Richness out of Poverty

generous spirit

A sermon for August 3, 2019, the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost.  The scriptures are Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21

(Sorry, but due to technical problems, there was no recording today.)

On a day in which we wake up to more news about shootings—one is El Paso yesterday, and another in Dayton last night—our first Reading from Ecclesiastes might come close to suiting our mood. “All is vanity.”  When we “apply our minds to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it [can seem] an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.” We work hard, we try to live good lives, we do our best with children and relatives. We inform ourselves on the issues and march, vote, protest, write, and try to stand for justice, but then, as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes puts it, “For all [our] days are full of pain, and [our] work is a vexation; even at night [our] minds do not rest.”  And even this, is vanity. Easier to read about Duchess Meghan’s birthday today (it will be a quiet affair, maybe with tea at Balmoral.) Or celebrate Barack Obama’s birthday today and reminisce about a president who could be articulate and kind. “All is vanity,” anyway, right?

Well, no.  The story of our faith doesn’t end with Ecclesiastes.  The world weariness is overwhelmed by the Word made Flesh.  God’s coming into the world in the form of Jesus the Christ changes everything.  It lifts us out of the doom of the devil and the dead end of cynicism.  Christ leads us in the difficult direction of hope.  He leads us in the painful way of love.  He teaches us how to find love in the presence of hatred, life in the presence of death, and richness in the midst of poverty.

Jesus suggests that we should be “rich toward God.”  When we’re poor in money, poor in spirit, or poor in faith, we might wonder how on earth we’re to do this, but that’s again where Christ comes through and gives us what we need.

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 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.

Then 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, I certainly think of Bill and Melinda Gates and their active philanthropy.  I think of Robert F. Smith, the amazing donor who is paying off all the student debt of the Morehouse Class of 2019. But I also think of the richness of spirit shown by a woman on the Select M-15 bus yesterday.  If you know the “select service,” you know that one has to obtain a paper ticket out of the kiosk at the various sidewalk stations.  Then, one simply gets on the bus and only shows the ticket, if asked—usually at random stops when getting off the bus, when the Transit Police do their checks.
Yesterday, we got our tickets in time for the bus and got on.  We noticed a man sort of angrily mumbling to himself about a ticket.  I slowly realized that he hadn’t quite understood the difference between the select bus and the regular bus, and so he had no ticket and was angry about the confusion. This being New York on a hot Saturday morning, most everyone simply ignored the man—perhaps he had emotional problems, or psychological problems, or drug problems.  But then, a woman who was sitting near him began to engage him and try to explain the bus system.  He said a little more, but seemed unconvinced about the system or what should happen next.  After a few minutes of his mumbling, the woman then said, “Look, I’m getting off on the next stop.  Why don’t you take my ticket in case anyone asks you for one. Ok?”  The man’s who attitude changed.  The anger went away.  He kept mumbling, but his frustration actually turned to flirting, as he reacted to the fact that a nice person had helped him—and that nice person happened to be a pleasant-looking woman.  She got off a the next stop, and the man got quiet, holding his new ticket.

We see these little acts of kindness all the time, and at our best—perhaps we perform some of them. They are reminders that we don’t have to be wealthy to be generous; we don’t have to have a lot of money to be rich. And even when we’re poverty-stricken– in spirit, in faith, or in money, the love of Christ gives us something to hold on to and to share.

May the Holy Spirit save us from cynicism and help us to live in richness of spirit.

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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