Opening Our Hands
Oct 1st: Scripture Lesson: Deut 15:1-11 Laws concerning the Sabbatical Year Sermon: Open Hands
There is an old tale about how to catch a monkey. All one has to do is tie a string around a jar with a banana in it. The jar has to have an opening that is large enough to slip the banana in, large enough for the monkey to put their hand in, but small enough that when the monkey goes to take the banana out, has made a fist and won’t let the banana go. So the monkey ends up with a hand stuck in a jar, and you caught them!
In our lesson today, God calls us to let go of some of our misunderstandings of the poor, and open our hands to assist.
But first, some reality checks about the poor in our area. In a recent survey conducted by the Tri County Community Action organization, who service the counties of Dauphin, Cumberland, and Perry, they asked the following question to their clients: What are the biggest challenges facing individuals or families?
Here are the top results:
1.Inability to afford quality and/or safe housing
2. Lack of reliable and/or affordable transportation
3. Not enough household income to meet basic needs
4. Untreated Mental Health Issues
5. Drug/alcohol use and/or addiction within the home (see number 4).
6. Lack of affordable childcare.
7. High crime in neighborhoods.
8. Lack of funding for services and support to assist with numbers 1-7.
Times are tough, as I am sure you are aware. And we as the church are called and summoned to help with such needs. That calling was given in ancient times, long before Jesus called us to love one another or taught about the good Samaritan. In the beginning of God’s formation of God’s nation of Israel, God called the people to open their eyes, their hands, their hearts. Hear the text again: If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. — Deuteronomy 15:7-8
Here’s the background to this text. Some of you familiar with your Hebrew Bible ,know that it is in Exodus that we read that Moses spent time with God at Mt Sinai and received the 10 commandments, along with other rules and guidance as to the laws of the land that God wanted Moses and the newly freed Israelites to keep. The book of Leviticus tells even more of those laws in details. And yet, we hear them again in Deuteronomy because that name means “second law”, in other words, Moses gives the law a second time to the Israelites. This time to the second generation of the free Israelites that had escaped from Egyptian enslavement.
Moses not only tells the law in Deuteronomy, he shares their history, and explains the commandments and laws God gave. The purpose in doing so is because this second generation is about to do what the first generation could not, that is go into the promised land.
When the first generation heard these laws, they rebelled, and ended up getting lost and wandering for 40 years, even though they were pretty close at one point to where God was sending them. But now, their children have been given the task to go and claim God’s land, God’s nation, and they will form the people that will represent God to the world.
So Moses speaks to the second generation beginning with the governing rules and the lessons on what will bring blessings to their name and God’s. Such as living a life of generosity and compassion. Verse 1 “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts.” This is known as the Sabbatical Year. Sabbatical comes from “Sabbath” which is a day dedicated to God, to strengthen your relationship with God.
God called for a Sabbatical year for the Israelites to strengthen their relationship with God and with others by forgiving debts, which meant obligations. It could have been financial obligations of owing someone money; it could have been an obligation of service to your community; or being indebted to a friend or neighbor who helped you out. And yes it included forgiving one’s obligation with slavery, so all servants would be freed with
no debts. Whatever debt it was, whatever obligation each person had, God wanted to release the person from it, and wipe the slate clean.
Why do you think God commanded this forgiveness of debt? One reason is found in verse 4, 4 There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy,”. God did not want to see any of God’s children suffer or lack in need. God was forming a new land, a new kingdom, a new way of life to show others what God can do, and what God hopes for God’s children to do too. And notice that is the key here, verse 5 states, 5 if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today. Which is the second reason God commanded this forgiveness, to help the people follow God’s will.
God told Moses, there do not have to be poor, there do not have to be hungry, or scared, or lost in Israel, so long as everyone follows God’s will and God’s way, it won’t occur. And notice they are told to offer this assistance not just to each other but their neighbors too, the non-Israelites as well. Verse 11 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.’ Moses shares this with the first generation, and they ignore it and end up lost for 40 years. How does the second generation handle this idea of the Sabbatical year? According to ancient Hebrew commentaries, the Sabbatical year was ignored. Their explanation was that by doing so, by forgiving a debt in the Sabbatical year, it “simply meant lengthening the term for repayment”. 1 They obviously did not understand that God was not asking them to put the debt on hold, rather God was calling them to release each other from their obligations, their debts.
God wanted to do something radical. God wanted the world to understand that the people of God represent God, and as such, are not people who hold over one another, rather they are to be the people who reveal God in what God has done for us, forgiven us of our debts, and simply welcomed all to be loved and nurtured and cared for.
Even the first generation of the wandering Israelites experienced such forgiveness. Time and time again, they turned from God, and time and time again, God welcomed them back, but they kept their hand held in a jar to the past, didn’t they? They kept complaining and saying they were better off enslaved. They simply couldn’t break free from what they knew and were familiar with, and so they would not be the ones to go form God’s nation.
But the second generation tried, and some did follow God’s will and way. There were times when ancient Israel obeyed God’s way. But more times they did not.
With time, God needed someone else to reveal God’s forgiveness, love, nurturing, and caring, and God did so in a radical way that forever changed the way of the world. Forever changed our way of living in this world. As the followers of Jesus Christ, as his body of believers, the church, we continue what he revealed, we portray a God who loves and nurtures and cares for all people, Verse 10, 10 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. In other words, our work of helping, assisting, caring, becomes fully blessed only when it blesses others. And who needs those blessings the most? The people who we mentioned at the beginning of this message.
Those without quality and/or safe housing
Those lacking a reliable and/or affordable transportation
Those hungry and cold and naked.
Those mentally and emotionally distraught.
Those who attempt to escape their reality through addictions.
Those without affordable childcare.
Those experiencing high crime in their neighborhoods.
Support and assistance for all of the above.
1 C. F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament. P.376
So church, if God originally called us to have that sabbatical year of forgiveness our debts, what are we going to do?
Well, I will share some ways this church is addressing these concerns. Like right now, a team of our members are working in Appalachia Kentucky, putting on a new roof and fixing up flooring to provide a secure and warm home to a family. And I know you are faithful in making donations to the local food banks, some of you work there on a regular basis. We also have a local Al-Anon group that meets here, providing support and encouragement to family members who have alcohol or drug addicted loved ones. And our after school program is filled to the brim, meeting the needs of families or single parents who have a challenging time caring for their children due to shift work or medical needs for themselves or other loved ones. And we charge $5 a day.
Finally, it is in your giving, your tithes and offerings that you submit, that are passed onto groups like Love Inc, The Food Banks, The After School program, that work to help eliminate debts of those struggling the most.
Today is World Communion Sunday, a day when Christians all over the world receive the bread and cup as a means of God’s forgiveness of our debts, so that we may feel encouraged, empowered, to go and help others become forgiven of their debts too. Which means when we receive the bread and the juice, we say yes to the year of Sabbatical, yes to center on God and God’s way, yes to pardoning, ourselves and others; and we say yes to the work of blessing; to being God’s people whose hands are open to give others what they need in the name of God.
Let us pray: Creator God, you made us in your image, with varied hues of skin, hair, and eyes, of varied heights and widths, with differing talents and gifts. Yet all of us are beautiful in your sight. We give you thanks for calling us to be your children. And we thank you for sending Jesus Christ to live among us. In his time on earth, Jesus reached out to all persons, poor and rich, children, women and men, Gentile and Jew, sick and marginalized. And he taught us to do the same, to live with unique gifts and particularities, yet in harmony with you and with each other. We ask your Holy Spirit to come to us and bless each of us at this holy table of communion, that as we received Your forgiveness of our debts, we may grow into your body, united in your love, to bring your reconciling peace and healing to the whole world. For these hopes and for all your promises given and kept, we give you thanks, in Jesus’ name. Amen. 2
Offering Invitation: Connectional giving – all of us giving together – is fuel for ministry. It enables us to share the concerns of many people and is established on the desire to meet the needs of ALL God’s people.
The United Methodist Church's special giving structure ensures your generosity blesses as many people as possible in sustainable, strategic ways.
When you give to the World Communion fund, you enable vital ministries that change the world, one life at a time with 100% of your gift going directly to the need.
Offerings collected in United Methodist churches on World Communion Sunday are used to fund scholarships for young scholars and seminarians. Donations equip racial and ethnic-minority students in the United States and international students to transform the church and communities.
Today is an opportunity to not only support our local church and its ministries, but also the World Communion offering which funds education for diverse church leadership in the UMC.
2 https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/3273/world-communion-sunday-helps 09/30/2023