Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Oct. 14, 2018

Lessons:

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

 

The blogger and comedian Gaby Dunn talks about engaging in a do-it-yourself social experiment. Dunn’s experiment involved going up to strangers in coffee shops and other public contexts and saying:

Can I ask you two questions?

Most folks said “yes,” and so Dunn began. Her first question (and forgive me in advance if this is a little raunchy for church – you can plug your ears if you want, or you can plug your neighbour’s ears) was:

What is your favourite sexual position?

What Dunn discovered is that, by and large, folks responded to that question with enthusiasm, not only giving her an answer but volunteering a reason for their answer. The strangers would say to Dunn, O, my favourite position is this – and here’s why…

The first question completed – and sometimes it took a while for folks to tell Dunn everything that they wanted to share, they liked this question a lot – the strangers energetically asked Dunn:

What’s the second question?

And so Dunn asked them:

How much money is in your bank account?

This is the point at which folks became shocked and appalled. They couldn’t believe that Dunn would have the rashness, the uncouthness, the rudeness to ask such a personal question. This was the moment, if we lived in another era, in which the strangers would have slapped Dunn with a glove and said:

How dare you, Madam! I challenge you to a duel.

How fascinating.

We talk sometimes about how nothing is taboo anymore, about how we can now say or print anything, about how we can show anything on TV. But that’s not actually true. There are some taboos today that did not exist 20 or 50 years ago, and often we are richer for that. A generation or two ago, smoking was a marker of sophistication: today it is a marker of poor judgment. That’s probably mostly a good thing. And then there are other taboos – like the taboo around talking about money – that persist and remain powerful.

I’m not convinced that the taboo against talking about money is so healthy.

Here in the church we more or less mirror the culture around us when it comes to talking about money. (I would venture that virtually all of us in this room participate in this taboo to a significant extent. I tell you what: if you don’t participate in this taboo, just shout out how much money is in your bank account.) Talking about money is something we’d just rather not do. Sometimes we even feel more strongly than that, sometimes we feel like money is something we ought not to talk about.

And like a lot of taboos, the emotion that we feel around this monetary taboo is simultaneously vague and powerful. We will say, often with a bunch of intensity but usually without a whole lot explanation, I just feel like that money is something that is private. I remember a number of years ago at the Cathedral in Vancouver when a fellow parishioner, in a state of anger and annoyance and agitation said to me:

The church should not talk about money.

Ever.

I suspect that this taboo – inarticulate and powerful as it is – is the reason that so many Episcopalians kind of dread the fall financial stewardship campaign in their parishes, a campaign that we are starting here at Grace today. The campaigns are either boring because the leaders choose to honour the taboo and never end up talking about anything real. Or they feel kind of dangerous because the leaders choose not to honour the taboo, and we’re not sure what to do with that.

In case it’s not obvious, our financial campaign this year will be in the dangerous category.

However. My hope is that the campaign will also prove to be spiritually rewarding and maybe even fun.

Here’s the curious thing. We in church who participate in this taboo are disciples of Jesus, we are followers of Jesus. And Jesus, our teacher and model? Well, he doesn’t participate in this taboo at all. Jesus talks about money early and often and openly.

In Matthew 5:42, Jesus says when people want to borrow money, you should go ahead and lend it to them. Later on in the same book, Jesus says we ought not to store up riches on earth, but to store up riches in heaven. In Luke, in the story that we call the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ definition of a neighbour is the one who generously makes their resources – including all of their financial resources – available to someone in need. Elsewhere in Luke, he says that you and I cannot serve both God and money.

And here today in Mark, Jesus encounters a man. A rich guy who asks him a question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? This is a question, by the way, that for our ancient ancestors does not mean, “How do I get into heaven?” It means something more like, How do I participate with my whole life in what you are doing, Jesus? Eternal life, the age to come, is what happens, as the Lord’s Prayer has it, when things on earth are as they are in heaven.

Jesus answers the rich guy’s question:

You know the commandments.

Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t defraud.

Wait a minute. “Don’t defraud”? That isn’t one of the commandments, is it? There is a verse in Leviticus that says something like “don’t defraud,” but it sure isn’t chiseled onto the stone that Moses brought with him down from the mountain. Jesus is doing some on the fly editing of scripture here.

When he does that there is usually something important going on for us to notice.

Jesus says all these things and the rich guy responds: I’ve kept all of those commandments since I was young.

And then the text says that Jesus loved him. This, by the way, is the only time in the whole Gospel of Mark that scripture says that Jesus loved anybody. Apparently, Jesus is moved in a big way by speaking to this man. So he says to him:

Sell everything you have. Give it to the poor. And follow me.

And the guy does what I would probably do and, maybe, what you would do if Jesus said the same thing me. He goes away grieving.

For he has a lot of stuff.

Then our Lord looks around at his friends and he utters what might be my favourite Jesus zinger, my favourite Jesus one-liner in all of scripture: It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the Kingdom of God.

Now, maybe I’ve just answered my own question. Maybe I have actually just explained why most American Christians, like most of the rest of our culture, don’t want to talk about money out loud. Because the way that Jesus talking right now? This is kind of squirm-inducing stuff. Jesus sure appears to be saying that being rich isn’t very good for you. Jesus’ implication sure appears to be that, just by being wealthy, by being on the rich side of what we would today call the income divide or wealth divide or, to use another contemporary economic term, by having equity that is working harder then labour, this man – and by extension you and me – are defrauding our fellow children of God. We are breaking God’s commandments, and therefore we are doing damage to our souls. 

I don’t know what we do with a message like that in America, where being rich is everything, where being a winner while other people lose is everything.

If we take this passage seriously (and a number of our fellow Christians have worked pretty hard not to take it seriously – the same folks who will tell you that 1 Timothy’s prohibition on women teaching or holding authority over a man is eternal and universal will tell you that Jesus’ instruction to the rich man is only about that rich guy, not about you or me; and even those of us who don’t make that argument are likely to rationalise that we aren’t really rich because there are other people who have more stuff than us) then what does that mean as we embark upon this year’s financial stewardship campaign?

Well, there are probably, assuredly a number of answers to that question. But I’m just going to explore two. First (and maybe this is obvious, but I think it bears saying out loud), the example of Jesus is that money is something that disciples talk about directly and honestly and in an unvarnished way. Maybe – and let’s try this idea on – one of the things that Jesus wants us to know if that money is too unimportant to be a secret. We give something big power in our lives when we refuse to discuss it. Let’s not, Jesus says, give money that kind of power.

Second – and this is where I am going to spend a little more time – Jesus’ teaching, his example, is that how we spend our money is a spiritual exercise that shapes our capacity to participate fully in the Kingdom of God.

Whether or not we reckon that Jesus’ words today are directed at you and me, whether or not we think that he is really telling you and me to sell everything and give it to the poor (and let’s be clear, there have been Christians, like St. Francis and his friends, whom we remembered a couple of weeks ago, who figured that these words absolutely did apply to them), what is clear is that the Western way of clutching on to money and stuff, of living lives of anxious scarcity as opposed to lives of holy generosity, comes at a cost to our souls.

When we clutch on to material possessions and money, when we store up treasures on earth rather than in heaven, our hands become too full and too clenched to hold the Kingdom of God. They become too full and too clenched to be Jesus’ hands and feet in this world, to participate in building the Kingdom of God.

So.

There is a thread. A thread that goes back into the past, way back to Jesus, way back before that to the beginning of time, when God created and said:

It is good. It is good. It is good.

For most of us, for all of us, the thread passes into the clouds and out of sight long, long before its beginning. Maybe as far back as we can see is 100 years or so, back to the place where people whom we know and loved walked and whose stories we have heard.

100 years or so ago at Grace, some people had a holy vision – a vision for a church building in this place. And so a woman by the name of Angeline Berry made a gift. Through that gift, she was for a while the hands and feet of Christ in this world. So many people have benefited from her ministry, we are the beneficiaries of her ministry to this day. In the 1980s, some folks at this parish decided to stretch their financial resources and purchase the parking lot outside. For a while, those folks were the hands and feet of Christ in this world. So many people have benefited from her ministry, we are the beneficiaries of her ministry to this day. Around the same time, Bobbi Anderson’s family made the gift that made this stage or platform that the altar sits on possible. How many people’s theology has been shaped by having the altar in our midst rather than way back there? For a while, Bobbi’s family were the hands and feet of Christ in this world. So many people have benefited from her ministry, we are the beneficiaries of her ministry to this day.

None of these people – let’s be clear about this – bought God’s love through their gifts. God loved them unreservedly no matter what. Rather, through their gifts, they participated in God’s love, responded to God’s love.

And then we come to here. This amazing moment that we call now. This is the moment when, if you and I want, we can be Christ’s hands and feet in this world for a while. If we want, we can, with God’s help, shape what happens further down the thread. Perhaps one day – 10 years from now, 100 years from now, further down the thread – someone will say your name and say thank you.

In a month’s time you and I will be invited to make a pledge to Grace. Between now and then, we will be engaging in a spiritual practice together, a time of discernment together. We’ll be reflecting on questions about how we have experienced God’s generosity, about how we spend and save and give money, about how we want to spend and save and give money, about being Christ’s hands and feet in this world.

On November 11th, our discernment will end as we bring our pledge cards to the altar. This year as we do so, our pledge cards will look slightly different than in years past. There will be a check box on the card that says: This is a proportional gift. That statement is deliberately ambiguous. For me, when I check that box, it will mean that our family has made a tithe to the church. I have a gross salary of approximately $80,000 a year, and so our family’s pledge will be $8,000. Phoebe has income and we tithe that as well to God’s work outside of this parish.

I am aware that the subject of tithing leaves some of you here grinding your teeth. I am aware of that because you have told me. But I would be remiss not to talk about tithing. Friends, the tithe has become one of the most rewarding parts of our family’s spiritual practice. It is a way of making sure that our first fruits go to God, it is a way, as my friend Caroline McCall puts it, to stop haggling with God about how much God’s church is worth to us. Should I give what I gave last year? Should I give three times what I give to me alma mater? That’s not discernment. As Steve Lovett, our Senior Warden says, that’s just math.

Regardless, I encourage you to find your way to a place where you can check that box. Where your gift, in a way that makes sense to you, is proportionate to your income, to your spending, to your wealth, or to something else.

If your experience is anything like mine, a proportional gift will change your relationship with God. It will help the parish, yes. Imagine what this parish could do if we all became proportional gives, let alone if we all became tithers! We could dream big. But more importantly, a proportional gift will open your hands. It will declare that your money doesn’t own you. It will free you up to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

Jesus is a lot like Gaby Dunn. He will talk to you directly about money. He will ask you how much money is in your bank account. This fall, may you and I discern a gift to God’s church that, when Jesus’ question comes, will allow us to go away from him not like the rich guy, not grieving but, rather, will allow us to go forth rejoicing.

 

 

  • String or thread going into the past
  • Opportunity to shape reality and to shape ourselves
  • Tithe – I’m not ashamed to ask you for one; I know this bothers some of us
  • Series of questions, encountered by lay people and by you and me
  • Done haggling with God
  • Pledge card – proportional gift
  • Relationship with money that will leave us not going away from Jesus grieving but, rather, allow us to go away rejoicing