Gift or Grasping

Gift or Grasping

“I’m just preaching to myself,” Pastor Bair–or PB for short–would say when people thanked him for his sermons. I now find that happens to me too, when I realize how much I needed to hear what I just said.

This very week–full of stress and anxiety and the temptations that come with them–I need to hear that this is our year of receiving. This reminder is helping me see these temptations for what they are and to repent.

The Opposite of Receiving

Last month I shared wisdom from Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann (see

). He describes the biblical call to repent and reorient like this: “waiting for land secures it and grasping land forfeits it… Self-securing seems to work and yet leads to death. Trust seems unlikely but holds promise.”

Remember, in his book, The Land, Bruggemann shows how the bible is the story not just of God and God’s people, but of God, God’s people, and God’s land. Land means literal earthly turf (a neighborhood, a congregation) with history, identity, and a people beyond us. And land symbolically means wholeness, life, and thriving community.

Bruggemann finds there an invitation to imitate and a call to repent. Imitate–God’s homeless people receiving the gift of God’s land. Repent–God’s landed people grasping after land, seizing it and securing it themselves by force or by piety and purity, with disastrous results.

God’s homeless people

In the Book of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah leave their land and home, trusting (and often doubting) God’s promise of a new place. These Genesis stories, Bruggemann says, “present the radical demand of God that the way of faith requires leaving a land and accepting landlessness as a posture of faith.” In Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Israel became sojourners–”being where one does not belong and cannot settle in and having to survive there, all because of a promise.”

The story of Israel as God’s homeless people continues during slavery in Egypt and Exodus. This is Israel as wanderer, when the promise of a land “was mostly forgotten in the press of the moment for survival.”

In another era, Lamentations and the prophets tell the story of  the time of exile. Exiled in Babylon, Jews “were displaced, alienated from the place that gave identity and security.” Worse–and maybe most resonate for our place and time–“none of the old traditions or conventional institutions any longer seem valid or trustworthy.” But at this lowest point, the promise of the land was reignited. “Faith is precisely for exiles who remember the land but see no way to it.”

God’s landed people

Of course, the Old Testament also tells of Israel settled in the land of promise, of the kings and temple. But “having land turned out to be nearly as great a problem and temptation as not having land.” Embodied in King Solomon, in one era, and the prophet Ezra, in another, Israel tried to secure the land and keep it. The kings did so through power, replicating the slavery of Egypt in Israel’s own land. And Ezra’s returned-from-exile community did so through piety and purity. “But they discovered that purity no more than power would keep the land.” God’s people became homeless again.

Repenting our Grasping Ways

During Lent, God calls us to repent, giving us in the story of God, God’s people, and God’s land a mirror to reveal our own sinful patterns.

Pride, anger, fear, pain, the need to belong are normal, common, and neutral–neither good nor bad in themselves. Only let these experiences remind us to trust in God and adopt a posture of receiving. This is easier said than done because to hold this posture is to bear the tension of having empty hands. Being God’s homeless people, sojourners and exiles. Lacking what we need or want. Holding only a promise.

But “waiting for land secures it and grasping land forfeits it.”

In other words, by grasping–in power or in piety/purity–we lose the very things we seek to secure–our nation, our planet, Zion’s future, our homes and families, our health, our neighborhoods, or anything else.

What a gift to receive these stories with their warnings and promises! And even more to receive Jesus Christ who walked the way of emptiness/homelessness/exile which truly is the way of receiving/life. In his death and resurrection, Christ resisted the grasping temptations and became the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Receiving is all there is to it.

Thanks be to God.

Pastor Clark Olson-Smith