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

Holy Dance + Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver

Lessons:

Job 38:1-7, 34-41

Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

I arrived at Grace during the middle of the day in the middle of July in 2006.  There were kids everywhere.  And so were kitty litter cubbies and left-behind shoes and remnants of lunch……… and in the parish hall a Greek music CD was playing and a few young people and adults were dancing with some children.  So I joined them and we danced together. And I have been dancing with all who cared to join in the dance at Grace Memorial and Grace Institute ever since.

Perhaps that is why I have loved being a part of Grace.  Grace understands the nature of dancing, metaphor or not…… and when to join in the dance.   Sometimes we simply sit and enjoy it from the sidelines, to be sure, but we do recognize joyful creativity, pensive expression, letting go, entering into and emerging……….knowing when to hold on to old traditional steps and when to reinvent…….how to keep the center whole while being made new.  As part of the body of Christ, we recognize that the liturgies of the year form the choreography of our lives together and we allow ourselves to live into it fully and completely.

The dance is circular much like life.  There are beginnings which emerge out of other endings…….and eventually their inevitable endings simply slip into new beginnings.  And within each dance of living, we find our place in the choreography of it all as we are called upon to contribute to it……. to be the servant of all who dance with us and of all those who long to. The dance emerges out of a particular communal dedication to servitude …each contributing to the whole.

The concept of servitude – of entering into the choreography of creation, seems to be lost on the disciples we hear in Mark’s Gospel. The squabbling disciples, all jostling to be close to Jesus………. to be lifted up as the “heir apparents”…….. seems to indicate they have missed the sense of ministry as emerging out Jesus’ vision for God’s Kingdom…….amazingly, they seem to have missed the  meaning of true ministry altogether.  They are each working for themselves rather than the communal whole.  Their concept of leadership is caught up in their worldly notion of power and status.

All the disciples must have been talking among themselves about a special kind of recognition……about who’s going to take over top spot in their community of ministry alongside Jesus.

James and John, sons of Zebedee,  having held some confidence with Jesus in the past are now jostling for a more formally recognizable position……demanding that Jesus do for them whatever they ask. Jesus responds by having them try to explain what it is they want.  They reply that they want to be one with him at his right and at his left.  I can’t begin to imagine what Jesus must have thought at that moment. Their inability to even begin to grasp the enormity of what true discipleship means…was astounding given all they had seen and witnessed by already being so close to Jesus.  Jesus warns James and John that they do not know what they are asking when they demand that he grant them special status

The rest of the disciples are angry at the possibility of being left out of Jesus’ inner circle and Jesus is led to remind them that the world’s concept of leadership and greatness in the world, where one rules by tyranny or lording it over everyone is the exact opposite of that in God’s Kingdom.

The disciples are demanding answers to questions they don’t know how to ask or don’t even understand.  They are motivated by their lack of understanding and their fears.  In a way, they are asking Jesus, what is to become of us?  What’s next? ……hoping to hear an answer which will direct them to a happy outcome.

And what of us….in our world……..what does it cost us to be servant of all?   Who is first and who is last?   And if we want to be first….want to be at the right hand of greatness, then how do we know what being first will bring with it.  What is its cost?

Unlike our world, where visibility means everything……..true greatness in God’s Kingdom renders one invisible in the eyes of the world …..even as it exalts one in the eyes of God.   True greatness in discipleship is often hard to see….it is mere wind beneath wings …..a hidden source of true leadership which is witnessed for its simple doing without the need for recognition.

So….what would we ask if God showed up among us?  Would we point out our good works and ask to be given special status?  After all, don’t we all want the best seats in the house? What would be our questions?  What is our need to know? What is it we are seeking or hope to gain by that seeming status?

Like the disciples before us, would we demand to know what we cannot know now?  Our self-absorption may not show itself as overtly as did that of James and John and the others, but don’t we all spend a good part of our lives thinking about some level of privilege that might be attained in one way or another……..the one who holds the information, the answers all the rest of us would love to know.  Don’t we all have a little of the sons of Zebedee in us as well?

Last week I was in Florida for a week long clergy retreat and we were tasked with serious introspection.   I found myself asking God what’s is to be next in my life…….. waiting impatiently for God to answer.  I felt the weight of the cross in my “need to know”, weighing more and more as I thought about coming to the end of my ministry at Grace.  So I decided to walk the large brick labyrinth available at the center. And I made the decision to make my way to the center with a very slow meditative walk.  This is a meditative walk used in tai chi.  Each single step takes about 20 seconds to complete or 40 seconds for both feet to completely move forward.  The cross that I carried with me on that very slow walk, was heavy with my questions of what was to be next for me and, as I walked, recognizing my own impatience to hear concrete answers, I asked God to take the cross from me.

Time went by painfully slowly as I walked toward the center of the labyrinth.  I was aware of the cross becoming heavier still, as I became anxious over what time it might be, whether or not I was missing lunch, what if people thought I was crazy creeping along like that.  I continually worked to check these thoughts and, with intention, focused on coming back to my conversation with God. But I still sounded like the disciples.  I want you to do this for me, Jesus!  I want you to tell me exactly what’s next! How long will I have to wander the wilderness?  Who am I?  What is my purpose?  What is it you know about me………..that I am yet to discover?

The answer seemed to add yet more weight to my cross….”you do not know what you are asking……are you ready to willingly walk into the wilderness like me?  Willing to take up the cross of faith like me?” Willing to bear the burden of whatever direction your faith takes you?   Sensing the test of these words, I seriously considered giving up the whole idea of walking silently with God and heading for the swimming pool, but the Spirit compelled me to keep on walking and walking.  It took me just over an hour to reach the center.  And there I stood.  I felt relieved yet vulnerable to my own weaknesses….would the journey have been worth my time and yes…..would this long walk to teach me anything beyond a little patience……even when I had the time for it?

Then, from deep within, the still small voice of the Spirit whispered, “Lead with your gifts, not your anxieties.   Will you not trust in me enough to lead with your gifts I gave you?  Lead with your gifts.”

I was amazed at the simplicity of the answer and realized in that ….just as the answer is true for me……so, too…. the answer is true for all of us just as it was for James and John and the rest of the disciples.

We are called to lead with our God-given gifts……. not our fears.   To allow our gifts to step in front of our fears is a call to real discipleship which is not easy living in our contemporary world of war and violence on the world stage, upheaval in our communities, and in our families.  We are fearful that our homes are not safe, our churches are fading, fearful that we will lose our security and peace wherever we seek it, fearful that we won’t be recognized for our good works.

We can articulate our anxieties and address our fears which are very real, but they are not meant to guide us.  We are to keep on keeping on with all the amazing and beautiful particularities given to each of us by God.

We are to quiet the din of voices that try to pry us away from simple faith in ourselves and faith in the gifts God gave us  for successful living.  Jesus teaches us to remember God’s perspective as he asks the disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  Linking baptism, the Eucharist and the way of the cross, Jesus is asking us, just as he asks the disciples, what is the nature of your cross and are you ready to pick it up?  In order to sit at the right hand of God we are compelled to do so.

We can’t just lay our cross down…..we are to willingly climb on to it in order to allow our fears and insecurities, our egos and self-glorification, and all that we know to be born of fear….. to die there.   Jesus links our destiny to his own and makes sure we understand this is the way to come closer to God.  It is not desire for leadership that is anathema to God…….it is misplaced motivation behind our desire for leadership that can get us into trouble.  When leadership serves as a mask for our insecurity, or as an avenue toward recognition, serving only to bolster our egos, then we have missed the opportunity to discover the joy of selfless contribution to God’s Kingdom and to finding new life in Christ.

As people of God and as community we are called to consider our own self-sacrifice; of ego, of jockeying for first place.  To embrace the notion of self-sacrifice does not mean that we are to deny ourselves of the joys of life….far from it.  But it does mean that to enter into the holy dance of true discipleship, we are to serve something far beyond ourselves.

If we are not careful, our fears and anxieties can get interconnected and entwined with our tendency to self-glorification…..leaving God completely out of our thought processes as we imagine ourselves wise and powerful as God.  We forget, that even though each one of us is God’s beloved, so is every other one of God’s creatures along with the rest of the world in which God takes great delight.  We are each of us made in God’s image, but as God’s message to Job point out, we are all part of God’s world of abundance,  not ours alone.

If we can understand our relative importance amid the unending magnificence of creation that is God’s and beyond our knowing, we can begin to understand God’s knowledge of each of us as individuals and as part of community.    Mary Oliver expresses that perspective in her poem “Wild Geese.”

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on……meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again….” [1]

The Good News of the Gospel is that in sacrificing ourselves for the other, our better selves will be given new birth and the reign of God propelled forward.  What I learned from my walk on the labyrinth, was that I was of far more use to God by leading with my gifts than by hiding my faith and trust behind my fears.  When we can live free from our fears ….. we can become whole and ready to serve rather than to be served…….

Leading with our gifts becomes a powerful antidote to new fear and newly imagined insecurity……a powerful continuation of renewal and resurrection.

It is a time of strength….a time when transformation happens.

It is when we look at each person here today and thank God for their gifts.

It is what it means to enter into the dance of God’s continually evolving creation.

It is out of this context of faith and trust that God speaks to each one of us and calls upon our gifts freely given to us for the building of God’s Kingdom.  As members of this priestly servanthood, this divine humility before God……. we are empowered to be all we are called to be, with vision and with grace, not because we are first or best, but because we are willing to stand firm with faithful hope in the midst of the world’s brokenness.

How we view the future and how we view the gifts we bring to bear, rather than our differences, can move us to amazing possibilities for building community and can have a powerful impact on future ministry and mission. We can recognize that regardless of our circumstances, the world and all its gifts….all its possibilities…. are ours to embrace.  We can begin to picture our lives in the future as a desirable outcome of the decisions we make today.

Good people of Grace, may you be filled with grace-filled questions and answers.…..  where there is no first or last under God…..only the joy only of using all your amazing gifts for service…. with no expectation of anything other than joyous participation in the compelling beauty of God’s great vision for creation.

May your doors always be open…..so that God’s gifts may find their way through them and then find their way to serve out in the world.

May the clouds be your chariots and may you have the courage to ride on the wings of the wind.

Make the winds your messengers, the fire and flame of faith and trust in God your ministers so that your work to set the world firmly on the foundations of God’s intentions for it, will never end.

Above all, may you be always willingly take part in the dance God has invited you to join.  It is a holy dance…..where the steps aren’t complicated but are difficult to sustain……where choreography belongs to God who calls upon you to complete the whole.

May you always be bold and fearless enough to accept the invitation……..may you always look forward with joyous anticipation and hope built on confidence in God’s gifts in you……and may you never forget that words and actions are meant to build bridges ….create and hold on to relationships…….that to serve and not be served is to love in humility and in peace.

May you always gladden the hearts of those who walk along side you, lifting up to build in the face of all that would tear down, living into the holy dance of the resurrection story….allowing what must die, to die so that what must live, may live.  Above all, may you never forget to love one another as God loves each of us….never forget to forgive yourself as you forgive all others, never forget that the way to peace is not to understand, it is to love.

I give thanks to God and to all who have listened with the ear of their hearts, as I bid this pulpit farewell.  It has tested me, upheld me, propelled me and insisted on the truth of my convictions.  It has brought me to my knees in confession in the face of my own frailty.  It has made me face my own mistakes and has heard my call for absolution.  It has called me to be prophetically courageous, has insisted that I walk the walk that I talked and above all, it has taught me to serve.  I pray that all the words of my lips and the meditations of my heart were acceptable to God, my strength, my redeemer and my inspiration.

Amen.

End
Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver
October 18, 2015
Final Sermon at Grace

[1] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” in New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 110.