The Work Is Blessed
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
16 November 2014
Harvest feasts of Thanksgiving were commonly celebrated in early America, but our current holiday stems most directly from the national day of Thanksgiving declared by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. Here is the substance of that proclamation:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
In the midst of our nation's greatest conflict, a period of prolonged suffering, President Lincoln called for the country to seek forgiveness for its sins, pray for those in need, and to thank God for the blessings we have received. In the midst of war, destruction, and death, Lincoln wanted us to take time to consider the blessings God had given us. We are reminded that no time is too dark to be devoid of hope and the blessings of God.
Our Pilgrim ancestors who celebrated that first harvest meal with our Wampanoag ancestors had themselves been through their own difficult time of pain and suffering. Their first winter had been quite severe; many of them had died of hunger. It was only after the natives taught them how to fish for eel and to grow corn that the Pilgrims were able to provide enough food to survive. So, after that first harvest, they celebrated together with the Wampanoag. Edward Winslow wrote that the purpose of that first feast was "so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor." (People forget that eel was on the menu that first Thanksgiving.)
In Exodus 39 the people of Israel gather together to seek the Lord's blessing. They bring the fruits of their labor—all the artistic elements that when combined will create the Tabernacle of the Covenant. The list of items has something of a mesmerizing effect, inviting our imaginations to picture all the beautiful furnishings and vestments. Robert Alter writes that the language of this passage "has an incantatory or quasi-musical function . . . evoking in gorgeous syllables the sheer splendor and artisanal perfection of the sanctuary."
These items are assembled together. We are told that this occurred on the first day of the first month of the new year. For the first time everyone can see the fruit of everyone else's giving and artistry. Together, they have created something of great beauty. Moses saw what the people had done, all of their work, and Moses blessed the people and their work.
Scholars have pointed out that the construction of the Tabernacle models the story of the creation of the world in Genesis chapter one. For example, when God first gives the design plans to Moses, it is given in seven speeches that parallel the seven days of creation. The final speech is about observing the Sabbath, taking a day of rest from our work, as God had rested on the seventh day from God's work of creation.
In the passage I read a moment ago, we can also see the parallels to the story of the creation of the world in Genesis. At the end of God's work of creation, we are told that God looked at all God had created and saw that it was very good. Now, after all the work of the people, Moses, God's prophet and agent, looks at what the people have done and blesses it.
The Bible scholar Terence Fretheim points out that the emphasis upon creation does not cease here with the gathering and blessing of the work. Every time the people move about the wilderness, they must disassemble the Tabernacle and then put it all back together again at their new campsite. Every time they move, they once again enact the creation. They are recreating themselves and God's place in the world every time they assemble the Tabernacle.
Plus, the worship that is carried out in the Tabernacle is another form of creation. Fretheim writes, "The worship of God at the tabernacle is a way for the community of faith to participate in the divine creational work. God's continuing work in and through the worship of Israel is creative of a new world for Israel."
In the midst of the wilderness journey, after their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and the trials and temptations of the desert, the people recreate themselves by these acts of giving, imagining, building, and worshipping. In this way, they are transformed, awakening the image of God within themselves, as together they are shaped into God's people who will bring a message of salvation to all the world.
Scholars tell us that these stories of the Tabernacle were written down many centuries after these events supposedly occurred. They were written down while the Jews were exiles, living in ancient Babylon, after the Babylonians had conquered the nation of Judah, destroyed the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, and took the people captive. In the midst of that era of suffering and displacement, the people tell these stories of transformation, of community building, of new creation. These stories worked to inspire that generation of Jews to survive their exile and to hope for a better future.
Walter Brueggemann writes that the worship in the Tabernacle and its visual images represent a "counterworld to Israel's lived experience, which is dangerous and disordered. The counterworld offered in the tabernacle holds out the gift of a well-ordered, joy-filled, peace-generating creation." He then says that this explains why the passages are so detailed. "No wonder Israel took such care to 'get it right'!" Brueggemann says.
Again and again this week, as I explored the commentaries on this passage, the emphases were two-fold: that this is a story of people participating in God's work of creation and this is a story told in a time of difficulty in order to help the people carry on. So this ancient story fits so well with our American stories of Thanksgiving. In the midst of harsh life on the Massachusetts coast, after much death and suffering, the people gathered to share the fruits of their labor and give thanks to God for the blessings they had received. And in the dark days of the American Civil War, as every town and village and family experienced loss, President Lincoln invited the nation to reflect not on the darkness but on the good things that even then were being achieved.
This year as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, let us be mindful of these examples. Let us look for the signs of blessing in our own lives and in our world. And let us bring the fruit of our labor so that it might join together in the worship of God with the work of our sisters and brothers.
An interesting report on Bloomberg news suggesting that the Democratic party can achieve some of its policy aims by unbundling them and running them as initiatives, as this year's success of the minimum wage votes demonstrates.
This report also informs you that, adjusted for cost of living, Nebraska will have the highest real minimum wage in the country!
The People Work
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
9 November 2014
Moses was up on Mt. Sinai for a really, really long time, and the people felt they had waited long enough. They became impatient, and the impatience became anxiety. Where is he, already? What happened to Moses?
And their anxiety turned to fear. Maybe Moses is dead. Maybe we are out here in this wilderness without a leader. Maybe we shouldn't trust this Yahweh, after all, he is pretty scary.
And the fear turned into doubt. And the doubt led to betrayal.
Then the people assembled against Aaron, Moses' brother, and said, "Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him." Aaron instructed them to take off their jewelry so that he might mold it into a Golden Calf. And once it was done, the people worshipped it with sacrifices and orgiastic dancing.
Meanwhile, up on the mountain, God told Moses what was happening, and Moses rushed down the mountain, holding onto the tablets of the law which had been inscribed with God's own hand, and when Moses saw the calf and what the people were doing, in anger he threw down the tablets of the law, shattering them upon the rock. He destroyed the idol and punished the people. Many died.
The construction of the Tabernacle begins after the episode of the Golden Calf, though God had already given Moses the design plans for it before the people sinned.
Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim, who was one of Jim Harmon's professors, by the way, writes that through the Tabernacle God was doing something radically new and different. God was responding to the needs of the people to be present with them in a new way. God would come to dwell with them in a tabernacle and the furnishings and the rituals of worship. True, God was with them everywhere, just as God is with us everywhere, but God was also going to provide a special place where they could come to encounter God. Fretheim writes that God had chosen to enter time and space "to meet their need for the specific, the tangible, the personal, . . . [the] concrete and focused."
One third of the Book of Exodus is taken up with the description of the design and building of the tabernacle. This is one of those sections where people get bogged down when they are trying to read the Bible. Like the long lists of who begat whom in Genesis, and the details about the law codes and the rituals of sacrifice in Leviticus. There are parts of the Bible that are pretty boring. Exodus is full of so many exciting stories, then suddenly we get to these detailed descriptions about how to hang the curtains.
Fretheim writes that in some ways the Tabernacle becomes God's physical body. A place for God to be immanent within the creation. In other words, an incarnation. But what's most revealing about these passages in Exodus is that they are not a celebration of the completed object, the finished Tabernacle. They are, in fact, a celebration of the process of designing and building. The creative and imaginative process. A celebration of art and craft. Of the work of the people.
So, what begins to dawn upon us, is that God dwells not simply in the completed product, but in the work itself. God dwells within the people as they are designing, crafting, imagining, and creating. The stories about the construction of the Tabernacle are really about discovering the divine image within ourselves. In other words, the people didn't need to create the Golden Calf, an idol, what they needed to do was awaken to the realization that God was already within them. Creating the Tabernacle was an act of transformation, awakening the people to this spiritual truth. And telling the stories again, point us in that direction—finding the divine image within ourselves.
In verse 8, we read:
He made the basin of bronze with its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.
What are these mirrors?
I had never noticed this verse, probably skimming over it. But the Jewish scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg makes this verse key to her interpretation of the entire Book of Exodus in her commentary The Particulars of Rapture. [I love stuff like this. A little obscure verse opens up new possibilities for interpretation.]
The piece of furniture being built here is the basin for water which would stand in the outer court of the tabernacle near the altar. It was used by the priests to wash their hands and thus to purify themselves. Its function is described in Exodus 30 this way:
When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to make an offering by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die.
You can imagine the sign in the employees' bathroom: "Employees must wash hands before returning to work OR THEY WILL DIE!"
So, this basin, important to the worship rituals of the people, is made of the mirrors of the women. Now, these are not modern, glass mirrors. These are highly polished bronze.
Philo of Alexandria, who was a Jewish scholar living about the same time as Jesus, wrote that the purpose of these mirrors was so that the priest, while washing himself, could examine himself. Could see himself in the reflection. Since the washing symbolized purification, there is an implication that the priest also had to examine himself, to "look into his own mind" and see if he was pure.
Philo also writes that the mirrors are connected with desire and prompt reflection on the question, "What do you desire?" According to Philo the priest should not desire "the pursuit of present pleasure" but "only that beauty which is genuine and unadulterated," which Philo goes on to describe as the beauty of a virtuous life which brings "fresh vigour and renewed youth."
Fascinating ideas, that should also prompt us to reflect and examine ourselves. What do we desire? Are we our best selves?
But, there's even more to say about these mirrors. The Bible tells us that these are the mirrors of the women, but what purpose had they originally served?
Well, what do you use mirrors for? To see how you look. Most importantly to see if you look good, right? Because you want people to be drawn to you, attracted to you, to desire you? Well, that hasn't changed. The ancient Israelites wanted the same thing. To see their image in order to look their best and to be desired.
Way back in Exodus chapter 1, we read, "the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them." You see, God blessed the Israelites with great fertility, with the power of new and abundant life, in face of Pharaoh's policies of death and destruction. The fertility of the Hebrew slaves was rapid and alarmed the Egyptians. Remember, they tried to kill all the firstborn boys in order to slow down the growth rate, but that backfired. Every scheme Pharaoh tried back-fired. Whenever the Egyptians tried to impose death, God's blessing of life would grow even stronger.
There is a longstanding Jewish midrash—you know, the stories that Jews tell to fill in the gaps of the Biblical story—which says that it was the mirrors of the women which accounted for the high birth rate. With the mirrors the women made themselves desirable, the men slept with them, and they kept having babies.
The mirrors, then, are connected with God's blessing of fertility and life. According to the rabbi Rashi, these mirrors were more precious to God than any other gift given to create the Tabernacle, because it was these mirrors which created the nation of Israel.
What a beautiful image is created here! These instruments of sexual desire now become the means for purification. These instruments for new life, become central to the people's worship.
According to Avivah Zornberg, the mirrors awaken desire and open us to unexpected possibilities. They even help us to imagine ourselves in different ways. Thus, they are instruments of transformation, inviting us into the creative process by which we become our best selves.
The person who took these mirrors and fashioned them into the wash basin, was Bezalel. According to the Bible, Bezalel was called and inspired by God to become the master craftsman and to teach the people the skills they would need. His gifts of imagination, creativity, and artistic skill would help to prepare the way for God's presence.
Bezalel is one of the few people in the Old Testament who is described as being filled with the spirit. Normally this is reserved for prophets and judges. Here God's spirit comes upon a craftsman, a laborer, an artist in order to guide his skills for the work of the Lord.
Bezalel's name means "in the shadow of God." It's also connected to the same Hebrew word which is used in Genesis 1 when we are told that humanity is created in the image of God. There is the sense, then, that Bezalel himself represents the image of God. Bezalel's craftsmanship is part of God's revelation of God's self to the people. God is revealed in Bezalel's talents, in his work, in his art. When we use our imaginations and our creativity, we embody the presence of God.
So, today, let these stories of the Tabernacle remind us that our work is really about preparing ourselves, awakening the divine image within us. Let these stories invite us to reflect and examine ourselves. "What do we desire? Are we our best selves?" And let these stories invite us to imagine new possibilities. And call us to new levels of creativity.
In this way we will be transformed, as we awaken to the realization that God is already within us. Our personal work of transformation is how God works in this world.
Twenty-five years ago today, I was fifteen years old. I awoke and went to the family room in order to turn on the Today Show and watch the morning news. I vividly remember as the image filled the screen, and there was Tom Brokaw standing, as he had done many times before, in front of the Berlin Wall. But behind him, the wall was covered by a swarm of people, and . . .
I started yelling for my mother, and she came running through the house, wondering what was wrong, and I said, "Look" and pointed toward the television screen. And she looked and said, "Oh!"
And then we stood there before the television screen, holding each other, and crying.
<a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/681508.Pragmatism" style="float: left; padding-right: 20px"><img alt="Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking" border="0" src="https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347772036m/681508.jpg" /></a><a href="https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/681508.Pragmatism">Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking</a> by <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15865.William_James">William James</a><br/>
My rating: <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/368535609">4 of 5 stars</a><br /><br />
Just re-read James' Pragmatism for my intro to philosophy class. And I liked it even more than when I read it as a sophomore in college. Because these are lectures, he can be repetitive and he doesn't always stay well-focused on the topic at hand, but the overall worldview and approach he presents is compelling to me. I had not quite realized how much it has influenced me.<br><br>The closing chapters are inspiring, about the human responsibility to take part in the adventure of saving the world, as its good outcome is not guaranteed. That does radically alter your religion and politics.
<a href="https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/2239289-scott">View all my reviews</a>
God Restores, We Witness
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
26 October 2014
One of my best friends in high school was Rudy Will. Rudy was an artist with great intellectual curiosity, but his family situation wasn't ideal. His parents had divorced. His mother was not around and his father married another woman and moved into her home, leaving Rudy basically alone as a teenager.
There got to be something of a routine at our house. At least once a week, around 5 p.m., the doorbell would ring and it would be Rudy. We'd hang out in the den playing pool or watching tv and Mom would come in and ask Rudy if he wanted to stay for dinner. He always tried to get out of it, but Mom would always insist, and he would stay and eat with us.
Mom knew it was an act. She knew that he was coming over for dinner because he didn't have anyone to fix dinner for him. But she never let on like she knew. Each time she went through the same routine of insisting that he stay, like it was her idea. Mom even got used to making sure to plan for an extra person to feed.
A few months after I went off to college, Mom told me one day that she had prepared herself for my leaving home, but what she had not planned for was how empty the house was because none of my friends were dropping by like they always had. And she especially missed Rudy, who had become a part of our routine.
Rudy become a part of my family. That relationship was built upon the practice of hospitality, as my mother welcomed him into our home and shared our meals with him. What surprised my mother was how much Rudy's presence had blessed her. She thought she was the one doing the blessing. It was only after he moved away that she realized how much his presence had meant to her.
Rudy grew up Missouri Synod Lutheran and, despite his family situation, he continued to be a faithful member of his local church throughout high school. It was because of his religious commitment that I understood the significance of the gift that Rudy gave me at the end of high school. It was his personal copy of Martin Luther's Small Catechism with his name engraved on the front cover. He used it during his confirmation, so throughout there are his own handwritten notes.
Whenever I look at this catechism, I think of Rudy and our friendship. He now lives in Alabama with his wife and son. He is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and every week we e-mail back and forth discussing all the ways the world is screwed up.
In the early days of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther realized that it was not enough to simply re-train the pastors and teachers. He needed to educate the children. So, the Lutherans were the first to develop an extensive literature of Christian education materials for children. Luther's own contribution was the Small Catechism. He wrote it not only for use in the church, but for use in the home. At least once a week, fathers were supposed to check up on their children's spiritual formation by asking them the questions contained in the catechism.
It opens with the Ten Commandments. These are the very first things that any Christian child should learn because these principles are key to living the Christian life. The catechism lists each commandment after which a child's parent is supposed to ask this question, "What does this mean?" Then, the catechism gives an example of the sort of answer that one should give in response. For example:
The Fifth Commandment. Do not murder. What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.
For each and every one of the Ten Commandments, Luther expands the negative law into a positive practice. Not only are we not to murder, we are also supposed to "help and befriend [our neighbor] in every bodily need." Luther doesn't just see a list of things we aren't supposed to do, he goes behind that list to discover the things which we ought to do.
Not committing adultery becomes loving and honoring your spouse. Not stealing becomes helping your neighbor to improve and protect his property and business. Not bearing false witness is expanded to defending your neighbor, speaking well of her, putting the best construction on everything. Not coveting your neighbor's property becomes helping and being of service to her in keeping it.
Luther understood something of fundamental importance about the Ten Commandments—They aren't a list of arbitrary rules; they actually exist for a purpose. They help us to achieve some goal. What is that purpose? What goal do they help us to achieve?
Well, let's step back and ask a wider question. Why has God liberated the Israelites?
God heard their cry and knew their pain. God called Moses to be the prophet and leader of the people. Then, with a show of great power, God defeated the Egyptians and led the people out of Egypt, parting the sea so that they might cross over in safety. Why go to all that trouble?
God's purpose was to restore creation. Pharaoh was a threat to life. And so we have a contest between the forces of chaos & death, life & blessing. God has won, and now creation can be restored.
But how is God going to do this? The answer is "by the formation of a new people." The Israelites are to be God's agents in bringing the world back to what God intended the world to be. The people of God will be God's means to deliverance and salvation for the entire world.
But now we must ask, "How are the Israelites going to do that?"
They will do it by living differently than other people, and in their living differently they will bear witness to God's will.
The 613 laws that God gives them, of which these are only ten, are intended to shape them into a new people who will change the world. The purpose of the law, then, isn't just to create some rules for everyone to follow. The purpose of the law is salvation.
That salvation will come through relationships -- the relationships that the people have with one another and the relationships that they have with God. God will be part of this community, their partner and companion.
The Ten Commandments, then, reveal what practices are necessary to create the sort of relationships that will restore the world. Martin Luther gets this. Not murdering is only a starting point. If we love God, then we will go beyond that to befriend our neighbor and help him with all his bodily needs. And, as my mother learned, her hospitality and generosity built a relationship with Rudy that blessed her.
It's a mistake when we use the Ten Commandments as a set of rules to beat people up and make them feel guilty. The purpose of these commandments is to challenge us to live as companions with God and one another. The commandments are an invitation to a relationship—a relationship with an adventurous purpose: to change the world. Our obedience to the laws of God lead to the salvation of the world.
Our community here at First Central should be a witness that the world can be a different than it is currently is. The world truly can be a place of extravagant grace, radical inclusion, and relentless compassion.
May this Exodus story, which tells God's story, also become our story. May it give us an identity. May it give us the courage to face the Pharaohs in our lives. May it set us free from the forces of chaos which would enslave us. And may we continue to live in a radically different way both for our own salvation and for the salvation of the rest of the world.
The People Give
Exodus 35:1-9, 21
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
2 November 2014
Moses assembled the people together to tell them that God was going to dwell with them in a tabernacle, a place of meeting. God was going to provide a special place where they could encounter God. All of this was part of God's plan to form them into a new community, who would live differently, and bring salvation to the world.
But the tabernacle did not appear miraculously, rising out of the desert floor. It had to be built. The people were, themselves, required to prepare the place.
They began by giving. These who had been enslaved and were newly free. Who were struggling at times with thirst and hunger. Who were experiencing the hostile weather and environmental conditions of the Sinai peninsula, they gave.
Their donations would be used to construct the tabernacle. There giving was an act of thanks-giving and worship. It was an investment in hope and the future. It was one of the spiritual practices that would help to form them as a people.
I too have learned from personal experience and the stories of those who taught me how the practice of giving itself shapes you into the kind of person God wants you to be.
Giving is something that my mother taught me. I've told you before how in our household we were paid our weekly allowance into four envelopes that my mother had created for us. One envelope was spending money, another envelope short term savings for something that we wanted to buy, the third was for our savings account at the bank, and the fourth was our tithe. Ten percent of the weekly allowance, dedicated to the church. It would be a mistake to list it as the fourth envelope, though, because it was really first. The tithe was paid before anything else was.
From the earliest age, then, I was a tither. It became a habit. A spiritual practice and discipline, the source of spiritual strength and joy.
When the stewardship campaign rolled around every year and the deacons and other folk stood up to talk about tithing, I knew what they were talking about. When they spoke of how it brought joy and blessing to their lives, I knew. When they talked about how it made them a better person more generous and gracious, I knew that too.
In 1990 my childhood church, the First Baptist Church of Miami, Oklahoma celebrated its centennial. Throughout the year, a number of long time church members shared stories about the earlier days of the congregation. Some were a little shocking. For instance, one of our oldest members, a short, elderly, white haired woman who was almost 100 herself, talked about one time when the Klan appeared during Sunday morning worship to donate money to the church. According to her, the church gave the money away, refusing to keep it. Thank goodness.
Another testimony that has always stuck with me was told by Claudine Stepp. Claudine was asked to talk about the period in the 1960's when the church built the new sanctuary. Now the Stepps were not wealthy, you wouldn't even describe them as comfortable. But Claudine shared how her family decided to support the building of the sanctuary. They were already tithing and understood that a commitment to the building campaign would call for sacrifice beyond the tithe that God normally asked of them. They didn't give up some luxuries, because they didn't have any to give up. Instead they reduced the size of their weekly food budget and committed that money to the church. Claudine said it meant that they ate a lot of beans for a while, but as she stood there in the sanctuary almost thirty years later, she shined with pride that her sacrifice had contributed to a ministry which touched the lives of thousands of people. She spoke of this as one of the great joys of her life.
These are the sorts of stories that I grew up hearing, the sort of spiritual training that I received. Thus, I was always a tither.
In the late nineties when I started graduate school I worked as a graduate assistant in the philosophy department at the University of Oklahoma. That first year I made $7,500. By my fifth year, thanks to President David Boren's commitment to raise our salaries, I was making $12,500, plus health insurance. That seemed like a fortune compared to my first year.
All of those years that I lived below the federal poverty level, I still tithed to the church. Plus, I gave some extra money occasionally to other charitable causes. I was amused one year when there was a small scandal after Al and Tipper Gore released their tax returns. The Gore's had contributed only $500 to charity. I was proud that I, who lived below the poverty level and made far less than the Vice President of the United States, had given away more money than he did that year.
One of the spiritual fruits that comes with tithing is learning to live simply. Learning to live with less means that we are less greedy, that we participate less in the injustices of the world economy, that we learn that we are not owned by our things. Sure, there are times when I've been envious of others and then things they possess. But I'm not envious of their credit card debt or their consumer mindset that compels them to want the latest or the best thing.
Instead, I look at what I've invested in over my lifetime. I've helped to save the lives of African children through medical missions. Provided relief after the Oklahoma City bombing, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the earthquake in Haiti. My gifts have supported micro-loans and libraries in the Mississippi Delta, helping people break out of poverty. I've built homes and hospitals and dug water wells for those without. I've educated new ministers who helped to spread the message of God's love. And my financial gifts have helped thousands experience profound moments of worship in the churches to which I've belonged. The fruits of my labor have helped to build the kingdom of God.
And when I look at this list of names of all those who have died this last year, I see so many good and faithful people. They were kind and generous, hard-working and determined, thoughtful and passionate. The fruits of their labor have helped to build the kingdom of God.
From my own story and the lives of these saints, I've discovered the truths contained in these ancient stories. And one of those truths is that we are transformed by our own giving, by our own participation in God work.
May the spirits of these blessed ones empower us
in our giving and our working
that God might be glorified.