Sunday, November 9, 2014

Jesus and Money - A Sermon at St. Stephen's, Westborough

This Sunday I've been invited to serve at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Westborough and given a specific charge: to talk about financial stewardship, a topic near and dear to my heart. Because St. Stephen's is using resources for Creation Season, the texts for the day are a departure from the Revised Common Lectionary. The gospel for the day is Matthew 28:1-10.

For fifteen years, I served as the rector of St. Francis Church in Holden. For the last five or six years of that time, I also taught on a very part time basis at Assumption College in Worcester – a required undergraduate course called Introduction to the Bible. Most of my students came into class knowing very little about the Bible, even those who had grown up in the church. What they thought they already knew about the Bible didn’t make it all that appealing, and conversely it was sometimes the most enthusiastic students who quickly became disillusioned. The Bible, I would tell them all, is a library of books – and it doesn’t have a simple storyline. Even the four gospels aren’t easily harmonized – as they disagree on some pretty important things. My goal was always the same – to invite them along on an adventure and to come to love the Bible as I do. But what this required of them was that they first let go of some long-held assumptions.  

So almost to a person, they were almost always surprised when we sat down to actually read the Bible and they discovered, for example, Ecclesiastes or the Song of Songs or the story of David and Bathsheba. When we got to the New Testament, they were surprised to see how much Jesus talks about what in translation we refer to as “the Kingdom of God” – which is at the heart of his message and is not a synonym for “heaven.”  In the very first chapter of the earliest of the four gospels, Mark, we read about how after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’”

What does that Kingdom look like? Well, it’s small – so you need to know where to look. It’s like a mustard seed, Jesus says. But if you nurture it and water it, it will grow. Perhaps some of you have served a meal at the Mustard Seed Soup Kitchen in Worcester – there you can see even today, as the hungry are fed, signs of God’s Kingdom breaking in.  Jesus teaches that the Kingdom of God is unexpected and beyond our control. It’s is in our midst even now. Perhaps you have heard our bishop talk about the Kingdom as a mission of mercy, compassion, and hope. It’s in the prayer our Lord himself taught us: thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

So Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God more than anything else. But do you know what he talked about the second most? Money.

It starts even before his birth, when we get some hints that he grew up poor. As you may have heard, his family was homeless at the time of his birth, “…and so they laid him in a manger, because there was no room at the inn.” And then when his family goes to the Temple in Jerusalem to make a sacrifice. Luke tells us that they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” But if you actually go back and read from Leviticus what is stated in the Torah, it says that a lamb should be sacrificed. And then there is a kind of asterisk – an exception if the family cannot afford a lamb, a provision to sacrifice a pair of turtledoves or pigeons. So Luke is actually telling us something about the socio-economic status of Jesus’ family very early on.

And then his public ministry begins with these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. From there, he hangs out with tax collectors. He tells his disciples to make loans expecting nothing in return. When he teaches about forgiveness, he often turns to illustrations like “…a certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more,” he asks?

In another parable about seeds he talks about what can go wrong and keep those seeds from growing. Among other things, he says, those seeds can fall among the thorns, these are the ones who hear but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life. And so they fail to bear fruit. He tells his followers to take care and to be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.  So he encourages them tosell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.”  He says, quite bluntly (and two thousand years before Bob Dylan sang it) that you are gonna have to serve somebody, and that you cannot serve both God and mammon.

I’ve often wondered what might be the connection between Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God and all that talk about money. Are they just two separate things? Bullet point one, and two, of his teaching? I don’t think so. I think they are very much connected, and perhaps it is that familiar text from the eleventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel that helps us to make that connection. Do you remember?

He said to his disciples, Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

As you continue to move through Creation Season here at St. Stephen’s, today is River Sunday. But I was invited to be here to specifically talk about Stewardship. This includes our care of the earth and its rivers, of course – as well as how we spend our time and how we use the talents God has given us. That is a part of year-round stewardship education, which is always about more than money but never less.

But I think that Jesse invited me here to be more specific than that, since it is November and here (as across the diocese) it is pledge season. Like Jesus we must dare to speak not only about God’s mission of mercy, compassion, and hope but also about money—our money—and what we do with it for the sake of God’s Kingdom. I think the reason Jesus talks about money so much is that he knows it can get in the way. It can keep us from God, because we are always in danger of not merely owning our stuff but of allowing our stuff to own us. I can’t tell you how that is for you – only for myself that it’s a real challenge to get clear on the difference between my needs and my wants. But when my wants keep me from generosity, then other people remain in need. The biggest obstacle to unleashing that missional energy is fear, which can paralyze us.

Today’s Gospel reading is of course one we usually hear on Easter morning: about how after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. Not once, but twice, they are given this message, first by an angel of the Lord and then by the Lord himself: Do not be afraid…  Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me. This is the good news that allows us to become God’s Easter people: do not be afraid, go and tell, you will see…

And that, in a nutshell, is my stewardship sermon. When Jesse returns and asks what I talked about, that’s it – not advice from me to you so much as an insight into what it means to be living the good news in our own day, rooted in the good news of that first Easter morning. Do not be afraid. Go and tell. You will see.

Sometimes I hear people complain (usually outside of the church) that the church talks about money too much. I don’t know where those places are, but it’s not been my experience – not as a parish priest, not as someone who occasionally sits in the pews, and not as Canon to the Ordinary. In fact, my experience is that we tend to be very afraid to talk about money, and almost as afraid to talk about time and talent. But when we do that we end up with passive Christian consumers – rather than disciples who are trying to follow Jesus, with God’s help.

Our biggest fear is that there is not enough. And so I think the Kingdom of God is connected to money because we learn, really learn when we choose to be generous, that it truly is more blessed to give than to receive. And that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. And that if our treasure is all tied up on Wall Street in our pension funds, then that is where our hearts will be. Alternatively, though, if it’s tied up with feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and proclaiming good news to the poor, then that’s where our hearts will be.

My mission today (as I understand it) is not to make the case for why you should increase your pledge to St. Stephen’s Church. That is the work of your rector and let’s be honest, since clergy are a big chunk of any church budget, it is more the work of the wardens and vestry and stewardship committee. I do pray that those who are responsible for this work will be frank and transparent and courageous about what it costs to run this parish and they will make that case. All I want to say about that is that I pray for them as they do that work – because it’s not easy. I don’t know what any of you give and I don’t know who is able to do more. It is not my job to judge anyone.

My job today is not to ask you to increase your pledge, but rather, as an itinerant preacher, to share the good news of Jesus Christ with you today. And that good news relative to the Kingdom of God and relative to our money is that we don’t have to let our possessions possess us. We can choose to see abundance rather  than scarcity and from that place, we can choose generosity, not miserliness. 

We can put our trust in God, who knows our needs before we ask. We can seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. And all these things will be given unto us. 

Alleluia, alleluia.

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