For those of you paying attention to the gospel lesson today and who realize we are kicking off Stewardship Season this week, I promise I did not pick the lessons today! We are blessed by a lectionary that guides us through our sacred scripture every year, and the use of the lectionary is one of the many things that attracted me to the Episcopal Church. That being said, since Jesus so conveniently brought up the subject of money, it only seems fitting that we talk about money today.
We know that the issue of money was important to Jesus. All three of the synoptic gospels tell a version of the story we hear today. We know the story well, and tend to avoid the story like the plague. At some point or another, we have convinced ourselves that this text does not really apply to us. We do not see ourselves as rich – we can all think of someone who has more than we do and we all struggle with our finances at times. But in the depths of our hearts, we know that Jesus is talking to us. As Americans, we constitute five percent of the world’s population, but consume twenty-four percent of the world’s energy. Americans eat roughly 200 billion more calories a day than we need, which is enough to feed 80 million people every day. We consume about 159 gallons of water a day, while more than half of the world’s population lives on 25 gallons. We have more shopping malls than high schools.[i] Whether we prefer to admit the truth or not, we are the rich person that today’s gospel lesson is addressing. And if Jesus is talking to us, Jesus is also asking us to give up our wealth because otherwise, we, the camels, have no chance of getting through that needle’s eye.
But before we go too far down the road to guilt or panic, let’s look at what Jesus is really saying in our gospel lesson today. This young man is a righteous man who approaches Jesus with a genuine desire to ensure he is on the right path to eternal life. He approaches Jesus humbly, racing to Jesus and kneeling before him like so many other sick people have.[ii] He must have been fairly certain that his life was not whole to pursue Jesus like this. What he may not have expected is what Jesus tells him. Jesus tells him that he is living a righteous life – with one small exception. His wealth, his possessions, his “stuff” is getting in the way of salvation. His possessions and wealth have become a source of separation from God. This is what Jesus is really after today. Having money is not in and of itself evil. We need money to survive. But our relationship with money has the potential to separate us from God.
Wealth can separate us from God in one of two ways. When we have abundant resources, we eventually assume that whatever needs to be done, we can do. But this kind of self-sufficiency and self-produced security cuts us off from grace. Life becomes an achievement earned or a commodity purchased rather than a gift gratefully received and shared. God becomes unnecessary or simply another commodity. And if security and worth are rooted in achievements and resources, amassing more becomes our driving motivation. We cannot let up. We cannot relax. We cannot give sacrificially. Wealth becomes addictive.[iii]
The other way that wealth can separate us from God is that wealth can separate us from those who are impoverished. Our wealth makes avoiding the poor possible, keeping them out of sight and mind. As we have been working through our hunger curriculum on Wednesday nights, we have all said at one point or another that we simply do not run into the poor that often in our daily lives. As one bishop explains, the reason why that socioeconomic divide separates us from God is because, “We cannot know the God of Jesus Christ apart from relationships with the poor and the powerless. God has chosen the poor, the least, the most vulnerable, those whom the world considers ‘the weak’ as special friends.”[iv] If we want to grow closer to God, we must grow closer to those whom Jesus cared for the most. And in order to grow close to the poor, we must examine our relationship with our own wealth.
Now all of this is not to say that Jesus is mad at the wealthy man or sees him as lost. Mark’s gospel tells us that, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” Now if you remember, Mark is usually the most succinct of the gospel writers. Neither Matthew nor Luke includes this small detail. So if Mark is including this detail, the detail is important.[v] We need to know that Jesus loves this young man because in his loving gaze we learn that Jesus believes the young man has a chance. The young man has a chance not because he can achieve this new life style. In fact, when the disciples ask Jesus about this very issue of who can overcome the hurdles of wealth, Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” The young man cannot change his relationship between wealth and God alone. That relationship can only be changed with God – because with God, all things are possible.
Today we kick off our stewardship season at St. Margaret’s. For the next several weeks, we will be examining our own relationship between wealth and God. In order to help us with that discernment, the Stewardship Committee has chosen the theme, “Blessed to be a Blessing.” We chose this theme because we do not want us to have a guilty or conflicted relationship with wealth. We want to see our individual wealth as a blessing that enables each of us to be a blessing to others. All of us at St. Margaret’s have been blessed. We have our basic needs met – a place to live, food to eat, and clothes to wear. Most of us have been blessed beyond our basic needs – with cars, entertainment, and technology. And we have been blessed spiritually by this community. We have a community of faith where we can come and seek a deeper knowledge and understanding of God. We have a community that engages us in the faith journey, challenging us to grow into the love of God. And we have a community that sends us out in the world, showing us the real meaning of God’s love through our service of others.
This stewardship season is not a season to wallow in guilt and beat up ourselves. But this season is a season to act. God blesses us so that we can be a blessing. So where do we start this work of being a blessing? We start that work by righting our relationship between God and our wealth – our blessings. As you are pondering your own experience of that relationship, I want you to consider how your pledge this year might be a spiritual discipline that rights that relationship; how this community might help each other right our relationships with wealth and God together. Now I know we do not like to talk about money with other people. But if this is a place of spiritual discipline, prayer, teaching, formation for our children and adults, and reaching out and loving our neighbors, where else is a better place to talk honestly about our relationship with money. This community is forming each of us to be faithful disciples; but we cannot be fully formed unless we are willing to work on our whole being, including our relationship with wealth. Our discipline of giving more generously and sacrificially – more out of blessing than obligation – can help us to loosen our grip on a relationship with wealth that separates us from God. Your financial giving to Church is as much of a discipline as your prayer, your study, your serving, your seeking, and your worshiping in this place. If we can put energy in those areas, we can put some work into our financial stewardship.
In the coming weeks, you will hear from every member of the Stewardship Committee about their own struggles with wealth. You will hear about how looking at their relationship with money and God is transforming that relationship into one of blessing. You will see Message articles, blog posts, and updates on our new stewardship bulletin board. This committee of seven people is intentionally looking at how they feel blessed to be a blessing, examining the quality of their own relationship between wealth and God. Their invitation to us is to engage in this reflection with them, to discern how God is moving in our lives, and to act. We can do this work together, because with God, all things are possible. Amen.
[i] Frank Thomas, “Can Rich People Be Saved?” Ex Auditu, vol. 22, 2006, 219.
[ii] Barbara Rossing, “Healing Affluenza: A Sermon on Mark 10:17-27,” Currents in Theology and Mission, vol. 22, no. 4, August 2006, 300.
[iii] Kenneth L. Carder, “The Perils of Riches,” Christian Century, vol. 114, no. 26, Sept. 24 – Oct. 1, 1997, 831.
[iv] Carder, 831.
[v] Stacey Elizabeth Simpson, “Who Can be Saved?” Christian Century, vol. 117, no. 26, Sept. 27 – Oct. 4, 2000, 951.