Archives for September 2012

How wealthy was the Rich Young Ruler really?, 20 Pentecost, Proper 23 (B) – October 14, 2012

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-15 (or Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 and Psalm 90:12-17); Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Today’s story of the Rich Young Ruler is one of the most familiar in the gospels. This may be due, in part, to the fact that it occurs in more than one gospel. In addition to Mark’s account, almost identical stories can be found in Matthew and Luke. It is familiarity with all three of these that causes us to call it the story of the Rich Young Ruler. Though he is rich, or at least identified as “having many possessions” in all three gospels, it is Matthew who tells us he is young and Luke who calls him a ruler. But no matter what we call him, the subject of the story is the same: wealth and its role, not just in the life of this man, but in our own.

Wealth bought privilege in the time of Christ, and it does today. In Jesus’ world, it could be seen as a reward for faithfully following God’s commands. Do you remember Job? When he lost his children, his flocks and herds, all that he had, his supposed friends, who came to commiserate with him, kept asking what sin he had committed to cause God to take away all these things. They assumed Job’s wealth, both familial and financial, were signs of God’s favor. Up to the point of the loss of this wealth, everyone had seen Job as a righteous man, one who had, therefore, received these signs of blessing. The loss of his wealth, therefore, must be outward and visible signs of the loss of that divine favor. As a rich man, he was one of God’s favorites. As one who had lost his wealth, Job had done something to offend God.

Now look again at our Rich Young Ruler. As a wealthy person who kept all the commandments, he must have enjoyed approval, privileges, the envy of his community and regard as one who did indeed enjoy God’s favor. We might expect that he was a favorite of the temple hierarchy, an honored guest among his friends, and probably seated at the head of the table instead of the foot. His wealth most likely placed him in the among the first of his community, most decidedly not the last.

To give away all his possessions was to risk losing all of this. His friends might look upon him as Job’s friends looked upon Job. What had he done that he must give everything away and atone by giving it all to the poor? Would selling all that he had include selling his home, not to mention all the possessions that furnished it? And how would he buy food? How would he live? Is it any wonder that he walks away in sorrow?

Our Rich Young Ruler is not the only one distressed. Imagine the expressions on the faces of the disciples when Jesus tells them it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. It is a powerful metaphor. People have struggled with it for centuries. Since Medieval times, some have believed that “the eye of the needle” referred to a very short gate into Jerusalem. However, there is no evidence that such a gate ever existed. The word used in the Greek text refers to an actual sewing needle. In any case, Jesus is talking about trying to push something much too large through an opening much too small. The only way to enter that small door is to get rid of all the excess.

Mansions, walk-in closets full of rarely or never-worn clothing, cabinets full of things that are seldom used but need to be dusted, all of the non-essentials that wealth tempts us to accumulate can become not signs of God’s blessings, but the barriers to a life-altering relationship with God.

Possessions are a primary temptation that comes with wealth. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. “I want it. I have the money; I’ll buy it.” As prosperity grows, our decisions about using money move slowly from an emphasis on needs to wants. We have it not because we need it, but because we want it. Throughout his ministry it becomes abundantly clear that Jesus hopes our want will be to satisfy the needs of others. In the third parable in Matthew 25, the sorting parable, Jesus makes it clear that those who have been attentive to the needs of those around them, those who have offered food for the hungry, something to drink to the thirsty, visited the sick and those in prison, these are the ones who will enter the kingdom of heaven. To care for these ones in need is to care for Jesus himself. Those who are not willing to use their own possessions to meet the needs of others can expect eternal fire.

Considering how harshly Jesus talks about the rich, it is reasonable to ask how Jesus feels about them. The young teenager was not alone when he asked the leader of the Bible study, “Does this mean that Jesus hates rich people?” Thankfully, Mark provides a clear answer when he tells us in verse 21, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” and then goes on to instruct the young man to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and come and follow him. Jesus’ reply is deeply rooted not in envy, distrust or any desire to put down one whose position of privilege came from worldly wealth. It comes from the kind of love that would yearn for this man to know his true worth without the possessions, the ways in which God’s love wants to provide for him in ways he can never provide for himself, to know the confidence that he is indeed one of God’s beloved and to live in that light.

As we watch the young man walk away, some recall the widow whom Jesus applauds when she, among all the people bringing substantial offerings, gives only two small coins. In Mark 12 we read: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she, out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Ironically, the widow has done what the Rich Young Ruler could not. Can it be that it is easier not to possess many things?

Consider this lesson on how to trap a monkey. The story goes that African hunters wanting to capture monkeys unharmed would use as a trap a bottle with a long narrow neck, just large enough so a monkey could put its hand in it. In the evening the bottle would be tied to a tree, and in the bottom of the bottle they would place several good-smelling nuts. In the morning they would find a monkey with its hand clutching the nuts, held securely in the bottle. At any time, the monkey could have released itself simply by opening its hand and letting go of the nuts.

“You can’t take it with you,” is a common bit of folk wisdom. It usually means that when we die, we have to leave all of our possessions behind, so we might as well enjoy them now. What Jesus seems to be saying to us is that not only can we not take possessions with us beyond the grave, but clinging to them, like the monkey to its nuts, holds us captive. There will be places we cannot go, experiences we cannot have, and insights that will never illuminate our lives if we let our possessions possess us.

This does not mean that prosperity should not be seen as coming from God. It can be seen – just as we see wisdom, talent, opportunity and a host of other things – as a gift from God. Too often, however, we fail to recognize that every Godly gift carries with it God’s hope for how it might be used. Joy for us is when we align our use of the gifts God gives with what we discern to be God’s hope. Our Rich Young Ruler is a monkey who cannot let go, free himself of the bottle, and enter into an earthly adventure that will carry him surely to the kingdom of heaven.

In reflection on today’s reading, three questions come to mind:

What are the gifts God has given us?

What is God’s hope for their use?

Are we able to let go of whatever it is that keeps us from following Jesus?

 

— The Rev. Terry Parsons served as the stewardship officer for the Episcopal Church from 1996 to 2008 and remained a churchwide resource for inquiries about stewardship, evangelism, marketing and congregational development. Most recently, she served as the rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Bay City, Mich.

[NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: The Rev. Terry Parsons passed away on October 3, 2012 (obituary). She is remembered with great fondness and respect by those of us who were fortunate enough to have known her and worked with her over the years. It is with heartfelt gratitude for her knowledge and expertise in the field of Christian stewardship that we offer this final sermon by the Rev. Parsons.]

A run through the thorns, 19 Pentecost, Proper 22 (B) – October 7, 2012

Job 1:1, 2:1-10 and Psalm 26 (or Genesis 2:18-24 and Psalm 8); Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

This morning, may we dare to run through the field of thorns and find the great treasure that awaits us there. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today’s gospel passage catches our attention because it addresses marriage and divorce in a way that’s unavoidable. Many preachers would like to bypass this text on this day, preach on marriage only at weddings, and not have to talk about divorce at all.

And who can blame them? Preaching about divorce and marriage is like running through a field of thorns. Why? Because any contemporary congregation is likely to contain people who are married, people who are divorced, people who are divorced and remarried, people who may get divorced at some time in the future, people who have been treated shabbily by churches due to their marital difficulties, peoples whose lives and families and friends have been hurt by the pain of divorce. It’s everybody’s issue, indirectly or directly. Preaching about it looks like running through a field of thorns, and listening to a sermon on marriage and divorce can, no doubt, seem the same way: one misstep and we just add to the hurting.

But let us venture together carefully into the thorny field, in the hope that amid the briars we can find together what sermons are supposed to reveal: good news for a world that’s broken and in pain.

The discussion gets started because some of the Pharisees are out to get Jesus. They want to trap him in his words and so destroy his credibility. The issue they raise is a controversial one at that time: whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Authorities differ on this question. Some allow divorce only in instances of adultery. Others allow divorce for the slightest of reasons. But note how the issue is framed: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? No consideration is given to the possibility of a wife divorcing her husband. That is out of the question. Here men have all the power.

Jesus knows this question is not an honest inquiry. These Pharisees are not interested in his opinion, but in testing him, defeating him. He responds to the question with a question: “What did Moses command you?” In other words, How does the Law of Moses read, the law you hold in such high regard?

Jesus knows the answer, of course, and so does everyone within hearing distance. It’s what today is called a no-brainer. And so the Pharisees shoot back the correct reference: Moses allows a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.

The reference here is to Deuteronomy, Chapter 24. It’s arguable, to say the least, that Moses is giving permission to divorce. What he does instead is to recognize that divorce happens and to set forth norms regarding certain types of remarriage. Like the canon law of the Episcopal Church, Moses acknowledges that divorce happens here in this world outside the Garden of Eden.

The acknowledgment found in Deuteronomy is turned by these particular Pharisees into permission for divorce. But remember, here we are not talking about an egalitarian model of marriage and divorce, but a system where men have all the power, where the sexes are treated unequally, and where a divorced woman has very little hope for the future.

Rather than endeavor to trap Jesus in his words, these Pharisees could have sought to learn something from him. Rather than raise questions about divorce, they could ask advice about how to live faithfully and well within marriage. What an opportunity they miss!

These Pharisees get the reference right, but get the spirit wrong. And Jesus lays into them. “So you give that Deuteronomy passage as permission for divorce, with its demand that the paperwork be in order? Moses would never have written that except for divorce happening anyway, except for the hardness of the human heart in this world outside Eden!”

It is as though he thumps a finger against the sternum of each of those Pharisees and says: “Don’t you get it? You hearts are hard! If human hearts were not hard, then marriages would always work, and Moses wouldn’t have written about what happens when they don’t!”

Jesus addresses each one of us and says the same thing: “Don’t you get it? Your hearts are hard!”

But please note this, and note it well. He’s not just challenging the divorced among us. He’s challenging every last one of us, even if we have been married happily for six decades. The divorced are not to be regarded as some pariah class different from the rest of us. The problem of the hard heart is not limited to divorced people, but is common to us all. In some it becomes manifest in a marital break-up. In others it shows itself in a marriage that remains together but is lifeless. In still others, hardness of heart appears in a failure to forgive our friends, in a judgmental spirit toward our children or parents, or any of the other forms of sin in which we humans become trapped. The divorced are not worse and not better than the rest of us. We all find ourselves in the same place: outside the gates of Eden.

But then Jesus stops talking about hard hearts. Instead, he takes us by both hands and looks at us with an expression of compassion, hope and remembrance. He calls us back to a time before the invention of power games, whether the sexism of his own period or today’s equal-opportunity destructiveness, where either partner can damage the other. Jesus, looking at us with that expression of compassion, hope, and remembrance, calls us back to a time before time, back to when our home was the Garden, back to the intention of God at creation. God made them male and female. Delightfully different. Wonderfully equal. Intended to be one flesh. No hardness of heart. No games, no secrets, but naked and unashamed.

We read in Genesis that the woman was made from the man’s rib. It’s said in Jewish tradition that the reason for this peculiar procedure is that woman and man might be intimate and equal. Woman was not made from man’s head, so that she should be superior, nor from his feet, that she should be inferior, but rather from a bone near his center, near his heart, that the two might be equal and intimate.

Just as a husband and wife can draw strength from remembrance of their early days as a couple, so all of us can discover again the mystery of marriage by recalling God’s original intention: that man and woman both are made in the divine image and meant for one another in a relationship of equality and intimacy.

Yes, of course, there are some marriages that are dead from the start, and others that die along the way. There are people who simply marry the wrong partner, and spouses who have the right to escape what has become of marriage when their safety or sanity is threatened.

But in other cases, divorce happens because people see marriage like those opponents of Jesus did: as a power relationship, as a problem that divorce can solve, where an insane consumer culture leads people to treat as disposable not only houses and cars, but also spouses and families.

That’s not it! Marriage is not a problem to be solved. It is a mystery to be lived. It is not a business deal subject to a cost-benefit analysis. It is a means by which wife and husband can participate in the kingdom of God – and do so in the comfort of their own home!

Some of the male contemporaries of Jesus saw their wives as merchandise, property. It is dubious progress that now both wife and husband can regard each other in that belittling way. Instead, each spouse is to be to the other joy and challenge, cross and crown.

If you are married, God has given you your spouse not so that you can experience mere consumer happiness like the owner of a new appliance designed with obsolescence in mind.

If you are married, God has given you your spouse so that together you can taste in your human way something of the joy of the marriage between God and creation, Christ and the church, the Lamb and his bride.

In our time we know too well that a broken marriage can seem like the road to hell. May we not forget that God’s abiding intention is quite the opposite: marriage is intended as a road to heaven; not a problem, but a holy mystery; not a mere happiness, but a divine joy.

In the name of the God who in the end calls all his children home to the wedding feast where by the Spirit’s power we will find ourselves united with Christ forever. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

Salted with fire, 18 Pentecost, Proper 21 (B) – September 30, 2012

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

What starts out with the disciples trying to score points with Jesus for stopping someone who is doing the work of the kingdom – healing and casting out demons – ends with Jesus telling us all to be salted with fire! In between there is all this talk of stumbling around and lopping off limbs, tearing out eyeballs and being thrown into “hell”: all in all, a fun day with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.

This is all a part of a longer section of Mark’s gospel concerned with discipleship – faithful discipleship. That is, What is expected of those of us who would call ourselves Christians? This really is a question about what it means to be human. We are to be spiced up, healed and purified by fire and salt. Oh yeah, and stop stumbling around.

Fire in the ancient world was used to purify things. Still is. Get rid of that deadly E. coli bacteria with fire, lots of fire. Just as we were all eating our spinach fresh and loving rare hamburgers, now we are told to boil the spinach to death and go back to well-done burgers.

Which bring us to salt. Salt was used to preserve foods, extend shelf life if you will. It was also used to spice things up. And finally, salt was used medicinally.

Altogether these sayings on fire and salt suggest several things. Healing within the community of Christ is necessary to be a disciple of Jesus – especially healing that is reconciliation rather than division and challenging one another’s credentials. (We might note the vast difference in meaning between Jesus’ “Whoever is not against us is for us,” and the more popular, “You are either with us or against us.”) Further, the salt that flavors us distinctively as Christ’s own people is meant to keep us from blending in with the surrounding culture. This distinctiveness implies eliminating – lopping off – those things that cause us to stumble (skandalon in Greek) – things that get in the way of being good and faithful disciples so that we can all do the work of the gospel. The contribution of Christians to the health of the world depends on our own wholesomeness. The life of the world depends on us.

Another metaphor for all of this might be pruning. We need to prune away those things that block us from following Jesus and fulfilling our Baptismal Covenant so that we can grow in those ways that make us more human. The Christian life is a life of following and pruning – pruning and following. This pruning is not so much for our sake as for the sake of the gospel.

Most of what needs to be pruned away is a modern world that teaches self-centeredness and self-reliance,  independence, as the key to the fullness of life. Whereas Jesus calls us to be those people who dare to say that the secret of life – and death – is giving oneself away: reaching out to others, to the world and to God. It is a call to a radical dependence on God. God has gifted us with himself – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us – and if we wish to achieve fulfillment, we, too, must give ourselves away. Moral progress comes only as we learn to acknowledge life as a gift – not earned or achieved – but given.

To be wrapped up in ourselves, self-centered and autonomous, says Jesus, quite simply is hell. In the text, the word is actually “Gehenna” – which is a place. Gehenna is a valley outside Jerusalem, which to this very day is a burning, worm-infested garbage dump. It also used to be the site for human sacrifices to the god Molech. There is always fire smoldering in this valley, and over time it became a geographic metaphor for what happens to those people who have little regard for others, the environment, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.

It is interesting to note that Gehenna is a product of our own creation. People go to the edge of a cliff and toss all their personal refuse over the cliff. We are guilty of this – dumping our personal stuff on others, on the earth and on God. This dumping is sin. Sin, says our Baptismal service, is those things that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, including God’s creation.

Sin is related to temptation. So, when gas is cheaper we think we can go back to pouring even more pollution into the earth’s atmosphere and pay less for the privilege. Hell, it turns out, is of our own creation and is determined in the here and now. Hell is not some future destination. We manufacture hell every day for those who are hungry, those who have no health insurance, those who suffer from disease fostered by toxic pollution, and with our the capability of nuclear arms to destroy this planet.

And hell is not a condition that affects just the individual; hell exists collectively in human society as well. Hell is the drive toward self-reliance, self-autonomy, whether of individuals, communities, churches, governments or nations. The Anglican priest and poet John Donne said it best some 360 years ago: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

So, the answer to the question, Why is Jesus talking about hell and cutting off limbs and plucking out eyes? To impress upon us the importance that what we are doing right here and now matters. That all that we do and all that we say has eternal consequences.

We can choose to create hell, or to become purified by fire and seasoned with the salt of Jesus. We can squabble over who is the greatest and who can or cannot heal and cast out demons, or we can welcome everyone who does the work of Christ who has already redeemed the whole world on the cross. We can be those people who hold on to all we have, or become those people who give ourselves away. We do this not for our sake but for the sake of the gospel, for others and the world.

We do this to become people of fire and salt. As we read in today’s gospel, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland, where he teaches World Religions and IB English. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

Faith matters more than a running tab of good works, 17 Pentecost, Proper 20 (B) – 2012

September 23, 2012

Proverbs 31:10-31 and Psalm 1 (or Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20 and Psalm 54); James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

In the preface to his 1522 translation of the New Testament, Martin Luther famously refers to the Letter of James – from which our second reading today is taken – as a “straw-letter,” or an “Epistle of Straw,” as it is more often called. What he meant by this comment has been the subject of scholarly conjecture and debate for centuries and will probably remain so for some time to come. Curiously, the remark is missing from later editions of the Luther Bible, so perhaps Luther had second thoughts about his initial assessment of the letter.

But no matter how you look at it, the Letter of James is indeed a bit of an oddity in the New Testament canon. One commentary notes, for instance, that Jesus is mentioned only twice in the entire letter and then rather perfunctorily. Little in the letter is specifically Christian, and much of the text is given over to advice and exhortation, not unlike that found in the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Scriptures – the Old Testament – or perhaps even the New Age literature of our own day. Thus, the letter has remained more or less an anomoly and on the back shelf of scripture study for centuries.

Luther was likely most discomfited by the letter’s seeming emphasis on human wisdom and common sense – doing the right thing, we might call it – works, in other words, as opposed to faith. In James, it almost seems sometimes as if salvation could indeed be won by our own efforts and action without the Cross of Christ, which is tellingly not mentioned even once in the entire letter.

Luther’s misgivings may have been justified.

Yet the truth is that most Christians of any age – in spite of what scripture tells them and us about the importance and centrality faith – remain firm believers in works. We are all “Jamesians,” to coin a phrase. Deep down, most of us believe in salvation by works. We readily judge others by their deeds. Ask most any Christian today how they plan to get to heaven, and they will readily tell you that it is by trying to lead a good life and helping others. By works, in other words. Few will first cite their faith in the loving mercy of God and in Christ’s redemptive death on the cross.

Meanwhile, we all want to get ahead in the world – perhaps not unlike the disciples in today’s gospel account.

Asked by Jesus what they were arguing about along the way, they are at first silent but then sheepishly admit that they were contesting who among them was to be the greatest – who would achieve the most. There are probably few better examples in scripture of the allure of works and their presumed rewards over faith and its illusive promise than this telling admission from the closest followers of our Lord. No wonder “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him,” when Jesus spoke of his impending death.

Perhaps the disciples just did not want to hear about it. Likely in their effort to become “the greatest” they were more comfortable matching good deed for good deed with their fellow disciples – as if the spiritual life were a sport or competition – rather than in thinking about the depth of their faith in our Lord, much less in his Cross, about which at this point they admittedly had only an inkling.

Anyway – they may have thought – how would you even measure and quantify faith? Surely, it is easier to count good works and keep a running tab. Perhaps it would be better for them, as some in our society today seem to advocate, to become totally self-reliant and ruggedly individualistic Apostles – with a capital “A” – than childlike and humble servants of all, concerned only for the needs of those less fortunate.

Still, as the medieval theologians remind us, faith builds on nature.

You have to start somewhere. And at some level, we all begin with works. For most of us, including the disciples, this means somehow taming our own base instincts for self-defeating and self-destructive behavior. Where, in other words, do “conflicts and disputes” come from, James asks. Precisely from the “cravings” that are at war within each of us. That which comes from heaven, on the other hand, is in James’ words “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Human wisdom left to itself, James concludes, is too often “boastful and false to the truth” – seeking, not unlike the disciples, self-aggrandizement and recognition – to be the greatest.

He may not have been a great theologian like Paul – or Luther for that matter – but James has a common-sense grasp of the dynamics of the human heart. Works or no works, he appreciates that we must first “resist the devil … and draw near to God.” We must do something. It is only then, he seems to tell us, that God will ultimately “draw near” in turn and approach us with the gift of grace and redemption.

Christ draws near us in his death and resurrection.

Our gospel account reminds us of this reality in our Lord’s own words to his sometimes clueless disciples. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him,” he tells them and us, “and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” For Christians today, rising with Christ still means dying with him to self and “selfish ambition,” as James calls it.

It means finally putting all of our faith in the only “works” that matter: Christ’s own death and resurrection.
— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a chaplaincy of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” St. Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com.