Last week during the worship service I gave out homework, and people still came back. Thank you! It’s very good that having homework didn’t scare you off.
Actually, if you choose to be part of a church, to spend time with people who value community, and friendship, and are drawn together by common values and common hopes about life, it is inevitable that you will end up with homework, things to do beyond the couple of hours we spend together on the weekend.
I don’t mean you should expect a weekly assignment from me. I can’t possibly know what would be good for each of you to do. I don’t know, specifically, how God has blessed you this week, or what God needs you to be doing, in the coming days.
Every person’s circumstances are different, and the gifts and aptitudes, resources and interests God has given them are different. We have different needs, and we each see the world in our own way, and we may notice different things, and get fired up, or disgusted, or excited, or dismayed by something that others barely seem to notice. That’s okay, because there is plenty for all of us to do, and when we need each other’s help, we can talk.
Did any of you do your homework? For those who weren’t here last week, I gave each person a blank file card, and asked them to make a list of values, or virtues important to them. I gave examples like Trust, Faith, Courage and Honesty.
The idea was to have your file card list handy, and if a “Yes or No” moment came up, when it was necessary to make a decision about what to do, or not do, the list of what you value might help. Would the thing you had to say yes or no to line up with your values? Would it fit with the kind of person you want to be, who you believe God intends for you to be?
We all face moments all the time, in which we get to decide again who we will be. We can decide how we can use the life and abilities and resources with which we’ve been blessed.
The Old Testament lesson is part of the story of Abraham, considered the patriarch of Israel, the beginning of a family line that would prosper, and grow, until they became a great tribe, then a collection of tribes, and eventually a new nation. This is another one of the Bible’s foundational or origin stories, told to answer questions of the Jewish people, “Where do we come from? Who are we? How are we meant to live?”
“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
Abraham, or Abram as he was known back then, could have put those words on his own file card, if they’d existed. They could have been a basis for making decisions.
In this story, God told him he was blessed, so he could also be a blessing to others.
The short form Abram could have joted down on his file card might be “Pay it forward.” Recognize and be grateful for all you have in life, and look for ways to pass it along. Like a magic penny, we might say.
Jesus was Jewish, and his family line, whether you trace it back up Mary’s family tree, or Joseph’s, connected him to the thousands of people descended from Abraham and Sarah. He was part of the culture, and steeped in the traditions of Israel.
When he began to preach outside of the synagogues and temples of the Jewish religion, he was challenged by experts in Jewish law. Who was Jesus to be telling good Jews how to live?
Wherever Jesus went, he was pushed, and provoked, and publicly tested by those who questioned his authority, and the rightness of his message. They might have said, “Let me see your index card, Jesus of Nazareth! What values are on your list?”
That’s the essence of what was going on at the moment described in today’s Gospel lesson.
“an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
To love God is to be grateful, and deeply aware of how you are blessed. To love your neighbour as yourself is to operate from the desire to pass on the blessings. The Pharisee couldn’t fault Jesus on his answer, because it was totally consistent with the values of their people.
We tell this Jesus story for a number of reasons. One is to show that Jesus was not creating a new religion, he was just reminding people of who they were already meant to be.
This story also depicts Jesus being challenged by the religious authorities. It sets the stage for what comes after Lent, the events we commemorate at Good Friday. It helps us understand how Jesus was perceived as a threat to powerful people in his world.
The third reason we tell this Jesus story is it’s good advice about how we should live. We should love God, and love others as we love ourselves. We should count our blessings, and then bless others without keeping count.
Can you think of a time when you were blessed- helped by someone’s kindness, generosity, presence? It could be from decades back, or a few minutes ago. How did it feel to be blessed?
How about the other part of the deal? Can you think of a time when you offered a blessing to someone else, by your kindness, generosity, or your presence with them? How did that feel?
One of the great things about being part of a faith community like ours is that we can, in some powerful and effective ways, pool our generosity and do more good in the world.
The donations we collect on Sunday, and the withdrawals that come out of my bank account, and many of yours- can do more, and go further, than our individual contributions could on their own.
A large part of that pooled generosity stays in this community, to fund ministry we do here. Some of it, according to what people specify, goes to another larger pool, called the Mission and Service of the United Church. When you give to Mission & Service, you are a blessing to thousands, maybe millions, of people across Canada, a blessing that in some cases actually saves lives.
The United Church is directly involved in areas such as housing, food security, employment training, mental health treatment, advocacy, and pastoral care. We fund chaplains who serve in hospitals and universities. We support theological schools and retreat centres. We also give grants to more than 80 local congregations, some very new ones, who are trying to carry on God’s work in their local communities.
Beyond Canada, we work with global partners in 21 different countries, much of it in economic development, disaster relief, and sustainable agriculture.
Our magic pennies go along way, and do so in ways that match with the values on our little file cards. We are blessed, and we bless others.
I do have more homework for you, for this week. It’s sneaky homework.
I want you to go into blessing stealth mode. Be creative. At least once this week, use something you have been given, something you have been blessed with, to secretly bless someone else. Don’t let them know it was you. It could be a family member. It could be a co-worker. It could be a total stranger. It doesn’t matter who. At least once this week, use something you have been given, something you have been blessed with, to secretly bless someone else. Amen