Rich Toward God

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A sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 4, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21.

A few weeks ago, the Gospel was about Martha and Mary, the two sisters presented in the scriptures and tradition as being very different from one another.  Martha is the busy one, the detail person, and the one who often represents the active spiritual life.  Mary represents the contemplative spiritual life as she listens to Jesus, takes in his teaching, ponders, and meditates.  Though Jesus tilts the scale in Mary’s favor, he doesn’t overly criticize Martha.  And so, tradition has often suggested that even though a person may be a little more “Martha than Mary” or “Mary than Martha,” most of us are a combination of the two.

The picture on the cover of today’s worship leaflet, in some ways, shows a heightened sense of the personalities of Martha and Mary.  “The Moneylender and his wife,” by Quentin Matsys, shows a couple as they share a moment.  But just before this moment, the woman has evidently been looking at her breviary, her holy book, still open before her, with its colorful picture the Blessed Virgin Mary and child.  This woman seems to have been following in the footsteps of Mary of Bethany: thinking of Jesus, admiring the illustrated manuscript perhaps, and saying her prayers.  Meanwhile, her husband is doing the work of Martha: counting money, weighing goods, organizing things, keeping books, and probably doing what he can to keep the business going (and to keep his wife in illuminated manuscripts).

The painting by Matsys invites the viewer to think about where one looks, where one directs attention.  There’s a mirror in the foreground that invites one to reflect and ponder and enter into the story. To the far right, there’s a little door open and an older person talks with a younger person, perhaps offering guidance about the choices life will bring.  The whole picture asks, “To what extent does one spend one’s time counting money (whether the old fashioned way like the man in the painting, or the new-fashioned way of monitoring accounts online), or developing the spiritual life?”

Matsys probably intended the painting to have a strong moral tone.  Even more than Jesus’ taking the side of Mary over Martha, Matsys is painting in the tradition of Dutch and Flemish allegory, suggesting the danger to one’s soul, danger in diverting one’s gaze from what is holy to what is profane. We have a choice.  One chooses to be obsessed with money or to be obsessed with God.  One chooses to focus on work and what one needs to do to get ahead, or one focuses on God and God’s will.  One chooses vanity, or . . . .

An older perspective on this issue comes from our first reading, the Book of Ecclesiastes, often known for the lovely section, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…”  “Ecclesiastes” comes from the Latin, from the Greek, from the Hebrew word, “Qoheleth,” meaning, “the gatherer,” or “the preacher, or as the version we heard today says, “the teacher.”  Some have attributed the wise sayings of the Ecclesiastes to King Solomon, or someone in his court. 

The book is a rambling assortment of advice and counsel from a somewhat sophisticated, bemused point of view.  Today’s reading cautions against the building up of “vanity.”  All can be vanity or can turn to vanity. If one defines oneself entirely by work, or knowledge, or one’s ability to throw a good party, or make a grand impression… “all is vanity and chasing after the wind.”  The book ends in chapter 12 with final wise words, “The end of the matter; all has been heard.  Fear God, and keep his commandments” (Ecc. 12:13).  Qoheleth offers a view of balance and calm, of not getting too carried away, but to keep focused on loving God and keeping God’s commandments.

In the Gospel, Jesus takes us deeper into this exploration of vanity.  Jesus has been talking with a group of bystanders and 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 party is—it’s about whether we remembered to invite God or not.

Jesus tells this story about a man who keeps building up storehouses for all of his crops. The man builds in vain because he is disconnected from God. The building isn’t the issue.  The barn isn’t the issue.  The size of the barn isn’t even the issue.  The real issue has to do with the relationship one has with God.  Does the project, or the goal, or the job, or the task 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.”

The picture on our worship leaflet, like the historic distinction between Martha and Mary, in some ways invites us to make a false choice, I think.  With God’s grace, we don’t have to choose between the practical Martha personality and the pious Mary personality. We can be a combination.  We don’t have to be the moneylender (obsessed with the loot) or the Mrs. Moneylender (with her holy nose in a holy book until she’s distracted by the jingle of coins.)  Being rich toward God means being fully human and fully in love with God.

Being rich toward God does involve money, at some point, and the risk involved of letting go. In a matter of weeks, we’re going to break ground here because of the richness of you and others towards God, richness that’s for God, for this place, and for all those who will benefit.  We’ve been able to have a successful capital campaign not because of a few rich people (we don’t have many of those).  But instead, we’re blessed with folks who are rich toward God and have been lavish in their sharing on behalf of others.  We have a handful of larger, significant gifts—and we’re grateful for them.  But the bulk of our success has come from more modest gifts, from people who feel strongly about the need for accessibility and greater welcome, and from people who are making sacrifices and adjustments—in order to live more richly toward God and neighbor.

If we’re rich toward God, we will be rich toward God’s people.  It just works that way.  Being rich toward God involves also what we spend and invest in others: how we spend ourselves through the currency of our relationships—both with the people inside the church and those outside. Living richly toward others might mean that we give another the benefit of the doubt, offering first mercy instead of judgment, extending first a welcome rather than wondering if the stranger is “our type” or not.

Richness towards God involves our time, as well. 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 people hear that we’ve managed a balanced budget through the recession, that we’ve completed a successful capital campaign, and that we’re on schedule to begin construction next month, they sometimes ask, “Wow, you must have some wealthy people.”  I tell them, “No.  We don’t really have any wealthy people, but we do have a lot of rich people.”—rich in spirit, love, creativity, intention, and faithfulness.  May God make us richer, still.

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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