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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Gains and Losses

As Pumpkin Spice Season returns, congregations around the globe are turning their attention to the next great liturgical season, the Annual Stewardship Campaign.  More than the start of school marking a new program year, or the beginning of Advent marking the new liturgical year, or even Ash Wednesday marking the start of the long journey toward the cross, the Annual Stewardship Campaign holds a, no, more likely, THE MOST prominent place in the congregational life cycle.  This makes sense, of course, because a church cannot pay its bills without income coming in.  So, we plan elaborate processes by which we will invite our members to support the budget, which is mostly clergy salaries, for another year.

As is well evidenced on this blog, I am not one for pulling the words of Jesus out of context to use them as proof texts for one’s theological position.  However, occasionally, as I’m reading a text, it happens naturally.  As was the case this morning, as I read the passage from Mark appointed for Proper 19B, which has nothing, at all, to do with the Annual Stewardship Campaign, and yet, rang so true to the wider experience of “fundraising” in the church.

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It seems to me that the pendulum swing away from stewardship as spiritual discipline to fundraising to make the budget is an exercise in gaining the world while losing the very life of congregational ministry.  It is, as others have suggested, another step in the process of the church becoming nothing more than a social services agency that holds weekly meetings.  If the goal is simply to bring in enough money to pay a clergy person, keep the lights on, and make sure my church is here for me when I need it, then we might as well funnel that money into the Rotary Club or United Way’s coffers and close up shop.  Instead, it seems to me that the goal of the Annual Stewardship Campaign ought to have very little, if anything, to do with budgets, and should instead be focused on the spiritual discipline of giving.  It should be rooted in giving from the abundance of God rather than filling holes of scarcity and fear.  It should be aimed at giving life rather than staving off death.

What does this have to do with the scene at Caesarea Philippi?  Not much, except that maybe when we come to follow Jesus as the Messiah, who gave his very own life out of the abundance of God’s mercy, we might take a moment to consider what we are seeking to gain and what we might lose in the Annual Stewardship Campaign.

Discipleship as giving my life back to God

I’m writing this blogpost somewhere in the air between Philadelphia, PA and Nashville, TN.  I’m too cheap to pay for inflight wifi, so it’ll be posted from the ground somewhere, but that sentence just felt cool to write.  I’ve spent the last three days at the Discipleship Matters Conference at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Whitemarsh or Port Washington or some such place.  It seems nothing in the Philadelphia suburbs is actually located in the town in which it claims to be.  For three days, I’ve been immersed in the deep end of God’s work in calling the Episcopal Church to deeper relationship with God and with one another.  The plenary sessions were live streamed and the recordings can be viewed on the Diocese of Pennsylvania Facebook page.  I especially encourage you to check out the opening panel discussion (starting at about 16:30), not because I was on it (at least not only for that reason), but because of the depth of passion and engagement present in my three co-panelists and the closing panel discussion because of the deeply practical ways in which St. James’ Madison Avenue, a resourced New York congregation, has created a culture of discipleship that doesn’t require resources.

With the last three days swirling in my mind, my attention is beginning to turn to a sermon for Sunday.  It seems logical to me that these two things would be blurry as I breathe recycled air at 36,000 feet.  It may fall into the category of eisegesis, but I can’t help but read Jesus’ answer to the trick question of the Pharisees as a call to something deeper than the separation of church and state.  Instead, I think it is a call to a life of discipleship.

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Photo by the Rev. Cn. Stephanie Spellers

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

As I consider this passage, I can’t help but realize that everything belongs to God.  My very life, every breath I take, comes from God.  If I am going to take seriously these words for Jesus, then I have to be willing to give my whole life back to God, which isn’t a bad definition of discipleship.  I give my mind back to God through studying scripture and theology.  I give my heart back to God by using the compassion that comes from it to motivate the loving service of others and by opening it up to God in prayer.  I give my hands back to God by writing this blog, sermons, and notes of thanks, concern, and welcome.  I give my feet back to God by walking into hospital rooms, dining rooms, and standing behind the altar.  I give my wealth back to God by tithing for the upbuilding of the Kingdom.  I give my spiritual gift of administration back to God by effectively leading Christ Church into the future that God dreams for it.

What does discipleship look like for you?  Are you reading the Bible?  Are you praying?  Are you giving? Are you serving? Are you studying? Are you working at building the church?  Are you sharing the Good News and the hope that is within you?  How are you giving back to God everything that is God’s?  What are you holding back?  What is God asking you to offer him today?  If discipleship is being a good steward of the things that God has given us, then maybe this week is an opportunity for a personal stewardship campaign: an invitation to give back to God everything that he has so graciously given us.

Contentment

The Acts 8 BLOGFORCE makes a rousing return this week with a question that is both timely and applicable.  In the life of the Church as well as in the Revised Common Lectionary, we are rapidly approaching stewardship season, and as such, it is time, once again, for all of us to listen for God’s call upon our checkbooks.  As such, Acts 8 has invited all of us to consider this question: “How has financial giving affected your spiritual life?” For more information on how to offer your own response, click here.


I can’t remember when it happened, but I distinctly remember the feeling.  It must have been around a big football game: Black Friday before the Iron Bowl or the Saturday before the Super Bowl; as I drove around my neighborhood of modest starter homes, I began to notice lots of large, rectangular boxes sitting on the curbside.  At first, I didn’t  pay any attention to it, but by the time I passed the third box, I could feel the envy welling up inside me.  I wanted a big, fancy, new TV to watch the game with too!

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The problem was, unless I wanted to go into $500 worth of debt on my credit card, there just wasn’t the disposable income to cover a sweet new TV.  With a relatively new baby at home and my wife not working at the time, we were prepared to make sacrifices, but it was in that moment, driving through our neighborhood on trash day, that I realized that part of the sacrifice of giving to God is being content with what you have.

At the time, the Pankey family was still relatively new at tithing.  Even as late as seminary, we had subscribed to the left over model of giving to the church.  Of course, it was easy to justify the $2,400 a month we spent on rent and tuition to go to seminary in one of the most expensive metropolitan areas in the country.  Once I was ordained, however, we knew that if we were going to ask people to give sacrificially, we had to as well.  And so, on day 1 of my first call out of seminary, we gave 10% of our income to the glory of God. There is a difference, however, between giving because you feel like you have to and giving out of contentment.  It took me several years to learn that lesson.

In Sunday’s New Testament lesson, the author of 1 Timothy tells the young leader that there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.  He warns Timothy of the trap of riches.  The temptation that comes with a lack of contentment takes our attention away from God.  Envy leads to ruin and destruction.  As I rode through my neighborhood that afternoon, those empty TV boxes pulled me to the edge of the root of all evil: the love of money.  Thanks be to God, the temptation of a shiny new TV for the big game didn’t win out.  In coming to grips with the opportunity cost of tithing, I realized that sacrificing for the Kingdom is something that should bring joy.  I’ve learned to give thanks for what I have, to be joyful in the building up of the Kingdom, and to be content in all circumstances.  Of course, I’m not always successful at it, but God continues to work on me.  The Spirit continues to call me to righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.  All these years later, I’ve learned the power of intentional sacrifice: a spiritual lesson that is helpful not just in financial giving, but in prayer, in time, in service, and in life.  I’ve learned to set my hope on God, who, as the author of 1 Timothy says, “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

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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.

Some Context

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson always feels like a non sequitur to me.  Either that, or a story Luke added in to solve a stewardship problem in his church.  It start with a man blurting out to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  I mean, really?  Throughout the course of the Gospels, we often see Jesus the Rabbi invoked to settle theological debates, but off the top of my head, this is the only time we see Jesus invited to act as a judge.  From the time of Moses on, this case would have been taken to an elder or a judge for settlement, yet here we find a man, obviously ticked off at his brother, asking Jesus to weigh in on a family matter he knows nothing about.

From there, we get Jesus telling the Parable of the Rich Fool, which sort of deals with the question of this man’s inheritance, but sounds a whole lot more like Luke’s church is having trouble raising funds.  As a stewardship text, it comes at a particularly bad time of the year, since many Episcopalians forget that Sunday morning worship exists in the month of July.  I’ll dig into the theological claims of this parable later in the week, but for now, I’m content to try to figure out why Luke includes this story and why the RCL thought it was worth telling in the dog days of summer every three years?

To try to figure this out, having noticed that we’ve jumped from early in Luke 11 to midway through Luke 12, I decided to get my bearings.  Where are we?  What’s been going on?  How’d this man end up so close to Jesus?  Luke answers these questions in the bits we skipped along the way.  It seems that decrying lawyers was a popular in first century Palestine as it is today.

The second half of Luke 11 has Jesus spewing “woe to yous” to hypocritical lawyers and Pharisees, while Luke 12 opens with crowds number in the thousands.  There were so many people following Jesus at this point that they were trampling over one another to get a glimpse of him.  One can imagine the sound of hundred of voices crying out for Jesus to help them.  The sick, the demon possessed, the hungry, and yes, in one particular case, the jealous and greedy, all vying for Jesus’ attention.  It is no wonder this story seems so awkward or out of place.  Luke could have chosen any of a hundred or more these encounters between Jesus and a needy person in the crowd.  Hopefully, as the week unfolds, we’ll understand why he chose this one.