Transactions and Relationships

Sermon for Sunday, February 16, 2020 || Epiphany 6A || Deuteronomy 30:15-20

This sermon is about the love of God, but it’s going to take me a few minutes to get there. First I need to talk about chores. When I was young, I had certain chores that I did because my parents paid me to do them and other chores I did simply because I was a member of the family and members of the family do the dishes when it’s their turn. Do the dishes, pick up after yourself, clean your room, wash your laundry – these chores came with no financial incentive. These chores lived within the relational currency of my family. I did them because to be a member of my family meant I had to do my part. But mowing the lawn – they paid me to do that. There is no way I would have mowed the lawn without the promise of gas money when I was done. 

(For a long time, I was too small and weak to start the lawnmower. I had to back it up against the front step, strap my watchband to the safety bar so the mower was active, and then grip the pullstring and run as fast as I could away from the mower to turn it on. I can’t imagine what the neighbors thought I was doing.)

Unlike the family chores, mowing the lawn was a simple transaction between client and provider. I cut the grass. My dad gave me ten bucks. I might as well have been the kid from down the street with the after school lawn care business. This early glimpse of capitalism formed me. I work. I get paid. Other people work. They get paid. From that formative experience, I assumed the world was built on transactions. Society was built with an “I scratch your back, you scratch mine,” tit-for-tat, quid pro quo mentality.

It really wasn’t until I got married that I started to unlearn this mentality. Until then, the romantic relationships I had been involved in were pretty immature – which makes sense, because I was pretty immature. I’m sure you’ve all been there: anxious about what gift to buy and if you spend too much money then you’re signaling you want a bigger commitment and if you spend too little then you’ll look like you don’t care and you really should try to spend about the same amount (which you won’t disclose to each other) so you both feel okay at the end of a really stressful Christmas!

That type of relationship is built solely on transactions, on trading this for that. You purchase the thing so you get something you want in return. Whatever love might be hidden in such a relationship is smothered by the need not to become indebted to the other.

A mature relationship, on the other hand, does not keep track of transactions. The concept of transactions doesn’t even apply. When you share a bank account it doesn’t matter who pays the check. The relationship is a good of its own, a good that both partners share in. They share. They don’t trade. The mature couple is relational, not transactional.

I’m spending time on this today because of a common misunderstanding about our walks with God – a misunderstanding that our relationships with God are quid pro quo’s, are transactional. We can see it in our reading from Deuteronomy. Moses says, “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”

This sounds like a quid pro quo: Obey God’s commands and THEN the Lord your God will bless you. Do you see the transaction here? I mow the lawn. Dad gives me ten bucks. We obey. God blesses.

We see the transaction because our society trains us to think transactionally. But what if we cast off this training and thought relationally instead? If we did that, we would see something else in Moses’s words. We would see that observing God’s commands is the way that we participate in God’s blessings. It’s not that God withholds blessings until we meet some sort of threshold of obedience. God blesses us so that we can be obedient. God blesses us so that we can be loving. God blesses us so that we become capable of walking in God’s ways.

When we flip this particular script away from a transactional understanding of faith, we see that God is always the motivator of faith. We never compel God to do anything. God always has the initiative. Put another way, God is always showering blessings upon us – that’s just how the God of love works. We are not worthy of these blessings, but worth is a transactional term. Remember, God cares about relationships, not transactions. So we might not feel worthy of God’s blessings, but those blessings are open to us just the same.

We see this dichotomy between a transactional and a relational understanding of God in how we try to explain Jesus’ death on the cross. One popular theory says that God needed Jesus to stand in for us to pay the price of our sin. For those of you keeping score, that’s called penal substitutionary atonement theory – and it’s very transactional. Another way of understanding the cross is to see Jesus’ death as the natural outcome of his standing in solidarity with the oppressed of the land and his unwillingness to meet violence with violence. This is a relational understanding of the cross, and it resonates with who I believe God to be.

So when we think about our relationships with God, I invite you to unlearn the transactional nature of society. See in the God of love  a yearning for Creation to live relationally, not counting credits and debits but living together in all things.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu preached this whole sermon in two short sentences. I know I’ve quoted them before, but it’s too good not to close this sermon with them again. Tutu says this: “God does not love us because we are lovable. We are lovable because God loves us.”

The love of God comes first. The love of God always comes first. Because love is God’s primary motivator, we can make love our primary motivation. Our love, which comes from God, happens through fostering life-giving relationships, not through mere transactions. And as God invites us deeper and deeper into such life-giving relationships, God transforms us into the blessings we were always meant to be – blessings that don’t count the cost, but share always the abundance of God’s love.

The Podcast for Nerdy Christians is back for Season 2, and is available wherever you download your podcasts. Episode 3 of Season 2 is out today, and it’s all about redemption in Return of the Jedi. Check it out here and find the podcast on Facebook. You can also subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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