*Note: This sermon was preached on September 8, 2014, at the Service of Death and Resurrection for Bertha (Bert) Rohrback. Bert was a longtime member of Centre UMC, and she left an important legacy of love for her church. The texts for the service were Psalm 139:1-18, Psalm 23, and John 11:17-44.
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It’s a bit surprising, isn’t it? The people of Israel, God’s chosen people, have been out of Egypt for less than two months. Already they’re complaining. Already they’ve forgotten the agony and hardships of life under Pharaoh. Instead of celebrating God’s deliverance, they’re dreaming of life back in Egypt—as if the supposedly plentiful bread they ate by the fleshpots somehow balanced the back-breaking labor they endured.
But that’s not the surprising part, not really. If we’re honest, the Israelites’ response is familiar. Abuse and oppression have a profound psychological effect on victims, twisting their thoughts so that they have trouble seeing the difference between freedom and slavery. We’ve seen the Israelites’ story on the front pages of newspapers as the scandal of a certain Ravens football player parades his wife’s own distorted view of reality for all to see.
No, the surprising part of this story is not that the Israelites’ years of torment has affected their collective psyche. The surprising part is that the Lord gives the Israelites exactly what they ask for. The people ask for bread, and God gives them bread. God never even chides the Israelites for their forgetfulness. The Israelites complain, and God gives them what they want. Why?
You might say that God is demonstrating his mercy or that God is showing divine patience with his people. True enough, I’m sure, but I think something else, something more specific, something even, perhaps, more profound is happening in Exodus 16. God seizes the opportunity Israel’s complaining presents to establish for Israel a new and fundamental social reality: a new economy. Now, if you look up the word “economy” in a dictionary, you’re likely to find something along the lines of “the wealth and resources of a country or region” or “careful management of available resources.” But it’s probably more helpful—and more Biblical—to think of “economy” as the organization and regulation of the daily affairs of a community.
For decades, Israel’s life had been organized and regulated by the Egyptian economy. Egypt’s economy was a labor economy, really a slave labor economy. Laborers, against their will, were expected to contribute their work to whatever projects Egypt’s Pharaoh deemed necessary or important. In exchange for this work, Egypt gave the laborers an amount of food that might have been enough to live on. So you can see that, although there are some real differences, the ancient Egyptian economy and the modern global economy have a lot in common. The single most important characteristic of a labor economy can be captured in one word: more. Everyone is trying to get more, all the time. More work out of the laborers. More efficient work. More produced. More stored up for pleasure, for bragging rights, or for rainy days. Even the laborers find themselves desiring more: more rest, more food, more ways to escape.
One of God’s first acts in the wilderness is to cut short the Egyptian labor economy of more. God does this through a miraculous gift: manna. Each morning, when the Israelites wake up, they discover under the dew a layer of manna, a food with amazing properties, a bread that could be baked or boiled. Nourishment for the long journey. And the manna of the morning was complimented in the evening by quail, meat to further sustain the Israelites. The manna, and the quail, are so much more than a divine version of some international relief operation for refugees. In giving the Israelites the manna, God institutes a new economy. Not a labor economy. A Sabbath economy.
Sabbath is not just the day of rest found in the Ten Commandments. Sabbath is how God intended the world to function, right from the very beginning. The crowning moment of creation is not the making of human beings in God’s image—important as that is. But humanity’s creation on the sixth day awaits the fulfillment of creation on the seventh day, the day when Scripture tells God himself rests. “On the seventh day God finished the work he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Gen 2:2-3). This holy and blessed day, the seventh day, the Sabbath, is woven into the very fabric of creation.
In giving the Israelites manna, God says to his people, “I expect you to live according to my Sabbath economy.” Consider six aspects of the Sabbath economy in Exodus 16:
· One: There is manna for everyone.
· Two: People collect manna based on their need. Need a lot? Take a lot. Need a little? Take a little.
· Three: There is manna for each day. The Israelites only collect their daily bread.
· Four: Collecting more manna than you need doesn’t do you any good. The stuff goes bad—real bad, like, worms bad—overnight.
· Five: There is a major exception to number four. On the sixth day, the day before the Sabbath, you can collect extra, and it won’t go bad.
· Six: There is no manna to collect on the Sabbath.
If “more” is what characterizes the Egyptian (and, really, every) labor economy, “enough” is the word that captures God’s Sabbath economy. There is enough manna for everyone, no matter how great or small the need. There is enough manna to take a Sabbath away from collecting it. There is enough—not too much, not more than is needed, just enough.
And the Sabbath day itself—it’s not a day of solemn, intense reflection. It’s a day of joy, of celebration. On the Sabbath day, the Israelites are called to enjoy the “enough” God provides for them, to feast “enough” on the holy day, knowing that there will be enough the next day, too,.
The manna God provides the Israelites is a short-term solution, intended only for their days in the wilderness. The Sabbath economy God intends to last. In Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy God establishes law after law that reinforces the Sabbath economy: the year of jubilee, the prohibition of certain kinds of work on the Sabbath, the care for widows and orphans, and the insistence on leaving behind a portion of fields for gleaning by the poor. The economy of the people of God is always to be a Sabbath economy. The Sabbath economy continues in the New Testament; look at the sharing in the early church in Acts 2. We even catch a glimpse of the Sabbath economy in Jesus’ parable from this morning’s gospel lesson: each laborer, even the one who works only one hour, receives enough from the master.
If “more” is characteristic of every labor economy, “more” has become the cardinal virtue in our own present economy. We are bombarded with more ways to pursue more: More doing. More saving. More buying. More eating and drinking. Buying in bulk so we get more for our dollar. Doing more for ourselves. Putting away more for retirement. Giving more money to the government. Keeping more money for our own pocketbooks. More, more, more, more, more. We have more “more” than just about anybody could want. Yet when it comes time to give alms to the poor, to take care of the needy in our community and our world, to pay our tithe to our Lord, inevitably we hear, “There is not enough for that.” Ironically, the economy of “more” is also the economy of “never enough.”
Friends, we are about to celebrate Holy Communion. Holy Communion is our weekly reminder of God’s Sabbath economy. Everyone who comes to this table receives what she or he needs—nothing less, nothing more. Once we see that there is enough from God here, we are free to discover that God expects us to keep his Sabbath economy—and that God has given our church enough to meet our community’s needs. Are we really going to keep living as if there was something more?
“I come to the end, I am still with you.” These are the words that conclude this morning’s reading from Psalm 139. “I come to the end, I am still with you,” says the Psalmist, after a beautiful meditation on God’s presence. Where could I go to flee from your presence, O God? No matter where I go nor where I could go, you will always be there, O God.
Now, in this day of internet hacking scandals and government spying, in this time when it seems like someone might be watching us at every moment, words that speak of God’s inescapable presence might be heard the wrong way. Is God looking constantly looking over our shoulders? Should we want to escape God’s presence, if we could? No, of course not. The psalmist is not saying that God is the ultimate Big Brother. The psalmist celebrates God’s presence, the presence of the living God. O how marvelous is God’s presence and knowledge. He knows us even before we are born. He does not look down from a distance upon us; he is involved in our lives before we could be aware of it. He knitted us in our mother’s wombs. He knows our every step, our every breath. When the psalmist celebrates God’s inescapable presence, he is really celebrating God’s infinite love. If I ascend to heaven, I will still find your love. If I sail to the end of the sea, your love will meet me on the distant shore. If I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, your love will be with me. When I reach the last of my days and breathe my final breath, your love will sustain me even in death. “I come to the end, I am still with you.” Or, as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 8, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Dear friends, the love of God stretches beyond all human boundaries. There are oceans too vast for our love to cross over them. There are places of brokenness too shattered for our love to stitch them together. There are paths too steeped in darkness for our love to show the way. This is not true for the love of God. God’s love is so great that in his love God created the cosmos out of nothing and called forth all that exists. God’s love reaches so far that God breathed life into human beings, forming us in his image. God’s love is so inescapable that his response to our sin was to seek us out, again and again, even as we spurned him over and over. God’s love is so real that God took on human flesh in his Son Jesus Christ. God’s love is so great that in love God even crossed from life to death for our sake. God’s love is so powerful that in Jesus Christ God’s love shattered the chains of sin and death and led the way to our future hope. No ocean is too vast for God’s love. Every place of brokenness can be healed by God’s love. No path is so dark that God’s love cannot illumine it. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it.”
Dear friends, we have gathered here this morning to celebrate the life of our sister, our mother, our grandmother, our friend, Bertha, and to mourn her death. Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. We also weep for this loving woman who was so full of life that her energy and love spilled over into her family, her church, her community, and her world. A woman orphaned in the first year of her life, her mother dying shortly after childbirth and her father a few months later. A woman not expected to live to her first birthday. A woman determined to live, determined to overcome obstacles and difficulties, determined to help others as much as she could. Bert’s life was good; her life was a gift from God that enriched the lives of more people than anyone here will ever know, at least in this life. We do well by her and by God to set aside time to celebrate the gift of her life and to mourn our loss.
But friends, we are also gathered here this morning because of the love of God that knows no boundaries. Bert knew this love as much as any of us. Members of Centre church have spoken to me of her Christlike life. She shared God’s love through acts of service to her neighbors and her church. She cherished God’s love by spreading it to all she met with a warm hug and a patient, listening heart. I heard in the last few days that she joined the Discipleship Bible Study here at Centre and through that study discovered that her love of helping and serving other people was also God’s gift to her, his special way of working through her to love other people. What a magnificent thing to discover in a Bible study—that what you love to do is what God loves to do in you.
While we mourn her life today, we also celebrate God’s love. Bert, who knew God’s love so well in this life, now knows God’s love better than any of us can imagine. God’s love reaches where our love cannot, crosses over the fissure of the grave, and brings her safely into his bosom. If nothing can separate us from the love of God, then even death cannot truly separate us from our beloved mother, sister, and friend. Because God loves her so much, and because God loves us so much, we have this bond that even death cannot break. Dear friends, if you do not now know the love of God, seek it out and share this bond of love with us today.
This is what we have now; it is not something we just hope to have one day. God’s love is God’s gift to us at this very moment. God spans the gap between us and Bert at this very moment. But there is more to come, something greater and still more wonderful than the love of God we now know: the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. That is God’s great promise of love to us in Jesus Christ. Our souls do not just slip away from our bodies into an ethereal nothingness for an eternity of floating in heaven. In Jesus Christ we will be raised from the dead, even as Lazarus was raised from his tomb, even as Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Dear friends, even in death we hold onto this hope. This morning’s funeral is a service of death and resurrection. We are united with Bert by God’s love; one day, by God’s love, we will be reunited with her. Let us celebrate God’s inescapable love. Let us hold fast to the hope we have in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
This week is the last of our parables from the garden, from the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. Two weeks ago we heard the parable of the sower; last week it was the parable of the weeds among the wheat. This week we have five short parables, about a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a pearl, and catching fish. All of these parables, from today and from the past two weeks, lead up to next Sunday’s gospel reading, which is not a parable but one of Jesus’ great miracles. Stay tuned.
At first glance, the five parables from this morning’s reading don’t have much to do with each other. And, in fact, we could put them into three different groups. First are the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the yeast. Both of these parables remind us that the kingdom of God comes to us in unexpected ways and has its beginnings in what is small and even ugly. Mustard was a weed in ancient Israel, not a desirable plant, and yeast—well, this is the only time in Matthew’s gospel when yeast is a good thing. Normally yeast was ugly filth. The kingdom of God is like this: nobody could think that Jesus’ mangled, ugly, undesirable, crucified body could be God’s means of salvation and humanity’s greatest hope—but it was and it is.
The second group of parables are the parable of the treasure in the field and the parable of the pearl. Here, the kingdom is something exciting and valuable—worth every penny.
Finally, the third group is a group of one, the parable of the fish and the net. This is a lot like last week’s parable of the weeds among the wheat. The kingdom casts a wide net, but in God’s time judgment will not be reserved.
What these five parables have in common is this: God is all in. I’m not a gambling man, and I hope you aren’t either, but you know what I’m talking about. Each of these parables tell us that God is not holding back some chips for a better hand. God doesn’t have anything in reserve; he doesn’t hold back. In the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, God is all in. In the mustard seed that becomes a great tree, even nesting birds, God is all in. In the yeast that mixes through three measures of flour—fifty pounds, enough to feed at least a hundred people—God is all in. In the person who finds treasure in a field and sells everything—everything!—for it, God is all in. In the merchant who gives up all his possessions for a single pearl, God is all in. In the fishermen who cast nets until they are completely full, and not just until they have a decent catch, God is all in. In Jesus Christ, God’s Son, humbling himself in the form of a slave, suffering death on a cross, and being raised from the dead on the third day—God is all in.
God does not just look at us, at fallen humanity in our sin, and say, “Well, maybe I’ll do something about that some day.” God does not see our fears and our difficulties and think, “I guess I could spare a moment for that.” God is all in. God responds by offering everything that God has to us, by offering himself to us in Jesus Christ. God does not hold in reserve even his Son, even the Holy Spirit. For us and for our salvation, God is all in.
That’s what Paul is up to in this morning’s reading from Romans. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray us we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Those sighs too deep for words are the cries of Jesus Christ from the cross, words so terrifying and so agonizing that they can mean only one thing: in Jesus Christ, God is all in, knowing even the worst moments of our despair and longing for him. Paul says that the Spirit of God, the Spirit Christ gives up at the cross, the Spirit Christ sends upon his disciples and upon us, the Holy Spirit is also at work in us and intercedes for us. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all in.
Paul gets so excited about God being all in for us that he uses a word that sends chills down most Methodists’ spines: predestination. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
In the past, especially in certain circles after the Reformation, predestination was talked about as a kind of determinism: God chooses some to be saved, some to be damned, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, wanted nothing to do with that view, and we Methodists have inherited his distaste for predestination. But predestination is not about God choosing some and ignoring or damning the rest; it’s not about God overriding human will. God is not another creature. God is not just a really big, powerful version of a human being, a kind of superman. God is God—outside of creation, above creation. So there is no competition between human beings and God. It’s not a zero-sum game of our will against God’s.
Listen again to the context: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Love is only genuine when it is unforced, uncoerced. God does not create mechanical clocks to respond as he wants. He makes creatures who are able to love him. Predestination is another way of saying: God is all in. It is the blessed assurance all of us seek. God promises that his care for those who love him is so strong, so certain, and so overwhelming that it sits in God’s very heart. God’s will is for the good of all those who love God.
Now here’s the flip side. The good for which God is working, the goal of our following Jesus, is, Paul says, “to be conformed to the image of his Son.” In other words, if we want to be disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to respond to God with our own, “All in.” “All in”—we’re willing to give up everything we have to follow you, Jesus. “All in”—we will go wherever you lead us, Jesus. “All in”—Jesus, our lives are in your hands.
From our side, our “All in” is a huge risk. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “the cost of discipleship.” All of us, at some points, have been reluctant to give everything over to God. But each time we respond with our own “all in,” we are reminded that God in Christ was “all in” long before we were born.
In my first month of sermons at Centre I have emphasized that our faith, our Scripture, our worship, and our love is about God—and not about us. If we want to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to remember that everything is about God. The careful, the attentive among you, I hope, have been harboring a question: What about us? Is there nothing for us to do?
God is calling Centre United Methodist Church to a new day of ministry, a new day of discipleship. The good news is that God is already “all in” on this—he has called us, and he will work all things for the good for those who love him, for those—for us—whom he has called. But if we are to be conformed to image of his Son, we need to be “all in,” too. And sometimes, it’s going to be scary. Things will change. We will need to give up old ways of doing things that have more to do with our past than our calling. We will have to open ourselves to the community around us, to the school behind us, to the poor and homeless in our neighborhoods, and to persons from backgrounds and lifestyles that are unfamiliar and even strange to us. We will need to relinquish habits and patterns of thought and speech that alienate us from generations that did not grow up in the church and do not know Jesus Christ. In other words, we will be asked to sell everything we have for the one pearl of great value, for the treasure in the field. And others will look at us with scorn, scoffing at our tiny size or our commitment to an ugly Savior.
God’s “all in” led Jesus, led the Trinity, to the cross. Roman Catholic crosses are crucifixes; they are crosses with Jesus still on them. Protestant crosses are bare. The great theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that Protestant crosses are bare because we like to skip over the crucifixion and jump right to the resurrection. I think Stanley’s right. But our empty Protestant crosses are also a reminder and an invitation: if we follow Jesus, the empty space on our cross might one day be filled with our own bodies. Are we all in?
Some of us here today—perhaps even some we might suspect the least—some of us here today might not be all in. Maybe most of us aren’t. In that case, God still has a plan for us and will still use us while we’re here. Nothing much will change, and we will find ourselves continuing to wonder why other churches are flourishing and we are not.
But if we’re all in, if we’re willing “to be conformed to the image of God’s Son,” we will find again and again that God was already and always “all in” for us. Bountiful harvests, food for all, and the joy of serving and loving the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all these things and many more await us. All in?
Last week we heard from the Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs, about the love God has for us. God calls us into a garden that he has prepared for us, a garden of fruits and flowers, a garden of life and intimacy with him: Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away! We might think of the kingdom of God as that garden, the place where God calls us and meets us. The kingdom of God is not just about heaven, of course. The kingdom of God is here, now, already breaking in, already changing lives, already setting the universe on the course of redemption and resurrection. God’s salvation and love is for all that God has created.
This week, and for the next few weeks, we listen to parables from Jesus about life in the garden. And these parables, just like the Song of Solomon, can only be understood if we accept one fundamental truth about the Bible: the Bible is about God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Bible is not about me; the Bible is not about you. The Bible is about God—the Lord.
Now, fortunately for us, for you and me, the God the Bible is about—the only God, the one True God—is also the God who invites us to get involved with what he is doing, the God who loves us, who cares for us, and who invites us to participate in his life. The Bible is about the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Miriam, Ruth, Mary, and Jesus. Saying the Bible is about God frees us from making the Bible about us. Saying the Bible is about God frees us to find our place in God’s story, instead of us trying to squeeze God into the little room left in our crowded stories.
So let me say it again: the Bible is about God. And if the Bible is about God, then the sower in this morning’s parable is… Jesus. Yes! The Sunday School answer is once again the right answer. Jesus is the sower. And the parable of the sower is about Jesus, about God.
Listen carefully. I don’t care how many times you’ve tried to share the gospel with someone. I don’t care how frustrated you are that some people listen to you and others ignore you. I don’t care about your passion for evangelism. You are not the sower.
Listen again. I don’t care how many sermons I’ve preached. I don’t care how congregations have responded. I don’t care how hard it is to figure out why some people respond to my preaching and others don’t. I am not the sower.
Jesus is the sower in this morning’s parable. Jesus, sent by the Father, went out to the field—the garden, the kingdom of God—to sow seed. Some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly—only to wither away, since they had no root. Other seeds fell among thorns, which choked them out. And some seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain.
The seed, Jesus explains, is the word of the kingdom. What is that? It is the gospel, the good news, that Christ proclaims in the Sermon on the Mount, in the invitation to his disciples, in the call to Israel and all the world to follow him. Some people hear the word and respond faithfully, bearing fruit in generous yields. What fruit? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). Many others, however, do not yield fruit. They get snared by the traps of the devil, trapped by fears of persecution and danger, or caught up in worldly desires—especially the desire for money. See Judas.
Why does this person respond in faith and that person get caught up in distracting desires? Jesus’ parable doesn’t even try to tell us. There is no answer. There can be no answer. To pretend there is an answer is to pretend that there are good reasons—or any reasons at all—not to follow Jesus, that there are good reasons—or any reasons at all—not to listen to God. There are none. So if you’ve been telling yourself reasons and excuses not to follow Jesus, give them up. They’re no good, they don’t fly, and you’re better off without them. And if you claim you’ve heard the Word of God and been changed by it, show us your fruit. Where is your joy, your peace, your patience, your gentleness, your love?
This parable, though, is not about you, and it’s not about me. Like everything in the Bible, it’s about God. And this is what the parable of the sower tells us about God: God’s love, for you, for me, for everything and everyone God created, is extravagant beyond all measures.
So often, when we love, even when we say we love as much as we can, we hold something back. We say we love our friends and family, but we guard ourselves against getting hurt. We claim to love our neighbor, but we make sure we’re taken care of first. We say we love our enemy, as Christ commanded us, but we arm ourselves with weapons and words to strike deadly blows. We claim we love our Lord with all our heart, our mind, and our strength, but we hold back a little just in case. Our love has limits. By the grace of God, we seek to love beyond our limits, but we are still moving on toward perfection.
Not so for God. God, in Jesus Christ, is the sower who spreads seeds on all the land. He throws his seeds carelessly to the wind, knowing that some of it will fall on fertile soil and some of it will fall on barren ground. Christ does not say, “I will only share the good news of God’s kingdom with the best, the most important, or the ones I know will respond well.” Christ walks out into his garden and starts scattering seed. Christ does not hold back the best seed for the best parts of the garden; he offers the same to everyone—just as he offers the same to everyone at the table.
This is how great God’s love in Christ is: that he is willing even to let some, perhaps most, of the seeds go to waste for the sake of the bountiful harvest that comes from the seeds that do land in good earth. Our love has limits; God’s has none. God’s love is extravagant, wasteful, unrestrained, and beyond all human reason.
Friends, this is the good news for us this morning. God loves us so much that the words of the kingdom of God are given even to such undeserving souls as you and me. The parable of the sower invites our response. Not the one too-often declared, that we should try to be good soil, as if we could earn our way into hearing God’s word. No. The true response to the parable of the sower is for us to pray that the Holy Spirit would so fill us that we might produce fruit worthy of the gospel. The true response is to celebrate the gracious love of God that spills over all boundaries and all borders. The rest is up to God. Thanks be to God. Amen.