The Banquet

Acts of Mercy: This week we focus our meditations on Acts of Mercy which may involve almsgiving but also include feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, and caring for the widows and orphans all of which reveal faith and show, through our actions, Christ’s love to those in need.

Rev. Bruce Modahl

Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner but blessed is he who is generous to the poor. (Proverbs 14:21)

By Jesus’ death and resurrection God is ushering in God’s kingdom. One of the ways Scripture shows us what God’s kingdom is like is by describing a lavish banquet. The high and mighty, the lowly and poor have places at the table. God blesses them with an abundance.

The banquet table is the altar around which those baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection are gathered by the Holy Spirit. Out of the abundance God supplies, we bring our gifts to God. We bring bread and wine, praise and thanksgiving, and money. God gladly receives our gifts. God blesses the bread and wine and returns them to us as the very means by which he has redeemed us, the body and blood of his Son. Our praise and thanksgiving God gives back to us to make our lives Eucharistic, lives of thanksgiving. God blesses our monetary gifts, multiplies them, and returns them to our hands so that we might use them to bless those in need of bread and the Bread of Life. 

In the Small Catechism, Luther says God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done without our prayer, but we ask that these “may also come about in and among us.”

Prayer: Even so, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.” You have blessed us this day with your gifts. Turn us to be a blessing to others. Amen.

The Life That Really Is Life

Rev. David Heim

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
(1 Timothy 6:17-19)

For many years, my wife and I have received a Christmas letter from a former neighbor, now in her 80s, updating us on her life. The letter is invariably about her involvements in her church, her housing association, service agencies, and political campaigns.

Each year, I put down the letter thinking: what a rich life for a person of any age—rich in good works and rich in sharing life with others. Habits of generosity she learned long ago continue to shape her. Or as the writer of First Timothy would say, she is “taking hold of the life that really is life.”

That line about “the life that really is life” is one I keep returning to. Who doesn’t long for a life that is the opposite of false, empty, and inauthentic? Though the passage starts out as a rebuke to the wealthy for being arrogant and trusting in riches, which are fleeting, it ends with a gracious invitation to take hold of the life truly worth living.

As I think about our friend’s Christmas letter and about these words of scripture, it seems clear that the capacity to be generous grows out of being part of communities in which we recognize our dependency on each other and on God.  The ultimate foundation for such a way of life is hope in God, and every generous deed helps build up our storehouse of hope.

Prayer: Generous God, help us to set our hopes on you that we might truly live. Amen.

Costly Generosity

Dr. Jill Peláez Baumgaertner

We want you to know, brothers and sisters about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. (2 Corinthians 8:1-7)

In this letter Paul describes the generosity of very poor but overwhelmingly generous congregations in Macedonia. At the Jewish feast of Purim there is a regulation that however poor a person is, he or she must find someone poorer and give that person a gift. My friend Lizzie, who made her living cleaning houses, did not have any wealth. She could barely read and write. She was a single mother of two until her 16-year-old son was killed by a gunshot. That left her, her daughter, and her daughter’s baby—oh, yes, and Lizzie even took in the baby of a friend who could not care for the child herself. Every year at Thanksgiving Lizzie had open house all day—for anyone from the neighborhood who wanted to come:  she would pile her table high with the food she had spent several days preparing. She’d bring them all in and feed them until they were satisfied—Lizzie, who didn’t own a car, who had nothing, gave everything she had.

Giving alms means making the needs of others our own, especially the needy of our world. And they are here—all around us. We don’t have to go far to find them:  children, the elderly, the sick, the suffering, our next-door neighbors. What can we give them?  Our time, our talent, the food they need, the money that will help them out of a pinch. Whatever we give, however, should be something that costs us—not because we are trying to work out our salvation with good works—but because costly generosity is the only appropriate response to the gift of Life that Christ has given us.

Prayer: Lord God, help us to do better—to recognize the needs of others and to respond to them, realizing that we exist for others and to glorify you. In Christ’s name, Amen.                                                                                                                      

An Authentic Response

M. Daniel Carroll
Scripture Press Ministries Professor of Biblical Studies and Pedagogy
Wheaton College

In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:1-4)

Lent usually is associated with personal sacrifice, with abstaining from something that we feel has become too important in our lives. In addition to that pledge, there is the challenge of fasting, so countercultural in our consumer society. This self-deprivation sets the tone for repentance and serious reflection for Holy Week.

For the salvation gained at the cross we also are grateful. Lent entails, then, outward looking spiritual disciplines, through which we express our thanks tangibly for God’s grace by sharing with those in need. Authentic reverence is inseparable from charity. Almsgiving is an ancient practice that may be new to us. We may find examples of it in surprising places.

This story in our reading is one such example. What impact would it have had on first century readers? Cornelius is a commander of the occupying imperial army! But he was a God-fearer and a generous almsgiver, whose alms pleased God. The text does not say what Cornelius shared with others, but the people spoke well of this Gentile’s liberality. A worthy model to imitate!

This encounter with Cornelius also afforded Peter the opportunity to testify of the Good News. Through almsgiving we provide material necessities, but it also may open doors to confess the One whom we celebrate at Lent. Give and be prepared to be surprised!

Prayer: Father, teach us to be charitable to the needy in the name of the Crucified and Risen Christ. Soften our hearts, loosen our tongues. Amen.

An Act of Justice

Dr. Laura Merwin

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”  (Luke 21: 1-4)

Almsgiving is an act of justice: in a world where no goods are equally distributed, almsgiving is an effort to rectify this imbalance.

It is also an act of mercy: the almsgiver does not ask whether the recipient deserves their contribution.

But even the most creative philanthropists and generous billionaires have failed—and will always fail—to establish on this earth true justice and perfect mercy. Only God has this power.

Yet Jesus could not have been clearer in his appeal, his demand, that we care for the poor. In almsgiving, he urges us to emulate—however poorly—the gift of grace that has been given to us. We are asked, in short, to contribute to building the kingdom of God.

I can’t pretend to understand what the widow was thinking when she put her two copper coins in the box. I suspect she was under no illusion as to the ultimate power of her contribution to change her society, to do anything more than briefly relieve one or two lives. But her small act joins her with other almsgivers in her time and ours, and all of us to the ultimate source of justice and mercy. When we pray thy kingdom come, it isn’t a prayer of passivity—it’s a commitment to see, to the best of our limited ability, that the kingdom does come.

Prayer: Dear God, only with your aid and in your name do we dare to take on the task of building your kingdom. Help us to do it humbly and faithfully. Amen,

Prayer-our giving to God

Dr. Carl Schalk

While he [Jesus] was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you. (Luke 11: 37-41)

Many people think of Lent as a time to “give up” something—a favorite dessert or too much television. Such superficial examples usually make little difference in our life. Martin Luther in his Small Catechism suggests “adding” a daily discipline of prayer he calls Morning and Evening Blessing.  Both follow the same outline, are simple, direct, and consist of four points:

  • Make the sign of the cross, invoking God’s name into which we are baptized: “God the Father, Son (+), and Holy Spirit, watch over me. Amen.’”
  • Say the Apostles Creed and/or the Lord’s Prayer.
  • Say the prayer for Morning and Evening Blessing

Luther concludes: “You are to go to your work joyfully” [Morning Blessing] or “go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.” [Evening Blessing].

This spiritual exercise begins with acknowledging the God in whose name we were baptized, leads to confessing the faith of the universal Church, and proceeds to the prayer in which our Lord teaches us how to pray, concluding with a prayer of thanks for the day and /or protection through the coming night. This regular discipline moves us beyond an understanding of prayer as simply asking for things. Instead, it moves us to understand prayer as being shaped to God’s ends and purposes, not something which we use to shape God to our ends.

Luther’s Morning and Evening Blessings may be used individually or as a family devotion. Recited aloud at a modest pace, they allow time for the words to penetrate our thoughts. They are a rich spiritual exercise for Lent or, as Luther suggests, for every morning and evening.

Prayer for morning:   I thank you, my Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, your dear Son, that you have kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray that you would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please you. For into your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.

Prayer for evening: I give thanks to you, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously protected me today, and I ask you to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously protect me tonight. For into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine.  Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me.  Amen.

No Expectations

Gwen Gotsch

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4)

“Beware,” says Jesus, of “practicing your piety before others to be seen by them.” Let your almsgiving “be done in secret.” There is no heavenly reward for sharing your wealth with others when you do it in a way that’s meant to draw attention to yourself.

What is Jesus getting at? Is it simply that showing off is in bad taste? Or that true piety and true charity are their own reward? I think there’s more at stake here. Jesus is saying something about how we are called to live together in God’s new kingdom.

Giving can be surprisingly complicated. Givers have power, since they have something of value to give, and they may have expectations about how gifts are to be used. Recipients may feel an uncomfortable obligation that can be discharged only by giving something of equal value in return, or by showing deference and respect for the giver. Thus almsgiving (and piety as well) can be weaponized and used to reinforce who’s up and who’s down, who has power and who does not. 

Don’t go down that road, says Jesus. This is not how things work in the kingdom of God. Give your alms in secret. Don’t even make a show for yourself. Just send your gifts on their way to do the work of caring for all, so that all may flourish equally and the dignity of each child of God, have and have-not, is treasured and sustained.

Prayer: Lord of all, help me to be generous and selfless as I serve you and the people of your kingdom. Amen.

Living for Community

This week we focus on almsgiving. This word comes from the Greek eleemosyne meaning “mercy” or “pity.” It is charity given to the needy as an expression of gratitude to our Maker for the gift of grace.  It usually takes the form of monetary or food donations.

Rev. Robert Burke

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11)

It’s mid-November, in the midst of a spiking coronavirus pandemic, as this devotion is being written. Since mid-March, our usual celebrations of Easter, graduations, national holidays and family weddings, baptisms, confirmations and funerals have mostly been virtual. Thanksgiving and Christmas will have a different feel this year.

To slow down the growth of the virus, we are asked to do simple things: wear a face covering, keep ourselves at least 6 feet from others and wash our hands often—acts of mercy, if you will. These actions will help protect us from others and—perhaps even more important—protect others from us!

Almsgiving—one of Lent’s disciplines—is an act of mercy. “Give liberally and be ungrudging in what you do” says our text. We understand that to include food and money for those who are poor and needy. In the context of the text, that’s true.

The pandemic has seriously affected life all over the planet. I would hope we have begun to learn that I am not the center of the universe. Those around me become the object of my continuing love and concern. What I do for them, liberally and ungrudgingly—whether with food or money, or by considering their physical welfare as a primary concern—is done because I respect the whole community.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, keep my heart open to be liberal and ungrudging in my love and concern for my neighbor in need. Amen

Self-Discipline

Scott Street

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)

Fasting is not something that comes to mind for many of us when we consider our spiritual growth.  If we do consider fasting, it is often for personal reasons such as improved fitness or weight loss.

Yet, maybe we should instead consider fasting as a normal part of our spiritual life. Jesus gave us specific instructions on how to properly fast in Matthew, chapter 6. The Bible also gives several examples of lengthy fasting: Moses before God provided the Ten Commandments, Elijah as he sought a new direction from God for his ministry and Anna as she waited in the temple for the Messiah. Both Moses and Elijah used this time of fasting for prayer and supplication at important times in their relationship with God.

We could do the same in this Lenten season as we’re humbled by our overwhelming gratitude for the grace provided by Christ’s sacrifice. Martin Luther says, “It is right to fast frequently in order to subdue and control the body. For when the stomach is full, the body does not serve for preaching, for praying, for studying, or for doing anything else that is good.” During Lent let’s look for the opportunity to deny ourselves food for a meal or for a day.  Instead of eating, let us use that time to pray and study the Bible to further our spiritual growth. 

Prayer: Lord, give me strength to deny myself that which I think is necessary and instead recognize what is truly important, gratitude for your abounding Grace.  Amen

Slow Down

Rev. Marnie Rourke

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved. (Matthew 9:14-17)

Slow down, you move too fast! Earlier Jesus is criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Now he is being challenged because his disciples were not fasting while the Pharisees were fasting, wanting the Messiah to come set them free right nowThe disciples weren’t fasting because their praying fingers were crossed, trusting that Jesus was the bridegroom who would soon save the world. Who knew their time for fasting would begin when the Last Supper was over? Or that it would feel like spiritual starvation standing beneath the Cross?

The crucifixion stops us dead in our tracks. Standing at the empty tomb makes us look back and wonder how everything happened so fast. When we stand at heaven’s gate looking back at our own journeys, we will see why it was that we didn’t have to move so fast. While we wait in faith, let us fast from busyness, slow down, and fast from worrying about tomorrow. Breathe. It is easier to eat less than it is to stop rushing through life. Fast, let go of the need to understand everything, and do it all. Make time to live in the moment, that the Holy Spirit may live in our hearts.

Prayer: Holy Spirit, take away our need to run too fast through life. Help us catch our breath, welcoming Christ’s peace. Remind us that Jesus has already won the race, and that we can always trust the future, because the future belongs to God. Amen.