Living Richly

Narthex window, All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church

A sermon for Sunday, August 1, 2010. The lectionary readings for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost are Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21.

Not long ago I met someone who was interested in the church I serve. “Where, exactly, are you in Washington?” “We’re in Woodley Park,” I explained, “right near the National Zoo.” “Oh,” this person said, “that’s a nice neighborhood. It must be a wealthy church.”

I have to say, I was a little taken aback by the person’s directness. But thinking about this morning’s Gospel—a Gospel that encourages us to be rich toward God—I looked the person right in the eye and said, “Oh yes, we’re an extremely wealthy church. But I don’t think we’re wealthy in the way you mean.” There are times—in our church life, as in family life—when we don’t have all the money we’d like. There are some things we cannot do, some things we cannot fix right away, some causes we cannot give as much to as we might like. But like some very poor families, we are extravagantly wealthy in other ways. We are rich in our worship. We are rich in our affection for one another. We are rich in our welcome and our invitation for all. We are rich in our care for those who need something—whether that “something” is a material need, a physical need, or a spiritual need. We are rich towards God, even though God calls us to be richer, still.

Whether we have money to throw around in this world is another issue, really. We’re to be rich toward God, and that has little to do with the actual amount of money in our back account. I sometimes think that God might be almost indifferent as to whether we are wealthy (or not). I do think God wants us to have enough, to have plenty, to rejoice in bounty, to have everything we need, and perhaps even to have lots of extra– so that we can share and help out other people.

I believe God wants us to be full, satiated, complete and lacking nothing. But I don’t think God really cares whether we have one house or five. I don’t think God is bothered by what one drives, or what one wears, or whether one summers in Dupont Circle or the south of France. To get hung up on those questions is to miss the point of the Gospel.

Jesus suggests that we should be “rich toward God.”

Jesus has been talking with a group, probably a group of bystanders and some of the disciples. He’s been warning them about hypocrisy and trying to help them understand what it means to live a life completely dedicated to God. In this context, a man asks Jesus to take his side in a question over an inheritance. We don’t know the exact nature of this man’s question, but biblical scholars would point out that the reality of Jewish inheritance laws at that time held that the eldest son inherited twice the amount that might have gone to a younger sibling. Perhaps the speaker in the Gospel is one of the younger brothers.

I don’t know about you, but the part of me that longs for a world that is fair and just wishes that Jesus would take the man’s side. But that’s not the real issue here. Like he does in so many other situations, Jesus evades the political, cultural, or legal question. Instead, he goes right to the spiritual question.

Jesus uses the moment to point out to the crowd that the real issue real issue is about where one’s heart is. It’s not about who has more money, or more stuff, or more power, or more prestige. It’s about how we use it. It’s not about how big the wedding is—it’s about whether you invite God or not.

The Jesus tells the parable about a man who keeps building up storehouses for all of his grain. But the man builds in vain because he is disconnected from God. The real issue has to do with our relationship with what we have. Does it lead us closer to God and God’s people? Or does it drive a wedge between ourselves and all that is holy? Jesus says we need to be “rich toward God.”

Being “rich toward God” has to do with the currency of things.

We speak of the “currency” of things because they move around, they go from one person to the next, they have a life and rhythm to them. Things in currency are not meant to be kept in one’s hands, but get their life out of being passed around and shared. Wealth is like that. It grows only through a certain amount of risk.

It’s that way with the currency of money, the currency of our relationships, and the currency of time. All of these are ways that we can be rich toward God.

Being rich toward God does involve money, at some point, and with the risk involved of letting go. I grew up in a church in which members tried to outdo one another in giving—anonymously. Over and over, again, there would be some major gift to the parish, some program, some extra music, some new mission begun—with a grant from an anonymous donor. That’s living richly toward God.

Being rich toward God also means being rich toward God’s people, how we spend ourselves through the currency of our relationships—both with the people inside the church and those outside. What would it be like if we lived richly toward one another, giving one another the benefit of the doubt, offering first mercy instead of judgment, extending first a welcome rather than wondering if the stranger might fit in or not?

And finally, how do we spend our time? Do we give any of it to God—for God’s use, as well as simply time to be with God, to allow God to draw us closer through prayer, through reading of the Bible, through worship? All of this has to do with being rich toward God.

When I think of richness, of people I have know who were incredibly rich, I always think of the prayer circle of church women who would send me little notes when I was in seminary. This was a group of women at my home church who prayed together and studied the Bible. Every so often I would receive a card from them. In the card would be seven one-dollar bills, sometimes nine one-dollar bills, and one time, a small fortune: thirteen! Each time, the ladies would scribble a message, something to the effect of, “We know this isn’t very much, but we hope you can do something special with it. Spend it on yourself, don’t do anything responsible!” That made it challenging. I would get an expensive ice cream cone and write them about it. Once when they sent money, a new coffee shop had just opened and I got a really expensive, fancy coffee.

What made this such a wonderful gift was not only their random sweetness. But also, I knew these ladies, and I knew that they were not wealthy women. Like many older people, they were counting every single dollar and trying to cover medications, transportation, rent, contributions to church, support of family and friends…. and out of this, they gave also to me. I experienced their generosity not out of their wealth, but out of their richness.

On this day when the reading from Ecclesiastes reminds us to keep a perspective on life; and when the reading from Colossians urges us to worry not about clothes, but about clothing ourselves with such things as “compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience; may the Holy Spirit show us what it is to be filthy rich—rich toward God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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