Sunday, July 31, 2022

Learning To Be Rich Toward God


July 31, 2022 – The 8th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 13C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 17:15.  

If I were a rich man,
Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum,
All day long, I'd biddy biddy bum,
If I were a wealthy man.
I wouldn't have to work hard,
Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum,
If I were a biddy biddy rich idle-deeddle-daidle-daidle man. [1] 

In the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevya the dairyman sings those words at first while shoveling hay for his lame horse but later while dancing around his barn, triumphantly waving his arms about as he imagines what his life would be like if he only had more money. “If I were a rich man…” Who among us doesn’t sing some form of those words in their heart? If I were a rich man…if I had a little bit more money…if I got paid what I’m really worth…if I won the Mega Millions jackpot…then my life would be better…all my problems would go away. But would they?

Twenty-one years ago this summer, I sat in the small home office of farmer in the middle of Illinois as he looked at soybean and corn futures on a computer monitor and tried to decide what to do. A faithful man, who made buckwheat pancakes every morning of his children’s lives whether they wanted them or not, this farmer explained to me that commodity prices had been depressed for several years. Instead of selling his entire harvest each year, he had put much of it into silos, hoping that the prices would increase, but they hadn’t. Now his barns were full. He had no place to store his crops. And he didn’t know what to do.

“I know what I will do!” the rich fool in Jesus’ parable said to himself. “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all of 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.’”

In the parable Jesus tells the crowd, the rich man did not get rich by accident. He might have been a fool in God’s eyes, but everyone in the town knew him to be a shrewd businessman. He knew that when the land produced abundantly—a bumper crop—the price of grain would fall. Rather than sell his harvest at a discounted price, the man decided to use his capital to tear down his barns and build larger ones, increasing his capacity to wait out the glut. Maybe next year there would be a drought. Maybe global supply chains would be interrupted and geopolitical instability on the heels of a global pandemic would send prices through the roof. This rich man could afford to wait. And the longer he waited the richer he would become.

Except that he forgot one thing: “You fool!” God said to him. “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The man who excelled in agribusiness somehow forgot that his life was on loan and that the owner of that debt could call it in at any minute. There is no barn big enough to store enough grain that we could ransom our own lives.

But Jesus wasn’t giving advice to rich farmers in ancient Palestine, nor was he speaking to middle-class farmers in modern-day Illinois. He was speaking to a crowd of ordinary people in response to a man whose brother had refused to divide his father’s estate and share it with him. “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me,” the scorned sibling had said to Jesus. And the parable of the rich fool was Jesus’ way of teaching all of us how to be rich toward God.

Notice that the brother—not unlike the rich farmer—assumed that he was in the right. Instead of asking Jesus for an interpretation of the Jewish laws of inheritance governing his particular situation, he jumped to the end and asked Jesus to tell his brother to split the estate between them. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity,” Jesus might have responded, quoting Psalm 133. Although there were rules that determined how much of an estate should be given to each brother, scripture makes it clear that it is better—even ideal—when siblings can live together on the family estate and share their inheritance rather than liquidate the property and divide the proceeds among them. But this angry brother was already beyond that. They were past the point of negotiations. He wanted his check, and he wanted it now.

But how will an inheritance check make everything better? How will all that money help a man feel his parents’ love when he cannot even sit down and break bread with his sibling? Like fences and neighbors, careful estate plans make for better sibling relationships, but the key to maintaining a healthy family isn’t making sure that everyone gets the right amount of money. It’s remembering that a parent’s love cannot be measured in real estate or an investment account. It’s making sure that material things do not take the place of what really matters. It’s remembering that one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.

We all want to be the rich farmer. We want to have enough grain stored in our barns that we can say to our souls, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Tevye’s song becomes our retirement plan. If I were a rich man, I wouldn’t have to work hard. If I had enough money, I wouldn’t have to worry about anything. If I save enough, I won’t need anything else. Everything will be taken care of. But our lives do not consist in the abundance of possessions. Our true security does not come from a retirement account or a pension or an inheritance check. That is vanity.

If the most important question in our life—the one we ask the most—is, “When will I have enough,” then we are not being rich toward God. We cannot belong to God if our bank accounts make us feel like we belong to ourselves. Everything we have belongs to God, and we must give it all back. The rich farmer didn’t produce anything. The land did. The angry brother didn’t earn his inheritance. His parents did. You are not responsible for your own success. God is. And learning that truth is the first step to becoming rich toward God.

But that truth runs contrary to everything our economy, our nation, and our lives were built upon. There is no truth more difficult for us to apply to our own lives, yet no truth is more central to our salvation. Your entire life is one big loan from God. It is an obligation you can never repay. And you don’t even have to try. 

In fact, until you stop pretending that the sum total of your life’s accomplishments is anything other than a gift from God, you’re going to have a pretty hard time figuring out that God’s love is the only thing that can save you. Not your money, not your career, not your family, not your perfect plans, not even your best success—the only thing that can save you is God’s gift of love that is Jesus Christ. And God has already poured that love out upon you in lavish measure. If you want to experience that love—if you want to know the freedom from anxiety that comes from that love—if you want to be rich toward God—stop storing up treasures for yourself and start giving it all away.

[1] Lyrics from “If I Were a Rich Man” by Chaim Topol from Fiddler on the Roof. Connection with this parable made by Klyne Snodgrass in Stories with Intent, 2008, p. 400.

Monday, July 18, 2022

There Is Another Way


July 17, 2022 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon starting around 18:50.

Mary and Martha—paragons of contemplative practice and faithful service—which sort of disciple do you wish you were? And which one are you actually more alike? Before you start beating yourself up for not “having a Mary heart in a Martha world,” let me offer a word of caution: be wary of preachers or authors or gurus who would take this gospel lesson and turn it into a prescription for intimacy with God in an age when busyness always seems to get in the way. That isn’t what this gospel lesson is about. 

This story isn’t about Jesus choosing between two disciples, praising the one who sets aside the physical tasks associated with hospitality while shaming the one who neglects the higher calling of sitting at his feet. This story isn’t at all about what sort of disciple you should be. It’s a story about two women—sisters who encounter Jesus—one who encounters him as a faithful disciple and one who entertains him as a curious host. The preference we are invited to choose isn’t contemplation over action but devotion over fascination. The point of this passage is for us to leave it not merely interested in knowing more about Jesus but committed to following him wherever he may go.

A deep dive into the biblical text helps us hear from this story what Jesus would teach us. Set aside for a moment what you might remember about the other Mary and Martha duo we encounter in the gospel according to John. Those women, sisters of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, were both faithful followers of Jesus. Luke’s version of the sisters may come from the same household, but Luke remembers them differently—not only omitting their brother’s role in the story but introducing the women as merely minor characters—not as known disciples but as women whom Jesus encounters along the way. Luke never mentions them again. So all we have to go on is the text in front of us—a text that describes one woman as if she were a faithful disciple and the other as if she were a faithful host.

Imagine, if you can, what it felt like to watch this scene unfold in the home of a first-century Palestinian Jewish woman. A famous rabbi and his travelling companions have come into your town, and Martha, a woman of some standing in the community, has welcomed them into her home. Normally, a woman would not have occasion to invite strange men under her roof, so we can only assume that Martha was unusually wealthy and well-connected.

The word that Luke uses to describe the welcome that Martha offered Jesus (ὑποδέχομαι) is a technical term for one who accepts full responsibility for the welfare of one’s guest. It is the highest form of hospitality that one can provide. Luke is the only biblical author who uses that word, a word he also uses to describe how Zacchaeus received Jesus after climbing down from the sycamore tree (Luke 19:6). When this noble woman welcomed Jesus and his disciples under her roof, she was duty-bound to provide for their every need, so she could use all the help she could get. 

Imagine, then, looking across the room and seeing the host’s sister, not busy setting the table or refilling cups, but sitting, lounging, longingly and lavishly at the feet of Jesus. Who does she think she is—one of his disciples? Back then, women couldn’t afford to be disciples. Sure, they were offered their fair share of gender-specific teaching from the religious authorities, but women had too much work to do to sit around and study at the feet of a rabbi. They had to help with the family business and take care of the family home. In many households, not much has changed. 

To the onlookers in that house, Mary didn’t belong at the feet of Jesus. She belonged at her sister’s side, faithfully and dutifully serving their guests. Everyone in the room, when they heard Martha tell Jesus to send Mary into the kitchen to help, knew that the rabbi would set everything straight. A faithful teacher and custodian of the Jewish way of life would surely reinforce the sacred traditions of their people. But, when Jesus opened his mouth to offer his opinion on the matter, he didn’t send Mary away but instead invited Martha to join her.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled by many things,” he said to her. “Only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Watching Martha try to serve all the guests by herself, you couldn’t help but notice how frenzied the host had become. Luke tells us that she was “distracted by her many tasks,” and the word translated as “distracted” (περισπάω) has as its root a word that means “to be drawn about” or “to be dragged around.” Martha was literally spinning around the room, bouncing from one concern to another, unable to stay ahead of the demands placed upon her. 

Pushed to her limits and infuriated by her sister’s neglect, Martha asked Jesus, an arbiter of morality, to reinforce societal expectations. Apparently, she didn’t know whom she was dealing with. “You are worried and disturbed by many things,” Jesus said back to her. Martha’s distractions had escalated into full-on anxiety. Literally, Jesus’ words meant that Martha’s being drawn about (περισπάω) had caused her to be pulled apart (μεριμνάω). We might say that Martha had “gone to pieces,” implying that she had lost not only her composure but also her sense of herself. In fact, the word that Jesus used to identify Martha’s worry is the same word he would later use to teach his disciples that they should not worry about their life, what they will eat, or what they will wear (Luke 12:22). That sort of worry causes us to forget who we are and whose we are.

All the while, Mary, on the other hand, seemed completely oblivious to the chaos that was swallowing her sister. Pressing the noise and distraction out of her mind, she sat, listening to every word Jesus spoke. How different these sisters were! As if to make the distinction between the sisters even clearer, Luke records the last word Jesus said about Martha’s behavior as “many” and the first word he used to describe Mary’s as “one.” Although, in order to make sense of the text, translators need to rearrange the words, those who heard Jesus’ assessment of the sisters would have felt sharply the way Jesus turned from the many concerns of Martha to the singular focus of Mary.

Now that he has Martha’s attention, he invites her to consider an alternative. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” Jesus seems to be saying to his overwhelmed host. “Don’t focus on what the world expects of you. That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter what our spiritual ancestors would expect of you. Only one thing really matters, and your sister Mary has found that one thing—a better path—and nothing can take that away from her.”

This passage isn’t about leaving behind the servant’s heart of Martha in order to attain the meditative heart of Mary. It’s an invitation to discipleship that cuts through all the societal, familial, religious, and cultural barriers that get in the way of our following Jesus. This isn’t a rejection of being busy; it’s a rejection of being busy for the wrong reasons. Jesus isn’t critical of Martha’s efforts at hospitality but of the way she gets pulled apart by all the demands on her—pulled apart until anxiety causes her to lose touch with what really matters. There is another way, Jesus tells her.

Sometimes we are called to sit at Jesus’ feet until time itself stops and all the concerns of life melt away. And sometimes we are called to prepare a banquet for Jesus so wonderful that nothing could distract us from the one who comes to be our guest. Sometimes we follow Jesus with our minds, and sometimes we follow him with our hands, but those who belong to God in Christ must always follow Jesus with their whole hearts. The invitation to discipleship is an invitation to a way of life in which God is our only priority. All other ways of being and belonging—all our identities and our allegiances—become subject to the will of God.

I hear in this passage a profound and gracious invitation to those of us who feel pulled apart by all the demands that distract us from what really matters. We are children of God who belong to God because we belong to Jesus Christ. Nothing can take that away from us. Whenever we feel the chaos and anxiety of trying to serve two masters or experience the frustration and emptiness of being told that we don’t have enough time to be a true disciple, Jesus gently reminds us that only one thing matters. When we follow Jesus and give our whole selves to God, every moment, every action, every decision of our lives take on the clarity of our deepest identity as God’s children. That is the better way, and no one can take that away from us.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Vulnerable Invitation

July 3, 2022 – The 4th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 23:45.

The followers of Jesus have a lot of work to do. Jesus is coming, and with him comes the reign of God—the power and authority and presence of the divine will in every aspect of our lives. Jesus is coming, and he has sent his followers out to prepare for his arrival—to get every town, every village, every home, and every heart ready to receive him and the kingdom that he brings.

A mission that expansive requires an unimaginable level of commitment. More and more people are needed to share the good news of Jesus’ coming, so Jesus commissions his followers to carry out that work through ever-expanding relationships. “The harvest is plentiful,” he explains, “but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” There are too many people and places for a handful of disciples to reach on their own, so each disciple is asked to recruit more for the work we share. Being a follower of Jesus means inviting others to join in this movement until the good news of God’s loving reign has transformed the whole world into the dream that God has for all of us.

Back in the first century, Jesus appointed seventy disciples and “sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” These did not include the twelve disciples, whose names we know so well. These were seventy others, whose names are never mentioned—members of the movement who knew that their purpose was to go ahead of Jesus and get people ready for his arrival. Like an advance team, which comes to a city before a presidential visit or a country music concert, these seventy disciples were entrusted with great responsibility. 

Where would Jesus stay? Who would welcome him and his disciples? Who would feed all of them? Where would he speak—in the local synagogue or out on a beach or mountain side? Who would come and hear him preach? Back before Facebook or email or telephones or newspapers, how would people know that Jesus of Nazareth was coming to their town and that with him the kingdom of God was coming near?

Two thousand years later, is our mission all that different? Jesus is coming, and with him comes the transforming, redeeming, reconciling reign of God. In the cross, God has made us one with Godself and with each other. Our sins have been forgiven, and the powers of evil and death have been dealt a fatal blow. Wealth and greed and the economic disparity that they cause must give way to the universal prosperity of God’s kingdom. Hatred and prejudice and the violence that they fuel cannot withstand the coming reign of God. War and environmental degradation and the famine that they produce cannot persist when God’s will is manifest throughout the earth. Nothing can stop the fulfilment of God’s promises, which is drawing near to the world in Jesus Christ. 

Oh, there is so much work for the followers of Jesus to do. The harvest is still plentiful, but the laborers are still few. We need help. The annals of Christian history may not record our names either, but we are the ones who have been commissioned to do this important work, and there is too much work for us to do it all by ourselves. We must invite other people to know what God has done and is still doing. We must invite them to join us in the good and holy work of preparing to receive the reign of God and the one who brings it to the earth. We must tell them that Jesus is coming, but, usually, when I hear someone say those words—“Jesus is coming!”—I want to run off in the opposite direction. That’s because the people who say them usually seem to care more about their own reign and making me conform to it than inviting me into the glorious, gracious, loving reign of God. So, if we’re going to invite people to do just that—to prepare for the coming of Jesus—we must invite them in a way that is as counter-cultural as the kingdom we proclaim.

“Go on your way,” Jesus says. “See I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” Jesus’ strategy for his advance team is the opposite of what we would expect. Instead of telling them to pack a suitcase so that they can look clean-cut and professional, he tells them to take not even a change of clothes. Instead of giving them some money so that they can display signs of financial security and independence, he tells them to beg their way from town to town. Instead of encouraging them to make friends throughout a community so that a larger number of people might join their cause, he tells them to pick a house and stay there. 

Imagine a poor, disheveled stranger coming up to you and saying, “I have found the one in whom and through whom all of God’s promises are being fulfilled. He is the one who can bring us true prosperity and peace.” Imagine being invited into a religious tradition whose spokespeople aren’t icons of prestige and power, of wealth and accomplishment, but of humility and simplicity. Imagine being invited by them to follow Jesus. We might as well invite people to join our church because it will cost them all their money, their freedom, their power, their reputation, their family, and even their own lives. What kind of strategy is that for growing a church? But isn’t that exactly what Jesus is calling us to do?

The coming of Jesus and the coming of God’s reign, which Jesus brings, represent the overthrowing of all institutions of earthly power. If the kingdom of God stands in stark opposition to the kingdoms of this world, how can we belong to God and God’s rule when we immerse ourselves in the ways of earthly power? How can we belong to the one who belongs to the poor when we ourselves want nothing to do with them? How can we invite others to receive the reign of God when we hold up earthly things like wealth and power as the symbols of ultimate value?

The servants of Jesus invite the world to receive the reign of God by becoming utterly vulnerable in the world’s eyes. Those who would go before Jesus and prepare others to welcome him must embody with their lives the reign of God which they proclaim with their mouths. Are we ready to do that? This vulnerability is not the same thing as passivity. We are not called to sit idly by and wait for God to come and sort everything out. That isn’t discipleship; it’s fatalism. Instead, we are called to believe with our whole hearts and minds and souls and bodies that in Jesus Christ God has revealed a fundamental and unbreakable truth that is more valuable than anything that the world could ever give us. And that truth is this: our fundamental value comes not from who we are or what we accomplish but only from God’s unconditional and sacrificial love which is given to the whole world. 

When we believe that with our whole selves, we can afford to become vulnerable. In fact, when we belong to the one who establishes the reign of God by dying for the sake of the whole world, we cannot help but become vulnerable. That’s because, when we belong to Christ, we leave behind the fiction of defining ourselves according to the values of this world and begin to embody the values of God’s reign. And the world is eager to know that truth.

The vulnerability that comes from faith does not remove us from the world’s problems but always presses us deeper into them. It pushes us right into the midst of the ungodly circumstances in our society until God’s reign takes hold fully within them. By confronting the powers of this world with our allegiance to the reign of God, we become vessels through which that reign takes hold. That is how we invite others to prepare to receive Jesus, and that is why we have been commissioned by Christ to go ahead of him with nothing but the clothes on our backs and the good news of God’s love in our hearts.