Returns

WASHINGTON CITY CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN

Jeff Davidson

May 4, 2014

RETURNS

Psalm 116:1-4,12-19

Almost everyone has a memory of a gift they have either given or received that was so ugly, or so wildly inappropriate, or just so strange that they would have returned it in an instant if they possibly could.  It’s become so much of a cultural cliché that there are sit-com episodes about the clueless husband who gives his wife an iron for Valentine’s day and there are advertisements at Father’s day about what to get Dad besides yet another tie and there are parties at work dedicated to wearing ugly Christmas sweaters.

I think the most unusual – no, it was more than that.  I think the weirdest gift I ever got was when I was probably 12 or so.  It was a Christmas gift from Aunt Xoa and Uncle Fred.  Aunt Xoa and Uncle Fred were known for giving unusual gifts.  They were thrifty people, and when it came to gifts they truly and rightly believed that it is the thought that counts.

I remember that particular Christmas receiving two gifts from Xoa and Fred.  The first was a pair of socks.  There’s nothing wrong with that; socks can be a fine gift, although for a 12 year old boy they are kind of disappointing.  But these socks were weird.  They were orange and they were really, really thin, thin like hosiery.  They were still on the cardboard that they had been on in the store, but they looked old and smelled a little musty and I had the impression that they’d spent several years in the attic before being plucked out of some dusty, long-forgotten trunk to become my Christmas gift that year.

The second gift was a pack of gum.  Well, that’s not quite right either.  The second gift was part of a pack of gum.  It was a six pack of Beech-Nut gum, but it had been opened and there were only three sticks in it.  And those three sticks weren’t soft like new chewing gum is supposed to be.  They were really hard. And the package didn’t look like the Beech-Nut gum that was in the stores.  It looked old.  It looked like 1930’s old.  It looked like it had been something my Uncle Fred had gotten when he was 10 or so, and that after eating some of it he’d decided to put it away for 40 years or so to give to me.  Along with his new socks that he’d gotten that year.

Back then the idea of returning gifts to the store for a refund was unheard of, and even if it hadn’t been there was no way to return these gifts to anyone.  I thanked them for the gifts and kept them in my room for a few years.  I don’t know what ever happened to them, but if I ever find those socks and that gum I’m looking forward to figuring out who to re-gift them to.

These days when you get a gift you don’t like, it’s not too much of a problem.  The gift almost always includes a special return receipt, just so you can take it back to where it was bought and get the money.  I know that it’s not as busy as Black Friday, but the week after Christmas is plenty busy at the returns desk as people bring back the gifts they just received from people who love them in order to get some cash.  It’s so routine that when I bought Julia some jewelry a few months ago they asked me if I wanted a gift receipt with it or not, and when she bought a handbag for herself they just automatically gave her one without asking.

God gives each of us gifts every day.  The fact that you are here this morning means that you’ve been given the gift of life today.  Mark has shared his gift of music with us.  Don and Steve and Mary and John and Ruth and others have shared their gifts in preparing this space for worship this morning.  We’ve shared our financial gifts in the offering plates today, and those financial gifts are the result of money we’ve earned through using yet other gifts and skills and talents and abilities that God has given us.

All of that is in addition to the gifts of sunshine and mild weather we’ve had this weekend, and after the winter and spring we’ve had so far those aren’t gifts to be taken for granted.  They’re in addition to the gifts of family and friends, both near and far.  They’re in addition to the gift of a home, a gift that many do not share.  The gift of a country that for all it’s faults and all of it’s shortcomings is free of the kind of violence and fear that our brothers and sisters in Nigeria or Egypt or North Korea or other places face each day.

God has given us many gifts.  The Psalmist asks, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?”  The gifts God gives us are given out of love, and if God has given them to us then there must be a way to use them.  If God had given me the orange socks and the gum from 1932 I probably could have figured out something to do with them besides look at them and scratch my head. We are to use the gifts that God has given us, whatever they are, and in using them, return them to God.

I’ve never paid a lot of attention to investments.  I’ve never had a whole lot of investments to pay attention to.  As I get older, though, I find myself taking a closer look at some of the statements that come in the mail.  I have a couple of retirement accounts from jobs I’ve had at one time or another that have some money in them and of course I’ve got social security.  When I was thirty or thirty-five I didn’t care very much.  Now that I’m fifty-five and therefore closing in on retirement age I’m reading the statements more carefully and checking out the projections of what I’d get each month depending on when I retire.  I look at how much the accounts have earned or lost.  I check out the return on the investments.

The concept of a return on investments is seen a few different places in the Bible.  The most famous example is the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30.  In The Message, this passage is talking about the Kingdom of God and says,”It’s also like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, and to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master’s investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master’s money.

“After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’

“The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’

“The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’

“The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.

‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.”

There’s another sense In which returns matter to God.  God calls us to return our gifts through using them and sharing in offerings to God.  God also calls us to get a good return on the gifts and skills that he has trusted us with.

You may remember that back in January I flew back to Ohio for a couple of days to be with my sister as she was preparing for heart surgery.  I flew in to Cox International Airport in Vandalia.  I grew up less than five miles from that airport.  We lived on Peters Road, and you could come out of our driveway, take a right, and in five minutes be at the airport entrance.  You just took a left into the airport and drove down a long driveway to the lobby with the control tower on top.

It’s sure not that way know.  Peters Road now dead-ends before you get to the airport entrance.  My old house is still less than five miles from airport property, but it now takes about fifteen minutes to get there because you have to loop around to the other side of the airport.  The airport itself is thirty times larger than it was when I was a kid.  When I was growing up it took five minutes to walk to your gate from the ticket counter.  Now it takes ten minutes just to walk to the security checkpoint, and once you’re past that it’s at least ten or fifteen minutes more to get to your gate, and that’s if you have a close-in gate.

When I flew back into Cox airport in January it felt strange.  It didn’t feel anything like the place I’d known growing up.  But as I got into the rental car and drove through the city of Vandalia and then out into the country I got more and more excited.  The country out there still isn’t built up.  There are still farms.  I recognized houses that had been on our bus route for school.  I remembered friends and where they had lived.  I drove past cousin Ron’s, and Uncle Verlynne’s place, and then past the church I grew up in.  It felt familiar.  It felt comforting.  Even though I haven’t lived there regularly since I was in high school, it felt like I home.  I felt like I had returned home.

Do any of you ever have that feeling?  That you’re returning home, returning to a place and a time where you once felt comfortable and connected?  Maybe home is where you grew up.  Maybe home is where you live now.  Maybe home isn’t about a place but about people, people with whom you feel safe and loved and cared for.  Maybe it’s some combination of people and place depending on what’s going on in your life.

Like the old hymn says, there is a place of quiet rest near to the heart of God.  Our relationship with God is like that of the prodigal son, who wandered far away and squandered his inheritance and wanted nothing more than to be home, whose father came to greet him when he was still far from home.  As the Psalm writer says, God has heard our prayers and our supplications.  God has listened to us, and saved us from death.  When we are with God, we are at peace.  We are in safety.  When we return to God, we have returned home.

We can return to God from the gifts and skills that God has given us.  We can use what God has given us to spread the Kingdom even farther, and give God a good return on his investment in us.  We can return to God to find warmth, and safety, and mercy, and forgiveness, and love forever.  May we always look for ways to return to God, whatever that means in our lives.  Amen.

 

EATING WITH JESUS

Eating with Jesus” Sunday: Jan 19, 2014

Washington City Church of the Brethren

by Jonathan Stauffer

I am glad to be speaking with you all today. To be honest, I would not have imagined this opportunity three years ago when I was preparing for a term with Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS). At the time, I was twenty-six years old and feeling a call that God was shifting my own plans towards a different path.

My plans were to find full-time employment related to renewable energy technology, a goal that I had worked on for nearly five years after graduating from Manchester College in Indiana. During those years, I worked part-time for a small solar panel business, enrolled for one year in a graduate engineering program in Chicago, completed a wind energy technician program with a local community college, and even had a paid internship. Yet for all that activity, I found myself working three part-time jobs and still living with my parents on the farm homestead in Northwestern Illinois.

Over the same five years, I spent summers helping counsel at a couple Brethren youth camps, and learning more about the wonders found on God’s Earth. From this experience, I began learning more about environmental issues, and how some Christians were involved in addressing them.

I was eager to try one more avenue toward a career, so BVS looked like a good opportunity. By the end of orientation, I knew that I would be headed for Washington, DC to work on environmental and poverty issues with what is now known as the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness.

My work consisted of collaborating with other religious organizations on policy related to social issues, and representing our denomination’s voice on such policy. After a year and a half of volunteer service, I saw many connections between food, creation, and the Christian faith. Having found a part-time job at the Peace Tax Fund last June and managing the Brethren House in DC since October, I decided I had time to explore these connections further.

I heard about a weekend conference being offered at Duke University Divinity School in September called “Summoned Toward Wholeness”. The conference focused on how our Christian faith values can support food systems and societies that honor the true gift God’s Earth. With financial support from my hometown congregation in Polo and the Arlington CoB, I was able to attend this conference.

The events on Friday were primarily centered on theological reflection, but also were filled with inspiring songs and stories. Saturday was the day that we were bused out to meet at Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, about a half hour west of Durham, and see their community garden.

Overall, the conference was for me both a grounding and uplifting experience. It was a rare opportunity to connect current social issues with spiritual insight and physical actions.

So what did I learn from this conference? I have three points that I hope will reflect a portion of the insights I gained.

Point 1: Awareness of creation and our place within it leads to gratitude of the Creator.

The first plenary speaker on Friday was Ellen F. Davis, an Old Testament scholar and author of Scripture, Culture, & Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Her presentation focused on themes written in the scriptures of ancient Israel about a people who had a strong appreciation for the land and its well-being because of their faith in a gracious Creator.

She explained that ancient Jewish culture understood the life of humanity as inseparable to the land. In Genesis 2, the literal Hebrew words are ‘adam’ was formed ‘adamah’. The same parallel could be made when translated into English as human beings were formed from humus, a component of fertile soil.

Judaism also understood land as the physical symbol of God’s covenant with Israel. From Exodus through Deuteronomy, the Hebrews went from being landless slaves in Egypt to a nation that had become mostly small-scale farmers. Living in an arid region, the ecosystem was delicate and required careful observation and wisdom from the farmer to manage properly.

Later on, the Babylonian exile occurred and was a forceful separation from the land. This physical separation was seen as part of their separation from God because of Israel’s sin. And with prophets such as Jeremiah and Nehemiah, there was a promise of the covenant being restored with returning to the land of Israel. Indeed out of their faith and personal experiences, the ancient Israelites had developed a strong ethic of honoring the land.

But, what about our culture? Do we have this sense of connection today?

Exercise: Raise your hand if you had grandparents or great uncles who were farmers or gardeners? Keep them raised if you had parents or aunts & uncles who were farmers or gardeners? Finally, how many of you grew up on a farm or have siblings who are farmers? Or how many of you have a garden?

This simple exercise is a small glimpse into acknowledging a major shift of our connection with the land in the USA. I am not claiming that we all should become farmers, but rather that we should know more about our farmers and the actions that it takes to produce our food.

I think Norman Wirzba, Professor of Theology and Ecology at Duke Divinity School, best states why these connections are important in the book Making Peace with the Land. He writes that contemporary society is experiencing a “practical separation of people from the land,” which he calls Ecological Amnesia. It is a fairly recent phenomenon in human history, a shift that has occurred within two generations, which impacts the understanding of our physical surroundings.

This phenomenon also affects the relationships to God our Creator and each other. Wirzba goes on to say that problems worsen when people don’t have the knowledge to manage their everyday resources in the way that God intended.

I find it ironic that we have a tremendous amount of information about our world literally at our fingertips today, but find fewer ways to relate to it. How can we make informed decisions about our food when we know less about where it comes from? And, how would we know when we needed to react to changes on the earth and our food systems?

Fortunately, acts of gratitude can help us counter our ignorance of the earth by acknowledging that all creation is a divine gift. In Wirzba’s closing presentation at the conference, he states that “Gratitude is the response to a gift and how we value the Giver.” He asked the group to reflect on the following question: When are you able or not able to be grateful? (Pause for audience to think about.) For me, it is when I’m rushing between various events or not content with my present circumstances. When I am missing out on what God is doing or what God values.

It is important then that we make times and rhythms for gratitude, such as on Thanksgiving Day, but we also need them throughout the year. The Sabbath is one practice were people have ceased for a period of time to enjoy what they have been given. Going on hikes can help us appreciate nature and relax. Such practices in awareness provide gratitude which restore our relationships to God, the land, and each other.

The second point I learned from the conference is that the Christian faith holds a unique perspective on gratitude and our connection to the material world.

Jesus used object lessons from nature to frame the visions of God’s Kingdom. The parable of the sower uses the Jewish cultural knowledge of soil conditions to describe the individual’s heart as it receives the Word of God. It says nothing of the amount of care that the farmer or gardener places on the crop. Instead, Jesus is saying subtly through the parable that when there is a heart open to “the word of the kingdom,” it can nurture and transform life much like fertile soil.

The Gospels share that Jesus cared about people’s physical needs, either before or in addition to attending to their spiritual needs. When Jesus fed the crowd of over four thousand people, he did it out of the concern for the well-being of each person who was in attendance, and made an abundance out of what simple items had been offered by those present.

Because of these examples and many others found in Jesus’ ministry, we as Christ followers can’t ignore the import relationship between our physical being and our souls. Norman Wirzba, in the book Making Peace with the Land, refers to the “Socratic Urge” as the tendency to separate body and soul because our material limitations don’t match up to our spiritual aspirations. Yet, Wirzba claims that this philosophy denies the understanding of Christ’s incarnation as God dwelling among us a human being, and is adverse to the “hope in the resurrection of the body” that the Gospels declare. Ultimately, it denies the inherent goodness of God’s Earth and the reconciliation that God desires within all of creation.

One of the conference workshops I attended described another example Jesus gave us in relation to food. Will Sampson, Executive Director of the Seminary Stewardship Alliance, led a discussion which explored the sacred act of the Eucharist, or communion. He stated that the Eucharist is central to the incarnation of Jesus.

The elements of any meal when brought together create a stronger meaning than the separate parts. Think of the moments when family or friends are gathered around a table, and how memorable they can be.

Jesus used the communion meal not only as an opportunity for sharing gratitude for his friends. Jesus used the meal to turn despair into hope for the future. We as his disciples now understand this meal was created for a beloved community around a story of remembrance, for a life given so that we may live as whole people.

The Eucharist meal also provides Christians with a unique perspective to our current food systems and the local food movement.

Our current agricultural system is mostly done on an industrial scale. This system stresses one specialized planting per plot, and pushes on to farmers the cost of fossil-fuel derived inputs without regard for natural ecology, or human dignity for the labor of farmworkers.

The result of this system is that less people need to farm due to increased yields per acre, but less accountability occurs in the quality of the food. Our separation from farmers and the land promotes a growing ignorance which hurts our stewardship of the Earth, straining the relationship with our Creator and each other. But it doesn’t need to continue this way.

Through awareness of our food sources, we see more of the relationships that God intended within creation. And like communion, we receive greater value through these relationships which motivates gratitude.

The third point I want to share is that with awareness and gratitude for our food, the church can effectively extend the table of Christ to our communities.

Indeed, the conference encouraged church involvement in the local food movement. As hunger and malnutrition hinders the well-being each human, the church needs to be concerned about supporting nutritious food for all people.

In October, Federal budget cuts were made that affect around 40 million Americans who receive benefits to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. With less funding, food pantries are strained and creative ideas to address the local need are needed more than ever. Community Gardens on church-owned property are one example. The Church of the Brethren’s own Going to the Garden Initiative has allowed several congregations to start or expand such projects.

Another example is a program that addresses the economic gap some individuals have to access healthy, local food. I have had the privilege to volunteer with such a program through the DC Fresh Stop event at the Mosaic Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. This program provides a sliding payment scale for a share of produce to make it more affordable for low-income individuals. The program also provides education on the preparation and nutritional value of the produce as well as opportunities for consumers to meet with one of the local farmers.

Finally by extending the table through creative food programs, the church can also create stories of transcendence, transformation, interdependence for all people.

In Fred Bahnson’s workshop highlighting his book Soil and Sacrament, I learned about his conversation with Zach, a fair trade coffee roaster in Washington State. Zach had in a past life been a heroin addict and meth cooker, among other rough experiences. But when he became a Christian he needed to do something that would support himself, and The Underground Coffee Project was the appropriate job for his previous skills. An amazing outcome of Zach’s story is that through his physical work of roasting coffee, he found a metaphor for the internal transformation that his work had on his whole being. In his words, “It’s like when the heat of the Holy Spirit comes upon you… It cracks you open and makes you better.”

Likewise our own unique interactions with food and the land can be symbols of the God’s grace. I am finding this to be true as I continue down the path that God is leading me following BVS.

In closing, I give you this invitation. Let us all be grateful for the Creator who provides through the blessings of creation. From such an awareness is where gratitude forms, and out of that gratitude may we extend the table with the transforming grace of Jesus to others. Amen.

  • Jonathan Stauffer