Now and then our lectionary provides a reading that lines up perfectly with what’s going on in the world or the church. We don’t pick the Scripture we hear on a Sunday: it is prescribed in a three-year cycle, and if we want to do something different we have to ask permission from the bishop. So it’s pure … grace that the Gospel reading today, on the first day of our annual pledge campaign, has Jesus telling us that it’s easier for a camel to be threaded through a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Sorry. But it is what it is. So let’s look at that Gospel story.
Here comes a wealthy man, someone with many choices in his life, someone used to getting what he wants and works for, someone who undoubtedly feels that his wealth is a sign of God’s favor. The disciples certainly feel that way: the Prosperity Gospel is not a recent invention. Apparently, nearly a third of Americans believe that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money. I wish I could preach that message with a straight face. But the fact is that the only person who gets blessed like that in churches with that message is the pastor: one prominent preacher of the prosperity Gospel is apparently worth some $50 million.
It’s a false Gospel. This false gospel teaches that if you want something enough you can manipulate God into giving it to you by imagining it being a reality. So, if you want that big house down the street, all you have to do is picture yourself in that house – and give a lot of money to the preacher who told you to do it. You can achieve the desire of your heart, whatever it is, by thinking and praying yourself into it. It’s simply not true.The life of faith has nothing to do with getting rich. So, if you come to church because you think it will make you rich, I am here to disappoint you. You can certainly find that teaching in some parts of the Bible, but not in the words of Jesus. In fact, he says elsewhere that the poor are blessed in their poverty.
When Jesus tells this rich man that his wealth actually stands in the way of his embrace of the kingdom of God, everyone is shocked. Jesus is asking him to do the impossible: to let go of the one thing that gives him status and security.
Jesus is pretty uncompromising here: he is looking to shake this person out of his complacency and entitlement. But, as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, Jesus is one of us. He knows how hard it is to separate our self-worth from our bank account. And so, even as he delivers the hard news, he loves this man for asking, for doing his best, within his own limitations, to do as God commands. For those of us who think of ourselves as wealthy, that’s good news. Jesus loves rich people too!
The man goes away, grieving. Now, we don’t know the end of the story. Maybe he does give everything to the poor; maybe he finds a way to put God first in his life, and maybe he comes back later, less encumbered, to follow Jesus on the Way of the Cross. We don’t know. But one thing we do know: he isn’t going to earn his way into heaven. And neither are we.
This open-ended story leaves us with a question. What do we need to let go of before we can follow Jesus? What is your heart’s desire, your highest priority; is it something that gets in the way of your journey of faith?
When I visited South Sudan six years ago I stayed with people who had nothing except what they could grow or make from the land around them. They were under constant threat of violence from marauding gangs and others determined to stamp out Christianity. But their worship on Sunday mornings was the most joyful I have ever witnessed. They knew that God was their refuge and strength: nothing else in their world was reliable. They were ready to follow Jesus all the way, there was nothing standing in the way; they were already living in the Kingdom of God.
My Sudanese friends gave thanks to God for every little thing: for a safe journey, however short. For food. For waking up in the morning. They lived in gratitude, and somehow they found reasons for gratitude several times a day, even though they had so little. The center of our life as Christians is an act of gratitude: the Eucharist, a word that means giving thanks. When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he was telling us to be thankful, to live grateful lives. So, another question for us today is, what are we grateful for? I am grateful for this cathedral: for the ways we care for each other, for the wonderful music, for this glorious space, for our hardworking staff, for the opportunities to come together as friends and serve our neighbors.
I am grateful for all the people who, over the last 149 years, have given so that this cathedral would still be here today.
I am grateful because I love this place and I love the people in this place.
A consequence of this love is that I am moved to give. I have some good role models for this: the consequence of God’s love for the world was the gift of Jesus, and Jesus loved us enough to give his life for us. I give because I love. And I see the same consequences in others here. I’m going to embarrass a couple of people by naming them, to make my point.
Konnie gives her time and energy to the altar guild because she loves to see this congregation offer beautiful worship.
Vicki gives her days to loving her brothers and sisters on the streets.
Chuck gives his devotion and skill to the plants that grow in our churchyard, out of love for God’s creation.
Our floors are being refinished right now because someone loves our community enough to want our home to be in the best possible shape for the future.
Jack Lentz who died last August loved this community enough to leave a portion of his estate to the cathedral. So did Dorothy Green and Mary McBride and Rupert Keesler.
So, what about you? What do you love? What are the consequences of that love?
Think now of one thing you love about this community that prompts you to give – whether your gift is an hour of worship on Sunday morning or $1,000 a month or your expertise in Chapter and finance committee meetings. Now turn to your neighbor and share your reason for giving. A minute each.
I wonder how many of you talked about your financial giving. I know about the anxiety that surrounds money in our culture. Just consider for a moment if I had asked you to tell the person sitting behind or in front of you the amount of your annual income. I don’t think the conversation would be nearly as vibrant. It’s almost impossible for us to talk openly about money: that’s a measure of the power it holds over us. But our opening prayer today speaks of God’s grace preceding and following us. That grace can liberate us from all our anxieties, can make the impossible possible.
So, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, gathering at God’s table to make Eucharist, to give thanks, to experience God’s love, and to live out the consequences of that love.
October 14, 2018
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges