Using the Gifts of God

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Worship… the word of God… the sacraments… prayer… all these things are gifts from God intended to enrich our lives… makes us grow in awareness and compassion for one another… make us grow in strength and wisdom so that we might better serve one another and become healthier and happier as companions, families, communities and nations.

14th Sunday After Pentecost
Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17
August 25, 2013
Peder Stenslie

Back to school.  How exciting is that?!  I teach 6th grade at the Mandan Middle School.  For us in Mandan, classes started on Thursday. So Monday through Wednesday, all the teachers were busy in their classrooms getting things ready.  These days, that means making sure your many technology devices are all in order.  Among a mass of electrical cords on my floor that are supposed to hook up to my computer, sound system and active board, I spied a new cord I’d never seen before.

I studied it and tried to guess what it was for.  Well, I thought I figured it out and plugged it in to my computer, feeling pretty pleased with myself.  Later in the day, a tech person happened to step into my room and I asked her about the cord.  Turns out I got it completely wrong.  The cord, the way I hooked it up, was completely useless.  It might look impressive laying there so shiny and new, but it would bring no benefit.  It would do nothing for me.

On the other hand, plugged in the right way… the way it was intended… it would deliver a wonderful and useful function, which, of course, was the reason it was there in the first place.  It would make my active board come alive with exciting interactive features.

Funny enough, I wasn’t the only one having cord trouble that day.  One of my colleagues complained that her AV cord must have been changed because it no longer fit into her computer like last year.  As I walked over to her room to check it out, I could see she was trying to plug the cord into the wrong place.  I pointed out that the right location was the side of the computer and not the back.

Once she understood the proper way to use the cord, the crisis was averted.  Rich classroom benefits could now be reaped.  If she had persisted in using the cord in the wrong way, it could have damaged both the cord and the computer.

Proper use of something we are give is very much the theme of today’s Gospel.  Jesus wants us to correct our understanding of the proper use of God’s gifts… specifically the sabbath.  If we forget the purpose of God’s gifts, then we lose the benefits they were meant to give.  We may even end up abusing each other with gifts intended to strengthen and serve us.

That’s what the Pharisees did.  You wouldn’t think that would be the case.  You couldn’t find anyone more religious than the Pharisees.  Their lives were completely wrapped in up in religion.  If anyone should understand it, it should be them.  But the fact was, they were completely wrong about religion, because they misunderstood the purpose it serves.  They forgot (or never understood) how it was supposed to work.

As a result, Jesus is always tangling with the Pharisees in the bible.  They denounce him.  He scolds them.  They demand his death… and you know how it ends.

For the Pharisees, religion had become a way of grouping people into the more righteous and less righteous, more worthy and less worthy of God’s favor.  It was a way of preserving and protecting a certain point of view and way of life.  Religion was a fortress to be built and maintained and defended… to keep the enemy and his ways out and away from us.

But they were completely wrong about this.  This is not the way faith is supposed to work.  We should consider carefully all these stories about the Pharisees, because we very quickly and very easily do the same thing.  Religion in our culture very often resembles that of the pharisees.

Today’s lesson revolves around Sabbath rules, which were part of the ancient Hebrew law.  According to the Bible, this code of law was a gift from God to the people of Israel when they were still homeless… wandering in the wilderness.

Its purpose was to help the Israelites create a fair and compassionate society, based on the principle that, as God in his might, saved and preserved them… a race of slaves and homeless wanderers, so should the strong and mighty among them use their strength to support and protect the weak and vulnerable.

The purpose of that law was to strengthen the relationships and well-being of the people.  It was not meant to divide the people into the good and bad, the worthy and unworthy, and to fill some people with arrogance and self-righteousness and others with shame.

But that’s what happened when the law was misused by powerful and selfish men.

The Sabbath laws, specifically, were intended to be a blessing.  With these laws, God was reminding us that all creatures… all creation… needs good rest.  People, animals, fields all need rest in order to be healthy.

God commanded us to take that rest and make sure that our neighbor received their rest, because he loves us and wants us to be healthy and happy.

The Sabbath law, therefore, was not intended to be an eternal rule to be obeyed at all costs.  If you or your neighbor’s life is diminished by obeying the Sabbath law, then don’t obey it.  As Jesus reminds us on another occasion, “The Sabbath was created for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.”

But for the Pharisees, the Sabbath law… and all religion had become a tool they used to separate themselves, the right and righteous, from others they declared to be unrighteous. 

The same thing happens with religion today.  And so it’s important to remember the purpose of our faith.

The proper purpose of religion is the liberation and joy of the creation of God….  Liberation from the power of sin and death and joy over the life, love and grace of God that takes root and grows in us.

And the proper purpose of religion is the healing of relationships within God’s creation.  It is not God who must be served by religion.  Religion is not about our personal journey toward righteousness or perfection or personal fulfillment. 

Religion is about God serving his whole creation – you and I, our neighbor, the natural world around us – bringing us together… waking us up to one another, connecting us, so that the life and gifts he gives, we can share richly with one another.

God’s word is always about relationships, justice.  He wants us to be right with him and he wants us to be right with one another.  Many times in scripture, he tries to correct our understanding.  He reminds us that the point of religion is not achieving personal gain through correct religious practice or dividing the community of creation into those who are right (and with us) and those who are wrong (and unrighteous).

Today’s 1st lesson is an example of this:  “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”

Another prophet Micah, after rejecting fancy religious rituals and observances, clarifies the proper focus of the religious life:  “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Worship… the word of God… the sacraments… prayer… all these things are gifts from God intended to enrich our lives… makes us grow in awareness and compassion for one another… make us grow in strength and wisdom so that we might better serve one another and become healthier and happier as companions, families, communities and nations.

These gifts are intended to make us grow in faith in our wonderful creator, so that his light might shine in our lives.  They are intended to plant in us joy and wonder over all that he has made and willed for our lives.

Let us pray.

O loving God, grant that as we receive the gifts you give us, we might find the wisdom and strength to put them to work in our lives according to the proper purpose you have set forth for us and all creation.  Amen.