Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Proper of the Day: Pentecost X

This evening begins The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, with readings from Hosea, Colossians, and Luke. The Gospel is the Parable of the Rich Farmer, who pulls down his barns to build bigger ones, intending to live on easy street for awhile. But God has other plans for him, and all the farmer's own planning ends up for nought. In the words of Jesus, "so it is for those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your
Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without
your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Here's my sermon for today, As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

May only God’s words be spoken, and only God’s words be heard. Amen.

I saw in the newspaper yesterday that the financial markets have been getting quite roiled up, because of the all people defaulting on their home mortgages. It turns out that some people whose credit was less then stellar got some pretty good deals two or three years ago. You know, the adjustable rate kind. Now, their interest rates have risen because of those rates have indeed adjusted, and adjusted upward. So what started as an easy monthly payment to make has become something in some cases much more difficult. Defaults and foreclosures are on the rise, and the ripples are being felt all through the economy.

It’s not just nationally either. Right here in Bayonne, we find ourselves getting squeezed by higher property and income taxes, even though our incomes haven’t risen by nearly the same amount. We’re certainly facing it in our parish ministry, the Windmill Alliance. Costs for things like electricity, insurance, and gas continue to rise, and our payment from our major granters, such as the State of New Jersey, have not kept pace. Perhaps some of you have felt the pinch too, directly or indirectly. Times don’t seem to be very easy for many of us, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.

It’s not so different now than it was in the day of Jesus. In fact, it was probably worse. In the United States there is, at least for the moment, a middle class, but in Judea where Jesus was living and preaching there wasn’t one really. You either were rich or poor. And poor could be pretty poor. And there weren’t very many rich people around. In fact, Scripture consistently reports that it was mostly the poor who followed Jesus around to hear what he had to teach and to witness the amazing things he did. Very often his teachings seemed directly on point, immediately applicable to the ordinary lives of the ordinary people of the time. And just as applicable to you and to me. But today’s story seems different. This isn’t a story about the poor. It’s a story about a rich farmer. In fact, I’d venture to guess the vast majority of the people listening to the parable would not have gotten it, or certainly wouldn’t have thought that it applied to them. A rich farmer? Ha! All the farmers I know are living hand to mouth. A good crop? Hasn’t happened around here in years. What’s big J talking about anyway? Maybe he’s been hanging with the scribes and Pharisees too much. Yeah. He couldn’t possibly talking about me. I can hear folks in the crowd thinking just like that.

And maybe that’s a thought that crossed your mind as you heard the Gospel being read, too. I have to tell you, though, I’ve been troubled by this passage all week. Two lines keep coming to mind: first, Jesus introduces the parable: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And at the end, Jesus says, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” It’s pretty similar to something from the letter to the Colossians that we heard earlier: Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” Did you catch the word “greed” twice? I did. Try this on: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, which is idolatry.”

Greed is idolatry. Yikes. What’s this about?

Idolatry is, as you might remember, the worship of false images, things that aren’t God. Remember the Golden Calf? That was an idol, an image. It wasn’t God. One reason it was prohibited to make an image of God in the Ten Commandments was because it’s too easy for us humans, because we’re tactile and use our physical senses, to transfer our worship of an invisible God to a visible something else. But more broadly, idolatry is really anything that takes the place of God in our lives. It doesn’t have to be a statue or something like that. It can be something else, like a person or a place or even an idea. What Jesus is reminding us here, I think, is not that wanting stuff is necessarily sinful. We all want stuff and we want to be comfortable. My wants include decent internet access and my stereo. Yours might be something completely different. My sense is Jesus isn’t talking about those things. My stereo is not going to get in the way of God in my life. What Jesus is alluding to here are the attitudes that take hold of our lives that take our energy and attention away from God. These are the deeply held beliefs and habits of action that turn us away from God, or somehow interfere with our relationship with God. Remember that God loves each of us, you and me, unconditionally. We try to love God back unconditionally as well. Our first response to God’s love is to acknowledge it and then secondly to do something about it. But anything that takes us away from recognizing God first in our lives becomes an idol. Anything that we find we want more than God is greed, which as the author Colossians tells us, is idolatry.

Let me give you by way of confession a very personal example. I stand before you convicted of idolatry. I can see it in my own life. It’s not possessions as in stuff that are my idols. Moving from a big house in Indianapolis into a very small room at General Seminary cured me of that. I had to give a lot of stuff up. I got it all back when I moved to Bayonne, but I found myself not needing much of it anymore and found I could give much of it to Highways. I hope when you have stuff you no longer want or need you will consider that too. But throughout my time at seminary, although I didn’t have a lot of stuff, there was something else I never gave up. I never gave up my own idol, which was financial security. You see, I have been very blessed in my life in so many ways, and one of the most significant for me is that I have always pretty much been secure financially. I’ve never really had to worry about my housing or food or clothes or insurance. I’ve worked hard for it and it’s very very important to me. There isn’t anything I won’t do, to improve, or at least maintain, my ability to keep a roof over my head, food on the table, and all the rest, more than simply waiting for the next paycheck. In fact, I realize that I will do almost anything legal to ensure I don’t lose the financial security I’ve been able to build up. I don’t need to go into all the details, but let me – with some degree of shame – give you just one: I have never in my life been without health insurance. And in fact, I know in my heart of hearts I will do almost anything legal to ensure I keep it. That, my sisters ands brothers, is idolatry, pure and simple. Because the truth is I’m not sure I would work so hard to keep my relationship with God as I would to keep my relationship with health insurance. For me, that’s an idol in my life, because I essentially treat it as more important to me than God, and that, it seems to me, is what Jesus is warning us about.

My friends, I hope you don’t thinking I’m bragging. That’s not my intent at all. That’s not at all what I’m trying to get at Many of you have shared with me your own situations, and I am well aware that they are in many cases far more difficult than anything I have had to face in my own life. In my reflecting on this Gospel in my life, I realized that, although as a priest I’ve dedicated my life to the proclamation of God’s everflowing love in Jesus, I’m not immune. I’m no paragon of perfection. I have an idol – for me it’s financial security – right in my own life. That is the barn that I want to tear down and make even bigger. That is the thing that I now know I have to struggle with in my spiritual journey with Christ. I try to follow Christ daily, but I have this big heavy chest that I’m carrying that is in weighing me down in ways I am probably not even aware of yet, slowing me down and distracting me from following Jesus as closely as I otherwise could.

Now that I am aware of my idol, what can I do? I think the key her is Jesus own words: , “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” It’s being rich towards God that is the way to leave one’s own personal idols behind. First, I’m going to confess my idolatry. I did it publicly to you just now, and I will offer it up with all those things that trouble us when we make our community confession in just a few minutes. And I’m going to listen with new ears to the words that Fr. Jerry will declare in response, that our sins – even greed, which is idolatry – are forgiven in the power of Jesus. Then I’m going to join with Jerry and all of you in the great thanksgiving of the Eucharist for everything God is doing in my life and your life, where God comes among us again in the Body and Blood of Jesus, becoming one in us as we are already in him. And then I’m going to try to take to heart the words we will pray after Communion and go out and do the work God has given me to do, to be a faithful witness of all Jesus is doing in my life and in the whole world. This week, now that I’m aware of it, I’m going to try to reflect on what idolatry means in my life and how I can move toward really having God first in my life. And I’m going to look at my own patterns of giving and stewardship, to see how I can better be be rich toward God rather than storing up treasures for myself. I don’t have any answers for that part yet. Feel free to ask me in the weeks and months ahead how I’m doing. And if you have any constructive wisdom, I hope you’ll share it with me.

My friends, I still have no idea exactly why Jesus chose to tell the parable of the Rich Foolish Farmer to a crowd of people who perhaps had little idea of what he was talking about, instead of to some of the rich folks we already know Jesus also spent time with. I’m just glad I was able to hear something in it that affects me. I’m not proud of what I’ve learned about myself, but I stand in full confidence that God’s love for me is not diminished one iota by my self-discovery. So I join with the author of Colossians, who encourages me to strip off my old self with its practices and day by day cloth myself with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of my creator, God the Almighty. May it be so for all of us.

In the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.



Troglodyteus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Troglodyteus said...

Preach, Brother. Preach!