We are the rich man – a sermon

Every Sunday morning, at approximately 8:02, Episcopalians at Christ Church and all over the world hear these words, “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, ‘thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’”  As I read and reread the Gospel passage for this week, I couldn’t help but notice that those words are not what our Lord Jesus Christ saith to the man who came to him seeking eternal life.  I began to wonder what was it about this guy that he would receive such a unique response from Jesus?  There is nothing in this story that would lead us to believe this man sought out Jesus with anything other than a sincere desire for eternal life.  Unlike most of Jesus’ sparring partners, this man doesn’t appear to be a spy from Scribes and Pharisees trying to trap Jesus in a war of words.  Rather, he is simply a faithful Jew, trying to gain a deeper understanding from this now famous itinerant Rabbi.

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Isn’t that the question all of us have for Jesus?  Please, just tell me clearly, what exactly must I do to gain entrance into heaven?  Do I have to say the sinner’s prayer?  Do I need to have a momentous conversion experience?  Do I have to memorize Bible verse?  What can I do to get my ticket punched?  Jesus responds as only Jesus can.  Jesus never answers a question directly, so he starts by inviting the man to think about the very natures of God and of humanity.  If no one is good but God alone, then a) calling Jesus good would put him on par with God, and b) the man’s question is already answered in the asking.  No one can do anything to gain eternal life because no one is good except God.

After a brief aside, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, essentially listing the last seven of the Ten Commandments.  These are said to have made up the second of the two tablets brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai.  They deal with how members of the community of the faithful interact with one another.  It would seem that here Jesus saith only the commandment that is like unto the first, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Why?  Elsewhere in the Gospels, we are told that Jesus can see into the hearts and minds of those around him.  When the Pharisees grumble amongst themselves, Jesus knows.  When the disciples are afraid or confused, Jesus knows.  Jesus knows the heart of this man as well. He knows that he has lived a good life; that he isn’t one prone to fraud, violence, or theft.  Jesus knows full well that this man knew the second tablet by heart and that his life was defined by those laws.

“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  By changing the way in which he addresses Jesus, the man proves that he is listening to him – that he will really looking to learn from this Rabbi and amend his life.  It is no wonder that Jesus looked at him and loved him in this moment.  How many others had approached Jesus with some sort of need, but were totally unwilling to be changed?  This man was genuine, and Jesus loved him for it.  And yet, Jesus knew the man’s heart.  He knew that he did, in fact, lack one thing, and Jesus loved the man anyway. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.”  The man, who, we now find out was exceedingly wealthy, walked away from Jesus shocked and saddened.  He had learned what he must do to inherit eternal life, and he knew he was incapable.  Jesus had called him to a radical reorientation of his life’s values, and he knew that he couldn’t pull it off.  The rich man had loving his neighbor down pat, but it was the first three commandments that he couldn’t quite get a handle on.  Jesus, no longer the good teacher the man wanted, but rather the teacher that he 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 were 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.

This is where we encounter the truth of the Hebrews lesson for this morning.  Scripture really is a two-edged sword.  As much as we might like to have this story be all about the rich man’s failures, it is about our own as well. It is easy to hear today’s gospel lesson and think, “Oh, that’s not about me.”  When Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” and “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.” the reaction of most 21st century American Christians is to look at least one step up on the economic ladder, shake our heads, and think, as the Pharisee once did, “Gee, I’m glad I’m not them.”

This temptation is one we should be wary of.  First, Jesus wasn’t too kind to the Pharisee in that parable.  More to the point, however, is the reality that 21st century America is, by and large, a very wealthy place.  Even the average minimum wage worker in the United States earns more than 93% of the rest of the world’s population.  The monetarily rich, it would seem, aren’t that far away.  Still, I can’t help but think if this passage is both about money and not about money.  What if Jesus is using the example of the rich would-be-disciple to prove a larger point about faithfulness?  In Eugene Peterson’s idiomatic bible translation, The Message, he translates Matthew’s version of the beatitude about poverty as, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

What if being rich isn’t just about money?  What if being rich is about being comfortable.  What if being rich is about self-reliance?  Even if we are unwilling to characterize ourselves as financially rich, by virtue of our upbringing in self-reliant post World War 2 America, many of us are subject to this idea that we don’t need anyone else.  Me and (maybe) my Jesus are all we need to get through life.  When we look at the world this way, then yes, it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a person who is rich in self-reliance to enter the kingdom of God.

Kingdom living is about fully trusting in God’s grace.  Kingdom living is about turning outward, looking at the world through God’s eyes, and seeing that life isn’t just about me, myself, and I, but about the communities in which we live and move and have our being.  Kingdom living is about taking all we have, giving it up for the good of the world God created, and following Jesus.

Kingdom living isn’t easy.  You might sometimes feel like the rich man, ready to walk away shocked and saddened.  Other times, you might want to join with the disciples in throwing up your hands and wondering, “Who then can be saved?”  I know I feel that way from time to time.  In those moments, it is important that we hear another thing our Lord Jesus Christ saith, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  Amen.

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The Rich

In an era of growing income inequality, with many, for the first time, coming to recognize the plutocratic power of a few corporate conglomerates, it is easy to hear Sunday’s gospel lesson and think, “Oh, that’s not about me.”  When Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” and “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.” the reaction of most 21st century American Christians is to look at least one step up on the economic ladder, shake our heads, and think, as the Pharisee once did, “Gee, I’m glad I’m not them.”

As I’ve said elsewhere, this temptation is one we should be wary of.  Even the average minimum wage worker in the United States earns more than 93% of the rest of the world’s population.  The monetarily rich, it would seem, aren’t that far away.

camel-and-needle3

As preachers are wont to do, however, I can’t help but think if this passage from Mark is both about money and not about money.  What if Jesus is using the example of the rich would-be-disciple to prove a larger point about faithfulness?  In Eugene Peterson’s idiomatic bible translation, The Message, Peterson translates Matthew’s version of the beatitude about poverty thusly, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

What if being rich isn’t just about money?  What if being rich is about being comfortable.  What if being rich is about self-reliance?  Even if we are unwilling to characterize ourselves as fiscally rich, by virtue of our upbringing in self-reliant post World War 2 America, many of us are subject to this idea that we don’t need anyone else.  Me and (maybe) my Jesus are all we need to get through life.  When we look at the world this way, then yes, it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a person who is rich in self-reliance to enter the kingdom of God.

See, kingdom living is about trusting in God’s grace.  Kingdom living is about turning outward, looking at the world through God’s eyes, and about seeing that existence isn’t just about me, myself, and I, but about the communities in which we live and move and have our being.  Kingdom living is about taking all we have, giving it up for the good of the world God created, and following Jesus.

I’m not saying that Jesus’ encounter with the rich man isn’t about money – it is stewardship season, after all – but what I am suggesting is that if we think it is only about money, it becomes too easy to dismiss.

You might join with the disciples in throwing up your hands and wondering, “Who then can be saved?”  I know I think that from time to time.  Just remember the words of Jesus, “For mortals it is impossible,” that is, you can’t rely on your self to get it done, “bur not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Pray for your Leaders

The Track 2 Old Testament lesson, the Track 2 Psalm, and the New Testament lesson for Sunday seem to be tied together thematically.  Or at least they seem to be related in this heightened political season in the US.  So much of the rhetoric around the American Presidential election has to do with caring for the poor.  The right suggests that the best way to care for the poor is to invest in businesses so they can hire more employees, pay them better wages, and lift them out of poverty.  This is a good theory, and certainly there are many business owners who do their best to take care of their employees, but it seems that even in the days of Amos, it didn’t always work.  For as long as there have been humans, there have been those who “trample the poor” and “sell the sweepings of wheat.”  To them, the word is clear, “God will not forget how you treat the poor.

On the other hand, the left suggests the best way to care for the poor is to create safety nets that keep them from falling through the cracks.  This has its merits as well, and the latter half of the Psalm for Sunday seems to indicate that it is the will of God that we care for the poor through charity.  “[God] takes up the weak out of the dust * and lifts up the poor from the ashes.  He sets them with the princes, * with the princes of his people.” Though as we have seen in this country, when the responsibility for safety nets left the confines of the Church and became the government’s responsibility during the Great Depression, it became susceptible to fraud and pork spending.  Who indeed is like the Lord who sits enthroned on high, but stoops to behold the earth?.

The battle lines having been drawn between right and left, the American public has been convinced that we exist in a zero sum game.  One side agrees that to invest in business means to leave the poor to fend for themselves.  The other says that to offer safety nets creates a culture of laziness that kills the economy.  Both are, of course, wrong.

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So what are we to do?  We who live in this world of competing goods, how can we ensure that somewhere in the midst of all the rancor and wrangling, we are living up to the call of Jesus to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the oppressed, and those in prison?  Aside from revamping the US tax code to return to the Church these responsibilities, our task is, as Paul tells Timothy, to pray that our leaders make wise decisions and live lives of godliness and dignity.  Thankfully, the Book of Common Prayer has all sorts of prayers to help with such praying.  Here’s but one example, a Collect for the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority.

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth), and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Pray for your leaders today, and everyday, for it is right and acceptable to God.

The Color Purple

As an Episcopalian, I can’t help but read the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus without at least a small chuckle about the reference to the rich man’s attire.  With a linen suit hanging in my closet, this parable hits really close to home, but even more so, I get a kick out of the reference to the rich man wearing purple.  For those of you who aren’t a part of the early-21st century iteration of Anglicanism, perhaps a photograph would help.

 

What color is that shirt?

Purple.

Linen.

Fine Foods.

We’ve got that all covered in The Episcopal Church.  Some two-thousand years after Jesus told this parable, I wonder if we are still tuned into the deeper meaning of the details of the story.  Take the color purple for example.  These days, purple shirts are sold everywhere.  You can get a purple polo from the Rescue Mission for less than $2.  There was a time, a long time in fact, when purple clothing was exorbitantly expensive.  The dyes used to make a purple shirt were hard to come across and the color was even harder to set.  I heard a story this summer about how purple became the color of Lent in some parts of the world, while it is blue in other places.  It seems that the original color of Lent was black, but black rarely stayed that color.  In some portions of the globe, the berries used to made black faded into purple, elsewhere, they faded to blue.  Deep colors weren’t for the faint of heart in the olden days.  So this man, who wore purple, was exceedingly rich, and more than likely a member of some royal family.  (Hence the purple in Bishop’s attire as they were once considered the princes of the Church (though it seems that Anglican Bishop’s took to purple much later than their Roman Catholic brethren, but I digress).  Not only did he wear richly colored fabrics, but he had access to linen as well.  Like purple dyes, linen was (and still is) very expensive to obtain.  To say he was well dressed would be an understatement.

Then there is the matter of his food, about which Jesus says “he feasted sumptuously every day.”  This is an attempt by the translators to make sense of the Greek that is two words joined together: euphraino, which means “to make merry or to be glad”; and lampros, which means “magnificently or sumptuously.”  He “made merry brilliantly” according to Robertson’s Word Pictures, or to borrow a modern colloquialism, this guy partied hearty every day.  I assume most of us can understand the nuance in this phrase.  Think about how you eat on a normal day: three meals and maybe a snack – perhaps a dessert on a special occasion.  Now, think of the last Super Bowl Party you attended.  You probably ate 3 or 4 times more than you normally would.  You grazed on delicious snacks all afternoon, while waiting for the main course to be served and having two too many beers.  Or maybe Thanksgiving is your feast of choice.  This guy ate like it was Thanksgiving Day, all day, every day.

The comparison Jesus sets up here isn’t the difference between an upper-middle class guy and his lower-middle class neighbor.  Instead, Jesus lays down an example of extreme wealth and extreme poverty.  Something like this picture from Rio De Janeiro.

I’m wondering this morning if the extreme nature of Jesus’ example makes it easy to dismiss this story as we think, “Oh, I’m not THAT rich.”  What is the purpose behind such an outrageous dichotomy?  As an average American, what can I take away from this parable?