Proper 23, Year C, 2010

To listen to this sermon, click here.

I had this habit as a kid that drove my sister crazy.  During the ritual opening of Christmas presents I would over emote about each gift.  “An etch-a-sketch!  That’s so great!”, “A cabbage patch doll!  I’ve always WANTED a cabbage patch doll!”, “Blue socks?  They’ll go great with my blue shoes!”, We found an old video recently from when I’m about eight years old, and my reactions are incredibly cloying.  I actually profusely thanked Santa, who because of his busy Christmas morning schedule, was not in the room.   And while I’m sure part of my enthusiasm was about me being a first born suck-up, I would argue that there was a core of genuine, spontaneous thanksgiving in my little performance.

Real gratitude is tricky when you live in a society where you are used to getting exactly what you want.  As adults, my immediate family gives each other lists of Christmas presents we would like and then we receive those presents.  It’s fantastic, and we’re grateful to each other, but the spontaneous joy of gratitude is missing.

That spontaneous thanksgiving is missing from much of my life.  I don’t enthusiastically thank you all twice a month when I receive my paycheck.  I don’t thank God every day for my amazing husband or my sweet dog.  I don’t thank my parents weekly for the hard work that went in raising me or my sister for putting up with my annoying first-born habits.

Our gospel lesson today really challenges us and our attitudes about thanksgiving.  In the story, Jesus heals ten lepers.  He tells them to show themselves to the priest and off they go, getting cleansed from their leprosy in the meantime.  Now, they are all obedient to Jesus.  They all do exactly what he asks them to do.  Well, all but one.  One of the lepers is a Samaritan.  He is an outsider.  He’s unclean.  He’s different.  But that Samaritan is so excited he is cleansed, he runs back to Jesus, praises God and throws himself at Jesus’ feet thanking him.  What a reaction!  The other nine lepers were obedient, but the Samaritan leper had a genuine moment of intense gratitude that he can’t help but express.

We are a guarded, cautious people here at Trinity Church..  We aren’t prone to big emotional outbursts.  We don’t clap when we sing.  We don’t raise our arms and shout when Paul makes a good point in a sermon.  We don’t stand up during announcements to praise God and share what God has done in our lives.  But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t reach out to us and heal us and work in our lives in such a way that we should be thankful.  We don’t have to be loud to be thankful.

When I was a parishioner at St. James’, Richmond, during stewardship season they had a tradition of parishioners speaking each week about what stewardship meant to them.  One Sunday, a young couple with small children stood up.  They told us that during the previous year, as they got more involved with church and developed a closer relationship with God, they had a transformative moment together. They decided that since God had given them so many gifts, they wanted to give him a big gift in return.  They decided that their pledge check to the church should be the biggest check they wrote every month.  Bigger than their mortgage, bigger than car payments, bigger than tuition payments.

I remember my jaw dropping.  The freedom and joy they felt was so manifest.  Their money did not control them.  Fear did not control them.  They made a decision based purely out of the kind of wild-eyed gratitude that the tenth leper showed Jesus.

I’ll be honest with you, I’m not there yet.  Our monthly pledge payments to the two churches we support are about a third of our monthly rent.  And our rent is cheap!  But whenever I think about stewardship, I think about that couple.  I think about what it would mean to have such deep gratitude for God’s work in my life and deep confidence that God will provide for me, that I could just throw caution to the wind and give away a giant chunk of money every month.

Giving money to the church is a financial decision.  You’ll sit down with Quicken or your budget and figure out just how much you’ll give.  You’ll come to a rational choice.   But the decision to give money to the church is also a spiritual one.  Giving money back to God is an act of thanksgiving.  As a person who is paid because of your generosity, of course I want you to give to the church!  But what I really pray for is that God might grant you a tenth leper experience.

I pray that you have experiences of healing and God’s intervention in your life.  I pray that you feel cleansed of anything that haunts you.  I pray that God grants you such deep gratitude, that you feel compelled to throw yourself at the feet of Jesus.  I pray that Jesus makes you well.

The text tells us that when the leper came back to Jesus in thanksgiving, that the leper was made well.  The leper was cleansed from leprosy by Jesus’ healing, but something in his thankful response inspired Jesus to give him an even fuller healing.  Jesus says that the leper’s faith made him well.  The leper’s thanksgiving was more than gratitude, it was a statement of faith.  We, too, can make a statement of faith by expressing our thanksgiving to God.

When we give to God through gifts to the Church, we claim the tenth leper’s thanksgiving as our own.  We claim the tenth leper’s faith as our own.  We claim the tenth leper’s healing as our own.

When we stand up for Stewardship, we claim our place in the line of saints who have been blessed by God and want to return the blessing.

Amen.

Proper 13, Year C, 2010

Listen to the sermon here.

I am one of two sisters.  My parents, wary of the tensions that can rise between sisters, treated us extremely fairly.  If one of us got a Cabbage Patch doll for Christmas, we both got a Cabbage Patch doll for Christmas.  When I was ten, I received a portable stereo.  When my sister was ten, she received a portable stereo.  When I graduated from college, they generously gave me a silver Honda Civic.  When my sister graduated from college they gave her a silver Honda Civic.  You get the idea!

Their experiment was a success.  My sister and I have an extremely close, loving, supportive, non-competitive relationship.  But, even in this story of an extremely loving, healthy family, I still felt jealousy.  How you ask?  How could I feel jealous when my sister received the exact same presents that I did?  Well, you see, Marianne is my younger sister.  When I received that stereo, it only had a tape player, because my father thought CDs were just a fad.  My sister, four years younger, got the CD player.  And while our Honda Civics looked identical, my younger sister’s Honda Civic had automatic windows and cruise control.  While I was not caught up in a violent fit of jealousy, I could feel little pinpricks of covetousness for what my sister had.  (In the end, of course, things all work out.  Last year when we moved to New Jersey, I bought my sister’s 8 year old Honda Civic and now I have automatic windows and cruise control and she has the New York subway system!)

Competition between siblings is as old as the relationship between Cain and Abel.  There is something about that first peer relationship that makes us just a little crazy.  Especially if money is involved.

Our passage from the Gospel of Luke today is almost comic.  Right before this brother interrupts Jesus, Jesus has been speaking to the crowd about really lofty, opaque, theological ideas.  He has just said,

And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

I picture Jesus saying those words in a booming voice and then looking around at the crowd meaningfully, hoping to see some nods of recognition.  Instead he gets a guy saying, “Hey—make my brother share the family inheritence!”

In retrospect, Jesus’ response is incredibly kind.  I would have been tempted to say, “Are you even listening to me, you jerk?”

Jesus, like a wise mother, does not take sides in the argument.  He does not ask to hear the details.  He does not ask the man to read the text of the will.  He does not cluck his tongue in sympathy.

Instead, Jesus tells a parable about a perfectly nice farmer who had a very good harvest and wanted to build more barns to store the harvest in, so he could just relax and enjoy the rest of his life.

That basically sums up our lives, doesn’t it?  We open retirement accounts and emergency savings accounts and 529s to save for our children’s education.  We become priests in the Episcopal Church and think about that nice pension we’re going to get starting in 2035.  Oh, well, maybe that part is just me.  I’ll be honest with you, I already know what retirement community I want to join.  Westminster-Canterbury rests in the hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  You can start out in a free standing home, then move to an apartment, then to assisted living and end up in the Alzheimer’s unit, if you need to.  They have an art studio, a pool, a gym, a beauty parlor and a pretty tasty cafeteria.  I have it all figured out.  I’ll convince my best friends to move there and we’ll end our lives sitting on porches, telling stories, and playing bridge. My grandchildren, who will adore me and write me letters weekly, will visit three or four times a year.  And then one day, when I feel that I’ve lived a good long life, I will die peacefully in my sleep.  It’s going to be great!

Unfortunately for me, and the farmer, life isn’t that simple.  The farmer is not portrayed as a villain and yet in the parable God yells at him!  God says, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”  God reminds the farmer that all our frantic preparation is really for naught.

I can save all the money I want to, but that won’t stop me from dying in a tragic car accident, or getting MS, or having my husband leave me out of the blue, or suddenly having to take care of a sick parent, or giving birth to a disabled child, or having my grandchildren ignore me for the last twenty years of my life.

Money is fantastic for some things.  It can give us a roof over our head, and good food for every meal.  It can buy us clothes that make us feel good about ourselves and vacations that help us discover the world.  Money can pay for surgery, and special schools and therapy.

But ultimately, money can’t protect us.  Money can’t protect us from illness, broken relationships, disappointments, natural disasters.  Money can’t protect us from being held accountable by God.  And money can’t protect us from death.

No matter how much we acquire, we all end up in the same place.  And in that place, the currency we need is not money.  The currency we need in that place, when we stand in the presence of God, is love.  Love for God and love for our neighbor.

I have seen more than one family fall apart after the death of a rich relative.  There is something about an inheritance that brings out the worst in people.  That part of us that longs for the love and approval of the person who dies and the part of us that experiences greed, crash together in the worst of ways.  The brother that asks Jesus to adjudicate his dispute is missing his father, is feeling slighted, and just wants some justice.

But Jesus knows that is not what the brother needs.  The brother will not suddenly receive his father’s love and approval if the money becomes his.  He will not finally feel equal to his brother.  He will not be satisfied.  What the brother really needs to work on is his own heart and internal life.  The brother needs to get re-centered and focused on God.

Warren Buffet has famously informed his family that his vast fortune will be going to charity, not to them and I’m sure many of them were furious when they heard that news.  But in the end, I think Mr. Buffet is doing them a huge favor.  Without the money they will be forced to look into their own hearts.  They will be forced to figure out what their gifts and talents are.  They will be forced to work and be disciplined.  They will be forced to rely on others.  All these things are what help create a moral life, a life of love and respect for others.

The brother in our story today did not get the answer from Jesus for which he had hoped, but he got the answer he needed.

In the same way, when we ask God why we are unemployed, or why our best friend makes so much more than we do, or why our parent cut us out of their will, we are probably not that likely to get a direct answer from God.  However, if we ask God questions about the God’s currency, I’m guessing we’ll hear a reply pretty soon.  If we ask God how we can better love him.  If we ask God, how we can serve the poor better. If we ask God how we can show our families that we would do anything for them.  If we ask God where he wants us to serve him in this world.  If we start asking these kinds of questions, we’ll be amazed at the answers we receive and the life they bring us.

Amen.

Proper 27, Year B, 2009

Whenever I start thinking about money, I start hearing lots of voices.

I hear my Grandmother Kinney’s voice.  She grew up in the coal mining town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania during the Depression.  She never overcame her fear of not having enough.

I hear my father’s voice.  He is a big saver and nearly every car he’s ever owned was purchased with cash.

I hear my mother’s voice.  I think she’d be a little appalled that I was telling you these personal details about my family’s relationship with money.  Money is not something one discusses in polite company.

I hear Suze Orman’s voice as she tells her audience over and over again to have a six-month emergency fund saved.

On the other hand, I hear Carrie Bradshaw’s voice, too, making $400 high heels seem like a reasonable investment.

I hear the voices of my husband, my friends, priests, stewardship directors, financial advisors, pundits, celebrities-and I am a total sucker for the voices of marketers. Yes, that $12 bottle of shampoo does make my hair shinier than a $3 bottle! Yes, that $70 pencil skirt would make me look just like a character on Mad Men!  Yes, a roomba would make housekeeping easier! Yes, a right hand diamond ring would symbolize that I respect myself!  (You can relax, I did not buy myself the ring or the roomba.)

We all have voices that run through our head when we think about our own relationship with money.  Whether we are tight fisted, extremely responsible, don’t know how to balance a checkbook, or compulsively shop-those behaviors have come from those voices and how we interpret them.  We can’t escape the voices, but we don’t have to be enslaved by them.

The widow in our story today seems to have found away to move past the voices of anxiety and fear in order to hear the voice of God.

I have to be honest; this story makes me very uncomfortable.  The widow’s actions are antithetical to everything I’ve been taught about money.  I want her to put those two coins in her savings account!  I want her to accrue interest!  I want her to have security for her future!  I want the scribes to get off their high horses and take her under their wing.

But my attitudes about money stem from the very modern idea that my money is mine.  All those voices I hear-whether they advocate responsible saving or wasteful spending-assume the money is mine to spend.

The widow teaches us a different way.  The widow comes from a long tradition of assuming all that we have actually belongs to God.  The widow assumes that whatever money she has is just a gift from God, passing through her life for a little while.  The widow comes from a long tradition of thanking God by returning to God a portion of what he has given.

In the Old Testament, believers are asked to sacrifice to God the fruits of their agricultural lives-grain, pigeons, cattle.  This must have made deep sense to them.  Agricultural life is so dependent on outside circumstances-rain and sun and insects and soil-that raising healthy crops must really have felt like partnering with the divine.  Without soaking rains or bright sun, all of their labor would have been for naught.  They understood that their labor was connected to the earth, which was created by God.

Michael Pollan and others who think about food and health and ethics are happy to remind us that we Americans are far, far, far removed from that agricultural life.  Many of our children have never seen a farm.  I did not know that brussel sprouts grew on that funny stalk until last year!  Any of us who have read Food, Inc. or The Omnivore’s Dilemma know how disconnected we are to the very ground that sustains us.

The thing is, no matter how our income is generated, all of us can trace back the source of our income to Creation.  Mine is a pretty short line.  I get my income my ministering to human beings, who were created by God.  Even though very few of are directly connected to nature in our work, all of us owe our very existence, and the existence of our jobs, homes, spouses, friends, children and yes, even iPods, to God.  In fact, we owe our own existence to God.

We acknowledge this during the Rite I service, in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, when we say:

And here we present and offer to thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee. (BCP 336)

One of my seminary professors, The Rev. Dr. Edward Kryder, taught us to leave the monetary offering on the altar when we celebrated the Eucharist, because when the collection of your money is brought up to the altar, it’s not just cold hard cash.  That money is a symbolic representation of our very selves-our souls and bodies.  When we put money into the offering plate, we’re putting the time and energy and passion we spent making the money.  We put our faith and our values and our belief in the plate.   If we just needed to raise money to keep the heat on, we would not collect the money in the middle of a Eucharist.

The church needs money, yes, but we as people also have a spiritual need to give.  We need to be reminded that we are not alone.  We need to be reminded that we were created and that our life is pure gift.  We need to be reminded that every dime that crosses our threshold is the direct result of the incredible decision of God to create this planet and all the abundance it has to offer us.

The theologian Paul Tillich describes God as the “Ground of our Being.”   I love this image, because it evokes a picture of God literally holding us up-of undergirding all that we are and all that we do.  Experiencing God as the “Ground of our Being” can be incredibly liberating.  I don’t know about you, but I find it all too easy to fall prey to our culture’s spirit of anxiety.  Our culture’s voice says that we aren’t complete persons until we are married with 2.5 kids enrolled in Ivy League schools, a big house in the suburbs, a vacation home at the beach, and at least one Lexus.  Our culture’s voice tells us that we should not be satisfied; we should not feel complete until our life is completely saturated by the material things that bring true happiness.  Our culture can even punish giving.  I have a friend who was audited several times because he gave too MUCH money away to charity!  The IRS was sure he was up to no good because he gave away more than they thought was rational.

We all know that our culture’s version of happiness is empty and fleeting.  By contrast, when we root ourselves in God as the “Ground of our being”, when we listen to God’s voice, we will hear God telling us that we do not need to be anxious.  We do not need to prove anything to anyone.  If we listen to God’s voice, we will hear that God loves us and wants to give us what we need.  If we listen to God’s voice, we will be able to look at our lives with new eyes, able to see the abundance all around us. Listening to God’s voice gives us such a sense of deep security, that we can open our hands and trust that what we give away does not diminish us.

Listening to the voice of God is what frees us from being enslaved by the other voices in our minds.  When we listen to the voice of God, we can understand more clearly which of our voices are destructive, and which of our voices are life giving.  When we are making decisions about money, and the voices are swirling all around us, making us anxious, we can take a deep breath and a moment of silence and listen for what God is saying to us.

God is not an afterthought when it comes to our decisions about money.  God is the very source -not only of our wealth-but also of our life and breath.  We can follow the sound of God’s voice, like sheep follow the sound of a shepherd’s voice-knowing the shepherd will lead safely through even the most difficult places.

Amen.

Proper 13, Year C, 2007

Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.

Matt was in Baltimore last weekend, for a weekend of watching Orioles’ baseball with his dad, in celebration of his father’s 60th birthday.  On Matt’s way home Sunday, stuck in traffic on the beltway, he saw a bumper sticker he had never seen before.  The first time he saw it, the bumper sticker was on a small, sleek, Porche sportscar.  The second time the bumper sticker was on an imposing Mercedes sedan.  The bumper sticker read:

“Don’t be fooled by the car, my treasure’s in heaven.”

Few bumper stickers I’ve seen say as much in as few words.  The owners of the bumper stickers are making SURE you notice that their cars are really, really expensive and fantastic, while simultaneously implying that they have a deep spiritual life, and know better than placing too much value on their fancy cars.

The bumper stickers tell us a lot more about them than even they realize, I think!  The false piety in the bumper sticker’s message is enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up!  While I’m a firm believer in talking openly about many taboos in our society, I think perhaps these kind of people are the reason our mothers told us it was tacky to talk about money.

The man in our Gospel passage today has a similar kind of insensitivity.  He has come to hear Jesus deliver a discourse, and man, what a discourse he overhears!  In one lecture, Jesus teaches his listeners the Lord’s Prayer, then goes on to talk about the nature of demons and evil and divinity.  This lecture is very heady and profound.  The Pharisees invite Jesus for lunch in the middle of this discourse and true to form, Jesus manages to insult and alienate them.  After lunch, Jesus comes back to teach more and he find that the crowd outside has multiplied.  Now thousands of people are waiting to listen to him.  There are so many people there, they are stepping on each other!

Jesus does not disappoint, either- He comes out with two guns blazing.  His first sentence after lunch warns people to beware of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  This is an inflammatory, shocking statement. 

At this point, the man in our story interrupts Jesus.  Like so many followers we’ve been hearing about on Sundays lately, the man seems not to connect with Jesus’ words at all.  Instead of asking a follow up question about the Lord’s Prayer, or asking Jesus if he was implying that he was GOD, or asking what Jesus’ beef with the Pharisees was all about, the man instead asks Jesus to arbitrate a dispute between his brother and him.  His brother has inherited the entirety of his family’s estate and the man does not think it is fair.  He wants Jesus to make his brother give him half the money.

Can you imagine?  You’re at the downtown Pavilion, PACKED with people, listening to the Son of God speak and you have the gall to interrupt and ask Jesus to settle a matter of an inheritance?

Money makes people really, really stupid.  Or, rather, greed makes people really, really stupid. 

This man’s passion about his own problems and his own desires, put blinders on him.  They blinded him to the spiritual reality that was right in front of him and all around him.  Jesus was giving him a view into eternity, a view into the spiritual realm-a view that could have changed his whole life.  If the man had really listened closely to the Lord’s prayer, he would know that God provides his daily bread, that God provides everything he could possibly need. 

But because this man had blinders of greed on, he misses the wonder of the reality of God in his midst.

Jesus tells him, to remember to “be on guard against all kind of greed, for life does not consist of an abundance of possessions.”

As wealthy Americans, we should put a copy of this verse on our flat screen TVs, iPods, Jimmy Choo shoes, Ethan Allen furniture, and IRA bank statements.  As a culture our relationship with money is just as screwed up as the man who wanted Jesus to settle the matter of our inheritance.  We tend to either get in denial about money and spend wildly until we’re deeply in debt, or become so obsessed with our savings, we become misers who cannot appreciate the deep richness of the life around us. 

For many, money makes us afraid.  We do not understand how much we should pay in rent, what we should save for retirement or our children’s education, whether we should buy or rent a house, how much we should tithe and what in the world we should do with our money when we die.  We buy “stuff” because we feel anxious, or competitive, or because we feel a deep yearning for the object.  We don’t always feel in control of what we buy.  More than once, when I open my American Express bill, I have gasped and said, “How did that HAPPEN?” 

And when we hear Jesus’ words about greed and possessions we feel condemned.  We feel we have failed in our Christian duty and that makes us feel sad, so we go out and buy something that makes us feel better.  Or, if we’re feeling really guilty, maybe we donate some money to a good cause. 

The good news is that Jesus’ words are not meant to condemn, but to redirect. 

Jesus wants to redirect him, and us, from believing that our value and our future are rooted in what we have.  He tells this really unusual parable-unusual in that it is really simple and straightforward.  A rich man’s fields are incredibly abundant and he stores up their riches until his barns are bursting!  God finds him and yells at him-God tells the rich man that he is going to die and all these stored goods will be useless.

(Maybe Warren Buffet was meditating on this parable when he decided to give 85% of his billions to charity!  I bet his children would have loved to get ahold of Jesus and complain about that particular inheritance!)

Those of us who do not deal with the problem of what to do with a multi-billion dollar fortune still need to be redirected.  We need the Holy Spirit to nudge us, to guide our attention away from our stuff and the process of acquiring more stuff and direct that attention towards the one who created us and created all the stuff in the first place. 

Money and things will never satisfy our deepest longings.  We long to be loved.  We long to be safe.  We long to be understood.  We long for an end to our anxiety.  We long for health.  We long for reconnection with those from whom we are estranged.  We long for justice.  We long for forgiveness.

And of course money and objects give us some measure of comfort and can greatly ease our lives, but they can never fill our deepest longings.  Money and resources cannot give us the deep assurance that we have been made for a purpose and out of deep love.  Money and resources cannot know us.

No one knows this better than babies.  You could give little Carter all the toys in the world, and not one of them will give him even an iota of the comfort of being held in his parents’ arms. 

God loves us deeply, better than the best parent out there.  God knows us intimately.  God accepts us wherever we are and longs to be in relationship with us. 

And when we consent to the reality of God’s presence around us, when we consent to the relationship God wants to have with us, we become filled with the peace that comes with that kind of deep relationship. 

And when we become filled with peace, we become free to deal with questions of money and possessions out of a deeply rooted place.  We come to understand that life is abundant with love and relationship and even resources.  We begin to treat money less as the enemy and more as a tool God gives us to use as we seek holy lives.  We see money as a resource rather than as an end.  We see possessions as gift, rather than as entitlements. 

We come to understand that our  life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, but in an abundance of relationship with God.

Thanks be to God!