Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11 + Psalm 67 + 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 + Luke 12:13-21
A couple weeks ago, for my birthday, my parents gave me one of the best gifts I’ve received in my whole life. It took them weeks, maybe months, to prepare. They started by going through all the old family photo albums and they picked out not just the best, but the quintessential photos of me from all the eras of my first forty years of life. The pictures we go back to over and over again when we tell the story of who I am and how I came to be this person.
The photo of my pregnant, glowing mother. The picture of my parents holding me on the day of my baptism. The first day of school. The day we met my sister. The day we buried the ashes of the family dog. The day I was ordained. My life in pictures.
They collected all these paradigmatic moments, almost two hundred of them, and they digitized them. Slowly, one by one, Dad took the hard copies to a store with a scanner and turned these heirloom images into image files he could then crop and color correct. They put all these memories on a tiny USB drive the size of my thumb, and they presented them to me along with a digital picture frame. Together we sat, as a family, and remembered all that we’ve come through to arrive at this moment.
For a guy like me who was, admittedly, getting a little neurotic about turning forty it was the perfect tonic. The gratitude I felt at having lived the kind of life that could produce these images, memories of loving and being loved, memories of struggle and success, easily crowded out my nascent mid-life crisis. Whatever griefs or misgivings I have about entering the second half of life must contend with the reality of these images. I have been richly blessed.
A week later, I received a second set of images that have similarly been a source of blessing for all of us. Many of you have seen Christa’s husband, Jason, taking photographs of us in worship for the past month or so. He’s also been showing up at the pantry, at the community dinners, at the Saturday morning chorus rehearsals and at some of our events out in the neighborhood — our community service day weeding in the paseo prairie garden at the El stop, the candlelight prayer vigil for Syria a few weeks back. Over three hundred digital photographs showed up in a shared file a week ago today for us to use on our website, in our publications, to tell our story.
On Friday I began posting these photographs in albums on the church’s Facebook page. Within twenty-four hours over three thousand people had looked at one or more of those photographs. That’s more than ten times the average number of hits we get for any other kind of post, proving the saying true: a picture is worth a thousand words.
It occurs to me that a well taken photograph, shared at the right time, is a kind of testimony. It tells a story. Speaking to the Israelites as they prepared to enter the promised land, Moses did not have the benefit of a camera, so he had to use a thousand words to paint them a picture of what they had been through together. He needed to encapsulate centuries of shared oppression and liberation into a single story that could be repeated over and over again as the foundation for a shared identity. He taught them to remember this:
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me. (Deut. 26:5b-10a)
To this day, if you are privileged to sit with Jewish friends and family at the Passover seder, you will hear that story offered up as a collective memory of God’s goodness and faithfulness.
Memory produces gratitude that takes form in the offering back of what God has first given us, all that we have and all that we are, with emphasis on the word “we.” Notice how Moses teaches the people to remember their story as a collective one: When the Egyptians treated us harshly… we cried to the Lord. The Lord brought us out of Egypt… and brought us into this place.
Contrast that emphasis on a shared history and a common destiny with the voice of the rich man in the parable Jesus shared in response to a question about inheritance.
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. (Luke 12:16b-19)
We know that Jesus didn’t have an issue with eating, drinking, or merriment. In fact, earlier in Luke’s gospel Jesus contrasts himself with John the Baptist saying, “John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Luke 7:33-34)
Jesus presents this rich man not as a warning against gluttony, but against greed. He’d been asked by someone in the crowd that followed him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Moses begins his speech to the Israelites, “when you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance…” Both teachers are addressing the question of what we are to do with what has first been given to us, but the person who questions Jesus seems to have forgotten what he would have learned from Moses in the synagogue, that what God provides, God provides for all. The one questioning Jesus wants the inheritance to be divided so that he can take what is his and be done with the rest. Answering him Jesus tells a story about a man so self-absorbed that he even talks to himself (“And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul…’”)
We are at the beginning now of our annual fall stewardship campaign, that time of the year when we take stock of all that we have been given, and offer our first fruits back to God in the form of gifts that support the work of the church. I’ll say more on that in just a minute, but I can’t help but notice the painful irony in the timing of this parable of a rich man talking to himself on the eve of his own death.
Here we are, almost two weeks into a federal government shutdown that has cost American workers billions in lost wages, and cut off access to necessary civil services and benefits. Watching the elected leadership of this country respond to this crisis has been like witnessing a living parable of wealthy people talking to themselves. Worse still, this crisis finds its origins in a controversy over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, legislation intended to extend the benefits and blessings of our nation’s wealth in the form of health insurance for many of those who previously were left unprotected against sudden illness or injury. It is hard not to hear the voice of the rich man from Jesus’ parable being played out in this debate, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grains and goods…”
As we enter into this year’s Stewardship campaign, I know that many of you have already received a letter from the Stewardship committee at your home. I am so grateful for their work, and I know you are too. Together with the finance committee and the whole Council, the stewardship committee has set a goal for our household giving this coming year of $80,000. That’s almost four times what we were able to collect just a few short years ago, but still less than half of our annual operating budget. Because of your generosity, we continue to make good progress on our redevelopment goals, but we still have a long way to go. Thank you for the careful, prayerful ways that each of you supports this ministry we share together of listening to and caring for one another: the hungry and the weary and the world.
If you haven’t received a letter in the mail yet, I’d encourage you to take a look at the Stewardship committee’s kick-off announcement toward the back of your bulletin. There you’ll find the verse from John’s gospel selected as the theme for this year’s campaign: “Look around you and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” (John 4:35)
In the coming weeks, you’ll be hearing testimonies from members of St. Luke’s sharing how their own experience with God has been shaped by our collective experiences of faith, and what that common identity might mean for us all here and now. These individual stories help us all to form an image of who we are becoming together.
When I look at the photos that Jason gave us, when I see what he saw through the lens of his camera, I am so proud. Images of bags filled with groceries. Images of round tables surrounded by people and heavy laden with food. Circles of people singing their prayers by candlelight. St. Luke’s, you are people who remember our story, our Christian story, the story of a God who came among us as bread for the hungry and wine for the weary.
We have been richly blessed. As we continue to come into the future that the Lord our God is giving us as an inheritance, I thank God for your vision and your generosity. I thank God for the first fruits of time, wisdom and wealth that you share with this community. I thank God for your perseverance, your hope, and your great faithfulness. I thank God for you.
Come, let us celebrate all the bounty that the Lord our God has given to us and to our house.