In today’s readings, we have three voices—Moses, an early follower of Paul (the likely author of the letter to the people of Colassae), and Jesus. Our lectionary brings these three together to share a message of hope. Today the message is very specific, “If you follow God’s commandments, you will prosper.” Moses says, you will prosper in “the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil.”. The letter to the Colossians prays that the community may bear fruit in every good work.” Jesus answers the question of the lawyer, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
In a week like this, where we are reeling from the violence in the news, we might wonder—what is the fruit of our faith work? Are we, as a community, “prospering”? We are praying for an end to violence, we are working to be good neighbors, we are trying to grow in the knowledge of God. Where is the “fruit” that Moses and the letter to the Colossians promised? What is the “eternal life” that Jesus offers us when we are good Samaritans?
It may seem today, that we have the opposite of prosperity. When we listen to the news about Dallas, Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Orlando we see violence, economic disparity, fear and distrust. How is God answering our prayers today?
I think that in these times of disruption, we have several alternatives. One is to look at our individual prosperity. We individually have so many blessings. We live in the most beautiful place on earth. Compared to so many other places around the globe, we are wealthy and safe. But if we look only at our individual prosperity, we might feel that God is rewarding us with good things and punishing others who are suffering. This seems a dangerous theology—a God who gives good things to us, but deprives others—this would not be an all loving God.
Another possibility is to look at the situation in the world as God’s punishment for our sins—this is another flood, this is a time of apocalyptic destruction. God is angry with God’s people and so we are suffering as a people (even if some of us are prospering). But this suggests an angry God. When I listen to Scripture, the overarching themes that speak to me are about God’s love, God’s hope. Jesus teaches us about healing and building up individuals and community—not punishing or abandoning people. Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors—he brought them into new life, not excluding or punishing them for their evil ways.
And this brings me to a third alternative, and that is that God is neither rewarding nor punishing, but God is with us—loving us and hoping with us. God is providing us with an ideal, a vision of what the Kingdom of God looks like. And that Kingdom is not yet here, but God is working with us to bring that Kingdom to us. God is in process—motivating, creating, loving, witnessing, holding our troubles, bearing our burdens with us, calling us to healing, encouraging us to build prosperity for all.
Let’s turn again to our Scripture to see if that idea of “God in process” can be found in our texts. When the lawyer asks Jesus, “what must I do to obtain eternal life?”, Jesus responds with the parable of Good Samaritan. We see the priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side. And then we see the Good Samaritan, who picks the beaten man up, bandages him and puts him on his own animal. He cares for the man at the inn, and when he leaves, he provides for the man, giving the innkeeper money for his services. Jesus tells the lawyer, “go and do likewise.” Jesus is telling the lawyer that the way to eternal life is through service. In the loving of our neighbors, we come into a deeper knowledge of God, and this process is the reward that God promises. Life eternal is found in the process of knowing our interconnectedness. As we recognize the needs of our neighbors and act to meet those needs, we come closer to God. The meaning that we seek, the bounty that God promises, the fruit of our faith is the love that we know in caring for one another.
This turns our human idea about prosperity on its head. Instead of paying out with service and getting a reward in good “things”, God’s prosperity is found in the process of serving. The bounty is not money, or property, free time or even safety—the bounty, the prosperity is the experience of loving one another and being loved by one another and by God.
The letter to the Colossians speaks to the fruits of faith in Jesus Christ. The author reminds the Colossians that just as the Gospel is “bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.” The fruit that is promised is the “fruit of good works”. The Colossians are being reminded that as they live the Gospel, they will be made stronger and their faith will prosper in their community.
And when we listen again to Moses, we hear the promise not as a promise of “things”, but as a promise of creativity, creation—the fruit of your bodies, your livestock, your soil. We know the prosperity of having children and raising them in a loving community. We know the prosperity of fertile land and animals who produce good food, and beautiful places with our labor—cultivating, caring, harvesting. These are not fruits that appear by magic, but fruits that appear by our work, our engagement, our process with God.
When we live by God’s laws, the commandments and the summary--love God with your whole hearts and minds and love your neighbor as yourself, then we experience God working in our midst. So when I turn to the terrible events of this week, I look for God’s work in the communities that are speaking for an end to violence. I see the fruits of faith in places where people come together to witness, and hold out hope and to work with God on loving our neighbors as ourselves.
On Thursday afternoon, I had a meeting with Rev. Eric Metoyer. Eric has been a supply priest here several times, and many of you may know him. Eric works for Bishop Marc, he is in charge of multi-cultural ministry, anti-racism training, and helping build congregations around our shared work of ministry to the poor and marginalized. Eric and I met at the Oakland Hub. This is a shared workspace in Oakland that is utilized by lots of non-profits. Eric and I were sitting at a table on the second floor, overlooking an open first floor area with big desks and a little kitchen. In the middle of our meeting, a young woman stood up at the front of the room below us and asked for our attention. She interrupted all the people who were working and said, “This is important. The Hub was created as a shared workspace for non-profits, because we believed that if came together, we might begin to build a better world. But the events of this week have rocked us all. So here and now, I ask that we might hold a few minutes of silence. I ask that we might hold together our sorrow, our anger, our confusion. And at the same time, we must focus on our hope for a community that is different, a world in which these terrible things wouldn’t happen. In these moments of silence, we must recommit ourselves, collectively, to working for that change that we hope for.” After she spoke, we were silent—I don’t know how many we were—50 people? Maybe more. We sat in complete silence, holding our sorrows and our hopes together. God was present in that room. In the call to silence from this young woman, in the absolute commitment of every single person there to act by holding the silence with her, we experienced the fruits of our bodies, of our good works. In that moment, the work that Eric and I were doing together as we thought about building the Church—that was magnified by fifty other people. As I tell you about this experience today, another 40 people know the fruits of God’s love. God’s prosperity comes to us as we work on loving our neighbors.
And so, this brings me to our call today. We do so many things to be “Good Samaritans”. We serve our un-housed neighbors, we offer our space to 12 step groups who are serving people suffering addiction or the dysfunctional families that result from addiction. We are serving in Rev. Rebecca’s prison ministry, our Cursillo work, our prison ministries. It is in our pastoral care work, and in our caregiver support group and in our senior ministries. The bounty that we have been given is in the process of doing this work. The reward is love that we know as we serve. It is God’s love expressed between people. If you talk to any of the people who are active in the Tuesday night wellness dinner, you will hear about how much we get from that experience. We don’t get recognition, or thanks, we don’t come away with things, but we do get filled up. We prosper in the love that we know in that circle.
One of the caregivers this week talked about having a “love-hate” relationship with the support group. She said, I don’t want to come and hear about how bad it might get living with my mother who is declining. I want to hear about solutions, about answers to how things could get better. But at the end of the session, she said, I feel better because you listen to me. I feel better because we are sharing this experience. Nothing is fixed and yet, I am so glad that I came. God is there in the process of the caregivers who support one another. The fruit of the work is in the experience of holding one another, overcoming the isolation of caregiving, naming the pain and challenges and joys of being a caregiver.
As our vestry is continuing to work on our ministries here at Nativity, we are talking about how we need to offer more opportunities for people to serve with us. Are there ways to open up our ministries so that our neighbors can participate in them? We have begun talking about our back to school backpacks for students who can’t afford new school supplies. We will begin this project in a couple of weeks. We are wondering if there is a way to invite our neighbors to help us. Maybe our young people and others from Marinwood can do a craft project, making special pencil bags to put in the backpacks?
What other ways could we offer opportunities to serve together? Should we invite people to join us in raising money for the Street Chaplaincy? Can we invite new people to join us in serving at the Alternative High School? Is there a way that we can provide opportunities for seniors and young families and teens to join us in ministry? Instead of asking, how do we serve our neighbors, maybe we need to ask, how can we help our neighbors to serve with us?
We are thinking about this because when we work together, we have an opportunity to prosper as God wants us to prosper. In the practice of God’s commandments, in the process of loving one another, we will know the new life that God promises.