Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Today, I'm at The Church of the Nativity in Northborough. I was there thirteen months ago right after they said goodbye to a longtime rector - and there today a week before they welcome their new rector. I love my job! And I love how the Spirit moves through seasons of transition. The readings for today can be found here.

There is a version of the “American Dream” that suggests that the meaning of life is found in accumulating more and more stuff. Now I realize we are deep into the political season, but what I’m talking about here isn’t political and trust me I am not that interested in getting political today. But what I’m talking about is cultural, and it’s in the air we breathe – and it’s something with which our politics on both right and left must contend.  

The “preacher” of Ecclesiastes lived during a time of incredible economic volatility. That’s what all that talk about “vanity” is really about – although a better word for the Hebrew would be “mist” or “vapor.” Essentially, he says that you can’t control mist. And you can’t control life. Life is ephemeral. It’s ungraspable. Even more famously than this talk about vanity of vanities, in the next chapter beyond the one we read today, the preacher says that there is a time and a season for everything under the sun.

I think in our heart of hearts we know this is right. Wisdom is about navigating our way through the ups and downs of life, not only economic cycles of richer and poorer, but sickness and health, better and worse – joys and heartaches that come in life. It is vanity to pretend it is otherwise. Sometimes we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Not even the spiritual life is one big mountaintop.

There is an even more crass distortion of the American Dream that utilizes the language of the Wild West and individualism and the “self-made man.” It’s the imagery from which we begin to talk about things like “boot-straps” by which we lift ourselves up. And like a two-year old, we don’t need anyone’s help to do it. So it’s not only about more and more stuff; it’s all about me. Every one for himself, or herself.

Now this is, of course, a distortion of the real American Dream. The story of this great nation is about way more than individuals accumulating wealth: it’s a story filled with images of sacrifice and bravery and community. It is not primarily a story about self-reliance, but about the neighborhood. It’s about ordinary people praying and marching and singing and doing their jobs: soldiers and teachers and first responders and others who instill hope and mutual respect and remind us that what makes a community and a nation truly great is its people. It’s about churches and synagogues and mosques (and storefronts too) that call us toward our better selves and toward neighborly love and the practice of hospitality and mercy and of kindness.

But the contrast remains great between that richer story and the truncated version of the story that gets distorted into something one-dimensional, self-centered., and materialistic. If we are not careful about it – if we don’t regularly take time to question it – we can lose our very souls in a dog-eat-dog world. I believe it is the work of the Church to hold up a bigger story of the beloved community – what Jesus called the Kingdom of God; what our bishop likes to call “Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion, and hope.” In the next 100 days or so, I invite you not to shy away from the political but to bear witness to something bigger. To be light that shines in the darkness and leaven that makes the whole loaf rise. Or at least to be salt and light and yeast in this part of Worcester County.

As Christians, we turn to Jesus for guidance. As Christians, we turn to our Baptismal Covenant and to Holy Scripture as the authorities that lead us to more abundant life. Because we do believe that Jesus is Lord, yes? And we do believe that he is worthy of our trust, yes? All of us know what makes for real community. But if we are not careful with our lives, we will get caught up in the pursuit of stuff, rather than in the pursuit of abundant life. It happens in small, insidious, and seemingly insignificant ways; but the choices we make over time can destroy life or create it. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” And then he tells a story…

As always, Jesus, puts the matter simply, but directly. He doesn’t mince words. We face a choice between generosity or greed. The story is perhaps somewhat jarring to us, because the man in this story is perhaps familiar to us. I assume he is, at least as I read this story, a good man and a hard-worker. He’s a faithful person who simply wants not only to get ahead and have a little more than his parents did, but a better life for his children. He isn’t like “those sinners” that Paul is talking about in his letter to the Colossians, which we also read today: those sinners guilty of fornication, or impurity, or passion, or evil desires, or…

…but wait a second. There it is, even if we missed it the first time around. Or greed. Paul puts “greed” right there with fornication and impurity and passion and evil desires! Who would have thunk it! And he says it is in fact a form of idolatry, that is, of worshiping a false god. It is making a “thing” into God. It’s about misplacing our trust.

My brothers and sisters, “greed is not good.” Both Jesus and Paul (and quite frankly you can go back to Moses and the prophets too) are aware that we can so easily lose our souls in the pursuit of more and more stuff. This rich man in the story that Jesus tells has a lot of stuff. So much stuff he needs to add onto his house and even put some things into storage. So much stuff! But what doesn’t seem to occur to him is that he has a choice. He doesn’t have to keep it all! It is all merely entrusted to him anyway. It’s not his, in spite of what the culture says. It’s all on loan and he could choose to give all of it away like St. Francis did. Or at least he could choose to give some of it away. He could choose generosity over greed.

Now let me just say that as a preacher I try hard not to point fingers and most of my sermons are best delivered not from a pulpit, but in front of a mirror. When we moved from Holden to Worcester three years ago, after living fifteen years in the St. Francis Church rectory, we were seriously trying to purge and we barely made a dent. There were boxes everywhere of stuff – including, I am embarrassed to admit – a few boxes that had come to Holden from Westport in 1998 that never were even unpacked.

But I will say this – as empty nesters, as a couple who have been married over thirty years now, Hathy and I are trying to be more and more aware of how much stuff we really need and trying to travel a bit lighter. Yard sales – what I call “other people’s junk” – don’t interest me in the least! We are trying to be more intentional about our stuff. But I still live among the haves, in a have neighborhood in a have state in a have nation. In a have-not world. So I need this story and I bet you need it too, to remind you that as followers of Jesus we are called not to greed but to gratitude, which leads to generosity.

Jesus tells this story to every generation anew, suggesting that it is foolish to spend so much time accumulating stuff because we do not know when our time will be up. And perhaps the saddest thing in the world is to spend your whole life thinking “someday I’ll relax, someday I’ll enjoy life, once I’m all secure and settled…” only to drop dead of a heart attack before “someday” ever comes. And I bet as soon as I say it that way, you all know someone to whom that happened. That’s the thing about Jesus; he has this way of hitting us where we live.

This man in Jesus’ story is likeable enough. But he has forgotten how to live. He has forgotten how to share. He has forgotten how to be bold and generous so that at his funeral there might be more to be said about him as neighbor than “that was a pretty amazing estate sale.” He still has that bumper sticker on his car that says “whoever has the most toys when he dies wins” when what he really needs to do is trade it in for the one that says, “live simply, that others may simply live.” I think what I love about Jesus more than anything else is that he rarely calls people out.  His preferred mode of operation is to tell stories that hold up a mirror to our lives, for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. It’s up to us whether or not we will listen and look. He says things to us like “be careful out there in this world. Keep alert. Be on your guard. Be wise and discerning in your choices, the big ones you make about college or a new job, but also the little ones you make every day. And remember in the making of those choices what really matters.

So there was this wealthy guy, and everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. And he thought to himself: “What should I do, I have no place to store all my stuff?” And then he said, “I know, I will add on to my house and put some of it into storage, and say to my     soul, ‘Soul, you finally have enough! So retire, relax, eat, drink, and be merry.’” But God said to that man, “you fool! This night your life is demanded of you. And all you have accumulated, whose will it be?” So it is, for all who store up for themselves, but are not rich toward God.

Now that’s all I’m going to say about that because I want to spend a couple of minutes that I have left reflecting on what it means to make space for a new rector. Space in this congregation and in the rectory – but mostly space in your hearts. Chad will arrive here with gifts to share. And you all have some gifts to share with him. But he will come here as a rookie rector. He’s been learning how to be a priest, but he’s been doing that as part of a clergy team – as the junior partner. So I guarantee you this: he won’t come here with the experience that Len had in his final years or that Eletha had as your interim. Chad isn’t Len or Michael or Eletha.

But Chad will come with his own gifts. His job isn’t just to fill the space left by those others or walk in anyone’s shoes but his own. It’s going to take a little while to sort all that out. You will be tempted to think, “hey, we’ve been in transition for a while, and now we aren’t. But give it time. You are still in transition for the foreseeable future.” And the Church can be a very difficult employer. You do all know this, yes? If we aren’t careful, the Church can too quickly mirror the culture and perhaps here is the connection to the things we’ve been talking about today. The Church is not a mini-corporate American business. We are the Body of Christ. Chad’s ministry here won’t be judged on whether or not he can single handedly increase the budget or the average Sunday attendance. If those things happen, great. We like it at Diocesan House when they do. But if they do they will happen because you are all more faithfully living into the Baptismal Covenant together.

Your work is to follow Jesus. And the work of your new rector is to help you all follow Jesus more dearly, more clearly, and more nearly. It’s to help you to be salt, and light, and yeast in Northborough and the surrounding towns. That work requires faithfulness and it does not always lead to “success.” 

Pray for your new rector and his family and together seek first the Kingdom of God, one day at a time. And may God bless you in doing it, for the sake of a world that so desperately needs that. 

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