Aug. 4, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Aug 4, 2019 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13C)

August 4, 2019

Faith and Wealth

In our New Testament reading today, Paul commends new Christians for their growing faithfulness.  For some time now he has been watching them struggle against old habits which formerly set them at odds to God. Now he is seeing them strive toward inspired new behaviors that draw them closer. It doesn’t happen overnight, so each morning they take a deep breath, and begin the work again.  ‘You have stripped off your old self and all your old habits,’ he encourages them, ‘and clothed yourselves with a new self, reflecting the image of your Creator! Way to go!’

Paul really appreciates that. He knows how spiritual convictions are reflected in altered behavior, and how the power of these visible transformations reinforces inner convictions. Neuroscientists today echo Paul’s assessment: as you and I undertake some new activity, a neuron pathway forms in our brains, and with each repetition the action gets easier, grows more natural, more “like us.” For instance as we act on a new trust in God, that experience blazes new trails in our souls, and as a result our trusting grows deeper and stronger, and on it goes.   Paul recognizes this interplay as a gracious cycle, what he calls ‘reflecting the image of your Creator.’

Sadly, he’s also seen the cycle run in reverse, turning into a vicious cycle that progressively breaks down Christian habits, and distances people from God. Paul cites greed as a prime example, and he sends out a sober warning. Paul writes to his colleague Timothy, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Here Paul is not concerned with the everyday exchange of coins in the marketplace.  That’s just community networking in action.  Rather Paul is alarmed about Christians lusting after wealth as a central value in their lives, letting avarice lead them toward a myriad of other evils.  He’s seen how greed turns disturbingly addictive, and drives a vicious cycle in which getting more leads to wanting more. He’s watched Christians become so possessed by greed that they mindlessly lie, cheat, and ill-use others to enhance their own net worth.  Jesus is so troubled by this slippery spiritual slope that he preaches and teaches about money handling more than any other moral topic.

Such is the case in today’s Gospel, as Jesus cautions a crowd, “Take care, be on your guard against all kinds of greed!” He illustrates his point with a parable about a phenomenally successful farmer whose barn is bursting.  The man asks himself, “So now what do I do?”  Good question.  What kind of pathways has handling wealth been wearing into this man’s soul?  Where will they take him?

‘I know what I’ll do,’ the farmer exclaims, ‘I’ll tear down this outgrown storehouse and build a bigger barn.  Once that’s filled, I’ll say to my soul ‘Relax now, it’s enough!’  So the farmer believes that filling this one last barn will finally be enough? Not likely.  His heart and head are now hard wired for acquisition. Earlier in his life perhaps he respected the biblical call to bless others as he was being blessed.  But now it seems that wealth itself has become his god.  Meanwhile greed is blinding him to the selfish curse he is inflicting on himself.  “You fool!” God laments.

Before we begin to compare this farmer’s situation to our own, we need to notice one crucial difference.  Jesus’ listeners here are farmhands and shepherds who’ve wandered in from the fields.  They till and graze a common terrain, with everyone using the same age-old methods.  If one of them grows richer than the rest, it can only be by cornering more than his fair share of the land.  His grasping presses his neighbors into poverty, but he doesn’t care. The great ethical offense Jesus takes aim at here is hoarding. The rich farmer is a fool for refusing to relinquish goods he has willfully “stolen” from others.

Our own dealings with wealth are entirely different, because the sources of our wealth are entirely different. Three centuries of capitalism have taught us to generate new wealth by collaborating with each other as buyers and sellers, by innovating and distributing, by cross-training and adapting. The gain of one of us no longer automatically impoverishes the rest of us. Filling our barns is no longer a capital sin.

But today more than ever it’s the love of money, the addictive lusting after wealth as a central value in our lives, that exerts an enormous pull on Christians.  We live in a highly competitive, consumerist society where we are tempted 24/7: what retail ads are following you around on Facebook and Google? How many pages did my credit card statement run to last month?  We Christians can tell we’re getting hooked if we notice that getting more is leaving us wanting more.

What we need to do in response is something faithful Christians have always done: rededicate ourselves to faithful habits which lay fresh pathways to God through our souls. We need to reactivate that gracious cycle. I have two simple strategies to get us started.  First, let’s seek ways to be more faithful partners with others in our everyday buying and selling.  In our jobs let’s form a faithful habit of working conscientiously and creatively, and dealing respectfully with our coworkers. Let’s voluntarily go the second mile, and offer a full day’s work for a full day’s pay. Let’s buy our goods and services responsibly, and consume them sensibly. Let’s continually give thanks for all the material blessings that come to us through the creativity and hard work of others. As we daily repeat such mindful actions, we will be refreshing those pathways in our souls that lead us back to God.

Second, let’s seek ways to serve the material needs of others which will not be profitable, and so the free market will never do it. Let’s make a personal habit of researching and supporting non-profits that feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and care for the ill and distressed.  Let’s make, or increase, our pledge to St. Michael’s to keep it thriving, with grounds, doors and altar open to all. Let’s make a point of noticing and supporting people who are slipping toward the fringes of life, and extend our own hand to draw them back into the mainstream. As we daily repeat such mindful actions, we will be refreshing the pathways in our souls that lead us back to God.

Once upon a time St Paul rejoiced, ‘You have stripped off your old self and your old habits, and clothed yourself with a new self reflecting the image of your Creator!” Let’s give Paul good reason to offer that same accolade about us.  Amen.

© 2019 The Rev. Dr. Ann P. Lukens. All rights reserved.