Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 14, 2012
In the name of our living God. Amen.
In our Godly Play classroom, the Sunday School class for our youngest kids, this box sits on one of the front shelves. It doesn’t need to be February 14 to get the symbolism, right? (Preacher holds up a wooden, heart-shaped box.) This is a gift. It is given because someone loves someone. If I open it, you will see that there are pieces that, when put together in a particular way, stack up to make a 3-dimentional heart. One side says “love God,” one side says “love your neighbor” and the sides come together and are united in the phrase, “God loves you.”
We call this box the “10 Best Ways.” Altogether, the pieces make up the formula that lets us know God’s ideas about the best ways to live our lives. Three of them have to do with the best way to be with God: We are to love God more than anything else; we are to keep from worshiping anything that is not God; we are to keep God’s name holy. Six of them tell us about the best way to be with other people: we are to honor each other; there is to be no murder, no stealing, no lying, and we are not to envy what others have. The 10th Best Way is to make sure that we keep time to rest and reflect – time to remember who God is and to remember who we are. According to scholars, these Ten Commandments, when put into practice, were the things that distinguished the Hebrew people from their neighbors. They were more than rules to live by in order to make a god happy; they actually identified what god a people served.
Their god was a personal god – a god who desired a relationship with the people – a relationship that was meant to be played out in just and peaceful relationships between people. It was to be an interplay between the Divine and the mortal, an interplay between mortals, that was based in mutual care and respect, an interplay that occurred in an atmosphere of creative love and justice.
When things went awry for the Hebrew people, they felt free to bring it up to God. As we heard both in the story from Job and in the Psalm today, God’s people were not afraid to give voice to their disappointment and to their frustrations, to their distress and their fear. They had a relationship with a god who was close, a god who they believed cared about them.
Our Gospel lesson this morning portrays the same kind of god. In the person of Jesus, we find a God who chose to invest in humanity in the most extraordinary way. Closing the gap between the Divine and the mortal, God’s deep love and desire for relationship with the creation is made imminently possible – first in the person of Jesus, the Christ, and then in the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Our story about the rich young man includes this kind of God – a God who was close – flesh and blood – eating and drinking, walking and resting, calling and caring, healing and teaching. Jesus. The interaction between this young man and Jesus makes it pretty clear that the young man trusted in Jesus’ ability to offer words of direction when he was feeling less than fulfilled. Sure, he had been following the ancient laws – the laws that gave him his religious identity and the laws he assumed would bring peace of mind. But they didn’t. He was still uneasy, still looking for more, still wondering. Is there something else…something I’ve missed….something I need to re-think….something more I need to do?
His question was an honest one and Jesus answered not only with honesty but also with love. He could have responded, “My dear friend, you have fulfilled the law. Be at peace. You are in a good and safe place.” But he did not answer that way – he did not brush aside the young man’s earnest desire to hear the truth, to learn more, to receive counsel in terms of his spiritual life. Jesus took the young man’s question seriously and answered his question in a way that required some serious consideration.
Serious consideration. I have a personal story about that.
It was about this time of year and the church where my husband was the Rector was getting ready to host an alternative gift market. This is a project very similar to our practice of “Doing Christmas Differently” – we give money toward a project that will relieve human suffering in the name of the person we want to give a gift to. That year, we had decided to buy a very modest alternative gift because we had some other gift –giving in mind. After years of living on the edge ourselves, we had, at the suggestion of a therapist friend, decided to buy one gift that Christmas – a family sized tent that would allow us to take our yearly camping vacation without sharing equipment and a campsite with my parents-in-law – something we had done for many years in a row, something our therapist friend thought should change, something both my husband and I thought was an excellent idea!
So there, on our coffee table lay two brochures. One was filled with camping equipment and the other included pictures of smiling third-world families: children holding chickens, women checking out new sewing machines, a man milking a goat and a picture of a whole village drawing water from a newly drilled well. It was Saturday night; the alternative gift market was to take place the following morning. As I tucked the kids into bed and prayed our evening blessing, one of them looked up from her pillow and quietly asked, “Mama, do you think it’s fair for us to have a tent when some people don’t even have water?”
Oh, man – I had gone over this in my head hundreds of times already. Compared to our neighbors and most of the parishioners, we had very little. Living in a wealthy lakeside community, our kids were part of the 3% that qualified for the free lunch program at school and we already pledged a tenth of our income to the church. Certainly we deserved this one “extravagance.” I went back through both catalogues and found what must have triggered my daughter’s question. The tent we had chosen and the cost of digging a well in Africa cost the exact same amount – $350, if I remember correctly.
I didn’t sleep much that night; I was angry and I was sad. I imagine that the feelings I had were very similar to those that the rich young man in our Gospel story must have had. Sell all you have and give the money to the poor. You’ve got to be kidding, right?
What is it with Jesus and money?
One could take this story as a private conversation between one wealthy man and Jesus. Maybe this man had way more than his share; maybe his wealth was ill gained and only accumulated because others had gone without. But this was a faithful man, one who had met the obligations of the law and presumably, there wasn’t an issue of his being an oppressive tyrant – living high on the hog off the sweat of someone else’s brow. I suppose it could be about this one man’s relationship to his money. But I doubt that too.
I think it’s about money. Here’s why.
Money puts a value on everything. One thing is deemed better than another because it has a higher value. If something costs more, it is more valuable. Things that have higher value have that higher value usually because of an arbitrary decision on the part of someone who – or some group that – has more money.
Money creates inequality. It is provides the fertile ground where deep roots of greed form in some while deep roots of envy destroy the souls of others. Wealth divides. It sets up barriers between people – arbitrary barriers that keep people apart. It can wreak havoc in families (just ask any estate attorney) and tear apart the fabric of our most important relationships and communities. Money distorts and money corrupts. And this year we see that in this country where we claim a form of government based in democracy, money is buying elections.
What is it with Jesus and money?
Arbitrarily defined value based on money, inequality created by money, divisions caused by money and the corruption that is too often established by money are not what God has in mind for the human family. God’s economy is based on other things. God desires mercy. God wants justice. God’s law is love – not some invisible hand.
Thirty years ago I needed to hear my daughter’s question about a tent and a well. The rich young man needed to hear Jesus’ suggestion about getting rid of his possessions and giving his money to the poor. I don’t know what you need to hear this morning. But as I wrote this sermon, I prayed that the words of our Epistle lesson would be realized as we hear the invitation to reflect on our lives, our commitments, our getting and our giving.
In the letter to the Hebrews, the author reminds us, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
This is serious business. These are sobering words. The counsel doesn’t end there. The serious business of honest reflection about what we have and what we do with what we have is followed by the most incredible promise. We have a great high priest – one who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, tested in every way that we are, Jesus Christ, who encourages us to approach the throne of grace with boldness – whether we have much or we have little, whether we have heard and followed or turned away for a while. God will not be offended. God wants to hear from us – whatever it is we have to say. God wants what is best for us and God wants us to learn what is truly valuable because we are loved – as we are – today. Amen.