A sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 31, 2016. 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.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
Sometimes when I meet people and they find out I serve a church, sooner or later they ask some version of the same question: “How big is your congregation?”
I try to answer honestly and usually say something like, “We’re small but growing. We’re especially growing in prayer, in mission, in taking care of each other, and in being the Body of Christ in our neighborhood and beyond.” They usually push the point and ask, “Yes, but how many people come?” I then explain that we have an average Sunday attendance of 100 or so—and less in the summer.
Usually—but not always—I can sense their disappointment.
Our culture leads many people to believe that success is measured in numbers. The more, the better. And sometimes religions (or perversions of religion) actually preach this kind of thinking. A while back, just before the presidential primaries’ “Super Tuesday,” Pastor Mark Burns prayed at a Donald Trump rally saying, “There is no black person, there is no white person, there is no yellow person, there is no red person, there’s only green people!” he shouted. “Green is money! Green are jobs!!” (Time Magazine, http://time.com/donald-trump-prosperity-preachers/) Another friend of Mr. Trump is the televangelist Joel Osteen, who preaches to about 45,000 people who attend his churches every Sunday and reaches almost 7 million a week through television. He preaches a message of positive thinking and material success. And yet, he almost never mentions Jesus. Someone did a survey of Joel Osteen’s posts on Twitter and found that in a year’s worth of 806 tweets, Osteen mentions God 334 times. He mentions Jesus three times. “Christ” gets mentioned three times, too, but two of these misquote scripture and one is within the word “Christmas,” in which Joel and Victoria Osteen wish the world a merry one. (See Pulpit and Pen.org)
I don’t question that such preachers are religious. But I wish they and those who support them could at least be honest and clear about one thing: This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is not Christianity. This has nothing to do with the Jesus Christ who lived, died, and rose again for us.
Many of these “prosperity Gospel” preachers point to John 10:10 in which Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” But they pluck this verse out of thin air. You don’t have to go to seminary to be a preacher, but you DO have to read and study the Bible and not bend scriptures to say what you want them to say. This verse comes in the middle of the chapter in which Jesus calls us to be as sheep to the Good Shepherd. “Abundant life” has to do with our learning to live together in the sheepfold, close to the shepherd, being in relationship with the One who calls us by name, living like he does, loving like he does, and being willing to lay down a life for the sheep.
Today’s Gospel encourages us to be rich- but RICH TOWARD GOD. This may or may not involve money. It’s much larger. When I look closely at how Jesus deals with money and wealth in the scriptures, and I notice that he wines and dines with rich and poor alike, I get the idea that God is almost indifferent as to whether we are wealthy (or not). God wants us to have enough, to have plenty, to rejoice in bounty, to have everything we need, and God might even want those with special skills and abilities to have lots of extra– but’s that’s so that we can share the wealth, extend the blessing, and help out other people.
God wants us to be full, satiated, complete and lacking nothing. But God doesn’t care if we have one house or five. God isn’t bothered by what one drives, or what one wears, or whether one summers in the South Bronx or the south of France. But as Jesus says, we should be “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).
In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus has been talking with a group of people, 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.
Now, if I were one of the younger brothers (not to mention a sister who is left out completely), the part of me that wants a fair and just world wishes Jesus would just take the man’s side. But as with so many issues, Jesus looks beyond the surface issue to explore what’s deeper. Jesus evades the political, cultural, or legal question and instead, goes right to the spiritual question.
Jesus focuses on the heart. Where’s your heart? What’s your heart’s desire? What makes your heart grow and expand and feel alive? THAT’s what God is interested in. 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.
By way of answering the man in today’s story, Jesus tells a parable. He tells about a man who keeps building up storehouses for all of his grain. But the man builds in vain, trying to build bigger and higher—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?
Being “rich toward God” has to do with “currency” but not just in the monetary sense of that word. Jesus moves with a kind of currency of life, through which the Holy Spirit operates and animates.
In economics, we speak of a “currency” because a currency allows things to move around, to go from one person to another, to have a life and rhythm that allows for free movement. Things in currency are not meant to be kept in one’s hands, but they get their life out of being passed around and shared. Wealth is like that. It grows only through a certain amount of risk.
While it’s surely that way with the currency of money, it’s also true with the currency of our relationships and the currency of time. All of these are ways that we can be rich toward God.
Of course “being rich toward God” will involve money, at some point, and through faith, it will involve the risk 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—each time, 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 more 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, and some of the richest people I’ve known, a lot of faces come to mind. But among them are a handful of women from my home church who prayed for me while I was in seminary. They met regularly to pray and study the Bible, and every so often I would receive a card from them. Sometimes, in the card would be seven one-dollar bills, sometimes nine one-dollar bills, and one time (perhaps their attendance rose for that meeting), I receive a small fortune: thirteen dollars! 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 too responsible!” That last phrase made it challenging, because I knew they didn’t want me to spend the money on books or tuition. And so, each time, I would do something slightly out of the ordinary— get a really expensive ice cream cone and write them about it. Or when a new coffee shop opened, I would get a rare, exotic, and expensive kind of coffee. I thought of it like the woman who used expensive perfume as a gift to Jesus—my job was not to quibble, but to be gracious and say “thank you.”
What made the dollar bills in the occasional care such a wonderful gift was not only their random sweetness. But even more— I knew these ladies, and I knew that they didn’t have a lot of one-dollar bills to share (and even fewer 5’s, 10’s, or 20’s.) They were not wealthy women. They were counting every penny, trying to cover medications, transportation, rent, contributions to church, support of family and friends…. and out of this, they also chose to give to me. They were not wealthy, but they were sure “rich” toward me, and taught me something about being “rich toward God.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ has always been especially good news to those who are poor—those poor in spirit, poor in health, and those who are just, plain poor. The Gospel is Good News not because it says that if we say our prayers, we’ll get rich, or that if we follow Jesus all our problems are solved. Instead, the Gospel promises us a relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ, who moves through us like a currency of love, showing us how to be rich toward God and one another. THAT kind of richness lifts up everyone, improves everybody, and blesses all.
The scriptures today work together. The reading from Ecclesiastes reminds us to keep a perspective on life. St. Paul urges the Colossians not to worry so much about clothes, but instead, try to put on “compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience.”
Following Christ in abundant life, 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.