January 11, 2009
Psalm 104:1-2;10-18; Ex. 16:1-36
I don’t need to tell you this morning that our country and really – the whole world – is going through an economic crisis.
For the last three months – all we have heard in the news is how this is the worst economic crisis since the great depression and how it is going to get worse before it gets better.
I am not aware that any of you have lost your job or your home because of this economic crisis but maybe a family member or friend or neighbor has. I am guessing, though, that most of you have lost a big chunk of your retirement money. I know I have.
All of us have been affected by this current economic crisis in some way and the longer it goes on the more all of us and our communities will be affected by it.
Now, there are many people who wish our new president could pull out a magic wand to stimulate the economy enough so that we could go back to the good old days of the booming economy of the 90’s.
And yet, as Christians, we need to ask if we really want to return to an economy where over the last few decades the gap between the rich and the poor has just grown wider and wider and wider?
In 1965 the average U.S. worker made $7.52 an hour while the person running the company made $330.38 per hour. Today the average U.S. worker makes $7.39 per hour and the average CEO makes $1, 566 per hour.
What we have seen over the past number of decades is a steady “trickle up” transfer of wealth from the increasingly poor to the very rich.
As Christians, I think one of our biggest challenges in the world today is the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth and power into the hands of fewer and fewer people.
So, as Christians, we need to ask ourselves – do we really want to return to an economy where half of the world’s population – about 3 billion people – lives on less than two dollars a day while the average American teenager spends nearly $150 a week?
The old economy made many people in the U.S. rich, but it has also made most of the world poor.
For the next four weeks I want us to reflect on the “economy of God” and look at what God might desire for the world.
I think many of us, myself included, are held captive to the current economic structures and we find it hard to imagine anything different. The current set up is all we know and we feel powerless to change things.
So, for most of us, all we can dream about is a return to the old economy and some stability in the markets, instead of restructuring a new economy that is fairer for all people of the world and more sustainable.
However, my hope and prayer for this sermon series is that we begin to imagine a new future centered in God’s abundance of enough.
I hope our current economic downturn can be a time in which we will be able to hear the gospel message in a new way. I hope we can begin to imagine another way to organize our life in the world so that it better reflects Jesus’ way of abundant generosity.
I want to begin this series today by looking at God’s abundance of enough.
Throughout the biblical story God is revealed to us as a God of abundant generosity.
Genesis one is a song of praise for God’s generosity. It keeps saying of creation – “it is good, it is good, it is very good.” God blesses the plants and animals and the fish and birds and humankind. All of creation is full of life and vitality.
Psalm 104, the passage that was read earlier, is really a commentary on Genesis one. In Psalm 104 we have a wonderful picture of God’s abundance in creation and God’s over-the-top provisions for all creatures.
In this passage the psalmist gushes in his praise of God.
He says – “O Lord my God, you are very great.”
You make springs gush forth in the valleys . . .
you give drink to every wild animal . . .
You water the mountains . . .
You cause grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use . . .
to bring forth food and wine and oil and bread . . .
O Lord, how manifold are your works! . . .
the earth is running over with your creatures . . .
things innumerable . . .
These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them . . . they are filled with good things . . .
When you take away their breath, they die . . .
[but] when you send forth your spirit, they are created.”
This Psalm, along with many other scriptures, gives praise to God for being the source of all life. God here is not seen as stingy or self-protective with his blessings.
God is a big risk-taker who is generous with everyone. God often gives more than is needed for life. God even gives to those who don’t fully appreciate all of God’s good gifts.
So, the biblical story proclaims over and over that when we are formed by a God of abundance – we live free of anxiety, full of joy and gratitude, and we respond to others with generosity.
But the biblical story also narrates that when we are held captive by the myth of scarcity – the belief that there really isn’t enough to go around in the world – we begin to hoard and store up things even if others must do without.
The story of the Israelites as slaves in Egypt is really a story about scarcity.
I think most of us are familiar with this story but I want to briefly retell it.
Pharaoh, as you may remember, dreams that there will be a famine in the land – so he gets organized to administer and control the food supply.
The first thing Pharaoh does is he hires Joseph to manage the whole operation. In those days Egypt was the dominant empire and so Joseph sets up huge storage facilities all over the empire to collect all the grain.
The plan is that when the crops fail and the people run out of food they will have to come to Joseph for grain and supplies. Since Egypt controls everything the people will have no other options for attaining food.
Genesis 47 describes what happens next. In the first year of the famine people come from all over to buy grain.
In the second year, they have no money left, so they give Joseph their livestock in exchange for food.
By the third year, all they have left to get food is their bodies and their land. So they sell their land and their bodies for food.
Verse 20 of Genesis 47 says it like this – “So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.”
Pharaoh now owns all the people and all the land – except one small portion of land. Interestingly, the one piece of land that he does not buy is the land that belongs to the priests.
Now, my suspicion is that Pharaoh does not touch the priest’s land because he needs someone to bless him.
He pays the priests an allowance so they will speak well of him and promote his policies.
This whole story of the children of Israel becoming slaves in Egypt is based on the notion of scarcity – that there is not enough for everyone.
Based on the threat of scarcity and a slick operation, Pharaoh is able to gain control over all the land and the people. And then he uses fear to keep them in line and subject to him.
Finally, though, after being slaves for 430 years, God hears the Israelites cry of desperation and calls Moses to lead them out of Egypt.
Our other scripture for today from Exodus 16 picks up the story of the children of Israel just after they have been liberated from Egyptian bondage.
We don’t know for sure how long they have been liberated, but in verse two we learn that shortly after they are freed the people begin complaining about their situation.
Verse two says – “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them – if only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt…for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
Can you imagine this? The children of Israel have just been delivered from over 400 years of slavery and within a couple of weeks of freedom they already want to go back to Egypt and their old way of life.
For years they have had to work seven days a week with no rest.
They have been beaten and tortured to work harder and longer and to produce more bricks for Pharaoh. They had nothing in Egypt except a regular meal and some shelter – yet they want to go back.
The children of Israel have not only been slaves bodily but they have also developed a slave mentality. They were in slavery so long that they can no longer imagine a life different than the way they have always lived.
They would rather live in bondage to Pharaoh and eat familiar food, than live this risky life of faith following God.
God, however, does not abandon them or let them die. God promises to rain down bread from heaven to feed them.
When the children of Israel went out in the morning to collect food for the day they saw something they had never seen before.
There was this flaky substance on the ground and when they saw it they said – “What is it?”
And since they had no name for this stuff they continued to call it – “what is it?” The Hebrew word for “what is it” is Manna. So they just called this flaky substance – manna.
Now, God also told them that they can only collect enough manna for one day.
Manna only has a shelf life of 24 hours. If you collect more than you need for the day it will spoil.
Of course there were some who didn’t believe this and who were anxious about having enough.
Some folks were not sure they could trust God to provide food for them each day, so they got some big Tupperware containers – filled them to the top and hid them for a rainy day.
They were feeling pretty smart about there little scheme – until they found maggots crawling all over the carpet the next day.
The hard thing Israel had to learn is that God’s generosity can’t be stored up. Every time they tried to bank it or invest it – it turned sour and rotted.
You see, the reason the children of Israel found it hard to trust that God would provide enough food for each day is because for years and years they had been taught that there isn’t enough for everyone.
They had been schooled in the ideology of scarcity that said you needed to store up extra in order to survive.
After years in slavery, God uses this time in the wilderness to re-train the children of Israel in God’s economy of abundance. Gathering just enough for the day is a reminder that God will provide – that there will be enough for everyone.
By allowing them to collect just enough for one day – God is teaching them that they can live in an economy of grace – not anxiety and fear.
And then to make sure they never forget that God provides for them – God tells them to take a day off and rest.
In all of their years as slaves in Egypt they were never given a day off. They had to work 24/7. They had no life outside of their work.
Now God tells them – be like me and after six days of work take a day off to rest. So right there in the desert, in a place of much insecurity, God institutes a Sabbath day of rest.
For the Israelites, the Sabbath was a constant reminder that they weren’t in Egypt anymore and they didn’t have to play by Pharaoh’s rules. Since God was now their provider they didn’t need to get as much as they could while others had less.
The Sabbath was a reminder that their value didn’t come from how many bricks they produced. It was a reminder that their significance and value came from God their creator who liberated them from slavery.
The Sabbath day is really a communal discipline. It is a way of living in the world that says I am going to trust God to provide for all my needs. It is a communal discipline that says – there is enough of God’s abundance for everyone when we take only what we need.
And since God knows how forgetful we are – God instructs Moses to put some Manna in a jar and place it before the covenant as a constant reminder that God is our Provider and that there is enough for everyone.
Every week at worship when the people saw the Manna in the jar they remembered – God provides enough for everyone and we don’t need to hoard anything for ourselves.
And then what is really interesting is how this Sabbath cycle of work and rest gets extended in other areas.
In Exodus 23:10 it says – “For six years you shall sow the land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat.”
Here the Sabbath day becomes a Sabbath year. The Sabbath year is meant to give the land a rest and to make sure that those who have become marginalized and disenfranchised have enough again.
Also, in Deuteronomy 15, the Sabbath year includes debt relief for those who have gone into debt. Verse one says – “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts.”
The human tendency in every society is to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a few. God encourages the practice of debt relief so that people have another opportunity to start over.
And then God also institutes what is called “Sabbath’s Sabbath” or the year of Jubilee. Leviticus 25 describes how the year of Jubilee – every 50 years – was meant to dismantle structures of social- economic inequality.
Three things were to take place every 50 years:
Release community members from all debt.
Return land to its original owners.
And free any slaves.
The whole purpose for the year of Jubilee was to remind Israel that the land belonged to God (v.23) and that they are an Exodus people who must never return to a system of slavery like they had in Egypt (v.42).
The year of jubilee was instituted because God cares deeply about justice and about the poor and about the unequal distribution of resources in the world. The year of jubilee was meant to bring some balance back into the system so that the gap never gets too large.
So, all of these different Sabbath practices that developed are meant to instill in the children of Israel a new way of living in the world free from the anxiety and fear they had experienced in Egypt.
They were learning to live in God’s economy of enough.
This morning I invite us to let this biblical story of Sabbath begin to form us in God’s abundance of enough.
Honoring the Sabbath is really a form of witness in the world because it says to the world – “there is enough for everyone.”
Honoring the Sabbath says – there is a rhythm to life of work and rest.
Honoring the Sabbath says – we can trust God to be our provider.
Honoring the Sabbath says – we don’t have to hoard up things to survive.
You see, God’s economy is based on the understanding that there is more than enough for everyone. Exodus says – “those who gathered more had no surplus and those who gathered less had no shortage.”
I invite us this morning to lay down our worries, our self-protective behavior, and our tendency to hoard.
In spite of our shrinking 401K’s, in defiance of the latest drop in the stock market, in rebellion against the media messages of doom and gloom, I invite us to be formed by God’s abundance of enough into people of radical joy, gratitude, and generosity.
God created this world beautifully and abundantly.
It is full and overflowing with life. And God continues to sustain and reproduce this life.
There is enough for all. There is plenty, if we share.
Jesus, in the story of the feeding of the 5000, gives us an example of God’s abundance of enough when we share.
After a long day of teaching Jesus wanted to feed the 5000 men, plus women and children who had gathered to hear him.
When his disciples brought him only five loaves and two fishes – Jesus took it and after he blessed it – he broke the bread and there was enough to feed all the people.
In fact, there was so much bread that they had 12 baskets left over – one basket for every tribe of Israel. Jesus was teaching his disciples the lesson of the Exodus all over again – that there is enough for all of God’s people when we share.
Jesus demonstrated to his disciples that the world is filled with abundance and infused with generosity and he invited them to enter into this new economy of God’s grace.
May God’s Spirit empower us to trust in God’s generosity so that there is enough bread for everyone.
Let us pray.
“Generous Savior, who daily feeds us bread from heaven, You have given us bread to eat not of our own making – Your own self and Your own creation.
What is it that You so richly provide for us and ask nothing in return but that we share Your bread with others?
Yet, we grab Your bounty for ourselves alone. We lay hold of silver and gold, amassing riches beyond our need. We buy lands and mark them off as if our own. We hide away Your provision for a day that may never come.
Like children, we become angry when You ask us to share. We fear that we may find ourselves without. We complain when we cannot have more and more. Generous Spirit, change our hearts so that we not let Your bounty rot in our hands.
Cause us to remember your holy promises. In the OT and the New, You have taught us that You can spread a table in the wilderness – manna from heaven and water from a rock, food for thousands from a few broken loaves and fishes.
You provide our daily bread in abundance. All can eat and be satisfied if we do not take too much. Give us the spirit of “sabbath economics” and cause us to remember that Your bread is ours for sharing. Generous God, let the many, not just the few, celebrate your abundant goodness. Amen. (prayer by B.J. Morton)