Sermon: Gifts and Wages

Purple orchids - God loves them first, too.

March 8, 2020
Second Sunday in Lent

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

by Eric Anderson

There is something comforting about a paycheck, isn’t there?

First of all, a paycheck increases the chances of paying the bills and putting food on the table – though that’s not a given. According to the Living Wage Calculator at MIT, in a family of four with two adults working, both adults need to be earning $15.33/hour full time to meet their expenses. If only one adult is working, the living wage is $29.88/hour. Minimum wage is just $10.10 an hour.

That’s a far less comforting paycheck.

If you are bringing in a survivable income, however, there’s something else comforting about a paycheck. There’s some affirmation in it, isn’t there? You have accomplished something of worth, and here’s a tangible sign of it. Your work is valuable. Your skills are valuable. You are valuable.

You can read God’s summon to Abram in Genesis 12 as being an invitation to earn a truly remarkable wage. Leave your home and family, God said, and I will give you a new land. In that land I will build you a new family. In that land your family will become an entire nation. In that land you will be so blessed as to share that blessing with the entire world.

I don’t know if we can call that a maximum wage, but it’s certainly better than a minimum wage, isn’t it?

Sure enough, after Abram made his home in the lands later to be known as Israel, these things happened. He grew rather wealthy. He had children, including a son born rather miraculously from his wife Sarai. They both got new names from God: Abraham and Sarah. They became ancestors of a nation.

Centuries later, however, the Apostle Paul did not appreciate the logic of a fair, or even an astonishingly generous, divine wage. He had his reasons.

The question before him, before the church in Rome, and indeed before the newly forming Christian Church around the Mediterranean, was this: who could become one of the People of the Way? Who could be admitted, and who must be excluded? What did a person need to do in order to become a full participant in the community of Jesus?

Today the answer seems pretty obvious. Step up and join the Church, we say. Have you been baptized? No? Well, we can baptize you. There’s some things we think you should learn and some things we think you should do. We’ll teach you ahead of time, and because we believe you never stop learning, we’ll teach you as we go. Just step up and join the Church. Easy.

In Paul’s day, however, there was a significant barrier. These young churches didn’t consider themselves part of a new religion, not yet. They were Jews. They might be reformers, but they were reforming the ancient faith of Abraham and Sarah. So men needed to go through the same procedure that Abraham had, and that Abraham’s son Isaac had, and that Abraham’s grandson Jacob had: a little surgery called circumcision.

Judaism had not been a faith determined to expand through conversion, but the early Christians understood it differently. They saw in Jesus an access to God’s grace that had to be communicated and extended to the wider world. It was not merely important, it was important and it was urgent. This was the opportunity for all people to be blessed by the descendants of Abraham.

Oddly enough, most of the Greek, Egyptian, and Roman men of the first century did not want to be circumcised in order to adopt this new religion. As intriguing as God’s grace sounded – and it did sound intriguing – surgery came with high risks in the first century, risks far higher than shaking hands with one another today.

Paul recognized that it was too high a barrier for the ambitions of the church of Jesus Christ.

Sarah Henrich writes at Working Preacher, “The question wrestled with in this text is simply, ‘how big is Abraham’s family?’ The answer Paul offers, derived from his reading of Genesis 15:5, is that Abraham’s family is as big as the numbers of persons who have faith in God. Jews are part of the family to be sure. So are Gentiles who believe that God has rescued them through the obedience (crucifixion and resurrection) of Jesus.”

Paul turned away from a notion that Abraham earned the blessings God showered upon him by virtue of his actions. He concentrated his thoughts rather on who took the initiative. Who acted first? Whose idea was it to bless this family with a new home, with prosperity, and with descendants?

Who? Why, God, of course.

J. R. Daniel Kirk writes at Working Preacher, “In this way, Romans 4:1-5 fits with the argument about Gentile inclusion in the people of God. The big point isn’t that Abraham didn’t do anything [full stop]. The big point is that Abraham did not have to perform the actions, such as circumcision, that demarcated Israel as God’s unique, covenant people prior to God recognizing him as righteous and faithful.”

God took the first step.

Since God took the first step, Paul argued, we must not place an obstacle for the second step.

There is something comforting about wages. They provide us with the necessities of life. They affirm us in our worth as doers and workers. There is something comforting about thinking about spiritual things as wages, too. We follow the directives of God, and we receive blessings in return. We receive affirmation of our worth as human beings.

It’s lovely except for one thing: God doesn’t seem to work that way.

God offers the blessings first.

Paul knew this better than anyone. Paul’s first relationship with the Christian movement, remember, had been to suppress it. He had spoken against it, no doubt. He had encouraged the arrest and even execution of its leaders. He had sought authority to pursue them with law. Then he had a vision of Jesus and the world changed.

As Lucy Lind Hogan writes at Working Preacher: “Paul had experienced God’s amazing, unbelievable, overflowing love and forgiveness. How could God, in Jesus Christ, have forgiven him for all the evil that he had done? How could God accept the one who had sought to murder the disciples of Jesus? Because that is who our God is. For Paul, justification by grace was a theological concept only after it had been a life changing, throw-you-to-the-ground, awe-filled experience. God had offered him new life, and he had believed.”

The bad news, my friends, is that you can’t work your way into the grace of God. You can’t earn it. You can’t buy it with money, blood, sweat, or tears. As important as our faithful discipleship is – and it is important – our relationship with God is not one in which we earn a living, or even an eternally living wage. No. We’re not earning a paycheck.

The good news, my friends, is that God’s grace comes first. Before our work, before our faithfulness, before our baptism, before we think of God at all, God’s grace comes first. It’s a gift, a wondrous, stunning, miraculous gift.

In this gift we are assured of all that our spirits will need. In this gift we are assured that God loves us.

God loved us first. God loves us now. God will love us into eternity.

I asked the Holy One, not once but time
and time again, to tell me what is first
and prime. The sound of silence breathed to me,
“Grace. Grace is first, and last, and everything.”

I might have raised a voice in protest to
the silent breath, to claim the privilege
of suffering for faith, through faith, in faith.
“Grace. Grace is first, and last, and everything.”

Have I not traveled farther in my span
of years than Abraham in his? Might I
not claim the mantle of such righteousness?
“Grace. Grace is first, and last, and everything.”

But breathed the silent syllables: “Did you
devise yourself, beloved child? Did you
create the feet you set upon the road?
Grace. Grace is first, and last, and everything.”

Blessed be the Holy One who makes to be
the things that were and things that have not been.
Blessed be the One whose sound of silence breathes:
“Grace. Grace is first, and last, and everything.”


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Gifts and Wages

Let’s call it a gift that Pastor Eric improvises during the sermon, shall we?

“Hold the Complexity” by Eric Anderson originally published at:

Photo by Eric Anderson.

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on March 8, 2020

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