Sunday, October 14, 2018

What Must I Do?

October 14, 2018 – The 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service is available on St. Paul's YouTube page

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the rich man asked when he came to Jesus and knelt down at his feet. There was something about Jesus—the way he spoke about God and God’s reign, the life of faithfulness that he exhibited—that let the man know that Jesus was someone who could give him the answer he was looking for. Jesus was on his way out of town, and the man wanted to catch him before he was gone, so he ran up and knelt before him and asked, “What must I do?” But, when Jesus looked at the man, he could tell that the man already knew what the answer was.

“You know the commandments,” Jesus said to him: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” This was the sort of list that any rabbi might give. These were the big commandments, the foundational teachings of how God’s people were to live a faithful life. If you will do all of those things, if you will live in peace and charity with other people, you will know what it means to inherit the full and unending life that God bestows upon God’s people. But this man wasn’t asking because he needed a primer in Judaism. He wanted to go further in faithfulness. That’s why he had approached Jesus, the radical rabbi who preached about the immediacy, the nearness, of God’s reign. “Teacher,” the man went on, “I have kept all of these commandments—I have guarded and observed all of them—since I was a child.” The man was desperate for more. God had blessed him. God had made him rich. His faithfulness had led to prosperity, and we wanted to use his wealth to make God’s kingdom come. He just needed to know how.

“Jesus looked at him and loved him,” Mark tells us. That’s crucial. It is essential that we look upon the man with the same loving gaze with which Jesus beheld him. This was agape love, divine love, unconditional love. Jesus looked at him and loved him right where he was, in the midst of his quest for deep faith, and Jesus said to him, “You lack one thing. There’s just one thing that is keeping you out of God’s kingdom, holding you at arm’s length from God’s reign, and it’s your money. Sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor so that you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come and follow me.” The man was “shocked” and filled with grief, Mark tells us, because he had many possessions. He thought his wealth would help God’s kingdom come, but Jesus told him that he had to give it away completely.

Throughout the millennia, God has revealed God’s self as the God of the poor, the God of the powerless, the God of the vulnerable. Our God—the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Rahab and Ruth, of Mary and Joseph and the carpenter’s son Jesus—is revealed not in the wealth of kings or in the power of armies but in the faith of the poor and the gentleness of the meek. In every generation, human beings reject that understanding of who God is and replace God with an idol of their own creation—something shiny, something strong, something impressive. It is easier to believe that God rewards the prosperous and blesses the powerful and prefers those who can make a good life for themselves. It takes deep faith to believe that God prefers the disenfranchised, the destitute, and the despised, but they are the ones to whom and through whom God’s reign has been revealed. We are the ones who pursue a relationship with God by following Jesus, the Crucified One, which means that we proclaim that enduring truth about God, but how will we make that truth known? How will we show a world that is obsessed with power and prosperity who God really is? Jesus gives us the answer: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come follow me.”

I spent the first two years of seminary at Ridley Hall in Cambridge, England. When that second year drew to a close, it was time for me to make plans to come back and finish my studies at an American seminary. At the time, Elizabeth and I were engaged to be married, and, as sad as I was to be leaving my friends and colleagues in England, the thought of sharing that last year with my beloved filled me with joy. It also filled me with great fear. How were we going to make it financially? We would be living in northern Virginia, where the cost of living is outrageous. Although Elizabeth would (hopefully) be working as a nurse, I would still be a full-time student, racking up more student loans. In the years ahead of us, how long would it take a newly-ordained preacher and a nurse to get far enough out from underneath that debt to buy a house and start a family? I began to fill out the financial aid application for the coming year, and, when I saw the numbers, things only got worse.

I felt awkward calling the priest at my sending parish to ask him whether our church would be able to provide any financial support in the coming year. I explained that I was filling out the financial aid form and needed to put something in the blank for “parish support.” He was confused. I told him that I was applying for need-based aid and that I needed to provide all of my financial information—projected income, parish and diocesan support, family assets, student debt—and he interrupted me: “What debt? I thought you went to college on a full scholarship.” he said. I told him that I had but explained that seminary in England, where he had encouraged me to go, was very expensive. “Didn’t your parents help you out?” he asked, remembering an earlier conversation that we had had. “Yes,” I told him, “they helped me with part of it, but I had to pay for the rest with student loans.” “How much?” he asked.

I stopped, not knowing how to respond. The silence went on long enough for him to repeat the question: “How much?” I could tell what he had in mind by the tone of his voice. “Did he really mean it?” I asked myself. I told him the number, and he told me that he would call me in a week. Sure enough, a week later, he called to let me know that he had found some members of the parish who had decided to pay the whole amount. “Where should I send the check?” he asked.

In that moment, we instantly became tithers. You’d better believe that when it was time to fill out a pledge card later that fall we didn’t think twice: the first ten percent of our income went right on the card. And, with that overwhelmingly generous gesture, our priest actually gave us two important gifts. First, he gave us the gift of beginning our marriage without financial fear. We didn’t have to wonder how long it would take us to afford having family, to show our parents that we would make it, and for me to prove to Elizabeth that being a preacher’s wife wouldn’t be a life-long financial struggle. But the second gift was far more important and more enduring: by making us intentional stewards of our resources, he set us free from an attitude of scarcity and gave us confidence in God’s abundance. We learned in an instant a lesson that has been repeated every year when we fill out our giving card. Our possessions are not the source of our power, of our security, or of our blessedness. Our strength comes from God. God’s limitless love governs our lives, and stewardship enables us to give ourselves over to God’s work in the world with no strings attached.

Stewardship isn’t about raising money for our church. It isn’t even about funding the ministries that carry out God’s work in the world. Stewardship is about making God’s reign—God’s power, God’s blessing, God’s love—flourish in our lives by freeing ourselves from the tyranny of money, from the idol of scarcity that it creates. Jesus said, “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.” At these words, the disciples were astonished and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus said to them, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” When we set aside the first ten percent of our income and give it back to God, we reject the belief that we are responsible for our own salvation. When we become good stewards, we sever the crippling bonds that wealth has on our hearts and minds and souls. We reject the false theology of blessedness through riches and faithfulness through prosperity and teach ourselves that God’s reign comes through those who are not imprisoned by money.

This year, when it is time for you to make a commitment to God’s work in the world, don’t write down what you can afford or decide to give a little bit more than you gave last year. Yes, every penny you give will support the transformational work that God is doing in this place. But this is an opportunity to set yourself free from the fruitless belief that what you own is the measure of your true value, that what you have is what matters. What must you do to inherit eternal life? Like the rich man, you must find the path that enables God to reign in your life completely. You cannot be a vessel for God’s power if wealth still has power over you. So sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and following Jesus will lead you to it.

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