Monday, October 16, 2006

We Can Give It All Away: A Stewardship Sunday Sermon

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Mark 10:21 Amen.

It was a sincere, heartfelt question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In fact, it was a courageous question, a question that we tremble to ask: “What must I do to have unrestricted communion with God?” This is the human heart’s most profound desire: to abide forever in God’s deathless love, the love that heals all wounds and nurtures a deep, abiding joy.

Jesus’ response seems like a radical, even impossible ideal. Must we sell everything and give the money to the poor? Isn’t that asking a bit much? Jesus seems to be awfully hard on rich people here, and by the comparative standards of wealth, both then and now, the rich people are us. The rich man in today’s story walks away deeply grieving, because he finds himself unable to make the sacrifice he believes Jesus is asking of him. His possessions stand between him and God, and he is unwilling to let go of them. What about us? Can we be saved?

Consider the Rev. Elizabeth Evans, whom some of us met on our recent trip to El Salvador. Elizabeth is an extraordinary person in many ways, but one of the things that struck me most was her willingness to uproot herself from her comfortable North American life to live and serve among some of the poorest people of Central America.

Elizabeth has served as a lay and now, ordained, missionary in Honduras and El Salvador for six years. She lives in a clean but simple house in San Miguel that rents for $200 per month. It has running water and electricity, a luxury for many El Savadorans, but the dishwashing and laundry are done by hand. There is no television or oven; a hotplate suffices for cooking. Although her home has two bedrooms, it also serves as a community center and half-way house for women transitioning out of prison. It belongs to the people as much as it belongs to her.

In addition to the rent and utilities, which are part of her compensation, she receives a stipend of $350 per month for everything else. Given that gas prices there are comparable to what we pay here, she doesn’t have a car. She walks or rides the bus. As she said, “I have more time than money.” That statement alone was stunning to me. Almost everyone I know has far more money than time, and will spend enormous amounts of money for all kinds of “time saving” devices – even as they spend more and more time working to pay for them!

Now, Elizabeth is not a saint. She has family and a home back in the United States with resources to fall back on. She hasn’t sold all of her possessions, although she does find herself giving more and more of them away every time she comes back to the U.S. for a visit. The point isn’t that Elizabeth is perfect. The point is that she is free. Her lifestyle doesn’t feel like a sacrifice at all; rather, it is an expression of compassion, suffusing her ministry with energy, vulnerability, and joy. Her possessions do not stand between her and God, because they do not stand between her and the practice of compassion in solidarity with the poor.

You see, the man who came to Jesus with such great sincerity and passionate hunger for God, walked away grieving because he thought Jesus was talking about sacrifice rather than compassion. He was focused only on what he had to give up, and not on what he could give away. He failed to understand that unrestricted communion with God comes through unrestricted communion with those in need. Compassion is the key that unlocks the door to life with God.

Despite the impression given by some Christians today that Jesus was preoccupied with sex, the truth is that Jesus spent no time at all worrying about premarital sex, same-sex marriage, or single mothers. He was, however, preoccupied with wealth, and spent a fair amount of time giving rich people a hard time: rich people and priests. Jesus is clear in his teaching, healing, and feeding of the multitudes that wealth, not sex, is the greatest obstacle to salvation.

Jesus is so hard on rich people because he understood that wealth is too often generated on the basis of injustice. When the anonymous man inquires of Jesus how to inherit eternal life, Jesus points him to the commandments because they summarize the requirements of basic human justice. The economy which sustains a typical North American lifestyle is built foursquare on the basis of dishonesty, greed, and murder. Whatever our personal integrity, we are complicit in the breaking of the commandments every day: from the conditions of the workers in El Salvador who produce our coffee to the Iraqis who die as a consequence of the need to keep our oil supply flowing.

The requirements of justice alone should turn our hearts to the poor and vulnerable among us, but it doesn’t. Thus, Jesus asks something more of us. He invites us to live in unconditional solidarity with the poor, to give everything we have to create a community where the need of our fellow human beings takes absolute priority over selfish pursuits. The anonymous man kept the commandments; he followed the letter of the law. Yet he continued to benefit from those who weren’t so scrupulous, and turned a blind eye to the consequences. He still lacked one thing: compassion.

Jesus asked him to sell everything and give the money to the poor. He did this because he loved this man and wanted to set him free. Now, this is very, very important. It is the only time in Mark’s gospel that it is said of Jesus that he loved a particular person. What is being emphasized here is that Jesus is not demanding sacrifice, but rather inviting us into a life of radical love that never allows wealth to stand between us and our fellow human beings.

Jesus is not trying to lay a guilt trip on us. He is inviting us to join the community of disciples he is gathering to create the kingdom of God. He is inviting us to join him in the great adventure of unrestricted life in love with God, which means unrestricted life in love with our neighbors, especially the little ones, the poor, those in any need or trouble. Justice alone is not enough. We must become compassionate, just as God is compassionate.

When we do, we discover that what initially looked like a terrible sacrifice is really a wonderful new level of freedom. The truth is we are often slaves to our possessions. They are our gods, our idols, and they are tyrants. They bind us in ways that deform our humanity and harden our hearts. In this, as in all things, Christ has come to set us free – free to love and to build the beloved community.

Now, if you are anything like me, you probably don’t have much more courage in this matter of becoming unbound from possessions than did the anonymous man in today’s gospel story. At least, I haven’t sold everything and given it to the poor. For me, it is impossible. But I’m still holding out hope that with God, it will become more and more possible. Mine is the goal that Liz and Ed Specht shared with me recently: to figure out a way to make sure that I die with nothing. We can give it all away.

In the meantime, I’m taking whatever steps I can in that direction. Living without a television has helped me to unplug from the consumer economy in ways that have proved healthy for me and my family, distinguishing better between wants and needs. Being intentional about increasing the percentage of the family budget that is devoted to supporting more love and more justice in the world is an ongoing challenge, as is energy conservation and recycling. Living lighter on the planet benefits all of us in the long-run. Giving money away can benefit a surprising number of people right now.

Currently, I’m struggling with a big possession – my car. I’m finding it more and more difficult to justify being a two car family given the availability of public transportation, car pooling, and my two functioning legs. Right now, I still believe I have more money than time. I still believe I need the car to be effective and efficient as a priest. But after spending a couple of days observing Elizabeth’s ministry in San Miguel, I’m beginning to have my doubts.

I know I’m not alone in struggling with these issues. Neither are you. As a Christian community, we are invited to follow Jesus by learning how we can help each other find freedom from our possessions. In fact, I believe that it is only in the context of a caring community that we experience the love that casts out our fear of economic insecurity. Together, we can become compassionate, just as God is compassionate, for the sake of a suffering world.

I invite you to keep this in mind when you receive a call this week from a fellow parishioner about our fall every-member canvass. You will be called, ostensibly, to schedule an appointment to discuss your financial pledge toward next year’s parish budget. I urge you to make this an opportunity to explore with a sister or brother how Jesus is calling you to become freer and more compassionate. Make it an opportunity to look at the whole of your life, not just what you contribute to the church, and to challenge yourself to explore what you can give away to enrich the world, rather than simply the minimum you will give up to placate your conscience.

The measure of our faith is our commitment to the poor, our willingness to give ourselves away for the sake of the healing of the world. This is true, not because the poor are morally superior or because we are unworthy of good things, but because God is compassionate. As we draw from this deep well of compassion within us, we discover that God is doing for us many things we previously thought impossible. We can give it all away. And we can start today. Amen.

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