SERMON FOR THE 20th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST 10/10/21
In ancient times, the Israelites practiced worshiping God with burnt offerings. Before the days of the temple, they would gather the community around a stone altar, and each would bring something to offer. Pouring out a drink offering, harvested grains, animals, before the days of currency, these were your wealth and your livelihood. Worshippers brought to the altar what they valued, and the offerings were given up to God, and then burned. Simply lit on fire.
Now overtime, this idea of offering changed a bit, someone had to have said – gee does God really want us to destroy all these valuable things when we could feed the poor with them or pay the priests for their work? As the prophets reminded the people constantly, God was much less interested in your burnt offerings and what you gave to him, than what you gave your neighbored and how you treated your neighbor. And the offerings at the altar changed a bit, but nonetheless, the original idea of an offering, a sacrifice, is worship. Worship of the one who gave us all this to begin with. We were created to give. Created to offer something up, sacrifice something as an act of worship, to the one, the only one who is worthy.
Mark Alan Powell claims in his book, Giving to God, that offering is indeed in some ways the high point of the liturgy. We are invited to not just speak our worship and praise, but act it out with a sacrifice. Remember how Jesus says where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “We are invited to put money in the offering plate on Sunday morning not because the church needs our money, but because we want and need to give it. We have a spiritual need to worship God, and thought our offerings we are able to express our love and devotion for God in a way that is simple and sincere.” (p. 12, Giving to God)
In a very concrete and tangible way, our stewardship puts our faith into action. We practice living out our beliefs in real and obvious ways, making our daily lives, daily spending, and daily actions, jive with what we mean when we says that God is our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sustainer. Jesus talks about money and possessions a lot in scripture, not because he wanted us to support a certain cause or church, but because what we do with our money affects who we are spiritually.
One of the most challenging of these texts is our Gospel today, when Jesus tells this rich man to give it all away. Thought scripture frequently condemns the rich because of their attitudes, a la the prophet Amos; it is out of love, and not judgement, that Jesus challenges him. This is the only person in the whole gospel of Mark whom Jesus explicitly “loves.” We hear the same story told in each of the synoptic gospels, matthew, mark, and luke, and are given slightly different details in each. In marks version, we only find out at the end that he is indeed wealthy, while Matthew and Luke state his status and position from the beginning.
Despite his wealth, status, and standing in the community, he realizes he is missing something. He recognizes his need. He has everything he needs, materially speaking, but his need is deeper. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What must anyone do to inherit anything? Usually nothing… but someone has to die. Inheritance is more about belonging to a family, than a reward for good behavior or something you earn. And unless your the prodigal son asking for your share ahead of time, there is a death in the family, and you inherit or you don’t.
Jesus challenges him with a sort of death, a loss, an intentional dying to status and power and wealth, in order to follow him, and this man goes away grieving for he had many possessions. Now the common interpretation is that he’s grieving what Jesus said cause he can’t do it, so he’s thinking he’s never gonna get the eternal life. But what if he’s grieving because he already experiencing the sense of loss, and he is grieving his status and position, the things he had relied on for security.
Jesus comments to his disciples, How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. One of my Greek translations says, “how squeamishly those who have wealth will enter the kingdom.” The word has connotations of being picky or difficult when it comes to food, that something just doesn’t sit right with you or you can’t digest it. And of course the disciples are struggling to understand, and asking for clarification, and he confounds them with more impossibilities, before gently reminding them that their salvation is in God’s hands, not something they earn or achieve.
Giving our money away has nothing to do with earning our salvation, but if we trust our wealth for security, then we have trouble seeing that true security comes from elsewhere. Because money gives a pretty good illusion of security. Until the market fails. Then what? Until the money runs out. Until we spend our last dime and realize the things we thought would bring us security were illusory hopes.
To begin making a change in your stewardship, making a change in how you spend, and putting your money towards the things you say are your values will likely start out with you much like the rich young man – shocked and grieving. The repentance and change of heart God calls us to is never easy.
Years ago, a retired pastor used to make the same speech at synod assembly each year. He would ask for a moment of personal privilege and take that time to share his testimony about his own personal stewardship journey, how he gave away money and why. And then at the end he would challenge the voting members there gather to try tithing to their church for a year – that is giving 10% of their income away. He asked them to try it out, try it on for just one year, and at the end of that year if they were dissatisfied or if they felt like they couldn’t make ends meet, to meet him back at synod assembly and he would personally reimburse them. To my knowledge, some took him up on his offer, but no one ever felt they had less than they did to start with.
We will soon be talking about our church’s budget and the ways we spend money as a community. You’ll vote on how that money is spent, so that you have a say in what the church does with its money. The congregation keeps itself accountable to the Word of God, even as we remind ourselves of God’s promises, as we steward the resources entrusted to us.