By Pastor Tracey Leslie
About this Sermon Series:
Church should be a place where we can share our human struggles and receive support and encouragement. We are relational creatures; created by a relational God. Through this series, I want to encourage churches to cultivate a community of openness. We can be conduits for God’s grace and provide support, encouragement, and help to one another in our struggles.
Scripture: Genesis 27:18-27a, 30-35
My clergy sister, Lore Blinn Gibson, has a passion for ministry with addiction recovery and support. You can see the announcement in your program this morning regarding an upcoming healing service for those affected by addiction at Grace UMC. A couple weeks ago, Lore sent an email out to several clergy. In reply, one shared the story of their own family’s struggle with addiction; another shared that a Methodist pastor in our conference endured the pain of a child who overdosed and, through that tragedy he has been in ministry with others.
Many of you know my dad was also a pastor and, when I was growing up, it would have been highly unusual for a pastor to disclose that a family member suffered from addiction. In the cultural context in which I was raised, the admonishment of 1st Timothy was often quoted and staunchly applied to all clergy: “He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way – for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?”[i] There is, thankfully, more openness in our culture today. And yet still; there are many in our churches that feel shame and pain because their families are broken and they are fearful of sharing their struggles and brokenness with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
I will be honest. When I was young and first entered the ministry, I had a dream; a dream of a faith community where people could be open and honest about who they are and really share their lives with one another. But I’ve discovered over the years that church is, in fact, one of the last places where people feel they can be open and honest about their struggles. That openness, intimacy and encouragement are more likely to be found in parachurch organizations; support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. In my August newsletter article, I shared the story of the community mail art project, Post Secret. It is a venue for people to anonymously share a secret that is absolutely true and has never been shared before. Now, because I talked about it in the newsletter and on my blog, I’m not going to dig into the whole Post Secret phenomenon this morning. But it got me thinking that something really does need to change in the church – not just Trinity Church – but Church with a capital “C” because the world and our churches are filled with people who carry secrets that weigh them down with loneliness, shame, fear and regret and that is not what God intended for us.
In Genesis, chapter 2, after God creates the man and places him in the garden, God evaluates and says, “It is not good that the human should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” It’s a shame that scripture is often restricted to wedding ceremonies because it has a broader, deeper meaning: as human creatures we were designed with an innate need for one another’s help and support. God built us for relationship; not for pretense and social niceties; but for honest and authentic community.
This morning, I want to talk about family secrets. The scripture I shared just a moment ago really begins with Genesis, chapter 12, when God reveals himself to an old shriveled up man named Abram. God pronounces blessing over Abram: promises of children, land, and descendents. God changes his name to Abraham and promises that Abraham will be a source of blessing for all families to come throughout history. In time, Abraham and his elderly wife, Sarah, have a son Isaac and Isaac’s wife Rebekah gives birth to twin boys, Jacob and Esau. In time, Jacob also will receive a new name: Israel. With that name change, he becomes representative of an entire faith community, Judaism; a faith community we, as Christians, are adopted into through the saving work of Christ.
And so, the story of Jacob is our story. Let me say that again: the story of Jacob is our story. The family of Jacob is representative of all our families. Jacob is us and we are Jacob… whether we want to admit it or not.
So let me share, as best I can in a limited time, the story of this family; a family not all that different from our families.
While Jacob’s wife Rebekah was pregnant, she felt these twins wrestling within her womb. Going to God in prayer, she learned that the twins in her womb would become two nations and that the elder would serve the younger. When she delivered her boys, Esau passed through the birth channel first. Jacob, passing through behind him, had latched on to his brother’s heel. It was the inspiration for his name: Jacob, meaning “grabber.” And a grabber he was. As they grew, Esau seemed to be free and easy; a “live in the moment” kind of guy; woodsy and rustic; dad’s favorite. Jacob was more assertive; a planner and schemer; and a mama’s boy. They were in competition with one another from the get go.
As father Isaac grew old, the time came to pronounce a blessing over his first born son who would then receive almost the entirety of the family’s inheritance. Isaac’s vision had failed and so mother Rebekah hatches a plot. The blessing was to be accompanied by a ceremonial meal. Esau went out hunting. He planned to kill and prepare a wonderful meal of wild game for his father. But Rebekah has Jacob kill an animal from their own domestic herd. It’s quick and easy. And, while she prepares the meal, she instructs Jacob to dress in his brother’s clothing and put animal fur on his neck and hands. Esau must have carried that – well, shall we say, “manly scent” – of those who enjoy working outdoors and given the rarity of baths and laundry in the ancient world, it must have heralded his arrival wherever he went. Likewise, Esau was a hairy man. Hair apparently grew down the backs of his hands and neck. But remember, father Isaac is blind. He is at the mercy of his other senses. So Rebekah is confident; if Jacob feels and smells like his brother Esau, he will be able to fool his father; to pull the wool over his eyes – both literally and figuratively. And so, all is quickly made ready and Jacob goes before his father.
Isaac is suspicious. The voice he hears sounds like Jacob. But Isaac draws Jacob near; he feels his hands, he sniffs his scent and is finally satisfied. He pronounces an irrevocable blessing over Jacob, all the while believing he is blessing Esau. When Esau finally returns and brings the meal before his father, it is a gut-wrenching moment. Isaac laments; what is done is done and cannot be undone. True to form, Jacob the grabber has snatched his brother’s blessing away from him through trickery and deceit encouraged by his mother.
Now, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that God has pronounced the triumph of Jacob a foregone conclusion. There is a theological uniqueness to this story.
But that is not the same as God endorsing deceitful behavior. It brings brokenness to this family that will dog them for decades. So angry is Esau at his brother that mother Rebekah must send Jacob away to live with relatives, lest brother Esau kill him. In mom’s hometown, Jacob meets his match in his Uncle Laban. Their relationship is consistently marked by trickery and deceit; an apparent family trait. Eventually, Jacob will burn his bridges with his uncle and decide to take the risk of returning home.
Along the way, on the journey back home, one night Jacob is visited by the divine. He wrestles with a divine being in the night and refuses to release him until he gives Jacob a blessing. The divine being does bless Jacob and changes his name to Israel, saying: “you have wrestled with God and with humans.”[ii] Jacob is nothing if not persistent.
This divine encounter in the night is the source of the name and identity of the nation of Israel, the Jewish people and, through Jesus; we become a part of that family. The story of Jacob, as I’ve already noted, is our story.
Like Jacob, we anxiously grab for the things we desire. Our families, like Jacob’s, can be scarred and fractured by sibling rivalry and desperate competition to win our parent’s favor. From a place of fear and longing, we sometimes exploit the weaknesses of others. Down deep, just like Jacob, we all long to be blessed and we will struggle and wrestle with God and with our brothers and sisters to grab at what God offers us freely in Christ.
There is gospel – good news – within this story, within this fractured family. The story’s beginning reminds us: through this family “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[iii] We all have an inherent desire to be blessed; we strive with God and with others as we seek that blessing. But our deep desire has been God’s plan from the beginning and all our struggles and wrestling do not negate God’s desire, God’s assurance, of blessing. No matter what chapter of life your family is in right now, even if it is an episode of brokenness and pain, find hope in the beginning of the story for the God we worship promises blessing for all the families of the earth.
And friends, church must be a place where, in the midst of our brokenness, in the midst of our wrestling and striving, we remind one another of that good news; of God’s promised blessing, God’s certain grace. We are called to be the gracious, encouraging presence of Christ to one another for God built us for relationship; God designed us, from the beginning, to be helpers to one another. So I want to challenge you – encourage you – in the midst of this sermon series to do more to make our church a place where people do not hide their lives from one another and do not bear their burdens in secret. Reach out to someone here and get to know them better.
You know we were built for relationship; but we weren’t built like sports cars. We can’t go from zero to 60 in seconds and relationships that are truly a support and help to one another don’t develop overnight. They take time for trust to develop. So, invite someone to lunch; ask them to join you for a cup of coffee; set up a “play date” with your kids and theirs; go for a walk or a run together because we are built for relationship and God designed us to be helpers to one another.
[i] 1 Timothy 3:4-5. NRSV.
[ii] Genesis 32:28.
[iii] Gen. 12:3b
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 12:13-21
This personal testimony is posted on a website sponsored by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. A woman wrote:
I’ve always had trouble throwing things away. Magazines, newspapers, old clothes… What if I need them one day? I don’t want to risk throwing something out that might be valuable. The large piles of stuff in our house keep growing so it’s difficult to move around and sit or eat together as a family.
My husband is upset and embarrassed, and we get into horrible fights. I’m scared when he threatens to leave me. My children won’t invite friends over, and I feel guilty that the clutter makes them cry. But I get so anxious when I try to throw anything away. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, and I don’t know what to do.
The mental health disorder of hoarding has gained increased attention in recent years. Like other disorders, it is impacted by brain chemistry. But it has also been linked to traumatic loss, particularly early in life. Research reveals that foster children who have been passed from home to home are significantly more likely to develop hoarding behaviors. Feelings of insecurity and fear are common to those who suffer a hoarding disorder. It is a “stress response that involves holding on to things because having more makes them feel safer and happier,” notes Elaine Birchall, a Canadian social worker who counsels hoarders.[i] Hoarding is a real and a serious mental health condition.
Greed, on the other hand, is a real and serious spiritual condition addressed often in Scripture like this morning’s parable. Last week I also preached a parable from Luke’s gospel. That parable focused on one of Luke’s favorite themes: prayer. But this morning’s parable also addresses a favorite theme for Luke: the topic of wealth and possessions. To be perfectly frank, Luke doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the wealthy. The Jesus of Luke’s gospel, more than any other, highlights the truth that excess wealth can endanger our souls. For better or worse, our relationship with our possessions impacts our relationships with God and others.
Also like last week’s message, this morning’s parable requires an understanding of first century Mediterranean culture and its values. One of the distinctions I noted last week is that it is a collective or communal culture. People don’t think of themselves as individuals; they consider themselves – identify themselves – in relation to their group.
Last week I also mentioned the importance of honor in Mediterranean culture. Honor can never be “taken.” One cannot “toot their own horn” as we are sometimes encouraged to do in American culture. Rather, honor is earned; bestowed upon someone by another because of honorable actions. Those who are honorable demonstrate loyalty to their group and uphold their group’s norms and values.
Finally, Mediterranean culture was a patron/benefaction social system. Those who were wealthy were only viewed as honorable if they functioned as patrons, sharing their wealth with those less fortunate. They would give to the poor and needy who would “pay them back” with public praise that elevated their honor or reputation. That was the return on their investment, so to speak. There were no social services like we find in American today. The social “safety net” of antiquity was the generosity of the wealthy motivated by a desire for honor, the by-product of public praise.
The parable Jesus tells this morning is told in response to a request made by someone in the audience. A man has been listening to the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching and hopes Jesus will intercede in a dispute between him and his brother over the family inheritance. But, I don’t think Jesus’ response was what he’d hoped for. It sounds as if Jesus is chastising the man when he says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And then, as he so often does, Jesus elaborates on his response by telling a parable. It is the story of a wealthy land owner. The Greek word used to describe his land makes clear: this is no family farm; this is big business; perhaps akin to agri-business today. And, having such a vast area to plant, one can assume a large harvest. This particular year, the harvest is exceptional; so large, the man lacks adequate storage for his surplus.
Now, there is one more cultural component to this story that we, in our context, would not comprehend. In the ancient Mediterranean world, people thought that all good, all goods were limited. There was no mass production like we experience today. Today, when something runs out, we go to the store or to Amazon.com. We seem to experience no limits. We live awash in an endless supply of products, information, and technology. Even when our money runs out, we go out and get more by extending our credit. But in the culture of Jesus’ time, there were limits; all good things were limited and if someone had more than they needed, then someone else was living in need or want. So, if this land owner has more than he needs, more than he can use, the honorable thing to do would be to share his excess; acting as a patron toward the less fortunate. But, he is not honorable; he suffers from the spiritual malady of greed.
It is like a pie. Imagine, if you can, a pie is cut into slices. Because I love pie anyway, I will start off with a little larger slice for myself and then slice it up for others. But, imagine if I have 6 people at dinner with me and 6 slices. If I decide to keep another slice for myself for later that means that one of my guests does not get any pie because the good pie is limited. There is only so much of it and if I take more than I should, someone else won’t get any. That was the ancient understanding of limited good.
It is an interesting thing to note that our New Testament seems to consider greed and idol worship as one and the same. Colossians 3:5 says, “Then put to death those parts of you that belong to the earth – fornication, indecency, lust, foul cravings and greed which is nothing less than idolatry.”[ii] Likewise in Ephesians we read: “Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”[iii]
So why are idolatry and greed defined as one in the same? Well, because it boils down to trust. We worship what we trust. When we worship God, we trust God and we don’t look to other things to provide security. But when we succumb to greed – when we have and keep more than what we need – we place our trust in that excess stuff. We wrongly believe that unnecessary excess provides us some long-term security. But, it doesn’t and it can’t… no more so for us than for the wealthy land owner of our parable. By having more than he needs he thinks he has provided himself with long-term security. Yet that very night, he dies and – as the saying goes “You can’t take it with you.” What he had greedily hoarded will now be liberated for the use of others. The man of the parable quite literally loses his life. Yet, spiritually, life is lost anytime we surrender ourselves to stuff; anytime we put our trust in stuff. Proverbs 1:19 says, “Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.”
Quaker writer and pastor, Richard Foster warns that, as post-modern Americans, we live, increasingly, in a culture where we are possessed by our possessions. We become possessed by our possessions. He writes, “Covetousness we call ambition. Hoarding we call prudence. Greed we call industry.”[iv]
A man who owned a very nice and expensive home in California felt the awareness of a spiritual struggle within; that his possessions were beginning to possess him. In the midst of his struggle, the Santa Anna winds blew a forest fire in his direction. His home and all his belongings went up in smoke. A reporter approached him to interview him about his tragic loss. But the man felt, at long last, a victory over his ongoing, spiritual struggle. He proclaimed, “Now, I’m a free man.”
Friends the mental health disorder of hoarding and the spiritual condition of greed are not the same thing. And yet, greed also often involves holding on to things because having more makes us feel safer and happier. But it is an illusion. It is a form of idolatry that jeopardizes our relationship with God and with others. Unlike the culture around us today, Jesus reminds us that our “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”[v] No amount of stuff can ever make us safer or happier.
So what are we to do if we recognize in ourselves an unhealthy attachment to stuff? What can we do if, like the woman who confessed on that website, we feel an intense anxiety when we thinking of letting go of our stuff? And how can we grow our trust in God as our only real and reliable security? Well, through the spiritual practices of generosity and simplicity. We’ve all heard that cliché “The best defense is a good offense, right?” As followers of Jesus, when we take up the spiritual practices of generosity and simplicity, it builds our trust in God. It is as the old Shaker hymn says, “’Tis the gift to be simple; ‘tis the gift to be free.” If we want to be set free from our possessions, we need to practice generosity and simplicity. If we want to learn to live truly by trust and faith, then we must let go of all the excess stuff we’re holding on to. Like the rich land owner, some day all of us will leave it all behind. Someday our lives in this world will come to an end. And the ability to part with the stuff in this world now is a lifelong practice session for the ultimate letting go we experience in death.
Several of you were here yesterday afternoon at Trinity to attend the funeral and celebrate the life of Wiley Jones. I’m glad that I was able to get to know Wiley. He was a tremendously gracious and generous man. I visited with Wiley many times at the Springs before he passed and, for as long as he was conscious and aware, although he was weak and I’m sure didn’t feel well; he still maintained his graciousness. His lifestyle was modest; but his generosity was enormous. Wiley truly epitomized the lesson that giving to others, parting with things throughout our lives, is the spiritual preparation for the ultimate letting go we experience in death.
Friends, our life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions. Our only true security is found in God.
[i] From the website LiveScience.com. Issue 32773: What Causes Hoarding?
[iii] Eph. 5:5. NRSV
[iv] Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. Harper Collins; 1988; p. 81.
[v] Luke 12:15
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