a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “What Shall We Bring?”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
November 11, 2018
1Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
2I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
3Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
5Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; 7who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.
9The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!
I don’t know if it is a strictly southern thing but I know when I was a child and we would go visit someone – neighbor, church friends, relatives, we always tried to take something with us. It might have been food, it might have been a small gift, but we had a hard time going anywhere empty handed. Sometimes it was a hard decision knowing what to bring.
The stewardship theme we are using this year asks us, “What Shall We Bring?” It is an echo of Biblical verses that ask, as it does in Micah 6:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? … 8 God 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?
This is the time of year when we look more deeply at how God calls us to be stewards of the gospel. To consider how we support the ministry and mission this church seeks to do in the name of Jesus Christ. I call it “stewardship growth” time because I believe we all need to grow as Christians and this is one of the ways we all need to grow in understanding, in faith, and in our giving. We are all called to ask ourselves, “What shall I bring?” I hope that whether you grew up in the south or somewhere else you are familiar enough with this question to know there are many ways to answer it, but to say, “Nothing,” is perhaps the saddest thing any of us could say. I believe all of us can bring what Micah says God demands of us.
The Psalm we read this morning echoes Micah’s words in a joyful, and hopeful way. The writer speaks of celebration and praise. He or she speaks of praising God and trusting God. This Psalm is the first of the last five Psalms of the Book of Psalms all of which speak of praising and celebrating God. It invites us to celebrate God who is our hope, our Creator and who “keeps faith forever.”
What does that mean? How does God keep faith forever? By being trustworthy. The writer warns not to put our trust in princes. I have to wonder if this is a bit ironic. Credit for the Psalms is given to King David, considered the greatest “prince” of ancient Israel. It is hard to imagine the king being honest enough to say, “don’t trust princes!” Yet perhaps it is even more authoritative if David himself were to warn us not to trust those who are mortals who claim more power than God and yet whose “plans perish on the very day they die,” while God “keeps faith forever.”
And what is faithfulness of God? It is faithfulness to provide what God demands we give as well: Justice and mercy to those in need. The Psalm writer tells us God executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets prisoners free, gives sight to the blind, lifts up the bowed down, watches over strangers [ that is immigrant and refugees, if you were wondering], and upholds the orphan and the widow. And the Psalm writer promises these things don’t die when the prince does, or when the Governor, or Senator, or President isn’t reelected. God will reign forever and will not stop doing these things. This is the good news of God.
Jesus echoed this same purpose when he gave his inaugural address at the beginning of his ministry. He quoted the prophet Isaiah, saying,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Perhaps one way to sum up the answer God gives to the question, what shall we bring, we might say, “our neighbor.” Jesus also reminds us that our neighbor is truly whomever might be in need. His story of the Good Samaritan was told in answer to the question, “who is my neighbor,” after Jesus had told the crowd to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Clearly Jesus identifies our neighbor as the one who is in need, the very ones God pledges faithfulness to: those suffering injustice, who are hungry, imprisoned unjustly, blind, the stranger, orphan and widow, in short all those who are vulnerable, most at risk. Yet we continue to honor “princes” who appeal to our refusal to be a neighbor, who urge us to a fearful selfishness that is beneath us as people of faith and of people with plain old common decency. The Psalmist, whether it is King David or a prophet in his court, is wise to remind us not to put our trust in princes, but in God, who will “reign forever, for all generations.”
So let me suggest that what we bring to God, as our stewardship commitment, are our neighbors. Let us bring our neighbors who are suffering injustice, who are wrongly treated by the for-profit prison systems, who are hungry because, while there are plenty of jobs, many of them don’t pay enough to feed a family, provide shelter and certainly not healthcare. Let us bring our neighbors who are blinded by selfishness or racism or homophobia or other hatreds that keep them from walking humbly with God and doing justice and mercy. Let us bring our neighbor who is orphaned or widowed – who in other words is economically at risk of real death!
Here’s what I love about this Psalm: it begins and ends by telling us to
Praise the Lord! Four times the writer proclaims this. But what I love about that is that then the writer tells us how we “praise the Lord” in real, everyday life, not just on Sunday in a worship service. We do it by “loving our neighbor as [ourselves]!” One writer says that when the Psalm says, “Praise the Lord, O my Soul!” it does not just mean with our mouth or heart. The soul for the Hebrew writer meant the whole self. It meant more than voice without a body, without hands, or feet, or a wallet.
Another writer points out that the words in Hebrew translated as “as long as I live,” can also be translated, “I will praise the LORD through my life; I will sing God’s praises through my existence.” Our lives are an illustration of God’s faithfulness. “It also implies that the way one lives one’s life is itself an act of praise. Living out God’s values of truth, justice, and responsiveness to those in need” is praise! [ Esther Menn, “Commentary on Psalm 146,” workingpreacher.org, 9/ 9/18 ].
We have a history of being good stewards of these demands by God, of praising God by caring for our neighbors who are suffering. You do it by filling grocery bags to go to Arlington Community Services and for Micah’s Backpack for children. On behalf of the hungry neighbors I say, “Praise the Lord!” You do it by providing funding and hands-on ministry for those families that are without houses to live in through our work with Family Promise. We have given hope to hundreds of our neighbors by your giving and your stewardship of this ministry. Praise the Lord!
You do it by supporting our justice ministry – by turning out Tuesday night at our Community Problems Assembly. Thanks to you we are changing literally thousands of lives for the better. You are doing justice for our neighbors who need a second chance, for youth who do what teens do but who don’t deserve a criminal record or jail time, for people of color who deserve a police and court system that builds trust rather than distrust. Over the years we have changed many lives for the better thanks to you. “Praise the Lord” for your stewardship giving that helps to make the justice ministry of our church go.
We touch thousands if not tens of thousands more through Our Church’s Wider Mission. Working with brothers and sisters in our United Church of Christ and in other denominations we are doing justice, showing mercy, and by doing that we walk humbly with our God. Your generosity, your stewardship, of this is literally salvation for neighbors we will never meet or know, but who nonetheless are our neighbors by Jesus’ definition. Praise the Lord!
I want to challenge each of you to think about how you can grow as a steward and praise God even more. If you don’t give regularly or at all for the ministries of this church, I challenge you to join me in making a commitment and giving regularly. If you don’t know how much, my first suggestion is “give til it hurts” because then you will know it is enough. God challenges us to be sacrificial givers. But if you want a more specific answer, figure out your regular income, whether yearly, monthly, or weekly and commit 2% of that to praising the Lord through the work of this church.
If you give but don’t pledge I challenge you to make that commitment. First I say this because I believe it is good for you. I believe you are a person whose faith commitment is real, but if you won’t commit your wallet to God, what does that say? I believe it is good for us spiritually to make a commitment. I make one every year. There have been years when I couldn’t fulfill that due to one thing or another, but you know what? No one from the church came after me or billed me for the shortfall, that’s not what we do. But you writing down your commitment not only helps you, it helps the church know how many ministries we can help in 2019. Our Mission Core Ministry wants to do more for Micah’s Backpack and for Jacksonville Campus Ministry, but we need your commitment to put that in the budget.
For those of you who have been giving the same amount for years, thank you, and “Praise the Lord!” I want to challenge you, can you do more? Do you trust God enough to provide that you are willing to step up in your faith and give just a little more? How much? Well, building on what I said to those who haven’t given before, I suggest you figure out what percent you are giving and I want to challenge you to give 2% more. That won’t be too much, I promise you, because God can, and will, provide. Praise the Lord!
If you pledge and you give regularly and you have increased your giving over the years, and many of you have, thank you and Praise the Lord! Keep leading. And ask yourself, can you do more? Is God moving you to take another step forward in faith with your giving next year? If so, Praise the Lord! Do it! But even still thank you for your generosity. Take joy in knowing you help to save lives, change lives, bless lives all over the world and right here in our community. Truly you are being the neighbor Jesus calls us to be.
Praise the Lord with your lives, with your souls, with your giving. So doing will show you truly understand that the answer to the question, “what shall we bring?” is, “Our neighbors!” And we do that by the ministries and missions we do together that we cannot do alone. I praise the Lord in advance for your generosity and your faithfulness and your continued growth in stewardship. AMEN.