Posts Tagged ‘wealth’

Master

September 18, 2016

A man learns that he will lose his job for ‘squandering his master’s property’.  Knowing he has few options, he embarks on a campaign of deceit – cheating his master and earning favour with his master’s customers; deals are made, discounts appear out of nothing, and lo and behold, the master praises the servant for ‘acting shrewdly’…Faithful can mean many things, you see – and if you are faithful to a pattern of shady business practices, that is apparently praiseworthy (in certain circles).  The ‘moral of the story’ can be confusing – “…if then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches…” – until finally, Jesus cuts through the confusion with the bumper-sticker statement of the day: You cannot serve God and wealth.

Simple, right?  Yet this is not a call to poverty, either.  Jesus didn’t want to drive us all into the desert, where we would not be tempted by the flash and dazzle of successful people.  He walked among the rich and poor – his vision included all God’s people – and he could see how difficult it is to choose between economic success and the security offered by God’s covenant promise.  Even in his day, the lines were blurred.

Because cash is king.  Nothing happens without money changing hands – that is how the world has worked for thousands of years.  And the result of this otherwise simple economic reality is the so-called ‘golden rule’:  The one who has the gold, makes the rules.  So the crooked manager is playing according to the rules that he knows – following the most effective pattern to success…and Jesus offers an alternative.

Jesus’ mission is to bring another reality to light – the reality of God’s mercy, grace and love; the “Kingdom” of God.  Not an ‘end of time’ alternative, but something that we might experience here and now with a change in attitude, a different focus, and a proper reverence for the wonder and mystery of both Creation and the Creator.

So to the crowds and his disciples, Jesus offers many examples – in parable form – of how our focus has been shifted away from the things of God.  And the message is clear; you cannot serve God and wealth.  You can’t have your cake and eat it too.  You don’t get to worship worldly success and the Creator of the universe.  And yet, here we are, in a time of unprecedented wealth – unbridled capitalism – and unimaginable opportunity.  In North America, at least, the church has been the beneficiary of the ‘success’ of capitalism…and also its primary victim; because enough is never enough, is it.

When times were promising, and possibilities endless, churches grew without counting the cost.  congregations seemed to flourish, and that gave us an appetite for more.  We wanted (and thought God wanted) a church on every corner – and in some places that dream became a reality.  But what God wants is devotion in every heart, and that comes with a different price tag.  We thought our buildings and our programs were the key to success, and we pour money into both.  Now we do need places to gather, and it is wise to have plans in place once we have gathered; to teach, to encourage, to praise and to pray – but it is too easy to slip off the edge; to forget whom we serve.  The building or the program – the status as a “happening place” – can quickly become our master.  The world approves – the world understands success that can be seen and measured in buildings or bank balances – but that is not the pattern we were called to follow.

Money cannot become the thing that defines success for God’s people – for Christ’s church!  It threatens to do just that, because cash is still king, and the bills must be paid.  But I say this as one who has turned my passion for God into my vocation – my livelihood; the money doesn’t matter.  Mercy, mission, grace and generosity – the marks of the church and the habits of those who would follow Jesus – these are the signs of true wealth, independent of our seemingly constant concerns about money.  The call of Jesus to follow him was a call, not to poverty, but a different kind of treasure.

We have been invited to share the treasure of God’s love – and to do that with our worldly wealth or in spite of it.  Jesus life – spent trusting in the goodness of God and the hospitality of his fellow travellers – might have ended in failure by the measure of the world; a short trial, a grisly death and an unmarked grave.  But the fullness of the story includes resurrection – the gift of new life, new hope, new possibilities – things that money cannot buy.

Because we are ‘in the world’ we will always struggle to find our way.  but we must remember that because of that resurrection mystery – because we are not ‘of the world’ – because of the love of God in Jesus Christ, we need not be held captive to our fear of ‘failure’, nor should we confuse our priorities:  We serve God; our resources serve us.  The moral of Jesus’ parable restated – though it doesn’t look as good on a bumper sticker – stands as our invitation to imagine a way forward; a vision for those who long for the vision of God.

“…for she has put in all she had…”

November 8, 2015

If this morning’s gospel lesson was just about money, the sermon would be simple.  If it was just about worth, or prestige, or even if it was just about appearances, it would be very simple.  But our gospel addresses the way all of these things come together in our experience;  money and worth, prestige and appearances all collide to form our cultural foundations, and Jesus introduces faith to the mix to teach us about the economy of the kingdom of God . 

The crowds were listening to Jesus “with delight”, according to Mark 12:37.  He was constantly turning the arguments of the wise into punchlines.  The religious experts are out-argued, and the crowds of self-important, publicly religious people – well-to-do merchants and community leaders of some substance – are first parodied, and then dismissed!  None of their gifts count for anything, Jesus says, when compared to these two, small, copper coins.  And we who want for no material thing wonder how this can be so…

Because we live in a prosperous, free-market democracy, we pretend to know how the economy works, at least at the most basic level; everything costs something.  Some things cost more than others, but in almost every instance, the sum of your time and materials, plus a small profit (because the workers deserves their wage) determines what any given thing will cost.

But the trick to economics is the difference between what a thing costs, and what someone (or something) determines that “thing” to be worth.  The relative value of things changes with their scarcity, or their beauty, or their desirability.  The ability to navigate these differences in a free market is what generates wealth, power and influence…for some.

Unless you are an ardent communist, or on the wrong end of a real estate deal, it is hard to object to a system that has fed, clothed and housed most of us fairly well for the last 70 years or so – but as disciples of Jesus, we should object fairly regularly, because it is a system that does not reward true merit, or even honest toil.  Too many honest, hard-working, faithful folk are trapped by the imbalance of wealth in this country.  World-wide, an alarming number of people are forced to exist on pittance, because those who control the wealth have developed quite a taste for comfort, power and lives of ease.

Some of those are quite visible – sports stars, entertainers, entrepreneurs and politicians – public figures who spare no expense to tell the world how good it is at the top, and who sometimes suggest that they know all about worth – about what is valuable – and if only you and I would to accept their definitions, and work very hard, we would be able to live as they do…

You may have thought this was going to be a sermon against religious fakery – perhaps I would shed my “flowing robe” and forgo the long public prayer after the sermon – but when Jesus talks about money, he makes a statement about faith and devotion.  And he always takes great care to tell us that God does not measure, or value, or consider costs in the same way we do.  God’s estimate of our worth is such that, in Jesus, God was willing to give up everything for our sake.  From Creator to Crucified – that is not a sensible economic transaction in our eyes; but in God’s economy, it is the only transaction that matters.

We are in a season where we spend a lot of time thinking about cost, and worth, and value – not to mention sacrifice and thankfulness – and it is easy to think of these things in strict economic terms.  But Jesus warns us that it is a mistake to pretend that our values reflect God’s values. Simply calling ourselves faithful or devoted does not ensure that our behaviour will bring the Kingdom of God closer.

So when the rich call themselves ‘blessed’, we ought to be suspicious; and when the victor offers a prayer of thanksgiving, we need to hear humility and grace, not jubilant certainty; and when politicians and people in power use the language of salvation, we should not be relieved, we should be afraid.

Human history is one of confusion; we confuse cost with value – appearance with power (devotion); prestige with justice – and we are guilty of confusing the Kingdom of God with the economically ordered world that we live in.  Jesus does not promise (or promote) God’s Kingdom as a place where the righteous will have/can get whatever they want, whenever they want – rather, God’s kingdom is a place where no one will want for anything – because God’s economy promises that God provides enough; enough faith; enough joy; enough love.  Thanks be to God that we have, in Jesus, seen the fullness of God’s gracious gifts.  in Jesus we are offered such an abundance of what is good and right and true, that nothing else is necessary.

Amen

Persistent Thanksgiving

October 10, 2009

We in North America are quite good at giving thanks.

We are thankful for our standard of living –

because we are constantly reminded that others in the global community

do not share our prosperity.

We are thankful for friends we have –

because all around us we can see people who are lonely and desperate and afraid,

who do not know the confidence that comes with companionship.

We are thankful – sometimes- for the gift of the church –

because we cannot imagine a world

without the faith and fellowship that has been nurtured in these places of worship.

We are quite aware that not everyone finds it possible to be thankful –

and so we conclude that thanksgiving comes only after we have had our burdens lifted.

“How hard it will be,” Jesus proclaims “for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

and secretly, we recoil –

for we have been giving thanks for those things that Jesus then condemns…

the church in prosperous places would prefer this gospel not reach the ears of the public,

because it condemns our work towards the Kingdom as futile!

This text makes a mockery of thanksgiving as it is usually celebrated.

And yet, we cannot stop giving thanks

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Our memories may favour the kind of thanksgiving that comes only in joy, abundance and beauty.

but our experience should remind us of a more persistent kind of thanksgiving…

scripture certainly reminds us –

of praise poured out from the midst of persecution (as in this morning’s Psalm).

The people of God are not always in a place of abundance, perfection and grace,

and we are called first to the ancient habit of giving thanks in our distress –

in the manner of many Psalms.

We are encouraged to always remember that goodness of God that is ours –

no matter what our circumstances.

This is the habit we lose when prosperity finds us.

The habit of constant thankfulness – constant awareness of the goodness of God –

our treasures push God aside with surprising ease. We don’t mean it to happen, but as our comfort increases, our need for God diminishes.

The people of God, persecuted and struggling are universally stronger, more persistent, more deliberate in worship, prayer and praise.

When the persecution stops, the people of God relax.

When success and safety come our way, there’s no need of God’s protection and grace

for -it would seem – we have “made it”.

“Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for someone rich to enter the kingdom.”

because that reliance on wealth is reliance on the wrong thing.

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someone rich, Jesus says – wanting to make it very personal.

And what is true of large groups of people (the persecuted church v the powerful church)

is therefore true for you and I.

Those things in our lives that cause us to struggle – those times when we are hard pressed –

that is when we find our greatest strength – our greatest joy –

and offer, looking back, our loudest thanks.

This ‘rich young man’ came to Jesus on the run

eager – joyful – lets say grateful –

for the success his hard work had earned him.

He knelt at Jesus feet, and having satisfied himself in this life,

asked Jesus for the secret to eternal life.

Jesus heard his story – saw his devotion – and loved him for it,

but still Jesus asked something that this man could not do.

His wealth had the better of him – his gratitude was earthbound,

though his good fortune may have been heaven sent –

and he went away disappointed.

He had forgotten what it was to struggle –

to be wholly dependent on a gracious God –

and the thought of such dependence is horrifying for him,

as it is for us.

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The good news is that God is capable –

God desires our dependence, our gratitude, our praise –

not as payment for services rendered – but as an integral part of our daily living.

Our persistent Thanksgiving

– our constant rejoicing whatever our lot –

in the very fact of God

is what grants us access to the kingdom.

Our world changes when our every act is one of thanks;

Our priorities change, our moods change, our outlook will change.

Our bills will still need to be paid

and our work still must get done,

but the focus will not be on the getting, or the having;

our focus will be on the gift of being God’s people.

And that gift has made us rich beyond all imagining – thanks be to God.