Text of the sermon preached on Proper 23B (October 11, 2015) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you heard the Gospel lesson for today? Do you let your mind wander to the question of “Am I one of the rich people whose wealth will make it next to impossible to get into heaven?” This Gospel lesson is well known for being used as the stewardship sermon in the annual stewardship campaign. Have you ever heard this lesson used in a stewardship sermon in which the prescribed fix or remedy for wealth is to give it to the church, ensuring that God would look favorably on you? Sound a little familiar? But don’t worry. I’m not about to stand up here and tell you that the way into the Kingdom of Heaven is by pledging to our church or by being the person who is able to give the most money. It’s not what we do. Stepping up and pledging, is however, a good indicator of where you are in your spiritual journey.
Going back to giving it all to the church, did you know that if you go as far back as the early Church, there were suggestions that good graces and favors with God are obtained by sharing our wealth with the church. The burden of wealth is lifted, paving the way to heaven by the simple transfer of money or possessions. There was actually a time when it wasn’t just a suggestion — you could actually purchase the
indulgences that you needed or at least that the church told you you needed to get into heaven. If you were wealthy, you were blessed in many ways. If you were poor, you were just simply out of luck. This is why many people who were living on the margins may hear hope in the words “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” It suggests a certain promise of justice.
I don’t think anyone will be surprised when I say that the number of possessions or the amount of money we accumulate tends to define how successful we are in our society. And along with this success comes power. The power to choose how we live, where we live, and what we eat are among the many choices. Are we to accumulate wealth and give it all to the church or good causes in order to gain God’s favor? Can we find the answer in well-publicized gifts to good causes or in supporting our church?
This Gospel makes us squirm and feel discomfort, especially about wealth. It makes us feel guilty. Can there really be a trade off? Do this, and that will be the reward? Do you really think that Jesus meant what he said to the man in the Gospel? Are we supposed to sell all of our possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him? This is one of those moments when Jesus is being really clear, but our ears want to hear a more subdued version.
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Are we really supposed to believe that having wealth isn’t compatible with being a Christian?
This parable makes us begin to feel the conflict between being a person of faith who follows Jesus and the commandments while at the same time living by secular standards of success. This is one of the ethical challenges that we face in living as Christians. An answer for us may be found in stewardship, but not in a stewardship that is limited by giving money and possessions away. Rather, it may be in understanding stewardship as caring for all of creation. If we understand stewardship as a social justice issue that provides security for all, we might come closer to knowing what Jesus is calling us to do in this Gospel.
Jesus tells us that living a good life requires more than obeying the commandments. The commandments are specific in that they list the “do’s” and “don’ts”, but they are not all inclusive. There is more to living a Christian’s way of life than the ten commandments — loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. And when we love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, we naturally follow the commandments. With this in mind, the Gospel today points us to loving God and our neighbors: the two great commandments.
It isn’t that hard for us to name a couple of individuals whose lives modeled simplicity and obedience to the commandments. These individuals seem to be given hero status, for example, people such as St. Francis or Mother Theresa. It is incredibly hard for us to imagine living our lives as they lived. They are saints — we are not. It is unimaginable, impossible, or unrealistic to think of ourselves in this way. Yet, we are much closer to understanding the principles they lived by than we are willing to admit. What might be missing for us are the bold and radical actions that came out of loving God and their neighbors. Jesus gave us the best example of total surrender to God. Through bold and radical actions and words, Jesus trusted that God would provide. He humbled himself in faith and obedience.
When we are most genuine, our humility shines through all of the masks that the world paints over us and we wear. The masks of wealth and riches do not define us. Our possessions do not carry identity. However, these things can in fact get in the way of us being in relationship with one another and with God. These masks may be a barrier to the experience of surrender to God. And if we allow it, they may lead us into a false sense of security and self-reliance.
It is important for us to ask the hard questions. In fact, we have to ask the hard questions. Are we engaged in the just distribution of wealth because we participate in Outreach projects such as feeding and clothing the poor? If so, then how do we justify supporting wealthy corporations and companies whose practices are unjust, particularly in relationship to the poor?
Do we consider ourselves just and concerned about the environment, but continue to drink coffee out of styrofoam cups at coffee hour or from the gas station and we drive vehicles that are larger than we could ever need?
These are just a few of the hard questions. But they aren’t all of them.
We have to ask ourselves how justice is obtained concerning wealth. This is not an easy task, especially because it is one of the most power-producing or power-diminishing elements of our society. Money is such a taboo subject in our society. Money issues break many relationships, so why would we be surprised that it might strain or break our relationship with God?
What are the things that get between you and God? What in your life is so full to the brim that there is no more room for God? Where is the emptiness in your life that only the Spirit can fill? These are the questions that the rich man and Peter ask on our behalf in today’s Gospel lesson. And, these are the questions of Stewardship season because making a commitment to the church is to invest in the celebration that life is a gift from God. To invest in the church is to invest in the one community that is always and ever about helping people get closer to God.
I had a lot of time last week while I was sitting at the hospital with my dad to read different things. I read the story of a pastor out of Nashville who was retiring after 41 years of ministry. In his last Stewardship season at his church, with the wisdom of 41 years in ministry behind him, and no more slick stewardship slogans up his sleeve, he said something to his congregation many of you already know to be true. After 41 annual pledge efforts, and more than a few capital campaigns, he said, “I’ve seen everything…house-to-house calls, letters, telephone campaigns, challenges to tithe, banners, posters, fancy stationary, charts, graphs, movies, slides, skits, Bible studies, suppers, lunches, breakfasts, desserts, efforts to share, efforts to impart guilt, promises of eternal bliss, threats of hell-fire and damnation. I’ve seen it all. I’ve done it all…” the pastor said. But what a lifetime of ministry had finally taught him is that generosity simply comes out of people who have experienced the grace and goodness from God, which is always out of proportion to what we deserve.
“Awareness,” he told his congregation last fall, “deep awareness, of the abundant and undeserved goodness of God, is the only thing I know of that can elicit abounding generosity. Guilt won’t do it. Slick stewardship messages won’t do it. Shame won’t do it. Charts won’t do it. Letters won’t do it. Sermons won’t do it. But awareness, deep awareness, of the abundant and undeserved goodness of God — that will do it. Drive down the street on a fall day and feast your eyes on the colors. That’ll do it. Hold your newborn child or grandchild in your arms and feel those tiny fingers wrap around your thumb. That’ll do it. Listen to the doctor who, after long hours of surgery, reports that your loved one is going to be okay. That’ll do it. Look in the face of someone you love, and see a joyful smile. That’ll do it. Stand in this place any Sunday joining your voice with others, singing of God’s tenderness. God’s forgiveness. God’s love. God’s care. That’ll do it. Look around you at the faces of those with whom you worship this morning. Linger over one or two who have been an important part of your life, who have loved you, encouraged you, inspired you, forgiven you. That’ll do it. Be aware. Allow yourself to fully appreciate the abundance that is yours and your generosity will overflow.”
My friends, in the next couple of weeks you will receive your pledge cards in the mail. As you prayerfully consider stepping up and committing your time, talent, and treasure to St. Cornelius in preparation for filling out your pledge card, remember the rich man. Remember that making a commitment to the church is to invest in the celebration that life is a gift from God.
Our covenant with God to love one another requires that we consider our choices and our actions. The awareness of our neighbors is the first step toward understanding what the Gospel is calling us to do. Jesus teaches us that surrendering the false security of wealth makes us good stewards of all of creation. The simplicity of good stewardship is the uncluttered state, which may allow us to pass through the eye of that needle.