Gifts in the Wilderness

By Ben Lee

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 16:2-15

Matthew 20:1-16

During my family’s annual week-long family reunion, my parents would sometimes find unique things for us to do as a family. One year, when I was around twelve years old, he decided to rent a boat and take us out to a nearby island. Many of my cousins and I spent the day snorkeling and collecting shells, rocks, and even a few fossils. The next year, he arranged for us all to go on a deep-sea fishing trip for the day. After these two years, I began to expect something even better. I even had the gall to say “What are you going to do for us this year? It needs to be something that is more exciting than deep-sea fishing.” That was the year that my dad decided to do nothing. I was furious. It was going to be the worst year ever. Forget the fact that even being able to take a week-long vacation was a tremendous privilege.

The more I calculated what was coming to me, the more I distorted the dynamics of the gift that was being offered. And so my dad withheld that particular gift, lest I confuse the reason why he was offering it in the first place.  Read more

The Deeper and Richer Life of Gratitude

Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37

“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures for ever.”

Gratitude is at the core of our identity as the people of God.  God has created us and continually provides for us.  Even when times get tough in our broken world, when we’re hungry and thirsty and our soul is fainting within us (v. 5), God hears our cries and delivers us.  The Israelite people certainly knew their share of troubles – being slaves in Egypt, wandering in the desert for forty years, going into exile, and so on – but yet the Psalms, their prayerbook that gave shape to their life together was filled with prayers of thanksgiving like today’s reading from Psalm 107 that celebrate the goodness and the provision of God.

And yet, gratitude is one of the most difficult virtues for us to cultivate in the Western world.  Why is this? Above all, we are extraordinarily wealthy; we have the resources and technologies to take care of almost all our needs, and thus it is easy for us to lose sight of God’s provision. Additionally, we are immersed in a sea of advertising every day that fuels our ingratitude by reminding us of all the things that we don’t have, but that we should want.  We also are so far removed from agriculture that we easily lose sight of God’s providing through creation for our most basic need, food.

So what can we, as Westerners, learn about gratitude from the Israelite people of the Old Testament?

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The Economics of Anxiety

Eighth Sunday After Epiphany
Isaiah 49:8-16; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34

One of the steadfast realities of following the lectionary is the predictable rhythm of its three-year cycle of readings. Preparing a sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday in 2011?  You might go back to your files from 2008 to see what text(s) you focused on, what themes prevailed, what prayers and hymns were chosen for worship. You might—depending on your congregation’s current needs and challenges—revisit, rework, recycle, as it were, the riches of the lectionary cycle.

But because Easter is so late this year—a day short of the latest date possible—there was no eighth Sunday After Epiphany in 2008 or 2005 or 2002. In fact, the factors that determine the date of the Church’s prime moveable feast are so unusual this year that an eighth Sunday after Epiphany is an astronomical and liturgical rarity. This means that, with a longer stretch of Sundays between Epiphany and Lent, we take in much more of the Sermon on the Mount, Year A’s appointed reading for the Sundays after Epiphany. And this week’s portion from Matthew 6—rare in the Sunday cycle but familiar in our hearing—couldn’t be more timely. Read more