"TRUSTEES" - Deuteronomy 30:15-20; II Corinthians 9:6-12
A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
From Sunday, October 14, 2018
Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; II Corinthians 9:6-12
The book of Joshua is the 6th book in the Bible. In Joshua 6, there is a story that many of you remember from childhood Sunday School. The Israelites, and Joshua were trying to overtake the city of Jericho. But it was shut up tight, like a castle. So the Lord told the people to march around the walls, to blow trumpets, and shout, and the walls of Jericho would come tumbling down. This is one of those most vivid stories of God’s presence, God’s power, and God’s action!
One Sunday morning, the preacher of a certain church was visiting various Sunday School classes just to see how they were doing, especially in learning the Bible. On this particular Sunday, he visited the class of 6th grade boys. Their Sunday School lesson was on the Old Testament. After listening for a while, the preacher decided to administer a little test. "Who knows who knocked down the walls of Jericho?” Two boys quickly answered, “Preacher, we don’t know who, but we sure didn’t do it.”
The preacher was taken aback by this display of Biblical illiteracy. With some indignation, he asked the Sunday School teacher, “What do you think of that answer?” The teacher replied, “Well, I’ve known these boys since they were little, and they’ve always been honest. If they said they didn’t do it, I believe them.”
In great dismay, the preacher went out into the hallway and saw the head of the church trustees. He told him, “I was just in the 6th grade boys’ class. I asked who knocked down the walls of Jericho. Two boys held up their hands and said, “We didn’t do it, preacher.” And the teacher told me that if they said they didn’t do it, he believed them.
The head of the trustees interrupted him and said, “Preacher, let’s not fuss about who did what. We’ll just fix the walls and pay for it out of the General Fund.”
It is so easy to forget about the promises and power of God. We find ourselves living life, facing challenges, dealing with changes, . . . and the wonderful promises, the life and light, the steadfast faithfulness of God become the last thing we think about.
Even the Trustees, . . . . and we are all God’s TRUSTEES, . . . can forget about God. It is so tempting to just continue with our own ways, own plans, our own resources, forgetting about God.
Thanks to some keen insights from one of my favorite theologians, Jonathan Sacks, I want to take us back, even prior to Joshua, to an early story in the Bible, to remind us all about life with God, life for God, and life in God’s service. All of us are TRUSTEES – all of us - of all that has been given and bestowed on us.
There is a story in Genesis 4 about Cain and Abel. Cain and Abel are the first children of the first people in the Bible, Adam and Eve. In Chapter 4, the first people in the Bible, Adam and Eve, created by God in God’s image, have the first children – twins. Within a few verses, the first children are grown, and they each made an offering to God – the first religious act. Then, within a few phrases, there is the first fratricide: brother kills brother. First children, first religious act, then first murder. Cain, angry that his offering is not as acceptable to God as Abel’s offering, kills Abel.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks unpacks these few powerful, heart-breaking verses by looking at the very names of those in this story. In the names of these brothers, we get a tremendous insight into our lives as TRUSTEES – TRUSTEES of all that God has given, TRUSTEES in service to God with all we have and all we are.
Bear with me for a moment as we explore this:
Abel, in Hebrew “Hevel,” is a word for “breath.” There are a number of words for “breath” in Hebrew. “Hevel” means shallow, fleeting, ephemeral breath. This word, hevel, appears lots in the book of Ecclesiastes, which is the book in the Bible that reminds us that life is fleeting. All the wealth and glory, and even the greatest accumulations, mean nothing because all that separates us from non-existence is mere breath – hevel. Life is short. Life is mere breath. When we have no more breath, everything else we have falls away. (see J. Sacks, Not In God’s Name, p. 253)
Abel – Hevel – one of the first children, reminds us that life comes from God, life is fragile – mere breath. All that separates us from the grave is the breath God breathes into us. Our life is holy because it comes from God. We are to live as holy people.
What eventually kills Abel is his brother, Cain. Cain, in Hebrew, means “to acquire, to possess, to own.” The verse actually says Eve “conceived and bore Cain, saying ‘I have acquired (kaniti) with the help of the Lord’” (Gen. 4:1). Kaniti equals acquire. Cain means “acquire.”
As it turns out, within those few verses, Abel’s life proves to be mere breath (hevel), killed early on by his brother. And Cain, well, he spends his life, seeking to ACQUIRE – to live out his name. He sought to ACQUIRE God’s blessing; he sought to ACQUIRE position in life with land and accumulation; it led him to the worst kinds of actions toward others; it led him to life ostracized and alienated from God.
Even Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century Swiss philosopher, noted from the Genesis story – “the first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, sad, ‘this is mine,’ and found people naïve enough to believe him; that man was the true founder of society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes, might not any one have saved humankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, or crying to his fellows: ‘Beware of listening to this imposter.” Rousseau makes the same point as the Bible: you are undone if you spend your life and energy seeking to acquire! (see J. Sacks, p. 254)
The desire to acquire – as we see in the Cain story – puts Cain on a terrible trajectory. The desire to acquire - as we see in so much of history – puts us at odds with the broader message of Scripture. Cain represents power as ownership and ownership as power. And that is not the way of God.
The Hebrew word, Baal, the name of the main Canaanite god, has the same range of meanings – to own, to possess, to exercise power over. That, all through the Bible, is the chief form of idolatry. When we are driven to possess, we are inclined toward competing, which leads to violence, which leads to death. That is the story of Cain. That is the story of our history, when we live like Cain.
But here is the message of the Bible: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1).
The entire story of the Bible reminds us that we own nothing. Everything – the land, its produce, power, sovereignty, children, life itself – belongs to God. We are mere TRUSTEES – we are stewards, simple care-takers, guardians on God’s behalf.
This is what we affirm at Baptism. Today, we say Caroline Graper is a child of God. She has been given to her parents for care and love, support and nurture. But Sarah and Gordy, like all of us, are really TRUSTEES – taking care of someone – Caroline – who ultimately belongs to God.
We oversee – our property, our time, our children - but we do not own. We possess for a time – relationships, things, space on this earth - but we cannot take it with us. We care for, guard, but never acquire fully. The earth – and all it contains, the world and those who live in it – belongs to God. This is a primary and consistent theme throughout Scripture. This is what is so unique and transformative about the Bible – giving us a way to live as God’s people. We are merely TRUSTEES – who watch over all that God has given to us.
There is a tendency to think that the word TRUSTEE means a person of distinction, or power. It means – not distinction or power - only responsibility. That is what we want to learn from the Cain story. This is what the Bible teaches page after page.
There is a tendency to think that TRUSTEES serve for a certain time – with limits – and then rotate off to something else. Not God’s TRUSTEES. We are all God’s TRUSTEES and it is intended for all of life. To be a TRUSTEE means to live responsibly as stewards of all that God has given us.
So think about that first lesson that we heard today: God says, ‘See, I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity.’ If you obey the commands, walk in God’s ways, live with justice and equity, kindness and generosity, then you shall live and become numerous. But if your heart turns away – and what you seek is to “acquire” – like Cain – if your heart turns away – and what you seek is power and ownership – and you are led astray and bow to other gods, and serve them – you will perish.
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. God keeps trying to help us understand and claim this message. We are merely TRUSTEES – ownership is God’s – of all things!
C.S. Lewis, writing in The Screwtape Letters, says over and over that the road to hell is found in the illusion of ownership. The devil is always encouraging a sense of ownership – for it leads fast and furiously AWAY from God. Ownership increases in us a self-centeredness. Look around! Ownership increases in us an ego-centric perspective. Think about that. This is not what God wants from us. “Choose this day,” Moses says, life or death, the ways of God or the ways of death. (see M. Marty, Christian Century, 9/26/2018, p. 1)
The earth is the Lord’s. It is not about our ownership. We are merely TRUSTEES.
Rwanda genocide survivor Clemantine Wamariya, in her recent memoir, The Girl Who Smiled Beads, learned from her mother a coherent philosophy for how to live: SHARING. She says, when slicing an orange to share, “we were never to think, ‘This orange is mine. I’m giving you what is mine.” No. We were to think, “This orange is ours. We’re sharing what is ours.” (see Marty, ibid)
The earth is the Lord’s. We are TRUSTEES. We do not possess – we simply oversee for a time. We do not acquire – we simply care for, guard what has been entrusted to us. We have been given breath to live life, to love and to cherish. Our lives are about loving and serving as TRUSTEES.
This message becomes especially important when we learn this week about the dire straits of planet earth. Carbon emissions and climate change are creating problems faster than anyone knew. The earth is the Lord’s. We are God’s TRUSTEES. Our care for God’s earth becomes extremely critical. Choose this day which way to go – toward God and life, or not.
Our second lesson, from the Apostle Paul, speaks about how we live out our life with God. II Corinthians 9:6-12:
6The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The enduring way of life with God is a life of love and generosity. The world teaches us to be selfish and stingy and to look out for ourselves. But God’s love is grounded in the conviction that we have been covered with God’s gifts and God’s steadfast love. God has been so generous with us and we are invited to practice generosity alongside God. “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity.” We imagine, in our relative wealth, that we are not so rich. But in fact, when love is at work, when generosity takes hold of us, we need very little, much less than we imagined. And then we are free, free as Jesus was free, free to love, free to share, free to pass it along.
Here is the gospel truth: “The world is under new governance.” That is Jesus’ message. This is authentic regime change. Serve the God of neighborly righteousness and quit worrying about all the threats and competitors. Give you life over to God’s will for the neighborhood, as an act of generosity. Give your life over to generous living for God; and then you will know God’s abundant blessing. (see W. Brueggemann, A Gospel of Hope, p. 11)
May it be so. Alleluia. Amen.
Prayer of Commitment: Thank you, God, for blessing us so abundantly. Thank you, God, for calling us, all of us, as TRUSTEES, to abundant blessing, generous living, following Jesus. AMEN
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on Sunday, October 14, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.