Monday, February 04, 2008

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: Transfiguration Sunday: Exodus XX.16

Opening Prayer: Gracious Father, we thank you for how you have blessed us as individuals, as families, and as a congregation. We thank you for providing all that we need and more, and we ask that you would feed us and provide for us now that we might do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with you, our God, through Jesus, Amen!

Last week, we focused on the personal nature of property. Theft is not merely the stealing of objects, it is a personal offense against the owner as well as the Giver of all gifts. This is why restitution is so important: it reaffirms the personalism of the world and embodies our repentance where we have erred. This is Trinitarianism in action.

Righteousness To You
As we have insisted previously, the Ten Commandments are not merely prohibitions; they also imply positive commands. Paul says this explicitly to those who have stolen: stop stealing and work hard so that you can give to those in need (Eph. 4:28). This means that laziness is a form of theft because it is stealing from the poor that you have an obligation to help (cf. Pr. 21:25-26). As Reformed Christians we insist (quite rightly) that righteousness is a gift of God; but this righteousness is not a static property or quality. Righteousness is justice, right actions, right judgment, and defending the defenseless. Moses says here that showing care and mercy for the poor is righteousness to us (Dt. 24:13). This includes not taking advantage of those under our power (24:10-11), whether they are employees, friends, neighbors, children, etc. We must not take their dignity or the means that God has given them to provide and be kept warm (24:6, 12-14). It is a matter of justice to be careful and generous with those under our care (24:15-17).

Leaving Sheaves
Moses insists that God’s people must not go over their fields twice (Dt. 24:19-21) because they were once slaves in Egypt (24:18, 22). God wants his people to have a generous way of life about them. They are to do this so that God will bless them and the work of their hands (24:19). Generosity is an incarnational prayer for God to bless us and our labors. This means that we ought to have intentional methods of leaving sheaves and grapes behind for the needy in our community. This may mean planning to be generous with those who work for us (i.e. bonuses), leaving generous tips for waiters who work hard for us, or having a line item in our family budget designated for this task. God requires his people to take responsibility for the strangers, the fatherless, and the widows in their midst. They are not someone else’s responsibility they are yours.

Conclusions & Applications
First, we need to recognize that the early church understood this calling well. Almost immediately there is a crying need for deacons to distribute food to the poor (Acts 6:1). Jesus had taught to that his disciples’ righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt. 5:20). The logic of Jesus’ interpretation of the law is clearly that our calling is much greater not lesser than the law given by Moses. This is why we hope to continue to grow our diaconal ministries.

Second, this means that Christians should have a reputation for being open handed, generous, and even “careless” with their generosity. This was the case in the New Testament and for several centuries in the early church. If people are going to fault us (and some people are always looking for something), we want the accusation to be that we are too generous. At the center of a generous spirit is the giving of tithes and offerings. If our attitude is “I paid my dues now get off my back,” then you might as well keep your filthy money (Dt. 23:18). God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7). But we also need to recover a robust culture of almsgiving (Mt. 6:1ff). Christ teaches on almsgiving in the context of prayer and fasting (Mt. 6). They all belong together.

Lastly: We are a young church, and we are setting a tone now that will be here for generations. We are part of a tradition that has placed a ton of emphasis on Word and Sacrament. But the earliest Reformers put a significant amount of effort into mercy ministry. Throughout the Scriptures, God’s harshest condemnations do not come to those with doctrinal errors and liturgical blunders. The overwhelming condemnations come to those who ignore neglected children, subvert justice for single moms, and steal by refusing to care for the illegal immigrants next door. Pure and undefiled religion is not a beautiful liturgy or doctrinal precision. God has been carelessly gracious to you; therefore go and do likewise.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!

Closing Prayer: Almighty God, we ask that you would make us a people known for generosity. Give us open hands and open arms for the neglected and needy in our communities. Teach us to hate all forms of theft and robbery, especially stinginess, greed, and carelessly neglecting our neighbors.

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