Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost

RCL, Year C, Proper 20: Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

[Listen to the sermon here.]

“When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.”[1]

Those words come from the 18th Century Anglican priest and founder of Methodism, John Wesley. And there’s evidence to show that he really meant it.

When Wesley started teaching at Oxford University, his initial salary was 30 pounds per year.[2] That comes to about $46 these days, but it was a lot of money back in Wesley’s day. Wesley’s living expenses came to 28 pounds. So he gave 2 pounds away to the poor. The next year his income doubled to 60 pounds per year. But because he still limited his expenses to 28 pounds, Wesley gave away 32 pounds to the poor. The third year he earned 90 pounds, and he gave away 62. Eventually, Wesley’s income had grown to a little over 1,400 pounds. By that point, Wesley needed only 30 pounds to live on, so he gave away 1,370 pounds to the poor and needy. That’s over $2,100 dollars, a huge sum back then!

When I first read about this, my knee-jerk response was, “Wow, this is extreme and unnecessary. Just think of all the things Wesley could have done for himself with all of that money.” But as I’ve reflected on our Lord’s teaching concerning money and possessions, Wesley’s actions seem more faithful than crazy. Perhaps Wesley was motivated by Jesus’ words we’ve heard this morning:

“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Lk 16:13).

Learning from Jesus, John Wesley understood that money and possessions can tempt us to absolute loyalty. If we’re not very careful, they can become our masters, distorting our relationship with God and other people. To avoid that, Wesley gave away what he didn’t need to those who did need it.

This morning is not the only time we’ve been confronted by Jesus’ teaching on money and possessions of late. You may recall the gospel reading from just a couple of weeks ago when Jesus said, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Lk 14:33). And if you were in church on a Sunday back in August, you may remember Jesus telling a parable about a rich man who built up a stockpile of wealth to insure a life of comfort and ease, only to suddenly die, leaving behind new, large barns filled with crops standing as monuments to irrelevance. In a prefatory remark to this parable, Jesus said, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk 12:15). Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel we hear Jesus say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:24-25).

It’s an inescapable fact: throughout the gospels, but especially in Luke, the topic of money and possessions occupies a central place. Indeed, Jesus has more to say on this topic than perhaps any other. And if we add to Jesus’ teaching the concern of Jewish prophets like Amos for the ways in which wealth can lure us away from God and desensitize us to the sufferings of the poor, then we cannot afford to neglect the spiritual power money and wealth possess for both good and evil. As the apostle Paul sums it up in his first letter to Timothy: “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).

Even though such concerns regularly surface throughout the Bible, many churches remain silent about the dangers of inordinate love of money and possessions. As Christian ethicists have noted, “Our defenses are so firmly entrenched that it is very difficult for us to simply listen to these [biblical] texts without qualifying, spiritualizing or dismissing them.”[3] But for the sake of our spiritual health and moral formation, we need to face the truth. And the truth is that we live in not only one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations on earth; we also live in a culture in which we are routinely bombarded with enticements to buy into a way of life that gives inordinate value to money and possessions, a consumer culture that thrives on the creation of new and often false “needs” and the cut-throat competition required to fulfill those “needs.”[4]

Depending on how deeply we conform to the values of this cultural way of life, Jesus’ teaching on money and possessions may sound a dissonant, counter-cultural note. But it’s a note we need to hear. For the deeper truth of biblical teaching on this topic is this: having money and possessions is not in itself sinful, but money and possessions can be dangerous distractions from following Jesus as Lord and Savior. Inordinate love of money and possessions can give us a false sense of security grounded in the illusion of self-sufficiency. It tempts us to believe that we are the ultimate owners and masters of our lives, as though we can live our lives “on our own resources rather than upon God’s generosity and mercy.”[5] And if we fall for that temptation, we can end up misusing money and possessions in ways that hurt ourselves and others.

Talking about money and possessions as potentially dangerous may sound scary. But we will have missed something critically important if we walk away from worship today feeling fearful or guilty. Jesus did not come to lay heavy burdens upon us or to make us feel unworthy of God’s love and mercy. Quite the contrary, Jesus came that we might have life and have it in abundance.

As stewards of material goods, we have a moral obligation to provide those things needful for ourselves, our families, and our community. So is there a way to use money and possessions that’s consistent with the life in abundance Jesus offers us? Is there an antidote to the dangers posed by money and possessions that can help us use these resources as God intends?

Christian tradition provides a tried and true answer to these questions by telling us that the antidote comes through practicing the virtues of hospitality, generosity, and simplicity.[6]

Hospitality is the practice of opening our hearts, our churches, and even our homes to welcome and embrace anyone who shows up by offering safety, refreshment, and respect.

Hospitality leads quite naturally to generosity, the practice of opening our hands, our wallets, and our cupboards to help feed, clothe, and shelter anyone in need, especially the hungry, the naked, and the homeless, regardless of whether or not the world thinks they are deserving.

And then there’s simplicity, the practice of using only what we truly need to sustain our lives by conserving limited resources and restricting our pursuit of luxury goods. Practicing simplicity, we are mindful that accumulating possessions we really don’t need all too often comes at the expense of others being unable to acquire those basic goods necessary for sustaining life. The virtue of simplicity reminds us that how each of us lives affects the well-being of countless others.

St. Francis once said: “Proclaim the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” It’s hard to imagine a better example of this than persons who practice hospitality, generosity, and simplicity. Practicing these virtues not only re-orients our relationship with money and possessions in ways that keep us in right relationship with God and our neighbor. Practicing these virtues also proclaims a message. In a world driven by competition, greed, and excess, persons who practice hospitality, generosity and simplicity proclaim the gospel by their actions. They bear witness to an alternative way of life. It’s a way of life that transcends the divisions and struggles of this world by pointing to the coming of God’s kingdom. And it’s a way of life supremely exemplified in Jesus Christ, the one who sets the example of godly life for us all.

Our call is to be faithful stewards of our money and possessions, acknowledging that all we have belongs to God, and then using these resources to minister to a hungry, hurting world in Jesus’ name. As we answer that call, may we know the joys of abundant life that come through practicing hospitality, generosity, and simplicity. And may we be reassured that in the midst of things that are passing away, we do indeed hold fast to those things that shall endure.

[1], accessed September 15, 2010.

[2], accessed on September 15, 2010.

[3] Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 414.

[4] Ibid., p. 426.

[5] Philip Turner, Sex, Money & Power: An Essay in Christian Social Ethics (Cowley, 1985), p. 89.

[6] Ibid., p. 88ff.

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