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.

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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.”

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.

My, Myself, and I

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Greed is inherently selfish.  My insatiable desire for money and things and the power that goes with them is predicated on the fact that I can not care about the needs and sufferings of anyone else.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, it seems that it is the wonted selfishness of the Greedy Foolish Rich Man that is at the core of Jesus’ parable.

Commentary after commentary this week is highlighting the first person pronouns at work in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  After Jesus begins the parable by clearly stating that the land, and not the man, had produced abundantly, he goes on to put first person pronouns in the mouth of the rich fool no less than twelve times!

My crops… My barns… My goods… My soul

This rich man’s sin ins’t that he was greedy, but that he failed to take notice that the abundant harvest was first and foremost the work of the God who created all things.  Beyond that, he also failed to see acknowledge that those crops might be better put to use in caring for the poor and needy who were no doubt in his view.  He certainly didn’t harvest all that produce by himself.  He didn’t build his own barns.  He didn’t pickle his own okra.  All around him were servants and craftsmen, those made by God in God’s image and likeness, who helped make his crops flourish, who helped build his system of storage, who helped ensure that his food would not spoil, but there is no reference to the existence of anyone other than himself.

I will… relax, eat, drink, and be merry

When we lose sight of our neighbor, we fail to live into the fullness of God’s dream for us.  “It is not good for man to be alone.”  In Genesis, these are the first words of God about something that is not good.  Isolation, being out of relationship with those around us, is not good, and selfish desire is a key cause of isolation.  When my focus is on the trinity of me, myself, and I, we are no longer in relationship with the Trinity of Love that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Be on guard…

As the American Dream has evolved, selfish desire has become a foundational component.  We have made all of life a zero sum game, assuming that for others to have more, I would have less.  In God’s economy, it just doesn’t work that way.  Instead, when I give something away, I find myself richer than I could have ever imagined.

Live and Move and Have our Being

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our
being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by
your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our
life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are
ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(The Collect for Guidance, Morning Prayer II, 1979 BCP, p. 100)

“In you we live and move and have our being” is one of those Prayer Book phrases that is etched deep within me.  I’m certain I’m not the only one as I hear it used in common conversation by Episcopalians quite often.  It is a phrase that, if we really mean it, has a profound impact on the way we live our lives.

This phrase, and all of its depth of meaning, jumped out to me this morning as I read the lessons appointed for Sunday.  It appears as a quotation in Paul’s speech to the Athenians in Acts 17.  It being such a part of my vocabulary, I assumed that Paul was interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures for his strongly Greek crowd, but doing some digging, I realized that was not the case.  Instead, Paul seems to be quoting the “semi-mythical” 7th/6th century Greek philosopher, Epimenides, who was writing about the immortality of Zeus.  As he does throughout this speech, Paul appropriates the mythology and philosophy of the highly spiritual city of Athens to share with them the Good News of Jesus Christ. Be sure to tell anybody who goes nuts about the pagan history behind Christmas, Easter, Halloween, or having a best man at a wedding that this is actually a very old model of inculturation.  I’ve digressed.

What this post is supposed to be about is how radically different the Christian faith would be if we took seriously the Epimendian, Pauline, and Canadian (attributed “From an Ancient Collect”)* call to remember God’s unending presence in our lives?  If every move we make, if our lives, our very beings were informed by our relationship to God as beloved children?

* Thanks to Marion Hatchett and his Commentary on the American Prayer Book