Living when off the map

This year St Dunstan’s (Madison WI) developed its Vacation Bible School around the Book of Tobit and the two Sundays after VBS bumped the normal Old Testament readings to continue the focus. I was invited to preach on the second of these two Sundays.

Readings: Tobit 14:3-4a, 5-8; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

How do you live when you’re off the map? Moses had provided a pretty clear map: live righteously and you’ll prosper in the land; live unrighteously and you’ll lose the land. But when you’re off the land through no particular fault of your own, what then? So it’s not surprising that we encounter a number of stories about that in the Old Testament: Joseph (minus his technicolor dreamcoat) in Egypt, Esther in Persia, Tobit in Assyria. The Joseph and Esther stories have a certain fairy-tale quality to them: Joseph becomes the #2 man in Egypt; Esther wins the beauty contest and marries the king. Tobit, after achieving some success in exile, gets bird poop in his eyes and goes blind, the loss which kicks off the main story in the book that eventually results in Tobit regaining his sight.

How do you live when you’re off the map? In addition to telling us a rollicking good story, complete with a carnivorous fish, a damsel in distress, and an angel in disguise, the book gives serious attention to that question. This morning we’ll look at two elements in its answer: bless God and give alms.

Bless God

God blessing us: we’re used to that idea. In the catholic (small c) tradition we believe that priestly ordination authorizes the priest to convey God’s blessing to us, and so we leave each Mass with “the blessing of God Almighty” ringing in our ears and working its way into our very selves. Scripture takes blessing as a given and so doesn’t define it. An approximate definition might include God’s presence, God’s generosity, health, fertility, success in ways designed to benefit us and those around us.

That’s important in Tobit. But Tobit focuses on our blessing God. We heard it in our first reading: “to be mindful of God and to bless his name at all times with sincerity and with all their strength.” It shows up at the beginning of some well-known psalms (Ps 103, 104). What’s that about? It’s like praise, but more oriented to the future: God’s reign really is beautiful; may it grow and expand! It’s like thanksgiving, but not tied to something specific I’ve or we’ve received.

We Christians haven’t done much with this, but our Jewish brothers and sisters have, and their practice might enrich ours. A Jewish prayer book puts it this way: “A berachah acknowledges God as the “Source” of whatever we eat or enjoy, or whatever natural marvels excite our awe.… The blessing makes us conscious that nothing in nature is to be taken for granted…” [1]

So there’s a blessing before drinking wine or grape juice:

Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

One for seeing beautiful trees or animals:

Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the universe, who has such as these in His world.

One for hearing good news:

Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the universe, who is good and beneficent.

One for hearing bad news:

Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the universe, the true judge.

You get the idea. For the vision behind the practice we might look to Psalm 19. It starts:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the firmament shows his handiwork.

It continues in this vein for a number of lines. The heavens clearly their act together. What about us? Notice how the psalm ends:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Blessing God is one of the quite lovely ways this can play out.

One more thing about this before I move on. Part of most people’s consciousness is this running series of responses that plays as a sort of sound track throughout the day, approving of this, disapproving of that, being anxious about this, being relieved about that. The practice of blessing God can be part of that running series, helping our responses to be more mindful, more realistic, perhaps less anxious.

Give alms

We heard that in our first reading too: “Your children are also to be commanded to do what is right and to give alms…”

What’s that about? In the last month or so our first reading has been from the prophets, Amos and Hosea. In coming weeks we’ll get a good dose of Jeremiah. And one of the primary prophetic themes is God’s passionate concern for the poor, God’s anger at how the poor are getting crushed. That anger explains why Tobit is in exile in Nineveh rather than home in the Upper Galilee. And the prophets were speaking directly to the folk in power, the folk who could do something about it:

Cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isa 1:16b-17 NRS)

But in exile, or in the bowels of some foreign empire the possibilities for doing something about it are severely limited, so God’s passionate concern for the poor translates into the repeated exhortation to give alms. Give, that is, to those at the bottom, to those who have no realistic prospect of paying you back or returning the favor.

The language for this practice is important: that “give alms” that we heard could be translated more literally as “do mercy.” “Doing mercy” is, of course, broader than giving alms, and in Tobit includes Tobit’s dangerous practice of burying discarded bodies. But “doing mercy” often, from context, means “giving alms” and that’s important because it connects the mercy we hope to receive from God with the mercy we’re exhorted to show to those who need it.

Being in exile makes it difficult to follow the Law’s commands regarding gifts for the sanctuary. And in exile the faithful connect those commands with almsgiving. So earlier in Tobit we hear Tobit tell his son Tobias:

Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High. (4:11)

This shows up in other writings of this period (Sirach), and lies behind some of Jesus’ teaching on almsgiving:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Mat 6:19-20)

We, probably, are at a point somewhere between the prophets’ audience and Tobit’s audience. We have some power to “do something about it” with regard to the condition of the poor, and to that degree we need to listen to the prophets. But we often don’t have the power to do much, and to that degree we need to listen to Tobit, and pay attention to whether some of our resources are going into mercy, helping those in no position to return the favor. So Tobit is, alas, not particularly helpful for a capital gifts campaign, but very relevant when we pass the plate for the Middleton Outreach Ministry.

Bless God & Give alms

How do you live when you’re off the map? Bless God and give alms.

Looking at these two themes we might think of them as pointing to the twin virtues of gratitude and generosity. I could go on about this for a good stretch, but I’ll leave that for you in the coming week. Notice how many elements in our culture work against any sense of gratitude. Notice how nurturing gratitude, also through the practice of blessing God, helps us see our world more clearly. Notice how gratitude, in turn, frees us for generosity. The world is not zero-sum. God continually drenches the world with gifts. All of us have the privilege of blessing God for it, and mirroring God’s generosity in our own.

The privilege, that is, of doing so with Tobit and Anna, Raguel and Edna, Tobias and Sarah. And that’s not bad company.

[1] The Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (1998) 742.

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