The Sunday Sermon: Rich Towards God?

July 31, 2022
Penelope Bridges

If you were here last week you might remember that the reading from the prophet Hosea was quite startling, with its description of an unfaithful wife, and children named for God’s punishment of an unfaithful nation. Today’s reading provides some balance, with its beautiful parental imagery and the declaration that God loves Israel too much to inflict the punishment she deserves. This is a song of lament, of passionate love that is rejected, of a lover who cannot bear to hurt the beloved, no matter how merited. The language here is heart-rending: “When Israel was a child I loved him … I took them up in my arms … I bent down to them and fed them … my people are bent on turning away from me … How can I give you up? How can I hand you over? I will not execute my fierce anger … for I am God and no mortal … I will not come in wrath.”

Power is the theme of these verses: the power of the parent over the infant; the power of the child to rebel; the power of the almighty God to refrain from violence for the sake of love. True power doesn’t have to wield a big stick; only power that is held uncertainly or illegitimately generates violence. God’s decision to hold back from richly deserved destruction may be seen as a prefiguring of the Christian Gospel, the God who refrains from rescuing the beloved son in order to demonstrate unconditional love for all God’s children. It’s a reminder that God indeed has ultimate power over creation, that we rest in the palm of God’s hand, that God chooses to offer us steadfast love no matter how far we wander.

Hosea’s oracle is addressed to a failing nation. Israel is on track to be gobbled up by Assyria, the rising power of Hosea’s time. The prophet places blame for the nation’s decline on her abandonment of the Lord for the idols of her neighbors. As we look at the contemporary conflict and division in our own nation, we might ask ourselves what idols we are chasing, and what might be the consequences of that idolatry.

The Gospel story is a vivid reminder that our lives are not our own. None of us knows how long we have on this earth; all we can do is make the most of today and strive to do as much good as possible while we are able.

The parable in Luke’s Gospel about the rich fool could be the paradigmatic parable for our time. Most of us are used to making plans and most of the time seeing them come to fruition in some form. But in the era of COVID we make plans and, as the saying goes, God laughs. Vacations, summer socials, family visits, even choir practice all are subject to change or cancellation at a moment’s notice, depending on the whim of the virus. On top of that, we see our hard-earned savings evaporating in the triple whammy of the bear market, rising gas prices, and relentless inflation. Anyone who has been saving to buy a home has seen that goal diminish in the rear-view mirror as housing costs and now interest rates have climbed. This is a time of great and very understandable anxiety in our world.

In our own cathedral community we have been dealing with a LOT of change. Of course there was the lockdown and then the necessary limitations on our in-person worship, which continue. There’s the 525 Olive project, with demolition, construction, and relocation. There’s this blessed Chancel project, which is thankfully almost complete. We are hopeful of leading worship from the expanded Chancel two weeks from today; but for over three months the plastic backdrop has been an unattractive reminder of continuing change. And we cannot discount the cumulative effect of the losses we have suffered over the last 2 ½ years, without adequate opportunity to grieve and celebrate together.

I know there is concern about the proposed masterplan and capital campaign. Right now we are engaged in a feasibility study, which will tell us a lot about the capacity of this congregation to fund a major project. I am fully prepared for the possibility that we will be able only to tackle part of the plan; or even that the congregation won’t be ready for a capital campaign of any size, any time soon. That doesn’t mean that the masterplan is useless: having a this aspirational plan in our back pocket provides direction for strategic planning and helps to ensure that any future modifications to the campus will be consistent with an overall plan rather than later needing to be undone. I am convinced that in a fast-changing world we have to keep moving forward and adapting, in order for the church to continue to serve the community in a sustainable way. But it’s exhausting, and I get that the constant talk of change is unsettling, and so we need to be intentional about offering extra kindness to ourselves and to each other.

Well, back to the Gospel story. The rich man is called a fool. Not because he is rich: wealth in itself is morally neutral. Some faith communities preach that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and conversely that poverty is a moral failing. Neither of these is accurate. Jesus consistently expects a lot of wealthy people, but he doesn’t condemn them for being rich; and the church wouldn’t be here today without the generous contributions and legacies of those with means. No, the wealth itself isn’t a problem, it’s what we do with our wealth that matters.

I have questions about this story. How did the man in the parable gain all his riches? Did he do it all himself? That seems unlikely – he couldn’t have worked the land alone to produce so much abundance. He must have had help from extended family, neighbors, employees, perhaps some of them enslaved. Did others suffer so that he might get rich? Did he consider sharing his surplus with them? He might have given bonuses, thrown an amazing party, invited the poor and destitute to help themselves. But his imagination couldn’t stretch beyond building a bigger barn to store it all for his own use.

It is revealing that he talks only to himself in the story. Where are the family members, colleagues, or trusted employees with whom he might discuss his dilemma? He lacks a community of accountability, a moral compass by which to discern the best and highest use for his wealth. In our own time we are seeing corporations making huge profits which benefit only the top executives rather than the workers or even the shareholders. This is not Biblical. There is something very wrong with a society where wealth is hoarded by a very few.

This unhealthy and unbalanced culture is not limited to the United States, but it does seem to be more extreme here than in other countries. The New York Times had a story this week that vividly illustrated, for me at least, the contrast between attitudes to excessive wealth in the US and in Europe. It seems that Jeff Bezos is having a yacht built in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. It’s going to be a huge thing, maybe the biggest yacht ever built, costing $500 million dollars. Once it is completed it needs to be sailed down river from the boatyard and out to sea.

However, there is a bridge in the way. It’s an old railroad bridge, no longer in use, but it’s a beloved and significant symbol of continuity in a city that was flattened by Nazi bombs in WW2. The shipping company quietly got permission from the local government to temporarily dismantle the middle span so that the Bezos yacht could be sailed downriver. But when this permission became public knowledge, the citizens of Rotterdam rose up in fury, threatening to pelt the yacht with eggs in a sign of their contempt for the conspicuous extravagance of the world’s richest man.

The idea of taking apart a national symbol of endurance to accommodate the whim of a multi-billionaire is anathema to the Dutch people, who may no longer be church-goers but who still hold to the Biblical principle that money is to be used responsibly and shared generously. So, permission has been rescinded and Mr Bezos will have to wait while the manufacturer figures out a solution. I imagine something along the lines of how you get a model ship into a bottle, but that’s probably not the answer in this case.

The man in our parable asks himself what he should do. He doesn’t pray about it – maybe he suspects that if he asks God, he won’t like the answer he gets. That’s the trouble with prayer: we might always get an answer, but the answer might be No, or Not Yet, or Give it Away. The rich man is called a fool because he imagines that he has ultimate control over his life and his goods. Instead, this sad and isolated man is about to die alone, with nothing but his wealth around him; and a big bank balance is cold comfort indeed when you are about to meet your maker.

Our worth as children of God is not measured by how much we have or spend or make. Nor is it measured by what we do, or where we live, or where we went to school. Nor by the titles or family trees that we may boast. These things mean nothing in the eyes of God, even though they may provide us with an illusion of privilege, virtue, or entitlement. Our worth depends on the simple fact that we ARE children of God, created in love, sustained in love, redeemed by love. The world may be a whirlwind of constant change, disappointment and anxiety, but God’s love remains steadfast, the one unchangeable, fixed point in our lives.

No matter how much change we see around us, even in the church, God’s love remains and God’s promise of eternal life holds true. Both Hosea and our Psalm proclaim God’s steadfast love and compassion for humankind. Jesus ends his story by reminding us to be rich towards God. It’s not clear exactly what he means by that phrase, but I think we can reasonably interpret it to mean that we are to use our wealth for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom on earth, practicing a stewardship that looks a lot more like the Dutch philosophy than the capitalism run amok that we see in this country today. As we continue our worship this morning, the Psalm points the way for our further reflections: “whoever is wise will ponder these things, and consider well the mercies of the Lord.” Amen.

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