Possessions, Pentecost 21 (B) – October 14, 2018

Proper 23


[RCL]: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

In today’s Gospel, a man with many possessions encountered Jesus. His wealth of possessions is central to the message.

Possessions – are they good or bad? Blessings or hindrances? Deficits or potential assets?

Like many aspects of life, it all depends. But, perhaps, the more important questions are: What is this Gospel story all about? How does Jesus use the possessions to teach his disciples about God? How can possessions or anything else make all the difference in our seeking ultimate answers about the meaning of our lives?

The man with many possessions started off with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was looking for an inheritance – not a gift or a payment or an allowance or a reward – but an inheritance. The Greek word quoted by Mark seems to convey exactly what it does to us. Did the man with many possessions see himself as a child of God who was due a birthright like one might expect from a parent? Yet, the dialogue that followed his question seems more like an exercise in earning something rather than inheriting it.

Whatever the case, he wanted Jesus to tell him how to secure the benefits of God’s most fundamental values – and to find the key to a meaningful, contented, and fulfilling life.

Jesus’ initial response to “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is also quite interesting. Referring to the Ten Commandments, he offered a list of what the man had to do to qualify. But when the man with many possessions testified to his lifelong practice of following the commandments, Jesus sought to provoke in him, as he provokes in us, a whole new level of understanding about eternal life in God. With love for him, the Lord said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Eternal life does not mean life until the end of time. It is not about quantity, but quality. Eternal life means a deep connection with the ageless and invincible values of the Kingdom of God. Eternal life describes the quality of relationship between human beings and Christ, bringing us into a present knowledge and experience with the loving and living spirit of God.

As we consider our Lord’s encounter with the man with many possessions, we can imagine Jesus’ insight into his heart and soul. He had followed the specific, outward regulations that were spelled out in the Bible – but Jesus perceived that something still blocked him from total obedience to God – his many possessions. Material belongings stood in the way of his following Christ, because, having heard Jesus’ opinion that he needed to give them up, he went away shocked and grieving, stunned and defeated – perhaps with a broken heart. He could not meet the ultimate measure of obedience to God. His love of possessions blocked him from totally loving God and following Christ.

Many scholars are quick to say that this is not necessarily a teaching by Jesus against a Christian’s having material possessions, in whatever quantity. They remind us that the crisis for the man with many possessions was not how much he owned, but that the property owned him, blocking his way to unity with God.

Thinking about such views is a necessary beginning for each of us to examine in our own lives the relevance of today’s Gospel story.

Would Jesus have said to another person, “One thing you lack,” and then listed something quite different from selling possessions and giving the income to the poor? What does Jesus say to you and to me – about the one thing more that we lack? What do we need to give up, to rid ourselves of, to put behind us, that would allow us completely to follow Christ? What can blind us and deafen us from connecting with God?

What is the radical reorientation of our lives that will lead us to follow Christ? What is it that stands in the way of our becoming what God intends us to be?

It is almost certainly selfishness of one sort or another – because putting ourselves first puts God second or third. Because we do this, we become separated from the Holy Spirit’s resources.

What is it that we need to give up in order to gain what is much more valuable? Is it greed or prejudice – ignorance or pride – anger or the need to control others, the inability to acknowledge our sins of hurting others or the “things we have left undone” or something else?

Or is it, after all, a love of possessions that stand in our way of connecting with the eternal life that we can find only in God? It the fate of the man with many possessions at least in part potentially our fate? Is what stood in his way also at least in part what stands in our way, preventing us from totally connecting with God and following Christ?

We live in a culture of materialism in which we measure too much in monetary terms. We are inundated day after day, hour after hour, by advertising that insists that if we buy one thing or another that we will be happier and better off. The push for more and more material possessions insinuates itself into our lives constantly.

For the majority of us who are not impoverished – for those who do not live with severely limited resources, this is a question we must examine.

An Anglican bishop from Africa once declared to an American audience that it was much easier for the Christians of his diocese to truly know God than for those living in the United States. This is so, he stated, because most in his diocese are very poor and that condition leads them to know the need for God in every way. This is so, because their prospects of becoming rich are so remote that they focus on deeper, more spiritual values.

Americans in contrast, he suggested, have a chance to gain nearly every material possession they want. So, we often become convinced, at least subconsciously, that we can buy happiness and meaning. This delusion can leave us void of the lasting, deep-down joy that possessions cannot bring.

Finally, it seems ironic that the man with many possessions asked about “inheriting” eternal life. The truth is, he had already inherited it – as a child of God. The God-within-him existed as a part of the created order – because he, like each of us, was created in the image and likeness of God. He had inherited God’s spirit already – he just didn’t know it. Jesus tried to open him to understanding that reality – to instruct him how to break through what blocked him from recognizing and utilizing the very spirit of God that he only had to put before all else in his life.

What must we do, what must we give up, in order to recognize and put to use the eternal life that each of us has inherited?

The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 21 (B).

The Depths of Despair and the Promise of the Kingdom, Proper 23(B) – 2015

[RCL] Psalm 22:1-15; Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

The readings from the Psalm and Job seem to contrast sharply with the gospel and epistle lessons appointed for this day.

In Psalm 22 and in Job we hear the human cry of abandonment and grief caused by the perceived absence of God. By contrast, in the mysterious letter to the Hebrews we are assured of a God who is indeed present to us; God shares in our suffering, the author writes, through Jesus, our high priest. And in the gospel of Mark we are given the promise that we can indeed enter into the presence of God, referred to here as eternal life, by the grace of God. Let us then look at each of these readings.

Job puts into words the experience of so many human beings who cry out to God only to be met by silence:

“Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him,
I turn to the right, and I cannot see him.”

In plain language, God is nowhere. God is absent to Job. In our day, in this advanced 21st century, what comes to mind immediately is the plight of refugees pouring into Europe by the thousands, escaping the horrors of war and utter loss of safety. One wonders: what are they feeling about their God? If they could articulate their pain, it would sound very much like Job’s.

Or to pluck out an example of a fellow Christian from our tragic 20th century history: We see Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1945 sitting in his cold prison in Tegel, echoing the agony of the psalmist and of Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”

Bonhoeffer, one of the very few Christian pastors to protest the treatment of Jews in the terrible Hitler years in Germany, was imprisoned for a long time and then executed following one of the last orders of that murderous dictator. In a letter from prison he writes:

“God would have us know that we must live as [human beings] who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. . . . Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.” These paradoxical sentences are as tough to listen to as the cry of the psalmist and the lament of Job. And yet they are rejuvenating in their honesty and faith, unlike the silly and empty declarations of what constitutes Christian faith that we hear in the public arena today by people who have no idea how costly Christianity is. Bonhoeffer’s words are life giving because they are the words of one who understood the good news: that the gospel makes no sense without the tragedy and darkness of the cross.

“God has made my heart faint,” Job acknowledges. “The Almighty has terrified me. If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!”

Terrible words and utterly truthful; if we have never felt such fear, then we will have difficulty understanding the good news of the kingdom that emerges from the cross. If we have never been confronted by such darkness, we will miss the light. In theological language, we cannot experience resurrection without the death of Good Friday.

In the Letter to the Hebrews the writer reminds his readers who were being tested by severe persecution and suffering that they are not alone:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

By comparison, the gospel story at first reading doesn’t sound so tough, does it? Here comes a lovely young man who is obviously attracted by the message of the charismatic prophet Jesus who speaks words of truth and who heals the sick. How exciting to be in his presence. The man, referred to elsewhere as a ‘rich young ruler,’ comes to Jesus prepared; he is decent and he loves his religion, as do we who are gathered in church today. He is in earnest as he asks an important question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” One cannot help wondering: What kind of answer is he expecting? Jesus gives him a rather obvious Jewish answer. “Keep the commandments.” What a relief the rich young ruler must have felt. “I’ve done all this,” he replies, “I’ve kept the commandments,” and we can almost hear his sigh. He is probably ready to go away, feeling that he is already in, a member of the inheritance club. And then something strange happens. Jesus looks at him and sees a great potential for the kingdom. He loves him. He wants him as one of his followers. He must have reminded Jesus of Peter and John when he first called them. Jesus does not coerce; he gives a choice. Here is a man who is already doing the churchy things: he observes the law, he fulfills his duties as a member of a family and of a religious tradition. But in order to become a follower he must give up the one thing that is most precious to him, the thing that stands between him and his ability to become a disciple. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. . . then come follow me.” The man, who a moment ago had been so confident, was shocked and went away grieving, “for he had many possessions.”

And suddenly, the story that seemed so sunny and hopeful, becomes a tough one to listen to. For it forces us to ask the question: What is it that I cannot give up so that I can follow Jesus? This gospel encounter makes it clear that for those who have much, the great difficulty lies in giving up their possessions. But even those of us who have few possessions are tied down to a treasure that may not be counted as money or things. What obsession, what addiction, what personal pride, what ambition, what other love keeps us from loving God enough? It sounds so difficult that we are forced to ask with those present that day in Palestine: “Then who can be saved?”

The answer that Jesus gives turns us from ourselves to God’s power and grace. Once we reach the point of knowing that nothing we can do will save us, that with Bonhoeffer and with the writer of the letter to the Hebrews we recognize that God knows our suffering because he suffers with us, then we are ready to ask, “What can I do to inherit the kingdom, to have eternal life, to be saved,” if we are to use an expression familiar and misunderstood by many.

Again, Jesus’ answer is difficult. Give up the self and follow me, he tells us, for the one who is first will be last, and the one who is last will be first. These biblical passages together show us quite clearly and rather painfully that the values of the kingdom are radically different from the values of our society. The darkness is necessary for the light to come. Those who are last in the world become first in God’s kingdom. The God who seems absent is the God who is with us and, to save us, God lets himself be pushed on the cross. Thanks be to God.

Download the sermon for Proper 23B.

Written by Katerina Whitley

Katerina is an author, lecturer, and a retreat and workshop leader. She was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, and emigrated at 16 years of age to the United States to study music and literature. She spent years studying theology and teaching children of all ages, edited Cross Current for the Diocese of East Carolina, worked for the then Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief, freelanced as essayist for two decades, and has six books in circulation, five biblically based books published by Morehouse and one, her cookbook, published by Globe-Pequot/Lyons Press. Her latest books, two novels, are waiting publication. She lives in Louisville and is a parishioner at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.  

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.]

For mortals it is impossible, but not for God, Pentecost 19, Proper 23(B) – 2009

(RCL) Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-15 (Track 2: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 and Psalm 90:12-17); Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

“Then who can be saved?” they asked Jesus.

How often we ask ourselves that very question. Oh, yes, day to day we put on a good face and project an image of confidence to the world around us. Like the man in today’s gospel reading who seeks Jesus to ask how he might inherit eternal life, we like to believe we know all the answers and have done all the right things.

Jesus asserts that when the rubber meets the road, one must give it all away and follow him; but that strikes us as simply impossible. And like the man in the story, we are shocked and go away unhappy at best, frustrated and defeated at worst.

How true are the words from Hebrews:

“The word of God is living and active, sharper that 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. 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.”

Deep down inside we know this to be absolutely true. We just wish Jesus, the Word made flesh, would save his ability to judge our thoughts and intentions for someone else. Anyone else.

Can’t it be enough simply to love Jesus? The disciples thought it was enough to follow him around, to have left home – family, friends, support, a bed of one’s own, the means to make a living.

It is curious, isn’t it, how Jesus is always upping the ante? And yet, from beginning to end, his program hinges on the foundational belief that in God’s reign the last will be first and the first will be last.

Now if Bill Gates with all his billions represents the first in this world, let’s say at number ten, and the poorest of the poor are at number one on a scale of one to ten, can we even begin to imagine, as Jesus urges us to do, what it would look like if this world were turned upside down? That is the first task here.

The second task is to imagine what it would be like to live at number five. Why number five? Because those who live at number five will feel the least disruption in their lives as the Kingdom of God turns everything upside down.

So the ultimate question may be, How do I get to number five? What does the journey to number five look like?

Now on a global scale, most of us in this country, not all of us, live somewhere nestled in around number nine. So what does an individual or a culture need to do, how do we need to change, to scale things back to number five?

This may be where the power of the Word of God comes in: time spent reading, listening to, and meditating on the Word of God will work like a two-edged sword, dividing soul from spirit – judging the intentions of our hearts. For as the author of Hebrews observes, Jesus has in every respect been tested as we have, and is willing to offer us grace and mercy to find help in making this journey from nine to five.

One suspects it will be a journey about common wealth, rather than individual wealth; about the salvation of the whole world, rather than individual salvation.

The man in our gospel reading today who came to Jesus evidently felt his salvation was in all that he had, not in all that he was. At the end of the day, says Hebrews, and Jesus, it is who you are that matters more than what you have.

This is very difficult to grasp – especially in a culture that urges us to acquire as much as we can get. It is difficult to grasp that letting go may be the most important lesson of all on this journey from nine to five.

We just might discover as we read, listen to, and meditate on God’s Word, that God’s own economic plan, a plan that revolves around the tithe and the Sabbath, is truly the meaning of life that we have been looking for.

Bishop Walker of Long Island recognizes four Holy Habits: tithing, weekly corporate worship, daily prayer and study of God’s Word, and keeping the Sabbath. These habits enable us to draw near to God, and as Paul’s letter to James urged a few weeks ago, “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.”

Perhaps this can lead us to a closer understanding of what Jesus answers when they ask, “Who then can be saved?”

“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Drawing near to God seems to be the best way to make the journey. In the end, the meaning of life cannot be learned or understood. What is needed is fidelity to a way of living that transcends understanding.

By the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek
The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Church in Ellicott City, MD, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also leads stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word. E-mail: kkub@aol.com.

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 23 (B) – October 11, 2009

(RCL) Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-15 (Track 2: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 and Psalm 90:12-17); Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

“Then who can be saved?” they asked Jesus.

How often we ask ourselves that very question. Oh, yes, day to day we put on a good face and project an image of confidence to the world around us. Like the man in today’s gospel reading who seeks Jesus to ask how he might inherit eternal life, we like to believe we know all the answers and have done all the right things.

Jesus asserts that when the rubber meets the road, one must give it all away and follow him; but that strikes us as simply impossible. And like the man in the story, we are shocked and go away unhappy at best, frustrated and defeated at worst.

How true are the words from Hebrews:

“The word of God is living and active, sharper that 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. 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.”

Deep down inside we know this to be absolutely true. We just wish Jesus, the Word made flesh, would save his ability to judge our thoughts and intentions for someone else. Anyone else.

Can’t it be enough simply to love Jesus? The disciples thought it was enough to follow him around, to have left home – family, friends, support, a bed of one’s own, the means to make a living.

It is curious, isn’t it, how Jesus is always upping the ante? And yet, from beginning to end, his program hinges on the foundational belief that in God’s reign the last will be first and the first will be last.

Now if Bill Gates with all his billions represents the first in this world, let’s say at number ten, and the poorest of the poor are at number one on a scale of one to ten, can we even begin to imagine, as Jesus urges us to do, what it would look like if this world were turned upside down? That is the first task here.

The second task is to imagine what it would be like to live at number five. Why number five? Because those who live at number five will feel the least disruption in their lives as the Kingdom of God turns everything upside down.

So the ultimate question may be, How do I get to number five? What does the journey to number five look like?

Now on a global scale, most of us in this country, not all of us, live somewhere nestled in around number nine. So what does an individual or a culture need to do, how do we need to change, to scale things back to number five?

This may be where the power of the Word of God comes in: time spent reading, listening to, and meditating on the Word of God will work like a two-edged sword, dividing soul from spirit – judging the intentions of our hearts. For as the author of Hebrews observes, Jesus has in every respect been tested as we have, and is willing to offer us grace and mercy to find help in making this journey from nine to five.

One suspects it will be a journey about common wealth, rather than individual wealth; about the salvation of the whole world, rather than individual salvation.

The man in our gospel reading today who came to Jesus evidently felt his salvation was in all that he had, not in all that he was. At the end of the day, says Hebrews, and Jesus, it is who you are that matters more than what you have.

This is very difficult to grasp – especially in a culture that urges us to acquire as much as we can get. It is difficult to grasp that letting go may be the most important lesson of all on this journey from nine to five.

We just might discover as we read, listen to, and meditate on God’s Word, that God’s own economic plan, a plan that revolves around the tithe and the Sabbath, is truly the meaning of life that we have been looking for.

Bishop Walker of Long Island recognizes four Holy Habits: tithing, weekly corporate worship, daily prayer and study of God’s Word, and keeping the Sabbath. These habits enable us to draw near to God, and as Paul’s letter to James urged a few weeks ago, “Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.”

Perhaps this can lead us to a closer understanding of what Jesus answers when they ask, “Who then can be saved?”

“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Drawing near to God seems to be the best way to make the journey. In the end, the meaning of life cannot be learned or understood. What is needed is fidelity to a way of living that transcends understanding.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also leads stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word. 

True humility, Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 23 (B) – October 15, 2006

(RCL) Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31 

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear this Gospel? Do you wonder if you are one of the rich people whose wealth will make it next to impossible to get into heaven? Have you ever heard this Gospel used in stewardship campaigns in which the prescribed fix or remedy for wealth is to give it to the church, ensuring that God would look favorably on you? Does this sound familiar?

As far back as the early Church, there have been suggestions that good graces and favor with God are obtained by sharing our wealth with the church. The burden of wealth is lifted, paving the way to heaven by the simple transfer of money or possessions. In fact, there was a time when it wasn’t even a suggestion – you could purchase the indulgences you needed. If you were wealthy, you were blessed in many ways. If you were poor, you were out of luck. It is no wonder that people living on the margins may hear hope in the words “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” It suggests a certain promise of justice.

It should come as no surprise to you that the number of possessions or the amount of money we accumulate defines success in our society. Along with this success comes power. The power to choose how we live, where we live, and what we eat are among the many choices. Are we to accumulate wealth and give it all to the church or good causes in order to gain God’s favor? Is the answer in well-publicized gifts to good causes or in supporting our local congregations or churches?

This Gospel makes us squirm and feel discomfort, especially about wealth. Can there really be a trade off: do this, and that will be the reward? Do you think that Jesus meant what he said to the man in the Gospel? Is he asking us to sell all our possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him? This is one of those moments when Jesus is being really clear, but our ears want to hear a more subdued version.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Are we to believe that wealth is incongruent with Christianity?

We begin to feel the conflict between being a person of faith who follows Jesus and the commandments while at the same time living by secular standards of success. This is one of the ethical challenges of living as Christians. The answer may be in stewardship, but not in stewardship limited to giving money and possessions away. Rather, it may be in understanding stewardship as caring for all of creation. If we understand stewardship as a social justice issue that provides security for all, we might come closer to knowing what Jesus is calling us to do in this Gospel.

Jesus tells us that living a good life requires more than obeying the commandments. The commandments are specific, listing do’s and don’ts, but they are not all inclusive. There is more to living a Christian’s way of life – loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. And when we love God and our neighbors as ourselves, we naturally follow the commandments. With this in mind, the lessons today point us to loving God and our neighbors: the two great commandments.

We can probably name individuals whose lives modeled simplicity and obedience to the commandments. They seem to be given hero status, people such as St. Francis or Mother Theresa, for example. We can’t imagine ourselves living as they lived. They are saints; we are not. It is unimaginable, impossible, or unrealistic to think of ourselves in this way. Yet we are closer to understanding the principles they lived by than we are willing to admit. What might be missing are the bold and radical actions that came out of loving God and their neighbors. Jesus gave us the best example of total surrender to God. Through bold and radical actions and words, Jesus trusted that God would provide. He humbled himself in faith and obedience.

When we are most genuine, our humility shines through all the veneers that the world paints over us. The veneers of wealth and riches do not define us. Our possessions do not carry identity. However, these things may indeed separate us from being in relationship with each other and with God. They may be a barrier to the experience of surrender to God. If we allow it, they may lead us into a false sense of security and self-reliance.

The reading from Amos further clarifies this Gospel and its ethical challenge. In Amos, wealth is to be shared. Our covenant with God extends to the just distribution of wealth as a way of loving God and our neighbor as ourselves. Sharing resources with everyone around us is a concept confined to co-ops and the like, not pervasive outside those intentional communities. The wealthy do worse than ignore this idea; they sit in judgment of it.

We have to ask ourselves how justice is obtained concerning wealth. This is not an easy task, particularly because it is one of the most power-producing or power-diminishing elements of our society. Money issues break many relationships, so why would we be surprised that it might strain or break our relationship with God?

We have to ask the hard questions. Are we engaged in the just distribution of wealth because we participate in Outreach projects such as feeding and clothing the poor? If so, then how do we justify supporting wealthy companies and corporations whose practices are unjust, particularly in relationship to the poor?

Think about companies who cleverly build in depressed communities, in close proximity to Reservations, and places where people are desperate for jobs, but they offer only enough hours to keep them from paying for benefits.

Or consider companies who encourage our elderly to supplement their retirement by offering them part-time jobs while the company continues to destroy the environment with chemicals because it is cheaper to pay fines than to upgrade their photo processing?

Do we consider ourselves just and concerned about the environment, but continue to drink coffee out of styrofoam cups at our coffee hours and drive SUVs – those four-wheel drive vehicles that usually never leave the road?

We will know that there is a just distribution of wealth when someone loses a job and we all feel it, or when the cry of the earth causes us to make conscientious choices, or when no life is lost for lack of food or medicine.

Our covenant with God to love one another requires that we consider our choices and our actions. The awareness of our neighbors is the first step toward understanding what the Gospel is calling us to do. True humility is concerned with the just distribution of wealth as the only real stewardship. Jesus teaches us that surrendering the false security of wealth makes us good stewards of all creation. The simplicity of good stewardship is the uncluttered state, which may allow us to pass through the eye of that needle.

 

— The Rev. Debbie Royals, Pascua Yaqui from Tucson, Arizona, leads the Four Winds Congregation in Sacramento, California, and is Missioner for Native Ministry in the Diocese of Northern California. She is actively involved in all aspects of Native Ministry in the Episcopal Church. She has been appointed to the Episcopal Council for Indigenous Ministry by the Presiding Bishop and has been selected as Convener for the Indigenous Ministry Network of Province VIII.