Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why give?

A Sermon preached on October 11th (Proper 23) at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Job 23:1-9, 16-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

It is, I promise, a coincidence, or at least not my plan, that the beginning of our annual stewardship campaign coincides with today’s passages from Mark’s Gospel about the connection between wealth and access to God’s kingdom. In my weekly email I asked, a little provocatively I admit, whether Jesus’ instructions to the rich man to "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) is the new standard for our stewardship, instead of just the tithe?  

Well, the answer is yes and no. No, because although our church might very briefly be in wonderful financial state if you all sold everything and gave it to St. Augustine’s, it would not be a very sustainable model for stewardship …. And you would all be in a very destitute state! Yes however, if we accept that the call to sell everything, like the picture of the camel going through the eye of needle, is a typical rhetorical exaggeration to make a deeper point about our proper attitude to wealth and what we should do with it. So what is the right attitude to wealth, possessions and money?

When Jesus says to his disciples, “how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God,” (10:23) they were perplexed at these words. Wealth was considered to be a sign of divine favor – yes the prosperity gospel existed even then – and so if wealthy people were not going to enter the kingdom, especially one who was so clearly devout like the rich man in the story, and who probably also followed the law in giving a share of his income to the poor, who would get in? Not only that, but Jesus even makes wealth sound like a problem, as if having wealth is a barrier to entering the kingdom of God.

That is the case when we serve our possessions, rather than them serving us and the kingdom. As Jesus teaches more than once, far too often wealth and material success become something we focus on to the exclusion of other things and are something we are overly proud of. Wealth and material success become objects of worship – idols and then they do stand between us and God, and God’s kingdom, and God’s people – but as a barrier we have erected ourselves, not as one God puts up. As one participant in the Wednesday Bible Study said of this passage, there is an underlying current of excess pride in the man’s interaction with Jesus “Good Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:17) Please confirm that I am good too … that might explain why Jesus’ reaction sounds so testy and why he tries to draw the man away from his “I” focus back to a focus on the other. The commandments Jesus lists are based on the second six of the 10 commandments, those we might call the relationship commandments, because they are all about how we should live in community with one another.
Wealth is neither a sign of God’s love nor of God’s disfavor. Nevertheless everything we are and everything we have comes from God: “All things come from you, and of your own do we give you” (1 Chronicles 29:14) is often used as an offertory sentence to remind us of this. The lesson for our stewardship, for our use of God’s gifts, is not to worship what we have, but only the one from whom it all comes. A pledge is a visible sign of our gratitude to God. And when we pledge, we promise to give back to God (to God’s Church and for God’s mission) a small portion of what God has given us.

Wealth is not a free ticket to God’s favor, Jesus tells his disciples. In fact, for mortals it is impossible to be saved, but not for God; for God all things are possible. Thanks be to God that all of us have access to a free ticket: rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free to use the examples of the time, the ones we know from St. Paul’s letters. That free ticket is Jesus Christ who John describes variously in his Gospel as the way, the truth, the light, and the gate.  For the author of Hebrews Jesus is a great high priest but not one distant from the people he serves. Instead he describes Jesus as a person fully able to sympathize with all our many and myriad weaknesses, because he experienced them all himself as the human being he was, and still is. That is why in the words of Hebrews we can “approach the throne of grace,” God’s throne “with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16) What exactly does that “churchy” word grace mean? My Bible Dictionary[1] defines grace, taken from the Latin gratia or favor as “translating the Hebrew hesed, God’s love for us” and as a translation of the Greek charis, meaning, “the free gift of God’s forgiveness which we can never earn (“free, gratis, and for nothing”), and the power to show love to others which this brings.” 

The second half of that definition contains our second lesson on stewardship. We give – and in doing so we give up a little of what we have - to show love to others and we are empowered and encouraged to do by God’s Grace. It is our response and reaction to the great free gift of forgiveness and love that we know as it was embodied and incarnate in Jesus Christ.  

But there are also benefits to giving in the “here and now.” And by that I don’t mean the positive effect on your health that recent research claims to be a direct result of generosity.  According to an article Andy posted on our Facebook page, “improved mood, better physical health and increased longevity are connected to giving ….. When it comes to your health, it truly is better to give than to receive.”[2] No I’m referring to Peter’s plaintive comment: “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” (Mark 10:28) So are we saved, what’s the benefit for us? You will receive a hundredfold of what you give or give up, is Jesus’ answer. This little rhetorical flourish has unfortunately been taken – and actively sold – literally. There were and are TV evangelists who call on their viewers to send them money with the promise of it coming back a hundredfold, which sounds like a pretty good return considering how low interest rates are at the moment. Again, this is not a sustainable model for stewardship. Nor is it what Jesus wanted to say. His message was one of reassurance. Even if you give up your family and your job to follow me – as many of the disciples had done – don’t worry, a new and much greater family beckons, a new even richer social and religious fellowship is waiting for you, homes will open wherever you go, this fellowship will sustain you even in difficult times, in Mark’s example in times of persecution. 

Stewardship, is also about fellowship and community. This church is a social and religious fellowship, a spiritual family that you support mutually. It is part of the Body of Christ to use the image Paul uses in his letters to the Romans and to the Corinthians: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:27) As members of one body we are called to support one another and to each play our role in supporting the whole – each according to our ability and means. 

So while I don’t want you to sell all, I do want all of you to give. The standard for our stewardship is not an amount but an attitude – the “thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) Whatever you give as your response to our stewardship campaign, please give out of gratitude, give out of love as response to God’s grace, give as a follower of Jesus, who gave us himself, and give as a sign of your full fellowship with one another.

[1] A Basic Bible Dictionary, Michale Counsell (Canterbury Press, 2004), 49

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