Sermon: Rich Towards God

“Rich Towards God”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
August 4, 2019

Hosea 11:1-11
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
   and out of Egypt I called my son. 
The more I called them,
   the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
   and offering incense to idols. 

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
   I took them up in my arms;
   but they did not know that I healed them. 
I led them with cords of human kindness,
   with bands of love.
I was to them like those
   who lift infants to their cheeks.
   I bent down to them and fed them. 

They shall return to the land of Egypt,
   and Assyria shall be their king,
   because they have refused to return to me. 
The sword rages in their cities,
   it consumes their oracle-priests,
   and devours because of their schemes. 
My people are bent on turning away from me.
   To the Most High they call,
   but the Most High does not raise them up at all. 

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
   How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
   How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
   my compassion grows warm and tender. 
I will not execute my fierce anger;
   I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
   the Holy One in your midst,
   and I will not come in wrath. 

They shall go after the Lord,
   who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
   his children shall come trembling from the west. 
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
   and like doves from the land of Assyria;
   and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

Luke 12:13-21
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for life does not consist of possessions, even when you have a lot.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’

Have you all heard of Swedish death cleaning? It’s the latest school of thought in the trend of getting rid of stuff you don’t need in order to live a less stressful, happier life – only the emphasis in Swedish death cleaning is on making life happier and less stressful for whoever will go through your things after you die.

It sounds a bit morbid, but it falls right into line with this morning’s Gospel. Jesus reminds us – as do today’s headlines, tragically – that we could all die at any moment, and the benefit of our stuff (or lack thereof) will fall to others, not us. So instead of piling up possessions that satisfy us now but will ultimately decay, we should stock up on richness toward God.

“Richness towards God.” That sounds really good – but what does it mean? 

Well, in one sense it’s pretty literal: a well-off farmer having a good year in biblical times would have been expected to tithe on that abundance, giving ten percent to God via the Temple. (Hint hint, stewardship season is just around the corner!) 

But it’s more than that. Everyone in Jesus’ audience would have known, and presumably followed, the law about tithing. In fact, there’s no reason to suspect that this farmer hadn’t already tithed by the time he was pulling down his old barns to build bigger and better ones. So why does God still call him a fool?

For that I want to turn to this morning’s Hebrew Bible reading. In it, God describes how God’s people have continually turned away from God, worshipping other deities. It’s no accident that a scripture about worship is paired with one about being rich towards God. Hosea reminds us that worship isn’t just what we do on Sunday mornings; it’s the orientation of our whole lives. Do we spend our time and energy – and yes, financial resources – in ways that honor God and God’s creation? Do we make decisions that align with the values of compassion, justice, grace, and generosity that God has laid out for us? Are we faithful, in the largest sense of the word, with what we’ve been given?

The great abundance in the rich farmer’s barns could easily have been shared with people in need, turned towards God and God’s people; but instead the farmer turned inward: “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Within such great abundance – ample goods for many years – the farmer thought first of his own fulfillment and thought of God and God’s people second – or not at all.

“Rich towards God.” When I think about Jesus’ invitation to be “rich towards God” instead of storing everything up for myself, I think about how different my day feels when I make time to pray when I have the energy and attention to do it versus when I leave it to last, struggling to stay awake while I talk with and listen to God. I think about how different my week feels when I reach out to someone I’ve been thinking of early on instead of waiting to see if I’ll have the time at the end of the week, after I’ve done all the things I need to get done first. I think about how different my year feels when I give generously to causes in the moment God moves me to support them versus waiting until the last days of December to calculate how my donations will affect my tax bracket. I think about how different my relationships feel when I muster up the humility to forgive or to admit I’m wrong, or the courage to speak the truth in love or speak the truth about power.

When we orient ourselves towards God in ordinary ways, it’s like sitting down to a feast of our favorite foods. Being rich towards God with our time, our energy, and our resources uncovers how rich God is always and already being towards us. Even mundane moments become saturated with meaning and purpose and delight. 

I was away this week at the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, or NGLI for short. I’ll share more about it in the coming months, but for now I’ll describe it as a program the UCC has put together to give young pastors the support and training we need to help our churches thrive and, by doing so, to transform the entire denomination. 

The week’s schedule was packed; they wanted to pour as much learning into us as possible while we were there. I had left my infant son Gabriel here in Arlington, though, and needed every spare moment to pump breastmilk for him so that I could continue nursing him when I returned home. So every time we had a 15 minute break, I hightailed it up to my hotel room to pump as fast as possible so I could be on time for the beginning of our next session.

But one day at the end of lunch, just as our 15 minute break was about to begin, I heard a fellow pastor mention how difficult the last few years had been for her, with conflict in her church and difficulty getting her parishioners to respect her authority as a young, female pastor. As I got up to bus my dishes, I saw her off to one side, and my first thought was, “I’ve gotta get upstairs to pump! I’ve got really important things to do!” But then I paused, and saw how downcast her face looked. And I stopped, and walked over to her, and said, “It sounds like things have really been rough. Would you like a hug?” She said yes, and then I stayed, and listened as she shared more about her struggles.  

Cultivating richness towards God – turning towards God and God’s people first even when we have really important things to do – always yields treasures beyond what we can imagine; that afternoon it turned a corner of a dingy hotel conference room into holy ground.

But it isn’t always easy; sometimes giving our abundance to God instead of keeping it safely and securely for ourselves is scary, even sacrificial.

In another conversation at NGLI, I told a fellow pastor about the nearly $150,000 grant we received from our sister church, Pleasant Street Congregational Church, which closed in 2011. 

He was a bit shocked, and even envious, I think, of the abundant resources Pleasant Street so generously entrusted to us. I’ve grown used to talking about it here in our congregation, but his reaction reminded me of just how extraordinary Pleasant Street’s actions were. “They really did it right,” I said to him. Many churches in danger of closing run through all of their remaining resources, hoping to survive as long as possible. But Pleasant Street sacrificially and abundantly gave what they had to places they felt would continue the work God had called them to, even though it meant that they closed earlier than they might have, even though it brought them face to face with the pain of ending their beloved community. Even when it was difficult, they were rich towards God.

I’m proud that Park Avenue also chose to be rich towards God in the ways we voted to use Pleasant Street’s grant money. Right from the beginning, we earmarked money to be given to an as yet undetermined community project, some need we couldn’t yet envision that would benefit others far more than it would benefit us. And in raising extra funds to complement Pleasant Street’s grant, we’re choosing to be rich towards God yet again: rather than looking at such a generous gift as a reason for us to be complacent, we are adding our own resources to the gift so that it can do so much more for our congregation and the wider community.

It’s clear from both Jesus’ and Hosea’s words that God does not take it lightly when we turn away from God, when we instead orient ourselves towards modern-day idols like wealth, success, and security. Because even when we have the best of intentions, putting something other than God at the center of our lives leads us to justify behavior that is self-serving and less than just or generous. Hosea knows how easily our natural inclination to look after ourselves first can spiral into greed, lies, violence, exploitation, and oppression – behavior he describes in detail elsewhere in his book.

You may have heard of the great Congregationalist preacher Jonathan Edwards‘ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” where God is described as dangling sinners over the fiery pits of Hell. But Hosea paints a different picture of what God does with us when we hurt others or reject God: 

“The more I called my people,
   the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
   and offering incense to idols. 

My people are bent on turning away from me.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
   I took them up in my arms…
I led them with cords of human kindness,
   with bands of love.
I was to them like those
   who lift infants to their cheeks.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
I will not execute my fierce anger;
My heart recoils within me;
   my compassion grows warm and tender.”

Indeed, God has been so rich to us, turning back towards us over and over and over again, no matter how terribly we treat one another, no matter how much we ignore God or break God’s heart. 

Let us say yes, then, with glad hearts, to Jesus’ challenge to be rich towards God, as individual people and as a church. Amen.