Before I was a parish priest I served a children’s hospital as a chaplain. It was a rich experience and I was honored to be invited in to some of the most sacred moments of people’s lives. I got to see both the best and the worst of humanity working in my capacity at the hospital.
In one particular case, the parents were very wealthy. Their child needed surgery. The physician explained carefully and slowly to the parents that the OR was scheduled in order of medical need to ensure each child would receive the care that is most urgent and appropriate. Their child was third in line for the OR that day based on her current condition.
A few minutes after the conference ended, the father approached the physician alone in the hall and asked what size donation would be required to move his child to the front of the surgery line that day so his child would not have to wait.
Now a sermon on the ethics of money and health care is not really my focus today. But I hope that it surprises you that someone would ask to risk another child’s life putting their own child’s life first because they had more money. Fortunately, the Catholic hospital did not think twice about the value of the other lives involved and declined his offer. But my job then was to figure out how to comfort these angry and frightened parents who, in their fear for their own child, reached out in the only way they knew how– the way the world has trained them. They believed their financial worth should have saved them from this distress.
I hope you don’t think I’m painting the father as a villain. I understand where he is coming from. I have lived the life of that father. In my life before being a priest, I was at the top of the food chain by all accounts– I had a great title in a huge company, I was making lots of money, and I genuinely didn’t know that there was anything else to be had. The only thing I knew to work for was to make more money. Where in this society are we to get any different message? Sr. Simone Cambell- the nun on the bus- recently said it this way: “right now, what drives corporate America is winning. And the measure of winning is getting more money. It is a game, and the measure of your success in that game is how much more you can obtain.”
In my own life, my call to the priesthood came in part when I woke up from that game and realized that money had left me with an around-the-clock schedule- conference calls to staff in India and the Philippines in the middle of the night that would leave me exhausted, a life so full of trying to get to the next level of what Sr. Simone described that I didn’t know my own children very well. So, after getting a different message about the value of money from an Episcopal Church, I did the reasonable thing. I became an Episcopal priest.
Jesus is faced with an inheritance dispute today. We all know somebody whose otherwise happy family has been torn apart by an inheritance dispute. Jesus seems to know there would be no happy way to mediate such a dispute when asked by this bystander in the crowd. He wisely sidesteps and responds with a parable about a fool who gives no consideration to the abundance provided to him except to hoard it all for his own leisure. At the end of the passage there is an exhortation instead to be rich towards God.
Extreme examples may make it seem easy to prioritize money down. “Of course I will give up money if somebody is going to die, or at least I hope I will.” But is it so clear if it is a choice between losing money and… friendship? Family? Neighbors? Justice? Community? Compassion? What are we willing to sell? Money is not bad in and of itself. We need money, and we need to plan and save just as Joseph instructed Pharaoh to save for times of famine in the Hebrew Scriptures. But do we as Christians have a clearly defined place for money in our lives and in the life of the church so that we know when we are selling out or hoarding, and at what cost?
And that is the very question Jesus asks in the gospel today.
This passage serves as a bridge between two important sections of this chapter in Luke. Just before this section, Luke has had Jesus remind us that the call to follow Jesus is not going to be easy. He says things like, “”I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more” and “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.” Luke’s gospel isn’t real high on money because Luke is preparing his audience to go out and be in a real-world struggle with real-world costs, to work for the kingdom that Jesus is proclaiming where it means something– it really means something- to be the beloved community of God. Sitting around building bigger barns for bigger crops just isn’t Luke’s priority.
And in the section after, Luke has Jesus move on to reminding his followers that God provides no matter what. If they are going to go out, they have to be reminded that it isn’t the stuff in the barns they need to stock up on. It is that God is with them. The God that took them through the desert and provided manna will continue to provide. This God is a God that is looking out for you, and you’ve got to remember that even when it’s hard and when you get scared and go back and think you might want to build a big barn to store stuff instead of going out in the world doing the work of the kingdom.
Luke isn’t talking to some far away audience long ago. Luke is talking to you and to me here and now. Because this God is a God that has got you. And this God has got me. And this God has got us tight. And this God is never gonna let us go. But if we’re so worried about how much we’ve got in the barn, or building a bigger barn, or who has a bigger barn than us, or whatever, than it’s really hard to see the amazing things God is doing right here and right now. And it’s really easy to sell out, and to pursue things that don’t matter. But God provides what does matter.
And that’s why we have to talk about money now and always in the church, not just during a fall campaign. And it’s why we as the church have to talk about Stewardship not as fundraising, but Stewardship as how we care and make decisions about what God is providing for us, not just in money, but in relationships, in community, in the earth, in our bodies, and yes, in money. Every week the whole second part of this service is about reflecting on what we have been given. We offer all of our lives and all of our labor to be swept up and we give back to God at this table each week as we receive yet again. We don’t believe anything is really ours to begin with. “All things come of thee o Lord… And of thine own have we given thee.” We give to God what God has provided us. If it is your practice to give online instead of in the plate, then I invite you to pull this card out of the pew rack, and give of yourself in worship by saying a prayer of thanks for some element of your life over it and drop it in the plate so that some part of you comes forward in the liturgy to be blessed and offered up in the Great Thanksgiving. It’s important.
This is not pray and prosper. Those are the ministries that say God gives because you have been good. That view has no room for grace, because if you aren’t good or if you don’t pray, then God doesn’t bless you.
But God doesn’t work that way- in fact God works exactly the opposite way. It’s prosper and pray. God doesn’t give because we have been good; God gives because God is good. God gives in ways that may be surprising, and may require some searching. What does prosper really mean for us as Christians? Our call is to stop chasing long enough to find those gifts, reflect on our lives and then to make sure our lives are reflective of that giving. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” God is good. God has got you, and God is not gonna let go.
You know, at the hospital I was always amazed. The ones who excelled at coping, who were able to be grateful even in the midst of sorrow– to grieve even while keeping faith– they could be poor, or have money, or come from anywhere. But I was always inspired by their sense of gratitude. Their child could be so sick and they would find something to be thankful for. Some might say, “I am so glad my child has somebody to sit with them, because those children next door are all alone.” Or some would say, “I am very sad my child is sick, but I am so grateful that we have such good doctors.” Or some would even say, “I am so glad I have had the privilege of just having these few days with such a beautiful human.” Gratitude didn’t negate the tragedy of what some of them endured, or take away anger, or grief. But it opened a window into the blessings that came despite the tragedy, and helped remind them of just where and how our generous God stands with us, always.
The Rev. Jeff Martinhauk
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego