March 9, 2013

Filled with All Good Things

Filed under: Congregational Development,Leadership,Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 7:48 am

In this week’s lectionary readings we hear two very different stories of wayward children and lavish feasting.

First, we have the Israelites, that wandering band that is probably best known for its complaining, and for its inability to pull it together and get where they’re going. But 40 years later, they do indeed appear to have arrived.

They are tired, hungry, sick to death of manna, and they’ve eaten quail ‘til it’s come out their noses. But they have arrived nonetheless.

And somebody, somewhere in the midst of them, remembers to say, “thank you.” Here they take the time to celebrate the Passover, to remember how God had favored them and lifted from them the affliction of slavery, how God had delivered them and brought to this place.

And what happens? The manna is gone. No more quail. They eat the produce of the land. They feast on all good things. I can’t help but wonder how much of this plenty was there all along… how their feeling sorry for themselves was blinding them to the goodness and abundance of their Promised Land… or was God simply holding back? Of course God could have easily brought forth the produce of the land whenever he darn well pleased. Is it possible that God just wanted to hear them say, “thank you”?

In our Gospel reading, we encounter a very different celebration, this time through the lens of humility—I can’t even imagine what it cost the younger son to return to his family, to apologize, to humble himself before those whom he had so deeply wounded. How agonizing it must have been for him to receive such a welcome! How hard it must have been for him to take a seat of honor at a table he had so willfully abandoned.

What challenges me in both of these readings is the overwhelming generosity of grace. How did each of these beloved—the Children of Israel and the Prodigal Son—respond to God’s desire for them? What happened next in each of these stories? And how do we “square” our sense of fairness, our insistence on logical consequences, with a merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love?

Jesus is of course no stranger to such a challenge. As we move through the Gospel readings of the Lenten season, we can’t help but notice that “stirring it up” is a big part of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, if we look carefully at the structure of Mary’s Magnificat, we see that “the saving significance of the whole of Jesus’ life (is declared) from the instant of his conception. …. God has confounded the powerful through the miraculous conception of a baby.”[i]

Challenging our norms, confounding our sense of what “should be” is quite literally part of Jesus’ DNA.

Just as Jesus challenges his listeners’ clear ideas about inheritance, birth order, and what was “due”, he throws down a question in our own generation as well: Is it really more blessed to give than to receive?

Over the winter I read about a culture that has one clear social norm around giving and receiving: If you are given a gift, of any sort, you must take care that your response is of greater or lesser value, never of equal or similar value. If both the gift and the response are of similar value, the circuit is complete and social intercourse is hobbled. But if gifts are consistently out of sync, the entire community is beholden to one another. Ironically, it is the joy of giving and gracious receiving that strengthens the social fabric.[ii]

Not only does appreciating and receiving with joy honor the gift and the giver, writes Wayne Clark, but until we, as individuals and as communities of faith, are willing to share meaningful conversations about receiving, accepting, growing, and joyfully giving our gifts, we will simply not be able to change our culture of scarcity.[iii]

So how are we to face the challenges before us this day…with grace, with mercy, with justice, and with joy? What good things does God want for your congregation and your community?

First, God wants us to be gentle with one another. We can’t afford to hold onto those things that divide us, those things that tempt us to pull away when we need each other the most. God wants us to remember how good it was for the Israelites to finally arrive, together. God wants us to remember, as well, how hard it was for the Prodigal Son to return.

Second, God wants us to keep sight of what is truly important. Remember what happened when the Israelites returned to the root of faith and tradition. They celebrated the Passover, they recalled the depth of God’s faithfulness to them and to the covenant God had made with their forefathers. We are called to remember likewise: Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast.

And finally, God wants us to receive with open hearts. Many of our congregations have a unique opportunity to make a choice: Will the challenges of the moment draw us deeper into a culture of scarcity? Or will new perspectives on worship, fellowship, and engaging the Gospel draw us outward, into a new land, perhaps even a Promised Land, of accomplishing more together than can manage by ourselves?

So what’s it going to be? Will we stick with the older brother, stewing in the unfairness of it all? Or will we allow God to lead us to a new place, where we will feast on the produce of the land and be filled with all good things?

The story belongs to us. What will happen next?

[i] Perry, Tim, Blessed is She: Living Lent with Mary, Morehouse, p.57.

[ii] Is this story familiar to anyone? I don’t remember where I read it. If you also read it and remember where it came from, please post a comment.

[iii] Clark, Wayne B, Beyond Fundraising: A Complete Guide to Congregational Stewardship; Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, p. 7.


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