesus would be arrest, tried, and executed. Realizing their time with Jesus was likely growing short, James and John, seized the opportunity to make their wishes known. Like children dividing their parents’ estate while mom and dad are still walking around, they ask, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left hand, in glory.”

Understandably, the request began an argument among the disciples, one Jesus subdued with this, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

Humanity has been created for greatness. We, along with all of creation, were called good, no VERY good, when God saw fit to create the world out of chaotic nothing. We have been created with God-blessed and God-given power to rule and subdue. The things we do on earth can change what happens here. But they can change it for good, or they can change it for worse.

Taking our cue from Jesus, may we learn to rule through our service. May we learn to have dominion through our acts of preservation. May we learn to subdue, but submitting ourselves to the discipline of sacrificial care.

It is the way of Jesus, the Word who was spoken at creation. It is the way of Jesus, the one who rules and saves by giving up his life.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Don't Shake the Olive Trees

I know we don’t hear much from Deuteronomy in our usual worship and most preachers’ preaching. The book has a long-standing reputation of being somewhat of a bore – a list of rules and commandments ordering all sorts of aspects of daily and not-so-daily living.

But Deuteronomy is really so much more than that. It could be called God’s vision statement. It’s a statement longer than most consultants would recommend, but God has a big job to do. It can also be roadmap for avoiding the sort of rags to riches pitfalls we’re used to seeing as celebrities rise quickly to fame and financial fortune, but forget or never bother to remember that their new financial freedom comes with responsibilities, too.

Newly freed from slavery in Egypt, God gives the Israelites commandments to guide their life and their society before they take the final steps of their journey into the Promised Land. Listen now for God’s wisdom and vision.

READ Deuteronomy 24:10-21

Loans and wages and justice, oh my! Loans and wages and justice, oh my! Who know all this was in here? Who knew God had something to say about banking and pay schedules and collateral and the random olives left on the trees? And why does God bother?

Because you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. God said it in there twice. It must be important. Because you were a slave, and because I redeemed you, I care. Because you were a slave and you were mistreated, because you were a slave and your wages were withheld, because you were a slave and I brought you out of slavery for a life better than that, I care. Like a mother might say to her child, “I raised you better than that.”

Loans and wages and justice, oh my! What are these rules of economics really all about?

First of all, they assume that the hearers are the ones making the loans, paying the laborers, and reaping the harvest. The burden of a just economic society, the burden of organizing sustainable life and communities according to God’s wisdom is on the people with the economical and political power . The rules don’t tell the poor how to beg. The rules don’t tell the aliens and foreigners how to fit in and measure up. The rules don’t tell the widow how to find respectable work. The rules don’t tell the orphans to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The rules and commandments of God tell the lender, the employer, the landowner how to be gracious and merciful and generous with what they have.

Because I was gracious enough to pull you out of slavery, because I was merciful enough to redeem you from Egypt, because I was generous enough to shower you with manna from heaven and water from a rock, you also should use your power, your position, your blessings for the benefit of those who have none.

Secondly, the rules aren’t about hand-outs that strip the recipients of dignity and promote the givers to the throne of the divine. The commandments don’t tell the people of God to organize bread lines that dehumanize or donations that create second-class citizens. The rules are about loans that will eventually be paid back. The rules are about wages that are earned through honest labor. The rules are about food that is gathered by the ones who will eat it or sell it for profit to make a living. The rules are about respecting the people who live alongside us as people created in the image of God with the same hopes to earn a living, the same goal to provide for family, the same dreams to contribute to society as those who are already doing so.

God’s commandments describe the ideal world, the world toward which we strive, but the world we have not yet reached, the world in which those who are poor and strangers and widows have a chance to work honorably and productively, just like the rest of society; the world in which those with the means to lend and hire and grow do so with generosity and grace, because they know that what they have comes only by the generosity and grace of God. The lenders and the employers know they aren’t the source of their blessings, but they remember they were once slaves and the Lord saw fit to redeem them.

In his series of books about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith tells the story of Precious Ramotswe, a single woman, past the “usual” marrying age in Botswana, who, unusually, but blessedly, lives independently. Alone and in a modest home, with no husband or children to care for or clean-up after, Mma Ramotswe employs a housekeeper. In her first person narration of the stories, Mma Ramotswe acknowledges the way this may look wasteful or over-the-top to the outsider.

But she sees it entirely differently. She sees it as her duty. Mma Ramotswe may not have much to clean or a complicated life to keep organized, but she recognizes that she has been blessed with more than enough for herself. She sees it as her DUTY to employ someone because she can. She can afford to give another woman work to do. She can afford to pay wages that will benefit another family, lifting them out of poverty and into a life of dignified work and compensation. Because she knows that the position she occupies is one of blessing and even simple privilege, she knows it is her call to make sure that another human being is able to work, be paid, and live a productive life with dignity and honor.

Mma Ramotswe, in the words of Deuteronomy, isn’t shaking the olive trees to gather the last few fruits for herself. She isn’t picking over the vines for the grapes that were left behind. She has taken what she needs from what is hers, what she has earned, and she is finding a way to make sure others can live off the blessings she has received.

“Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I COMMAND you to do this.”

Lastly, these commandments tell us that what exists is enough. The poor will have food, the orphans will be sheltered, the strangers among the Israelites will have work, the widows will be clothed and taken care of out of what already exists. God doesn’t ask that new fields be planted for them. New cloth is ordered to be woven. What is already lurking around our economic system, what we have planted in the fields, the fruit growing on our vines and trees, the clothes on our backs, in our closets, on the racks in the stores is enough, MORE than enough to meet the needs of the world.

What we have has been generously given by God, and all of creation will continue to receive blessings upon blessings. There is enough that the lender need not keep the borrower’s cloak overnight. There is enough that our storehouses will be full for a rainy or disastrous day. Lest you fear that I am using this pulpit to preach socialism, communism, or any other –ism, hear me say there is even enough for some to enjoy luxuries, while others live more simply. There is enough for all of this, and enough to meet the world’s needs when people are treated justly, equitably, and compassionately.

Remember, out of God’s great love and compassion, we who were once slaves, have now been redeemed. Because of this, we have these commands to obey.

In a study guide written in November of 2006 by the National Council of Christian Churches, US churches were reminded of our American history: “More than 100 years ago, workers caught in the machinery of early industrialization were ground down by 12-hour shifts and seven-day workweeks. Families were broken by absent or exhausted parents. Workers with disabilities were summarily dismissed and devalued. Retired works were left without pensions. Children worked when they should have been at school or at play. At the same time enormous wealth was generated. That wealth, however, was distributed to a relative few, primarily the owners of industry.”

The description of the turn of the previous century was clearly meant to echo the economic climate of the contemporary day, almost 3 years ago. However, the foreshadowing language is even more poignant today as we have seen the struggle of workers in our own community, even in our own congregation, intensify since November 2006. The 20th century was ushered in by the industrialization of the world’s economy, and the 21st has rushed in with technology none of us would have ever imagined and globalization like the world has never seen. Neither of these transitions has happened without a struggle. Neither of these transitions has been without their negative impacts on the national and global economy.

This is not the situation God desires. This is not the society envisioned by the commandments God gave through Moses as the Israelites looked into the Promised Land. This is not the life for the world that God intends. Olive trees are being shaken in such a way that the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. The vineyards are being picked clean by machines or desperate, under-paid practically slave laborers who have no way, no voice, or no hope to speak against the economic pressures they feel. In the midst of excitement and joy celebrating individual freedom and wealth, those who live in comfort, maybe even some of us who live without worry, have forgotten the wisdom and commandments of God.

Enough IS enough, God says. Take what you need, enjoy what you earn, but leave some for others. Give them opportunities to work as you have worked. God’s blessings are generous, we heard in Matthew (20:1-16), beyond what the world calls fair. Take what I have given, and from it take what is enough for you, God says. But remember God tells us, all of us – you, too, were once a slave. We, too, were once held captive, bound by others, bound by sin, bound by blind ambition. We are warned, don’t now be bound by greed. Work while we can, even enjoy the fruits of our labor. But we are commanded this, too, “Do not deprive others of justice. For you were a slave, and I redeemed you.”

We have known God’s generosity and mercy. In knowing it we are called embody it, making commitments to God’s commandments, striving to align not just our actions and behaviors to God’s desires, but striving to transform the society in which we live, the economic systems in which we participate.

Responding to the situation of their day, the churches of the newly formed Federal Council of Churches in 1908 put in place social principles that were to guide the Council’s work in the succeeding years – principles, you may say, that would lead to a sustainable and Spirit-led industrialized society. This Social Creed was a concise and practical summary of what a “Christ-like God” wills for those seeking “to reduce the hardships and uphold the dignity of labor.”

The working conditions and specific problems have changed, but similar economic problems persist today that existed 100 years ago: injustice in the workplace, growing social inequities, and the intolerably high percentage of people living in poverty in the United States and in other nations. Responding to the situation of our day, in time for the 100th anniversary of the first Social Creed, the National Council of Christian Churches developed a new Social Creed. It was approved in a number of denominations in subsequent years, including our own Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2008.

This week and over the next two weeks in worship we will confess portions of this creed together. Affirming our faith, professing our love, and praying with hope that the world God envisions will be visible in our beliefs and actions.

A Social Creed for the 21st Century
Background to Social Creed received for study by NCCC, Nov. 9, 2006