A sermon based on Psalm 77:11-15 and Deuteronomy 8:7-18 preached October 25th, 2015
The very first prayer I remember praying was around the dinner table in the house I had my early childhood in. Maybe I was in 1st or 2nd grade, my brother a toddler. We were Catholic back then. I remember vaguely our Sundays visiting St. Bridgette’s in Richmond. I have Polaroid picture flashes of memory.
I guess church didn’t make a big impression upon me at such a young age. And maybe that’s why I prayed the prayer I did. My prayer around the dinner table that night was apparently the first time I offered to pray aloud in front of my parents. I bet they were pleasantly surprised when I volunteered. To make the short story appropriately short, I prayed the ABC’s that night—the alphabet song. I said Amen at the end, which I thought turned everything you could ever say into a prayer, so even though I knew I was being funny, there was still a reverence to it.
It wasn’t long afterwards that we became Presbyterian. I wonder if those two things had anything to do with one another. “Evidently going to church at St. Bridget’s every Sunday wasn’t doing me a lick of good,” my parents might have wondered.
Once I finished singing the Alphabet Song around the dinner table with the Amen tacked onto the very end, I remember my parents admonishing me—telling me that wasn’t how you’re supposed to pray. In the intervening years though, I’m sure I’ve heard worse prayers than that. I’ve heard less earnest prayers than the one I prayed that night (I might have even been the one praying them!), so I’m not sure I can say, now that I’m a pastor, that singing the ABC’s with an Amen at the end is all that bad a prayer. God heard my singing and I imagine was delighted that I offered my small 5 year-old voice in prayer to Him.
I bet, though, that I prayed the ABC’s that night because I was confused about what prayer around the kitchen table was for.
Fulton Oursler, the author the The Greatest Story Ever Told was confused about that, too. He recalled that as a child, he wondered why his family gave thanks for their food before ever meal. As far as he could tell it was his mom who went to the store to buy the food herself. She used the money that his father made when he went to work everyday, and they would have been able to afford it, cook it, and serve it whether or not they gave thanks for it. Fulton Oursler remembers asking that question aloud to his nanny, whose name was Anna. Anna’s response was a memorable one:
Because it makes everything taste better to be thankful.
The book of Deuteronomy is mostly a reminder that Moses gives to the Hebrew people of what their past has been like. They’ve finished up their 40 years of wandering through the desert, and they’ve got the go-head from God to enter into the Promised Land. For all these years, the Hebrew people have been languishing in the desert wasteland, surviving on Manna, that bread that fell from the heavens; very little water; and not enough hope. But now they looked forward to living life in a place of abundance.
The land of Canaan is a land full of milk and honey, streams of water everywhere. Who wouldn’t look forward to that! But God had told Moses that before they entered the Land of their future, the Hebrew people needed to remember their past. See, once they entered the Promise Land, they would have everything they would need to build an abundant life for themselves. There was stone for them to build strong houses out of; copper they could mine, use, and sell; and food ripe and ready for them to eat everywhere they turned their heads. And living a life of such abundance sounds really great, but there’s a downside. Abundance breeds amnesia, and wealth leads to spiritual amnesia.
Time spent in a land of plenty fosters this dangerous idea among those who live there that they had something to do with earning that abundance. Don’t we know this as Americans? Can we admit, as people who live in a land of plenty, that our ability to feed ourselves (and find food quickly), or earning of a steady paycheck, our ability to afford our own way using our own financial resources contributes greatly to the false and dangerous idea that we are self-sufficient people. And our thoughts of self-sufficiency lead us away from God.
Moses knows that the anecdote to this false notion of enjoying our plenty because of the work of our own hands—this amnesia that comes from abundance—is remembering. Remembering that the only reason we enjoy anything at all is because God has given it to us.
In this season of Stewardship, we need to admit our tendency toward that feeling of self-reliance in all that we do, especially our feeling of self-reliance when it comes to our finances. To think that we have earned it, that it’s ours to keep—is really tempting. It’s tempting because we live in a culture that reinforces that notion at every turn. We are Americans: self-made, independent, self-reliant. But that’s not the Gospel. It’s the Gospel according to America, but it’s not the Gospel according to God.
The Israelites 40 years in the wilderness should remind us of Jesus’ 40 days of being tempted by Satan in the desert. In that passage, Jesus is confronted 3 times by this tempter who offers Jesus everything that he would ever need.
Jesus, you have the power to turn stones into bread. Why don’t you give it a shot! It would solve your hunger problem.
Jesus, why don’t you jump off this cliff, because you know God’s angels will catch you before you hit the ground!
Jesus, I’ll put every kingdom of this world under your power. The only thing you have to do is bow down and worship me!
No. No. No. Jesus says no to all three. Not because bread is bad, but because bread that isn’t provided by God is not worth eating. Not because power is bad, but because power that isn’t granted by God is not worth having.
We who follow Jesus also need to practice such utter reliance upon God. Sure we can have everything we wanted as long as we have the power and the money to afford it, but is it right? Is it Godly? Is it worth having? At every turn of our lives, are we doing what Jesus was doing in the wilderness—are we placing our utter reliance, not upon our own agency, but upon God? That’s the question we should always have at the forefront of our minds.
Saint Augustine, a 5th Century bishop, writes in his Confessions,
If the things of this world delight you, praise God for them but turn your love away from them and give it to their Maker, so that in the things that please you, you may not displease God…The good things which you love are all from God, but they are good and sweet only as long as they are used to do His will.
And our very own Presbyterian forefather, John Calvin, had this to say:
The principle ground of pride is assuming and assigning to ourselves what belongs to God.
We have short memories whenever we attribute our abundance to our own doing. There is nothing that ultimately doesn’t come from God.
Moses’ words are not just to the Israelites, they’re also for us. For we who can afford a trip to Kroger for milk and honey, these words describe our tendencies just as much (if not more) than they describe the tendencies of the Israelites as they build their houses on promised land.
Remember the Lord your God. He’s the One who gives you the strength to be prosperous.
Friends, we need to reconstitute our lives, our time, our energy, our talents, and our bank accounts knowing that we are not the ones who built them.
Stewardship is a high calling. Its challenges are big and daring and life-changing. But so is God’s call upon our lives. This Stewardship season, we are being asked to piece together, to re-member, our lives—to bring all aspects of our life: the spiritual, the physical, the emotional, relational, and the financial—and place them in the care, and under the rule and reign of God our Master and Jesus Christ our Redeemer. And we do that through prayer and devotion to God’s Word in scripture and by focusing every aspect of our lives using the lens of Jesus Christ himself, putting every bit of ourselves under his authority. There is nothing that we enjoy that was not first His.
I urge you this Stewardship season to admit to God that part of you that consistently and repeatedly insists upon your own where-with-all and your own thoughts of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.
I urge you to challenge those notions in yourself. Talk to God about it. If you haven’t talked to God lately, then that means you’ve been trying to make it on your own for much too long. You’ve been drinking and eating from a source that will one day run out. God is the only endless source of nourishment and strength that there is. Go to God for every bit of sustenance, power, and hope. Let prayer piece you back together again—all the various parts of your life. Like Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days and Israel in the wilderness for 40 years, practice utter dependence upon God, and God will re-member you—piece you together into the person God wants you to be.
Friends, life tastes better when we know it all is a gift from God!
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!