Year B, Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23 October 14, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Does that text sound strangely familiar? It sounds like the Gospel we read last week, doesn’t it? Because it is, just this is St. Mark’s version instead of St. Luke’s. This is a good occasion to get a glimpse into some of the inner workings of Fr. Brent that have a direct impact on you all.
My liturgical formation happened in the care of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Anglican monastic order. Their common prayer is beautiful, even life-changingly beautiful (changed my life), and they do it within a pretty narrow slice of the liturgical spectrum. Rite 2: why would you ever need anything else? (Good question).
Their lead helped to form me into the liturgist I am. Some would say I’m rigid; I call myself focused. Some would say I’m stuck in the past; I would say I’m disciplined, or patient. It is all perspective. I am now the chair of the Diocesan Commission on Liturgy. In that role I am encountering a much broader swath of Episcopal liturgy than I knew about or am completely comfortable with. It is the oddest feeling for me, being the most conservative person in the room. I have never felt that way before. But I am trying to be open.
My belief is that innovation is fine, so long as it is approved, that we all agree on it (that means the whole church through decisions of General Convention and the approval of the Bishop). Our shared liturgy, our Common Prayer is a key element of what makes us, us. The BCP is one of the strongest ties that binds us. Tinkering with that should not be up to me or any other individual, no matter how learned or well-meaning. Some forms of submission to something larger than ourselves are helpful.
I saw some new stuff from other priests on this commission, and I started thinking, “I can be a little flexible; we can diverge from the norm a bit…” (Famous last words). So we used different propers appropriate for our annual giving campaign kick-off. (Propers are the Collect of the Day and associated Scripture passages). Pretty risqué to change those up, I know. And look what it got us! It never occurred to me that the lectionary would indicate that same pericope this week. Seriously, what are the chances? But that’s what I get when I start fiddling with that which maybe ought not be fiddled with. The meaning I have made from these repeated gospel readings is either that liturgical innovation is in fact the loosey-goosey foolishness I have always suspected, entirely possible, OR it is God’s incredibly clear way of saying “This gospel is important.” (Just as likely).
It is probably both mixed in with the fact that I am in the end a pretty simple man, there are a lot of pieces that come together to make the Mass. I need systems, patterns, hand rails that keep me facing in the right direction. The liturgy, the prayers we have been using together, for hundreds if not thousands of years, the traditions of our ancestors… like wearing a priest uniform, a strict liturgy is one less thing for me to worry about, letting us get on to more substantial things, like the gospel of the rich young man. So there’s a glimpse behind the curtain. Now to the meat…
This is a hard gospel. The big question everyone always asks, is Jesus speaking to us? Yes. Giving away everything we own and following Him, that is the call, it is unqualified. Hmm… That might preach well at a monastic inquirers class, but that is not us. Here, we are householders, we all have responsibilities: families, homes, work. All sorts of people depend on us for all sorts of things. To live in the world, not even of it, but in it, you need things. Not as many things as most of us have, but some. It is not likely and maybe isn’t even appropriate for the vast majority of us to sell everything and follow Him. We are householders.
And yet, Jesus is speaking to us. The eye of the camel, that is hyperbole; giving away everything was not. A camel can’t go through an eye of a needle. That’s the point. But we can give it all away and Jesus is telling us that that is the ideal. What do we do with this scripture?
We could blow it off. Just ignore it. We do that plenty. St. Paul says some stuff about gay folks that we now know is wrong. Jesus said some stuff about women and divorce that we now know was unjust. Ignoring this teaching is an option.
Another way to deal with it is to spiritualize it, metaphor it up. We can say He meant “give away your spiritual attachments to things and follow me.” We do that all the time. “In the beginning, when God created heaven and earth…” “There is no Jew or Greek, male or female.” We often take biblical injunctions as metaphorical. But that is not what is going on here. Jesus is saying: stuff, sell it, give away the money and then follow me.
We could say it was a different time. That is true. In Jesus’ time it was all-in ministry; the end times were there. People were getting crucified for this stuff. You had to be all in. If you weren’t willing to separate yourself from your things, no way you were going to survive the priests and scribes with their Roman imperial goons lurking in the background. But everything Jesus said was in that context: the end times, imperial oppression, collaborators amongst His own people. It is a slippery slope to start that trend. And we do tend to look for outs when it comes to the hard teachings – turn the other cheek; love your enemy; pray for those who persecute you. I got serious complaints when I inserted Mr. Trump’s name in the prayers of the people. (I’m just saying we are pretty good at letting ourselves off the hook too easily). But no, Jesus is saying: stuff, sell it, give away the money and then follow me.
But I’m not selling everything. And I don’t have any plans too. I don’t know of anyone here who does. Even though we are in our Annual Giving Campaign, if you were going to sell everything you own and give it to the church we’d have to have a really long pastoral conversation and probably get a note from a therapist. Seriously, giving it all away is not something we are going to actually do, at least not like Jesus tells us to. So should we just skip it and feel bad about it, about ourselves? That we’re just not measuring up? Or maybe we should just dismiss certain teachings of Jesus Christ because they feel unreasonable or unattainable? Neither of those seem to be good options.
Before Jesus gave these directions to the rich young man, what did He do? First, He looked at him. He saw him. Imagine being seen, truly seen by Jesus? And then, He loved him. Imagine what that would feel like, the love of God one to one? Jesus knew this young man, and He loved him, and He wanted what was best for him. Jesus knows you, too. And Jesus loves you. And Jesus wants the very best for us. (And the very best from us). He is speaking to us. So how can we hear Him? How can we make this difficult teaching useful?
First off, it is a clear call to recognize that our relationship to material things, to wealth, has distinct and direct spiritual ramifications. Why did Jesus tell this young man to sell everything? What was the purpose of that direction? _____ Having stuff distracts us. And the more you have, the more distractions you have. Be it because your possessions are so engaging, or they take a lot of energy an attention to maintain, to store, to look after, or you are so busy getting them, earning the money to get them, or it consumes our energy in keeping them, keeping others from getting them. It takes a lot of energy to hold on to wealth.
Jesus knew that our relationship to material things, while not inherently sinful, is a site of mortal spiritual peril. It is just like our sexuality. Material things are necessary; we don’t live by bread alone, but without bread, the rest is moot. Like sexual desire, without it, our species wouldn’t exist. But our relationship to both of these basic facts of life can be distorted wildly. St. Paul spoke at length about sexuality, and that we need to mediate our desire, tame it. Jesus is saying the same thing about our relationship with material things. And truly, the more material things we have, the more complicated and entangling our relationships with them can be.
So that is one use of this lesson for us, a cautionary tale. The rich young man couldn’t fully follow Jesus until he resolved his relationship with, his attachments to his possessions. We need to know that our attachments to material things, to our possessions, can get in the way of living the life Jesus offers to us, that is a life in love. And you might say you love your car or your house, but I hope not. Things are not an appropriate subject of our love. This lesson can remind us of that.
But the other use of this lesson, one that relates to our annual giving campaign, is the opportunity for practice. The Jesus ideal is that we should in fact give it all away, that’s the lesson here. (It is a lesson we all need to learn, because all of us will give it all away in the end). But ideally, ideally we would all be spiritually liberated enough to pull a St. Francis and walk out into the woods in only a hair shirt, utterly confident that God would provide, or at least not worried about the consequences if it doesn’t work out. Be like a lily in the field, not worrying about anything. Consider that that is the ideal. But we, most of us, are not there, I am not, so here is an opportunity to practice, to practice reaching a goal that we know may never be attainable in toto, not on this side of the grave, but in degrees, taking baby steps to the Commonwealth of God. We may never get all the way, but the spiritual benefits we may accrue through practice along the way are legion.
So the practice of giving it all away begins in the practice of giving. There are lots of ways to give to the Commonwealth of God: I’m talking about giving to the church. Our giving is an occasion to contemplate our relationship to material things, to money. Particularly in a consumer society like ours, how we use our money is a concrete reflector of our values. There is a lot of theology revealed in our budgets.
Our annual giving campaign is an opportunity to think about what you spend, and more importantly, why. The proportional giving stuff is a tool for that. Look at your income, then look at the percentage you give. Is the importance of this place in your life reflected in the .25% of your wages you donate? Or the 7%? It is not the amount that matters, it is the proportion. Giving more money doesn’t mean you are more faithful, but giving a higher proportion of what you have, that widow’s mite, that is one of the concrete signs of the importance of this place, of your religious life in your priorities.
You will generously pay me $81,000 next year. Thank you. (We are growing in scope, the concrete sign being that we bumped up a size category in the diocesan clergy pay scale). That is our family’s only income. We will pledge $550/month, $6600. About 7%. Food, rent, church, student loans… those are our top four expenses, in order. Not an easy conversation, it is more like “we can do this, right?” But year by year, baby steps, we working towards that tithe. Should we tithe? Yes. (That is a traditionally accepted intermediary step to giving it all). And this is how we are getting there, baby steps. Rome didn’t collapse in a day. The whole process of evaluating our priorities, considering what values we live up to in our spending, the process of making choices, making a commitment, it is applied religion of the first order. I encourage you to take advantage of it.
And then there is the act of giving itself. It is probably not as satisfying to drop a check in the plate as it would be to haul in the seasons’ first sheaf of wheat, or an unblemished calf, but it can still feel good. Actually I know a pastor in Minnesota who has a farmer who gives in corn. The church rents an 18-wheeler, the farmer fills it and they drive it to the elevator to sell it. Someone tried to give us 650 lbs of honey a couple of years ago. (It didn’t work out). Paying off a bill feels good. Satisfying a commitment feels good. Making a sacrifice, giving of the first fruits, feels distinctive. The act of intentional and costly generosity is a religious act with distinctive spiritual sensations. Pleasurable sensations? Maybe. Rewarding ones, for sure, but pleasurable? Maybe like mile 19 in a marathon pleasurable. (But that is one of the best feelings I have ever had).
One of the reasons to give to this church is to participate in this practice, the religious practice of giving. And it is an egalitarian practice, because x% of $200,000 has the same spiritual value as the same percent of $25,000. (More actually, flat taxes are harder – read more spiritually gratifying – on those with less). It is not the amount, it is what it means to you that matters. How much you feel it, how much you notice it in a month. If you don’t notice it, it is not teaching you much.
Jesus looked at that rich young man, and loved him, right before He told him to give everything away. He is looking right at us. His love is directed right at us, right into your heart. As we progress in this year’s annual giving campaign, I encourage you to look into your own hearts, into your own patterns of consumption, and contemplate what is truly important in your life, and consider how you act on those values. That is a practice for the ages. AMEN.