Good Teacher?

Preachers have only now begun to recuperate after yesterday’s triennial tap-dance around the divorce text when a young rich man comes running up to Jesus, falls at his feet, and cries out, “Good teacher.”  Good teacher?  Did he not hear what went down earlier in Mark 10?  Good teacher?  Is he not aware of what Jesus is about to do to him and to preachers for the next several thousand years?  Good teacher?

After a quick rebuke from Jesus, the rich man, seemingly no longer on the ground in front of Jesus, puffs up his chest, removes the good from his title and goes to to proudly claim that he has kept all of the commandments since his youth.  Good God man!?! Who in their right mind would make such a claim?  And yet, he does.  He boldly suggests that he has been able to keep all 10 of the Big-uns for as long as he’s been in control of his actions.  Good for him.

Jesus, no longer the good teacher, but now the teacher that the rich man needed, tells him that even in his faithfulness to the law, he is lacking something.  It seems it is that pesky first commandment.  You know, the one about having no other gods but God.  It seems the rich man has hoarded his wealth.  His possessions are his idol – his riches, his god – and so, if he is truly committed to living faithfully in the Kingdom of God, he must give it all up, give all his money to the poor, and follow Jesus.  In the words of old Hank Williams, Jr.

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That ain’t good, at all

It is easy, and quite tempting on the heels of last week’s text, to make this not-so-good teaching from Jesus exclusive to the rich man.  It’s be easier to say, “Jesus wanted him to sell everything, but Jesus didn’t understand late-stage capitalism, and you’re good.”  But, well, that’s probably not all true.  It would be difficult, and maybe a little tempting in a world built on scarcity, to say, “Yep, Jesus meant this for everyone.  To follow Jesus, you’ll have to sell it all, give it to the church (because the church is surely poor).”  But, that’s probably not all true either.

What the teacher, who we know to be good, seems to be saying to the rich man and to us, is that we do all kinds of bending over backwards to make sure God isn’t the God of everything in our lives.  We like to make it look like we’ve got this faith thing together, like we trust in Jesus, and like we are living in the Kingdom of God, but the hard reality is that all of us struggle to keep from making something else the god of our lives.  It might not be money for you.  It might be power, drugs, success, soccer practice, feelings, politics, or your resume.  There might be any number of things that are clamoring for you to hold on tight, lest God might come into your life and change your priorities.  What Jesus is inviting that rich man to experience is truth faith, letting go of everything he thought he could control, and trust fully in God.

That’s a teaching that might be hard, but it really is good.

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Free of Charge?

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It being the last day of the month, payday has arrived for the employees of Christ Episcopal Church.  I enjoy payday.  I suppose most people do.  There is, if only for a moment, infinite hope on payday.  “Imagine what I can do with this money,” I think to myself, before I sit down and pay the bills.  “Wow, that went fast,” is usually my next thought.

There is a certain irony in being a clergy person reading Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 on payday.  As the lesson opens up, Paul talks about his motivation for preaching the Gospel.  His story is about as profound as any.  It is clear that the man who was once a persecutor of the Gospel would have never decided on his own to follow Jesus.  No, for Paul, as for all of us, it is a calling.  The prodding of the Holy Spirit, a deep relationship with Jesus, and a yearning for the Kingdom of God have brought him to the place where he is willing to travel the known world and risk his life to proclaim the Good News.

His reward for faithfully following the call of God?  Well, I’ll let Paul tell us, “that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.”

Free of charge…

I am well paid.  Some days, I think I am too well paid, though my bank account does not reflect that thought, and if you tell my Vestry, I’ll say you are lying.  In more than a decade of being paid while working as a minister of the Gospel, I, like many of my sisters and brothers, have had to work out an understanding of what that means, and how it jives with these words from Paul to the Corinthians.  Others have worked out other understandings, and many pastors out there still follow Paul’s mode and work as 21st century tent makers.  What I have found helpful is the careful use of language.  If you are skeptical of organized religion, you might call it semantics, which I also understand.

We live in a world in which money must be offered in exchange for goods and services.  Over the years, clergy have been paid in various ways from currency to eggs, bread, meat, and wine, but now-a-days, we have to be paid in what former NFL wide receiver, Randy Moss calls “straight cash homie.”  Despite Paul’s own tendency to go without pay, he acknowledges the fact that even church leaders should be paid in 1 Timothy 5:17-18.  Where the challenge lies, I think, is divorcing pay from work done or tasks accomplished.  This is why I prefer to call the money paid to ordained clergy a stipend rather than a salary.

I am not paid by Christ Church to preach a good sermon or to visit someone in the hospital or to plan a decent liturgy.  I am paid by Christ Church so that I don’t have to work somewhere else while trying to follow God’s call to make disciples, preach the Gospel, and care for souls.  The difference is nuanced, and I get that, but I think it is important.  In line with Paul, I believe that clergy are not paid as a reward for preaching the Gospel.  Instead, we are paid in order to have the freedom to fulfill our obligation to preach the Gospel.  Either way, I’m glad its payday.

Maybe it is about money

Life in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast was fairly bare bones.  I don’t say this as a negative thing, but just stating the reality of the situation.  When the Dioceses of Alabama and Florida carved out the CGC in the late 1970s, they were very careful not to give away too much of their extra oil, to borrow an image from last week’s Gospel lesson.  Alabama kept Montgomery and all of its endowed funds.  Florida kept Tallahassee and all of its endowed funds.  Life in the CGC was pretty much lived congregational pledge payment to congregational pledge payment.  The same was true in Foley, a congregation barely 100 years old, built in a community that for the better part of 75 of those years was mostly small and agricultural.  In that context, the parable of the talents that we will hear on Sunday doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in terms of money.  If you don’t have silver talents to invest, you have to hear this story another way.

Over the past decade, I have read this story to be about other types of talents, be they art, numbers, music, wood-working, electrical, computer, or the rare-as-a-unicorn ability to work with middle school youth.  I stand by this reading valid.  I follow Paul’s teaching that we are each called to invest our gifts and talents for the building up of the Church, and to squander those gifts by hiding them in a hole, is to succumb to the sin of laziness.  Where I have been wrong in the past, however, is in suggesting that this parable might only be about these talents.

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Maybe it because the Finance Ministry Team will be ironing out the 2018 budget this afternoon, and I’ve been knee deep in endowment fund reports for the first time in my ministry, but now that I’m serving a congregation with some named funds that exists in a Diocese with the same, I’m beginning to realize that the parable of the talents might also actually be about the money entrusted to our care. and how we make wise investments of it for the up building of the Kingdom of God.  Just as we are called to be wise stewards of Creation, so too are we to make smart choices when it comes to the hard earned money that others leave, either through gift or bequest, to the Church for its long-term sustainability.  Part of those smart choices are ensuring the money is placed in sound investments with good long-term strategy.  The other part is making us of that income.  Nobody gives money to the Church so it can sit in a bank account and make interest for ever.  People give money to the Church for mission, for ministry, and for the in-breaking of the Kingdom.  As much as I don’t really like this parable being about real money, and as much as I know that it is not only about real money, I can no longer deny that yes, perhaps Jesus did have actual money in mind as he told his disciples this parable.

God or Money

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Parable Season continues with a doozy of a parable this week.  As I said in yesterday’s sermon, Jesus’ parables aren’t fables: we can’t just pick them up 2,000 years later and find a universal truth in them.  This is especially true this Sunday, as we are forced to deal with what might be the trickiest of Jesus’ parables, “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.”

The story begins with an abrupt scene change.  After three parables directed to the Pharisees and scribes who had been grumbling about Jesus’ tendency to hangout with sinners and tax collectors, Luke tells us that this parable is told only to the Disciples.  Most preachers might wish it had stayed there, but alas, it is in Luke’s Gospel and assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary.  I’ll get to the details of the parable later in the week, but what has my attention this morning is what many preachers will likely focus on when they punt this Sunday.

After telling a very strange story, Jesus summarizes the lesson to be learned by talking about honesty and dishonesty.  He ends with perhaps his most famous saying about money: a topic he dealt with in 11 of his 39 parables and in 1 out of every 7 verses in Luke’s Gospel (Source).

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”

What is interesting about this pithy quote is that Jesus assumes we are going to be slaves to one or the other.  Yes, I said “slaves” because that’s what the Greek word means.  We are either going to be slaves to money and the stuff, power, and prestige that goes along with it, or we are going to be set free from that bondage to be devoted fully to God’s will for our lives.  You simply cannot do both.  You cannot have two masters.  There will come a time, sooner rather than later, when you will be forced to pledge your allegiance to one over the other.  It might be a work decision: will I choose the honest path and lose money or not?  It might be a family finances decision: will I give to the church instead of buying that new toy I really want, but ultimately don’t really need?  It might be a lifestyle decision: will I work 80 weeks to accumulate wealth for the family I never see to spend?  These are choices that we all have to make at one time or another.  You cannot do both. You cannot be a slave to money and be faithful to God.  Which will you choose?

He who dies with the most toys still dies

Today’s sermon is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


When I was in high school, there was a popular T-Shirt brand called No Fear.  It was the early days of a professional class of extreme sports like skate boarding and many teens in the late 90s found some freedom in their no fear attitude.  No Fear T-Shirts were a perfect way to share a pithy philosophical slogan of teenage angst and rebellion with the world.  I had one No Fear shirt, and I can still remember the slogan on the back, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.”  My favorite slogan, however, had deep scriptural roots, even if the designers and wearers didn’t realize it.  “He who dies with the most toys, still dies.”  This is the perfect slogan for Proper 13, Year C, though I doubt it would make a compelling church ad campaign.  “Join Saint Paul’s in Foley as we talk about two taboo topics: death and money.  And remember, He who dies with the most toys, still dies.”  Of course you wouldn’t lead with that, but since I have you here already, and since Jesus seemed perfectly comfortable talking about money and death, it seems wise to talk about these two less than desirable subjects here this morning.

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The story we heard from Luke’s Gospel is a strange one.  As you’ll recall, Jesus has set his sights on Jerusalem.  All along the journey from Mount Tabor to Jerusalem, Jesus entered village after village, sharing the Good News of the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, and casting out demons.  As you might expect, his popularity grew immensely during this time, and by the start of chapter 12, Luke tells us that the crowd following Jesus numbered in the thousands.  There were so many people that they began to trample on one another.  In the midst of this sea of humanity full of crying babies and shouting adults, a man comes front and center with a request, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  As a rabbi, Jesus would have been qualified to interpret the laws dealing with inheritances, but Jesus is clear that he is not a judge.  He did not come to settle family squabbles.  He came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God most certainly does not look like greedy family arguments over a dead man’s money.  The message of Jesus does, however, have a lot to say about how we spend our money and what sort of preparations we should make for when we die.

Let’s start with the money piece.  Jesus warns the crowd, including the argumentative brother, to be on guard against greed.  He is very clear that the goal in life is not the accumulation of more stuff.  So what is the goal in life?  Jesus answers this question by way of a parable about a rich man whose land produces abundantly.  When this rich man realizes that he has become even richer, the only person he can think of is himself.  He doesn’t stop to thank God for good soil, for seasonable weather, or for rain.  He doesn’t consider the many others who made this abundant harvest possible: the sowers of the seed, the tenders of the plants, the harvesters of the produce, the picklers of his okra, nor the builders of his barns.  He doesn’t think about sharing the harvest with anyone: not family, not friends, and certainly not the poor who probably lived just outside the walls of his estate.  Instead, the man thinks only of himself.  Eleven times in his soliloquy, the man uses a first person pronoun!  “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?  I will do this; I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

This man is so self-centered that in the midst of a conversation with himself, he interrupts himself to have a different conversation with himself!  His problem wasn’t really money or possessions or power, but that he worshiped only one wrong thing: himself.  There was nothing outside of himself that he cared about, and so, his money afforded him the luxury of spending years and years not having to worry about anything or anyone.  Clearly, this is not what Jesus would have us do with our money.   The Kingdom of God is not about accumulating things, but rather accumulating relationships.  The accumulation of wealth is of no value if it can’t be shared with love and joy with those around us.  In the Kingdom of God, money is not bad, in and of itself, because money allows us to build relationships.  It allows us to build familial relationships as we use it to nurture, nourish, and educate children.  It allows us to build friendships by inviting people to share a meal with us.  It allows us to build co-working relationships by engaging others in work.  It allows us to build neighborly relationships as we pay our taxes for the upkeep of society and the common good.  It allows us to build relationships of mutual respect when we minister to the poor and the poor, in turn, minister to us.  Money can be a good thing when it is used to build relationships, thereby building the Kingdom of God.

Still, as that old No Fear t-shirt said, “He who dies with the most toys still dies.”  It doesn’t matter whether you have the most money, the most influence, or the most friendships; you can’t take any of it with you when you die, which is at the heart of God’s harsh words to the rich man, “You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  That question, “whose will they be?” rang in my ears all week.  Some commentators suggested that because this man had no family or friends, that the abundant supply of his storehouses would end up being given to the community of people around him that he never even noticed.  Some even suggested that he might become a hero by default; feeding the community for years after his death.  Others think that perhaps the grain in his silos would do nothing but rot away after his death, that all his selfishness would continue, even in death, as the hungry continued to be hungry while years’ worth of grain went to waste.  None of these seems like a comfortable ending to the story, which is precisely the point of a parable.

It seems to me that this is a story not just about the right use of our money in life, but the proper planning for its use after our death.  If we have not given any thought to the question, “whose will it be?” we have failed to see our relationships through to the end.  Even after death, our money and possessions can be used to foster relationships, to build up other people, and to grow the kingdom of God.  The Church suggests this is important, albeit uncomfortable, when, tucked deep in the Prayer Book, on page 445, at the end of the service of Thanksgiving for a Child, the rubrics require that Ministers “instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.”[1]  Neither Jesus nor the Church say that having money when you die is a bad thing, but both argue that not having planned for how it will be distributed is.

“Whose will it be?” is a good question to ask, not only as we become parents, but continually as life goes on.  There are other considerations as well.  “What do I want my funeral to look like?”  “Who will have my medical power of attorney?”  “Do I need a Living Will?”  As the parable of the Rich Fool reminds us, our days are never guaranteed, and having made careful decisions today, we can save our families and friends from difficult choices down the road.  Making plans for a future in which we do not exist is one more way to show that we care about something other than ourselves, build healthy relationships, and, ultimately, usher in the Kingdom of God.  One’s life does not consist of the abundance of possessions, but it can certainly be made better when we make careful, intentional decisions about how those possessions will be use with love and joy with those God has place in our lives both here in this life and after we’re gone.

[1] 1979 BCP, 445.

What the Lord Desires

“We affirm the minimum standard of the tithe is personal giving…”

These words make up the heart of point one of the Stewardship Statement made by the Standing Committee of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast on April 20, 1989, and reaffirmed on January 24, 2004.  With similar words, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church has set forth “a personal spiritual discipline that includes, at a minimum, the holy habits of tithing, daily personal prayer and study, Sabbath time, and weekly corporate worship…” (2003-A135).  Still, it seems there is no better way to get the collective hackles of Episcopalians up then by discussing the tithe as a standard of giving.

The response will typically fall into one of three camps.  The vast majority will gasp at the idea of giving away 10% of their income as they throw a crumpled up $5 bill in the plate.  Others will hold firm to 10% as The Standard of giving to the Kingdom as found in Scripture.  A third group will be very adamant that the tithe is the Minimum Standard of giving.

So what is the right answer?  What does the Lord require of the faithful? In the lessons appointed for this coming Sunday, it seems as though God asks that we trust him enough to offer everything we have back to him.  In the ever popular stewardship story of the Widow’s Mite, Jesus lauds the poor woman who drops her two copper coins in the kettle.  “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”  The Widow trusted God enough to know that she would be taken care of, even in her poverty.

The Widow at Zerephath shows us the same sort of trust.  Surely, she looked at Elijah as if he were crazy when he instructed her to make him a small loaf of bread first, but she did as he asked.  She trusted in the God of Elijah, a God who was not her own, enough that in the midst of a 3 year drought, she gave away the last little bit she had.

I’m not suggesting that we should sign over all our assets to the church.  Nor would I dare to say that the poor should give more than their fair share.  And don’t get me started on the heretical scam that is the “seed offerings” of television preachers.  What I am suggesting is that all the arguments of percentages of giving, before or after taxes, is missing the point of giving back to God.  More than our money, more than our time, more than anything else, God desires our trust.  The giving of our time, talent, and treasure is the sacramental sign of our trust in God.  When we give sacrificially, we show that we trust that God has provided everything that is, was, and ever will be, and the hard truth is that very few of us trust God in that sort of way.

Truth be told, even as my family gives away 11%, there are days, lots of them, that I don’t trust God, and so my offering is as pitiful as the tattered $5 bill.  In the end, it isn’t the money that matters to God, but rather, it is what the money symbolizes – our trust in the Lord’s never-ending provision of everything we have, even down to the air we breathe and the blood in our veins.

God cares about how we spend our money – a sermon

Technical difficulties mean the audio of today’s sermon will be delayed.  In the meantime, you can read it here.  UPDATE – you can now listen to it here.

“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.” Mark tells us that the disciples were perplexed by these words. I’m guessing that most of us are as well. In the days of Jesus, wealth was considered a sign of God’s blessing. It was just assumed that those who were well-to-do in this life would also be well-to-do in the age to come. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us probably still feel that way. Surely, we know that some multi-billionaires have made their fortunes by nefarious means, but by and large, we’ve bought into the myth that money is a sign of God’s grace. Jesus won’t let his disciples live with that myth any longer, but he is not the first prophet to suggest that the rich will have a hard time getting into the kingdom of God. Amos was an unlikely candidate for the role of God’s prophet. He lived during the time of the Divided Kingdom. Amos was from Judah, the Southern Kingdom, where he made a modest living as a migrant laborer: working as a herdsman, something like an assistant shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees also known as a fig picker. Somehow, despite his lowly background in Judah, Amos found himself called to the Northern a Kingdom of Israel where he would prophesy to the powerful king, Jeroboam II. King Jeroboam reigned for 40 years of relative peace and prosperity. As the years went by, the rich got richer, and as is often the case in times of great wealth, the poor got poorer. God grew impatient with the economic disparity in Israel and sent Amos to declare a day of judgment. Again and again the prophet speaks of God’s fury over the mistreatment of the poor:

  • They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way… The strong shall not retain their strength, nor shall the mighty save their lives… (2:7, 14)
  • Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy… The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. (4:1-2)
  • Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. (5:11)

The message of Amos is clear; God cares what we do with our money, and on the heels of the unlikely prophet’s dramatic prophecy, we hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with a rich young man.

There is a tendency to hear these things with a certain ambivalence. It is easy to hear these stories admonishing the rich and think that they don’t apply to us, but the uncomfortable truth is that, in the grand scheme of things, most Americans would qualify as rich on the global scale. The average minimum wage worker makes $15,800 a year, which places them in the top 7% of wage earners in the world. Whataburger pays its employees $11 an hour, making them one of the wealthiest 2.5%. I make $60,000 a year, which means I’m richer than 99.81% of the world’s population. The desire to always push rich a tax bracket or two higher than our own may be tempting, but the reality is that, if they were around today, Amos, Jesus, and the rest of the prophets would have been speaking to most of us in this room.

At 35, I barely qualify as young anymore, but picture this rich, young man as me or you or your son or grandson. He grew up in a religious home. He’s always been a rule follower, and went to church all through high school. He’s done his best to keep the commandments since he was a youth, but deep down, there has always that nagging feeling that God had something more in store for him. Hearing that Jesus was passing through town, the young man dropped his work and took off sprinting after him. Gasping for breath, he approached Jesus with awe and reverence, knelt down before him, and said, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man really wants to know the answer to this question. He, like all of us, is seeking after not just eternal life, but abundant life. For all the good he has already done, something is still missing. He knows it, and Jesus knows it, and so Jesus lists the commandments, adding one that isn’t normally in the top 10 – “You shall not defraud.”

In our Old Testament Lesson, we heard Amos decry those who “afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” The gate was the place where small claims court was held, where the rich would bring the poor before their friends who served as judges in order to extract even what little they had from them. It seems this rich young man, for all the good he had done in his life, had found ways to expand his bottom line through less than honest business practices, which usually come at the expense of the poor. This ill-gotten gain was what stood between him and the abundant life he sought. He knew it, and Jesus knew it, and so Jesus told him that he should give it all away. “Sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor,” Jesus said, “And then you can follow me.” But note the tone in which Jesus spoke to the rich, young man. Mark tells us that before the man made the choice to follow Jesus or not, Jesus loved him.

The same is true in the lesson from Amos. Even as he prophesies of the destruction of Israel, Amos promises that God’s love is never-ending, that the Lord would be gracious to the faithful remnant. The same is true for you and me today. God loves us no matter what, but in that love, God also desires of us the same thing he desired of the rich young man and the same thing he desired of the Disciples, that we drop everything and follow him. More often than not, the one thing that holds us back from giving our whole lives over to Jesus is the money piece. It was true in Amos’ day, in Jesus’ day, and it is true today. Money is the all-time, #1 idol. We worship it in place of God when we fear that we won’t have enough, when we gain it on the backs of the poor, and when we hold onto it even when God invites us to trust him enough to give it away.

It really is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter fully into the kingdom of God. Our economy simply won’t allow for us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor. It is the great irony of the American Dream: we’re stuck in a life that is something less than abundant because of the abundance of stuff in our lives. How can we avoid walking away sad like the rich young man? The answer is simple, we can gain abundant life by entering into relationship with the poor. By volunteering to teach a kindergartener the ABCs, helping bring one of the 80% of Foley Elementary School students who live in poverty one step closer to breaking that cycle. By helping a high school senior buy the clothes and school supplies he needs to be the first member of his family to graduate. By spending the night on a cot in the education building as Family Promise guests work hard to make enough to get back onto the economic ladder. By swinging a hammer on a construction site to help a Habitat family get on sure footing. Wealth tends to isolate, it tends to make us think that we don’t need anyone else and, worst of all, wealth tricks us into thinking that we deserve to be where we are. Jesus invites us to think differently; to remember that everything we have is a gift from God, that first and foremost we were created to be in relationship with all of our neighbors – the rich and the poor alike – and that abundance comes by giving away our resources in love for another. Without Jesus, it is impossible to fit a camel through the eye of a needle, but with Jesus giving up our abundance in order to inherit abundant life means that anything is possible. Amen.