TEXT: Psalm 116:1-2 and 12-19
CENTRAL POINTS: Anything we do to GAIN God’s favor is futile.
What we do in response for God’s favor is for our own benefit.
In polite conversation in society, there are several topics we’re not supposed to bring up. Religion, politics, race, personal wealth, and death come to mind. But we’re at church, where religion is central to our identity and to what has brought us together. We like to feel that we are polite to each other and that nothing we do might make anyone else lose their respect for us because of what they see. We may even dress better to come to church than we do in our daily lives.
But we sometimes offend against what is considered polite, and we do it on purpose. For example, two weeks ago we celebrated Easter, a “life holiday” which follows the “death holiday” that was marked two days earlier. The verses we read from the New Testament this afternoon (Acts 2:22-28) had some pretty graphic things to say about death. Not at all polite. And each week as we prepare our hearts to worship we have a short time in which we admit to God (and in front of each other) that we aren’t perfect. We basically say that we’re failures at living rightly.
It’s wonderful, isn’t it, that after admitting our failure, and asking God to have mercy on us, we have a chance to remind each other that God accepts and forgives us. That’s not the way the world works, and it’s certainly not the way we, as people of the world, would imagine religion to work.
I: The very human Religious Economy of Requirement
Not all religions or groups within religions are as accepting as God. Some operate by what you might call, “an investment system”. We can understand this very well if we think of how certain of our human affairs are organized. Many of us in church are involved in education, so I ask, when will your university give you a diploma? Did you get it when you arrived? OR, Must you do the study and prove your learning before you get the paper with your name on it?
In the early 20th century, when cars were a “new thing”, the companies that made them often wanted to see the money before people got the car. Sometimes the full price had to be paid before the factory would even begin to build the car. Because a car could cost about as much as a person would earn in a year, few people had the cash to buy one. Workers who assembled the cars might NEVER have enough money to buy one of the things that they were working on. There was one American “captain of industry” who thought of himself as generous because he raised the wages of assembly line workers far above the industry average (he was trying to avoid labor trouble and the organization of a union in his factory). But if one of his workers wanted to buy one of the cars they made, deductions from the weekly pay would be made until enough was “invested”, and THEN the keys and car would be delivered.
That’s how many people imagine religion to work, and that’s how things work in many religions. People go through their lives making “investments” into a “heavenly investment account” and hoping, when finally they leave this world and arrive at whatever heaven their religion teaches, they’ll be admitted through the doors because they’ve met the requirements. If you’ve ever watched a movie or television program where someone wants to get into a popular nightclub or dance party and seen the men at the door who let people in who look “cool enough” and reject others, you might be familiar with the system.
Investment religion leads us to despair. If we know ourselves to be less then perfect, then we’ll never be enough, we’ll live with uncertainty, and die in fear.
This is NOT the religion we heard described in the experience of the writer of Psalm 116 from the Bible this afternoon. What we heard was, “I love the Lord because he hears me, he listens to my prayers, he listens to me every time I call to him.” If “investment” were the system, the poet who wrote the Psalm would have had to write, “the Lord loves me because I’ve so much already on deposit with him.” We didn’t read that in verses 1-2.
II: A Religious Economy of Exchange or Transaction
And what we read in verse 12 was a question: “What can I offer the Lord for all his goodness to me?” Apparently the goodness has already been received. Nevertheless, people will try to get by on the basis of “transaction” or “exchange.”
In 1922 the American writer F.Scott Fitzgerald published a short novel entitled “A Diamond As Big As the Ritz” (The Ritz was a big hotel in New York City). It’s about the adventures of a young man who befriended a classmate at a boarding school and visited his home during summer vacation. The home was in a secret valley deep in the mountains where there was a diamond mine, which included one hill bigger than the Ritz Hotel which was a solid single diamond. The classmate’s family got wealthy on selling diamonds and controlling the market, keeping the secret of their mine by means of lying, enslavement and murder. The young man at the center of the story eventually learned that, rather than going back to school at the end of the vacation, he would be murdered. But someone escaped and told the secrets to the government, and at the climax of the story the valley came under attack. At that point, the rich father prayed to God, offering the giant diamond in exchange for salvation from having all of his wealth taken away.
That’s “exchange religion”. We see it in the kinds of life in which people: 1) amass wealth which is accumulated but is not enjoyed, or 2) enjoy but do not share wealth. They feel that through a great contribution they’ll be able to exchange their wealth for salvation “if they should ever need it.” Their wealth may be like that in the story, a big diamond, and vast material wealth. But it could also be in the form of accomplishments, honors, diplomas, records of publication, heroic deeds and the praise of many. At some point, the person if there’s a real need, then he or she can exchange the accumulation for a favor because it’s obvious that wealth is good. And if it’s good, then God wants it too. So God (to whom the amasser of “wealth” may never have called before and in whom he or she has never expressed any belief or interest), becomes just another trading partner.
Exchange religion can see God as a big “Santa Claus” or “Father Christmas”, for whom we behave well (during November and December( and to whom we recount our good deeds in those months in the hope that we’ll find gifts under the Christmas tree, or in the stockings, or in the shoes (whatever our culture uses). Of course, once the gifts have been received, we no longer need to behave well, and we’re just as bad as usual from January through October again.
40 years ago a friend who had taught at Cheng Kung University told about a visit from a student’s family at the end of a semester. The family dropped by for a cup of tea, and left many gifts behind upon departure. It was clearly done not so much out of respect for a teacher as in the hope of buying a passing grade for a daughter who was not a very good student. This family were operating on an “exchange” arrangement.
We read in Psalm 116, verse 12, “I will bring a wine offering to the Lord to thank him for saving me.” That’s not an exchange, that’s thanks. If it were an exchange, it would be more like, “I’ll bring God a bottle of wine so that he’ll do something nice for me.”
So, if the religion of the Bible is not “investment” or “exchange”, then what else is there? We’ve exhausted the possibilities of human interaction.
III: God’s Religious Economy of Grace
Thankfully, we’re not dealing with humans here. We’re dealing with the divine, which is far beyond our ability to measure or even to imagine.
Returning to Psalm 116, we hear the ancient poet telling us in verses 1 & 2 why he loves the Lord, “because he hears me, he listens to my prayers, he listens to me every time I call to him.” The listening is first, and it is continuous. Further along, from verses 13 to 15, we hear, “I will bring a wine-offering to the Lord to thank him for saving me. In the assembly of al his people I will give him what I have promised.” God’s goodness has come first. God’s saving acts have come first. The poet’s plans to bring wine, to offer, to give thanks, and to do it all publically, are responses.
Because we have a hard time “getting” that, we turn to other places in the Bible and find exactly the kinds of “investment” and “exchange” arrangements that we’ve just considered and rejected. Some people quote Jesus’ statement, “store up riches for yourselves in heaven” in support of the idea of investment. Others will point to stories of characters like Zacchaeus the tax collector, who gave half of his wealth. But we’re not dealing only with the limited and narrow teachings of various verses in the Bible. As wonderful as it is, it is not the fullness of God’s revelation. What is in front of us is the economy (the arrangement of resources) of God’s grace. In that set of arrangements, all of the need is on our side, and all of the grace is on God’s side, and it is given freely to us.
We have nothing that God needs, not even if it were so valuable as a diamond the size of a city hotel. There’s nothing we can exchange or return to God for all that has already been done for us, things like: 1) creation of this world; 2) provision of this life; 3) setting us in relationships to others whom we may (or may not) love; 4) giving us the freedom to choose whether we want to relate to people, or to God, or not; 5) listening to us when we are in need; 6) forgiving us for not being perfect; 7) accepting us when we have been completely opposed to everything God wants for us; 8) taking the initiative to meet us; 9) offering us eternity, whether we believe in it or not. This list could go on and on.
CONCLUSION The Economy of Grace
When we reduce God to something like a captain of industry who will supply our needs only after we’ve invested enough in advance, or to something like a cashier at the store who distributes things when paid, or even to a moneylender who is happy to advance us what we need, but expects repayment plus interest, then we cheat ourselves of the life we found described in Psalm 116 this afternoon.
When we live in relation to God as “anything less than God”, we shrink the scope of our relationships to each other to the size of what WE can measure.
Using the term “economy of Grace” is dangerous, because it brings us to thinking about the ways we earn, save and use money. The English word, “economy” comes from a word in Greek, “oikos” that means “house”. But even that is dangerous, because it can lead us to thinking about buildings and organizations. My trouble is that I can’t think of any better word. So, bear with me.
When we live in God’s economy of Grace as it impacts on our relationship to the divine AND on our relationships with each other, we experience: 1) God’s hearing us, 2) God’s listening to our prayers, 3) God’s saving us from dangers, 4) God’s goodness, and 5) our connection with God’s people. That overflows to how we treat our neighbors, our classmates, our roommates, partners and co-workers, our competitors and our enemies. And when that happens, we experience the goodness of God in the land we live in.
What can we give to God? Nothing that God needs from us. But, we can give thanks, and we can live with each other in the freedom of God’s grace. AMEN