Pentecost XVIII, Proper 21, Year C
September 26, 2010
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
Let us pray. “Risen Lord, so often encountered yet so seldom recognized, you meet each and every one of us in the gardens of our hearts, on the lonely roads of our lives, our empty beaches, and greet us. But in our blindness, we mistake you for someone else. Through our tears, we see a gardener; in our weariness and wariness, a stranger. But you call us back to ourselves. Forgive us our hard-heartedness, our lack of understanding. Open our eyes and our ears to you, wherever you are found, and give us grace to love you with abandon, to throw ourselves into your service, as Mary threw herself at your feet, as Peter threw himself into the sea. Amen.”
This morning, I want to first welcome you all back “home”. It has been an incredibly busy summer for all of us, and my vision for this morning is to pause for a moment, take a deep breath, take a look around, and take stock of where we are and where we are going. Okay. Time’s up.
I say that only half in jest. It seems that we haven’t had time to catch our breath from the busy-ness of summer before we are once more into the Fall with its continuing and varied demands on our time. This is just as true here in the church as it is in our secular lives. And it is that time of year, when the church once again asks you to renew your pledge of your commitment of time, talent and treasure. And I can hear the inward groaning from many of you…this is going to be about money…again.
Yes, it is true, it seems that the church is always asking for money. A pastor in tells of being in a grocery store one day and encountering a woman that she hadn’t seen in a long time. “It was awkward for both of us,” the pastor said, “as she had suddenly stopped attending church and we never learned exactly why.”
After the two exchanged pleasantries, the pastor said, “We miss you. Is there anything that our church can do for you?” The woman replied, “Yes, as a matter of fact, there is. You could stop asking for money all the time.”
I do not know how the pastor answered that woman. Perhaps the woman’s response caught her by surprise and the pastor didn’t have time to organize a reply. But she continued to think about it, and she eventually presented her response in the form of a sermon to her congregation. She started by acknowledging that the church is always asking for money, but she went on, unapologetically, to defend that practice by enumerating all the ministries and missions that churches engage in.
The pastor acknowledged that some people grow weary of being asked to give but said that perhaps they would prefer the sort of church where the members aren’t asked for money. Instead, they take turns doing everything in the church, including cleaning the building, providing the music, preparing the bulletin, doing the preaching and teaching, and spending a year…each…on the mission field (because they have no money to give to missions). In winter, they dress very warmly for worship because they don’t run the furnace. They offer no child care, no children’s church and no youth ministry. The pastor concluded that example by saying, “A church that needs no money wouldn’t be much of a church at all. I’m glad to be part of a church that always needs money. It means that we are doing something, going somewhere, making a difference.”
The pastor made some additional worthy points in her sermon and then concluded by saying, “It’s a good thing the church is asking for money. What kind of church would the church be if it wasn’t always reaching out to help others in need? And the local church is unarguably the best place to open our pocketbooks.”
It was a good sermon and a good response to the complaint that the church is always asking for money. We should recognize, however, that it isn’t the whole response. The argument that the church should be asking for money because of all the good stuff it does has merit, but any worthy charity can make that case. The church isn’t simply a charity with a religious sheen on it. Christians aren’t simply do-gooders who also pray.
In point of fact, doing good for others, often expressed biblically as “love your neighbor as yourself,” is the second of the two great summary commandments Jesus spoke. The first of them is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). For Christians, giving out of what we have has as much to do with the first great commandment as with the second one.
To say it another way, we should give not only to do good for others but also because it is necessary for our own spiritual well-being. It is part of the way we love God with all our heart, soul and mind.
The apostle Paul gets at that in the first letter to Timothy, when he addresses the negative impact money can have on our souls. In our reading for this morning, Paul speaks of the gain that comes to us “in godliness combined with contentment” and goes on to mention the basics – food and clothing – as sufficient. But then he warns about the dangers that the desire to be rich can bring, stating, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Timothy 6:10).
Paul next addresses Timothy specifically, calling him “man of God” (which is an ancient title for a prophet). Paul tells him to “shun all this.” In other words, some threats to our spiritual health – including the love of money – are so subtle and so powerful that the best way to deal with them is to stay away from them.
Obviously, we live in a world that runs on money. We cannot have a decent existence without money, and Paul is well aware of that. But he also recognizes that the lure of money and the acquisition of possessions it makes possible are so dangerous to our souls that we have to remove their power over us. And one of the best ways to do that is by opening our hands and giving some of it away.
Further on in the same chapter, Paul addresses Christians “who in the present age are rich.” He tells them not to allow their wealth to make them “haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches.” Rather, Paul says, they should set their hope “on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” And lest they miss the point, he spells it out: “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
Notice that he doesn’t say that they should be generous and ready to share because that’s good for others, though no doubt Paul would agree with that. No, he says they should be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” because by so doing they “take hold of the life that really is life.” They should be generous because it is one of the things that makes them, the givers, spiritually healthy.
In 2001, popular author Stephen King gave the commencement address at Vassar College. Though King is known for horror fiction, many readers have noticed explicitly Christian themes in his novels, and he has even acknowledged that in interviews. In any case, in the Vassar speech, he made some statements that mirror something Paul said in this letter to Timothy: “[F]or we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.”
While walking down the road one day in 1999, King was struck and severely injured by a minivan. In the speech, he referred to both his accident and to the earning potential of the graduates, saying:
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing you’re not going to do, and that’s take it with you. I’m worth I don’t exactly know how many millions of dollars…and a couple of years ago I found out what “you can’t take it with you” means. I found out while I was lying in the ditch at the side of a country road, covered with mud and blood and with the tibia of my right leg poking out the side of my jeans. I had a MasterCard in my wallet, but when you’re lying in the ditch with broken glass in your hair, no one accepts MasterCard. We all know that life is ephemeral, but on that particular day and in the months that followed, I got a painful but extremely valuable look at life’s simple backstage truths: We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we’re just as broke. And how long in between? Just the blink of an eye.”
King went on to discuss what the graduates could do with their earnings in the time they had in that eye-blink:
“…for a short period…you and your contemporaries will wield enormous power: the power of the economy, the power of the largest military-industrial complex in the history of the world, the power of the American society you will create in your own image. That’s your time, your moment. Don’t miss it.”
But then he added:
“Of all the power which will shortly come into your hands…the greatest is undoubtedly the power of compassion, the ability to give. We have enormous resources in this country – resources you yourselves will soon command – but they are only yours on loan. I came here to talk about charity, and I want you to think about it on a large scale. Should you give away what you have? Of course you should. I want you to consider making your lives one long gift to others, and why not? All you want to get at the getting place…none of that is real. All that lasts is what you pass on. The rest is smoke and mirrors.”
Finally, King mentioned a specific local charity called Dutchess Outreach, which helps the hungry, the sick and the homeless. He said he was making a $20,000 contribution to it and challenged audience members to do the same. And here’s one more thing he said and it is true me and I hope it is true for you as well:
“Giving isn’t about the receiver or the gift but the giver. It’s for the giver. One doesn’t open one’s wallet to improve the world, although it’s nice when that happens; one does it to improve one’s self. I give because it’s the only concrete way I have of saying that I’m glad to be alive and that I can earn my daily bread doing what I love. Giving is a way of taking the focus off the money we make and putting it back where it belongs – on the lives we lead, the families we raise, the communities which nurture us.”
Thank you, Mr. King. That’s a pretty good sermon.
Devotional writer Evelyn Underhill would likely have agreed with King. She once said that the saints she knew personally were so generous that they were often unable to keep anything for themselves. Some Christians have taken this to the point of vows of poverty. Such vows clearly aren’t possible for most of us, but that only increases our spiritual need not to hold onto wealth too tightly.
In the church, we often refer to certain practices as important for our growth in the Spirit. They include prayer, Bible study, confession of sins, worship, submission, service and others, and we sometimes refer to them as “spiritual disciplines.” The disciplines help us avoid superficiality in our faith, which Richard J. Foster, who has written a book on the disciplines, calls “the curse of our age,” adding “the doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem.” He explains that the spiritual disciplines “call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm.”
Generosity is also a spiritual discipline, which means it is one practice that helps us avoid superficiality in our faith. In fact, someone has said that when we present the offering plates at the altar after the collection has been taken, the gist of our offertory prayer should be, “No matter what else we say or do here this morning, O Lord, this tells you what we really think of you.”
So yes, the church is always asking for money. But it is also always asking you to pray, to read and study the Bible, confess your sins, do good deeds and attend worship. All those things are good for our souls and help us go deeper into our faith.
So, one blessing of attending church is that it provides us with an opportunity to give generously, for our own good. For our own good.
I want to conclude with the prayer that I offered to the Search Committee when we first began our discussions about the possibility of my coming to Grace Church as your Rector. It is perhaps more meaningful today than it was five years ago. Let us pray.“Ever-present God, You call us on a journey to a place we do not know. We are not where we started. We have not reached our destination. We are not sure where we are or who we are. This is not a comfortable place. Be among us, we pray. Calm our fears, save us from discouragement, and help us to stay on course. Open our hearts to your guidance so that our journey to this unknown place continues as a journey of trust. Amen.” (A Prayer for Trasition, The Rev. Canon Kristi Philip.)
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline. HarperSanFrancisco, 1978, 1988, 1998, 1.
King, Stephen. Commencement Address, May 20, 2001,
Marks, John. “Stephen King’s God trip.” Salon, October 23, 2008.