Category Archives: Sermons

Atheism by a Different Name

A sermon from Psalm 14 and Luke 15:1-10 (preached on September 11, 2016).


I remember sitting in a college and young adult church class years ago when the topic of atheism was put into conversation with Psalm 14:1, “Fools say in their heart, ‘There is no God’ ” (NRSV). I don’t recall details of the discussion, but at that time in my life, I think I viewed this verse as a slam against atheists and atheism. Those fools! I didn’t understand why people would say that there is no God. Growing up in church, faith in God made sense in my life and made sense of my world. Why did some people reject what, for me, was so obvious?

I now believe that Psalm 14 is not speaking against atheism, despite how the words “There is no God” may strike us. My understanding of this psalm has changed for a few reasons. First, in ancient Israel’s immediate context, so far as I understand it, all people believed in a god or gods of some kind. They might believe in one god and not believe in another, but I am not aware of any total atheists in ancient Israel’s immediate setting. Thus, I cannot imagine the words “There is no God” meaning that the person did not believe in any god at all.

Second, the rest of the words in Psalm 14 influence how we should understand the meaning of “There is no God.” The fools of this psalm are “corrupt, they do abominable deeds” (14:1b); “there is no one who does good” (14:1c, 3); humans “have all gone astray” (14:3); “evildoers . . . eat up my people as they eat bread” (14:4); they “would confound the plans of the poor” (14:6). In light of the entire psalm, it sounds like the fools are not people who refuse to believe in God, but are people who believe in God and think that God must approve of the way they are treating other people, since God is not interfering to stop their actions.


The fools … are people who believe in God and think that God must approve of the way they are treating other people, since God is not interfering to stop their actions.


Such theology works as follows: God gives me free will to act; if, in my freedom, I start to do something that God does not like, God will stop me from doing it; if God stops me, then I was wrong; if God does not stop me, then he approves of my actions. When we put this theology on paper, we can identify problems with it. But how many people who believe in God take every action as if the action either made God more present or more absent as a result? How many actions done by people of faith are so intentional? How many believers practice the presence of God in every action, and how many practice atheism by a different name?

Now, this application is broader than the situation to which our psalm seems to speak. Yes, the psalm sees a comprehensive problem: “The LORD looks down . . . on humankind” as a whole, and “there is no one who does good” among them (14:2-3). That is, all humans (including Israel) who believe in any god do wrong. If this is so, then Israel contributes to the larger human problem, when they were meant to address that problem.

But then the psalm gets more specific about the problem: “the evildoers . . . eat up [the psalmist’s] people . . . and do not call upon the LORD,” the God of Israel (14:4). This suggests that the fools and evildoers may be a neighboring culture who believes in other gods and does not think that Israel’s God is powerful enough or caring enough to stop them from harming Israel. What we have here are different theists (with correlating nationalities) operating within their theologies and drawing conclusions about their actions and their gods as a result of their interactions with each other. In particular, the foreign antagonists with their foreign gods “say in their hearts, ‘There is no God,’ ” meaning “There is no god in Israel who is stopping us and our gods from what we are doing, either because he will not or he cannot.”

The psalmist considers this belief foolish: Just because our God is not stopping you does not mean that he is not able or with us. The psalmist will go on to express hope that the LORD, the God of Israel, would deliver them and restore their fortunes (14:7), but I cannot help but believe that his theology would not crumble if the deliverance he preferred to see never took place. Someone who does not think that God has to keep harm from coming to him is in a logical position to think that God does not have to make his situation the way he wants it to be. To base one’s faith on the requirement that God orchestrate the world in a way that conforms to one’s own vision of how the world should be is arguably, yet again, atheism by a different name. It is a refusal to let go and let God be who God is, to trust that God knows what he is doing.


Someone who does not think that God has to keep harm from coming to him is in a logical position to think that God does not have to make his situation the way he wants it to be.


And so, it turns out that Psalm 14 is about atheism, but not in the ways we might be tempted to think. The Church should not march out of its buildings for name-calling: calling atheists, agnostics, and skeptics “Fools!” For my part, I have developed a healthy respect for many atheists, not least those atheists who deny God because of the shallow, pathetic versions of God they have seen expressed and worshiped by many people of faith. That is, I think the Church is implicated often enough in pushing people to the position of atheism.


The Church is implicated often enough in pushing people to the position of atheism.


But Psalm 14 was written by Israel for Israel to address their life from their point of view. For the Church, then, the psalm becomes a prophetic mirror, reflecting back our view of God to us and asking us about our beliefs. I can imagine several applications here, and I think you can, too. For instance, when the psalm implies that Israel is part of the larger “humankind” among which “there is no one who does good,” can we identify the ways in which we contribute to the larger human problem?—and not so much pointing out flaws in other Christians, but being able to identify attitudes and actions in ourselves that make the world a place where it feels more and more like “There is no God.” How are we promoting atheism by a different name?


Can we identify attitudes and actions in ourselves that make the world a place where it feels more and more like “There is no God”?


Or when the psalm implies that God’s power and presence are not determined by Israel being protected from all harm, does our faith get shaken up when harm comes to us or to people we love? Christians elsewhere in the world are much better positioned to address this question—those Christians who are harmed precisely because they are Christians. Nevertheless, hostilities abound in our world, and not infrequently in the name of a god. When those hostilities occur, am I tempted to believe that “There is no God” in those places and events? Can God be God when the carnage and wreckage of human violence litter the landscape all around him?

Is there no God where airplanes are seized and skyscrapers destroyed? Is there no God where diseases become epidemics and cancers evolve novelties that frustrate us? Is there no God where the abused become the abusers and prolong the cycle of violence? Is there no God where wildfires, hurricanes, and earthquakes destroy human homes and human lives? Or is God there in all of those places and events in ways that both comfort us and haunt us?


Or is God there in all of those places and events in ways that both comfort us and haunt us?


In Luke 15, and perhaps contrary to the beliefs of the Pharisees and scribes, God was there “welcom[ing] sinners and eat[ing] with them” (15:2). Jesus calmed storms, but he did not calm all storms and recreate a world without storms. Jesus healed people with diseases, but did not transform the world into a place where disease was no more. Jesus multiplied loaves and fish, but he did not force a society or world where the poor would always be fed. When a sheep was lost, God was there in the effort to find it. When a coin was lost, God was there in the search to recover it. God was there at a meal with sinners, rejoicing when they repented in response to someone actually caring enough to enter their world, their house. On the flip side, God was not there in the efforts to stand apart from tax collectors and sinners and criticize and judge them.

Where is God today? The God who is there where hostility and harm occur, permitting these things to happen, is the same God who permits us to do good in our world, and who is there in those efforts. It is not tidy, but it places tremendous dignity on us and how we choose to use our lives in this world. In a world where people have lots of reasons or motives for saying “There is no God,” may we enact the life, character, and image of God by our words and deeds.

Discontent with God

A sermon from Luke 14:1,7-14 and Jeremiah 2:4-13 (preached on August 28, 2016).


Sit in the lowliest spot at someone’s wedding banquet (Lk 14:7-11), and when you throw your own banquet, invite those whom societies invariably treat lowly (14:12-14). Jesus teaches these behaviors at a meal in a Pharisee’s house. Now, the fact that he accepts the invitation of a Pharisee may be a lesson itself. It is also a Sabbath, a commanded day of rest from work. And yet, en route to the meal, Jesus performs an act of work, healing a man whose worth to on-lookers ranked lower than that of an ox. Of course, no one would say it that way. But words have a way of polishing a shine onto our injustices. In Jesus’ situation, how can people who will rescue an ox and ignore a human go on to prepare a feast for humans who are poor, crippled, lame, and blind?

Is Jesus just a prophet of table etiquette?—the first century’s very own—though very Jewish and male—Emily Post? If Jesus wishes to teach about meals and manners and move on, I suppose that is fine. But what if Jesus is challenging people’s deepest prejudices and most socially acceptable injustices? What if Jesus is unmasking widespread evils that are accepted and perpetuated by even the most religious members of Israel in his society?

To admit that Jesus is right is to admit defeat, to confess that God’s Teaching has not, after all, accomplished as much in our lives as we would like to have thought. Perhaps we are not so familiar with God. Then again, perhaps we are perfectly familiar with God, but secretly and begrudgingly dislike what he tries to accomplish in our lives and in our world. Perhaps he is not the God we want him to be. Perhaps we have exchanged him for a god made in our image, a god whom we try to fashion closely enough to the real thing to console our guilty, idolatrous consciences.


Perhaps we are perfectly familiar with God, but secretly and begrudgingly dislike what he tries to accomplish in our lives and in our world.


Amid people’s pantheons of pious idols, then and now, Jesus lives and teaches—he embodies—the true God. This is, of course, the doctrine of the Incarnation: the word of God has become flesh in Jesus of Nazareth (Jn 1:1,14). It is interesting, then, that, centuries prior, a word of God came to the prophet Jeremiah accusing Jeremiah’s audience of exchanging the God of Israel for other gods. I can imagine modern Christians reading Jeremiah’s message with some confusion and pity: confusion at why the kings and people of Judah would exchange their God for an idol, and pity that they did not know any better. The true God had delivered Israel from Egypt, had fed and preserved them through years in wilderness, and had brought them into a land of plentiful fruits and good things (Jer 2:6-7). How could that generation find things wrong with God? How could they go after worthless things and defile God’s land (Jer 2:4,7)? How could several hundred years in the land find Jeremiah’s contemporaries in the same rut they were in with Moses? Why do people keep going after other gods?

The word of God to Jeremiah did not come in a vacuum. Though we do not know the specific prompt for the message of Jeremiah 2, the beginning of the book indicates that Jeremiah served as a prophet at a time of great national and international uncertainty for the kingdom of Judah. Judah’s sister kingdom to the north, which included most of Israel’s tribes and land settlements, had fallen to, and been radically reconfigured by, the Assyrian Empire. The late-600s BC saw the waning of Assyria’s power and the competing growth of Babylon’s. Judah had managed an anxious independence from Assyria, and worked to maneuver protection against Babylon’s encroachments. To bring it closer to the issue at hand, a foreign power with its foreign gods threatened Judah’s power, Judah’s independence, and, so it would seem, Judah’s God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the Exodus and conquest.

Is it really too unrelatable, then, for a fearful, threatened king and people to question the role of their God in a changing international landscape? for these people to seek help in other gods, gods who had been worshiped in Canaan longer than Israel’s God, gods who might want to protect this land from Babylon? Maybe this is what people do when they start to suspect that their God may not have their priorities as his own. Maybe they try to force the issue, to get out in front of God to show him the way the world needs to be. Maybe they change gods (Jer 2:10-11) because they cannot be content with obedience to God’s commandments, even in mundane daily relations, when foreign powers they fear stand knocking at their door.


Maybe this is what people do when they start to suspect that their God may not have their priorities as his own.


Moses’ Israel—and sometimes Moses himself—was often discontent with God. Jeremiah’s Israel—the kings and inhabitants of Judah—manifested similar discontent with God. Jesus’ Israel—the Jews scattered abroad, but especially those inhabiting Roman-controlled Galilee and Judea—likewise found themselves discontent with God. Why doesn’t he free us from the Romans and put a son of David on the throne? Why doesn’t he establish his kingdom? And why does this Jesus insist that humility and hospitality to the marginalized have something to do with that kingdom? What kind of God does this Jesus believe in? What kind of God does Jesus think he is revealing to us? These moral teachings could make humanity nicer, but these teachings surely cannot be what is most important to God. We can be kind, compassionate, and just to each other, and let God work on the bigger things.


These moral teachings could make humanity nicer, but these teachings surely cannot be what is most important to God.


Do we really believe that God comes to us in people who have nothing, who are crippled, who cannot walk, or who cannot see? Do we really believe that God comes to us when we spread a feast for those who cannot repay us? And are we content with such a God?

Decision 2016: One Nation under God

A sermon from 1 Peter 2:9 (preached on June 26, 2016).


Not long ago, I had one of those uncomfortable experiences. You know the type: you are stuck in a conversation with someone, desperately hoping that your face is not betraying your true thoughts and feelings. I was at a wedding reception. A gentleman, who happened to be a brother in Christ, kidnapped me into a monologue I cannot possibly reproduce. I do recall two things. First, it had nothing to do with the newlyweds. Second, he stated that he did not see how any Christian could vote for candidates from a particular political party. I’m not sure now how I managed to jump off of this run-away train, but I think I employed two common tactics: my cup of punch was empty, and I reacted the way you do when you are in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and a native is speaking to you: I smiled and nodded. I think I know why there is punch—and, quite often, alcohol—at weddings. This one just had punch.

Many Christians in the United States believe that their faith should relate to social and political life, and, indeed, any faith worth having will have a bearing on these things. At the same time, much of what I see and hear reveals a malnourished understanding of Christian faith. One conversation in which I find such nutritional deficiency is the debate over whether the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. The historical evidence is complex, and can be selectively used to argue various positions. But what troubles me is Christians’ failure to understand their own Bible very well. First Peter 2:9 is saying something that far too many American Christians miss. To catch it, we have to know the whole Bible and its overarching story—in this case, the story the Bible is telling about the nation God has been forming for himself and for his world.

~

About 4,000 years ago, a middle Eastern man heard a god unfamiliar to him address him with a command and a plan: “Leave your kinfolk, and I will make you a great nation” (Gen 12:1-2 paraphrase). In the mind of an aging and barren couple, having a child must have stretched credulity—let alone becoming a nation. What land would belong to their nation? How would they relate to other nations? Answers to these questions were unclear. The purpose of Abram and Sarai’s nation, however, was stated: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:3 ESV). The purpose of this family and its eventual nation was to bless others. Coming on the heels of the dispersion of families and nations from their common ancestors in Genesis 10 and 11, God’s plan for one man and woman turns out to be his plan for all people.

By the end of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah’s family numbers seventy strong and lives in a fertile region of Egypt, though the patriarch and matriarch do not live to see it. The blessed fertility of their family is their undoing, and a real nation enslaves them as a result. Prayers to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob seem to fall on deaf (or dead) ears, as the gods of Egypt succeed. Maybe it’s home-court advantage. The God of Abraham liked the land of Canaan an awful lot; maybe he couldn’t enter other nations.

Eventually—as in, hundreds of years later—a questionable man—an ethnic Hebrew in the Egyptian royal house—claims that Abraham’s God has chosen him to liberate the tribes of Israel. Something about a bush that was on fire. Then lots of strange and devastating things start happening to Egypt, and this nation wants the family of Israel gone. After Charlton Heston lowers his staff, Egypt’s nation loses an army and Israel gains wilderness freedom.

Encamped at a mountain, Moses passes along to Israel the word of Abraham’s God: “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant  . . . you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6 ESV emphasis added). “A kingdom of priests” might sound rather disappointing—akin to “a battalion of preachers”: priests aren’t your typical soldiers or kings (though many ancient kings did serve as priests), so it’s hard to imagine a whole kingdom of them. On the other hand, since priests facilitate people’s relationship with God, “a kingdom of priests” might be a vivid metaphor: Israel’s power in the world will be exercised by facilitating people’s relationship with God. It’s a different kind of power, a different kind of kingdom. As one commentator described this kingdom of priests: the people of Israel are “a display-people, a showcase to the world of how being in covenant with Yahweh changes a people.”[1]

Thus, Israel will be God’s nation, in fulfillment of the word to Abraham. For now, they are a nation without a land, a nation of the wilderness. They will conquer and inhabit the land of Canaan, but they are constituted as a nation before having land. What makes them God’s nation, then, is not land and borders, but commitment to covenant with God, which includes learning to live his ways in the world—his Torah. It is not unimportant that Israel have its own land. Land will offer them security and the earth’s food provisions. In fact, God gives them commands for how they will use such provisions: their tithes would be agricultural tithes and were supposed to be shared directly with others, including orphans, widows, and immigrants (Deut 14:29). The land—all land—belongs to God, and his nation will be a steward of one part of it.

Thus, land could be a blessing and a curse—the curse being that Israel would come define itself, its nationhood, and even its God in terms of human borders. Israel’s common ethnic history would present another blessing and curse for its nationhood. On the one hand, God took an already-existing family and cultivated it into a nation, blessing a distinct ethnic group. But does their nationhood depend on their ethnicity? If it does, then how do we explain the Canaanite prostitute, Rahab, whose family was drawn into Israel’s society? How do we explain the Moabite woman, Ruth, who would be the great grandmother of Israel’s second king, David? How do we explain the (apparently) Hittite woman, Bathsheba, a wife of David and mother to Solomon?

Still, ethnicity has a legitimate place in the nationhood of biblical Israel, but it has more to do with the role of the nuclear family in teaching God’s Torah than with the family’s DNA, so to speak. Indeed, prohibitions against intermarriage in the Old Testament seek to guard the theological purity of the people, not the racial dimensions of their people as such. The potential curse of ethnicity is that Israel would come to define God in ethnic terms, as one of them. God would be a tribal deity, a God interested in the welfare of one ethnic group. Ethnicity becomes theology.

We are reminded, though, of the plan for Abram’s nation: “in you all families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). God wants his nation to bless other people. The prophet Isaiah will speak of God’s servant in Israel as “a light for the nations” (42:6; 49:6, emphasis added). God wants other nations to have his light, to see clearly. Other messages in Isaiah will go beyond giving light to nations to affirm the place of people from foreign nations within God’s nation, within Israel (56:3-8). (Much later, the apostle Paul will develop the same idea in Romans 11.)

By the time of Jesus, Israel would have experienced a united kingdom, a divided kingdom, the destruction of both kingdoms, and centuries of foreign rule over them and the lands they once ruled themselves. The pressing question is then, Where was God’s nation during all of this? Was it destroyed? Or did it survive intact because its nationhood never required land and political administration of it in the first place? An exodus nation can become an exile nation.

Jesus ministered to the not-free survivors of Israel, the Jews of his day (Mt 10:5-6). His ministry included people of other nations (“Gentiles”; Mt 15:21-28). And he commissioned his apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:18-20). He was not seeking to replace Israel. He was fulfilling Israel and what Israel had always been meant to do: to bless all people.

Jesus’ apostles and disciples fulfilled his commission. Peter fulfilled the commission: a scandalous dream prepared him to draw Cornelius into the Jesus-people, the Jesus-kingdom, the Jesus-nation: “in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Ac 10:35, emphasis added). Years later, Peter will write from Rome to disciples in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Pt 1:1), and, using the very words of God to Israel in (his version of) Exodus 19, Peter will say to these disciples of different lands and different ethnicities “you are . . . a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pt 2:9, emphasis added). Once again, people are gathered at Mt. Sinai, so to speak, and are constituted as God’s nation. Peter believed in a Christian nation, but it was not defined by existing political borders, a specific language, a specific ethnicity, nor adherence to Roman codes of law that were in place at the imperial and local levels. None of these was necessarily bad to Peter, but they did not define the Christian nation for him.

~

It is now 2016. How should Christians in America define the Christian nation to which they belong? How about God? When he pulls up Google Earth on his GodBook Pro, where does he find the Christian nation? What does the flag look like? What are its colors, and why? What is the population count? What natural resources are available, and how are they distributed? What is its national anthem? its pledge of allegiance? What are its policies? How does it determine citizenship? How does it determine its neighbors (“Who is my neighbor?”, Lk 10:29)? How does it relate to its enemies? How does it relate to the various rulers and authorities of the world?

And so, in an American election cycle, with a freedom holiday upon us [July 4], and amidst so much noise and confusion, perhaps one gift we Christians can give is being crystal clear as to the identity of the true Christian nation and living in the light that that nation has to offer, to bless all families of the earth. May our words and actions enact on Earth what John saw taking place in heaven:

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ ” (Rev 7:9-10, emphasis added).


[1] John I. Durham, Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary 3 (Nashville: Nelson, 1987), 263.

Dumber than Ravens

A sermon from Luke 12:13-21 (preached on July 31, 2016).


Jesus’ teaching here comes amidst a sequence of events that begins at least in chapter 11 of Luke. I will start with 11:37. Jesus dines with some Pharisees and Law-of-Moses “experts,” taking opportunity to point out their hypocrisies, and even calling them “fools” (Lk 11:37-52). Jesus certainly knew how to be a house guest. Later outside, Jesus warns his disciples about the subtle influence of some religious well-knowns and religious know-it-alls (11:53-12:3). And much like the risk he has just taken, Jesus lets his disciples know that they, too, may have to proclaim God’s truth in uncomfortable settings, losing friends and influencing people. They may be worth more than sparrows, but that doesn’t mean they won’t lose their lives (12:4-12). After all, humans are much more violent toward their own species than sparrow species are with their own, even when humans mask their violence as devotion to God and to purifying God’s world. This is not the only time in this setting when Jesus will compare humans and birds.

In a way that strikes me as rather abrupt, a man from the crowd publicly asks Jesus to sit as judge in family court, to settle an inheritance dispute. Maybe the man sees Jesus as a prophet who challenges Jewish people to greater justice, including justice in the family. Jesus indeed cares about justice, but he also smells a rat: the man seems to be motivated, not by justice, but by greed. He is so close to more stuff that he can taste it, and he wants to use someone with clout and authority to eliminate what stands in his way. Instead, he encounters another barrier, a conscience barrier. Sitting as judge after all, Jesus judges that the man (and crowd) need warning, and also need their worldview challenged: “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (12:15).—Yes, I know that, Jesus, but my brother is being unfair.—You’re right, Jesus, but I control my possessions; they don’t control me.—I could give my possessions away at moment’s notice and my life would be just fine.—Could you? Would it be?

The beauty of a parable is that it invites listeners to leave one story—their usual life story, with all its excuses and self-justifying rationales—to enter another story and see the world through it. A rich man runs out of places to put his crops. There’s an interesting subtlety in the way Jesus tells the story, though: “The land of a certain rich man produced abundantly” (12:16, emphasis added). The emphasis is not on the man’s work as a farmer—or rather his slaves’ work as farmers—but on the land. The land produced, not the man. No doubt, this rich man fails to see the difference. He helps nature do a better job at growing things. He could congratulate his hard work and wise choices, perhaps bewildered that other farmers aren’t having the same problem. Maybe they don’t work as hard. Maybe they make foolish choices. Maybe God is blessing him more.

These are, of course, my own imaginings as I inhabit this story. As Jesus tells it, the man tears down barns and builds bigger barns. Then, in what could sound like pious obedience to conclusions in Ecclesiastes, the man tells himself to “relax, eat, drink, be merry” (12:19; Eccl 8:15; 2:24; 3:12-13; 5:18; 9:7). After all, wasn’t this the wisdom that Ecclesiastes conveys? Who could fault the man for obeying the Bible? for being a biblical literalist? for being clever enough to find in the Bible reasons to believe what he wanted to believe anyway?

As the story continues, it’s almost as if God says to the man, You like Ecclesiastes, do you? So do I! . . . Because the wisdom of Ecclesiastes includes not only eating, drinking, and being merry, but also understanding that “all my toil . . . I must leave . . . to those who come after me—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish?” (Eccl 2:18-19). So also in Jesus’ story, God responds to the barn-builder, “ ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ ” (Lk 12:20). Does God plan to strike the man dead that night, or does God just foresee the man’s upcoming natural death—a perspective that, if the man had it, would change his view of his barns, his crops, his success, his life? Or would such a perspective change him? Maybe he’s too entrenched. We don’t know, because Jesus simply ends the story without telling us how the man feels or responds.

“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (12:21). Jesus’ conclusion could sound escapist and irrelevant, like a call to sell everything, go off to sit by oneself, and meditate on God forever. Is that what Jesus wants the inquiring man to do? Does being “rich toward God” mean living in chosen poverty and going to the temple and synagogue more, praying more, reading Scripture more? In a matter of verses, Jesus will tell his listeners “sell your possessions, and give alms” (12:33). Giving real money to real people in need is what demonstrates “treasure in heaven” (12:33). Being “rich toward God” means sharing one’s crops when the land produces abundantly, not just building bigger barns to keep the produce for oneself. It’s about social consciousness. It’s about seeing the land as God’s land and seeing our use of it as stewardship of something that’s not ours to begin with. Being “rich toward God” means that one gets this truth and shares the land’s produce accordingly.

This perspective is evident because, between Jesus’ teaching to be “rich toward God” (12:13-21) and to seek “treasure in heaven” (12:32-34), Jesus talks about (among other things) ravens. “Do not worry . . . . Consider the ravens . . .” (12:22-24). Jesus observes about ravens that “they have neither storehouse nor barn” (12:24, emphasis added)—in contrast to the rich man of Jesus’ parable, who convinced himself to build bigger barns. Call this sequence of events “A Tale of Two Barns”–the barn that was two small, and the barn that never needed to be built. Arguably, there are several problems with the man’s barns: he might be anxious that the land might stop producing; he might see other farmers whose failed harvests have landed them in slavery; and yet, he is rich before this abundant harvest even comes in, and thus seems incapable of getting enough; and, finally, his stores which will feed him months down the road do nothing to help his neighbor who might be hungry today.

Is the man dumber than ravens? Are there things about land, produce, life, and even God, that the ravens get, while the man doesn’t? Jesus affirms to his disciples that they are more valuable than birds (ravens here, sparrows earlier), but are they, and the crowd, and the inquiring man, smarter than birds? Is it possible that humans have voluntarily, unnecessarily complicated the land and their lives to the extent that they find themselves incapable of living in God’s world the same way the ravens do? Have humans taken too far the command to “subdue” and “have dominion” over God’s creation (Gen 1:28)? Has their mastery of the world disabled them from living in simple, grateful, and disciplined consumption of the land’s produce? from seeing how artificial their ownership of land is? from seeing their barns for what they are?

When are we dumber than ravens? When do we see the land with anxiety, and when do we see it with daily simplicity—“Give us this day our daily bread”? When are our barns really efforts to keep for ourselves and to keep from others? When are we fools who fail to keep “our” possessions in perspective? How often does the overflow of our barns direct our gaze to others, to love our neighbors as ourselves? How often do we use the abundant provisions of the land—and not of our sheer efforts—to share with others, to be “rich toward God”? Being “rich toward God” is believing that God has provided enough for us and for others, too, and acting accordingly. May God give us the faith so to believe and so to act. Amen.