The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 23, Year B
October 14, 2018
Who’s Possessing Whom?
You should know, this is my stewardship sermon this year. I am trying something slightly different, but let me tell you a story first.
When I was a child, I was totally convinced that my younger sister was a thief. (Apologies, Kimber). I knew that she would steal any of my things she had a chance to get her hands on. I couldn’t trust her. She was like a shadow that would slip into my room and steal my most valuable belongings, like He-Man toys.
When I was around ten, I guess, I had saved up a small fortune. I had one of my grandmother’s jars that I think she had used to can tomato sauce, and I had filled it with loose change that I had taken out of my parents’ pockets. One of the perks of doing the laundry is that I had the chance to check their pockets ahead of time and take all the change I could find. I would spend it on valuable things like nachos at the concession stand at the ballpark.
Now, before you say anything, my taking the change I found in their pockets was burgeoning entrepreneurship. My sister was just a plain old thief in the disguise of an innocent seven year-old. I was innovative. She couldn’t be trusted.
When I realized that I couldn’t carry this jar of nickles and quarters with me everywhere I went, the next logical course of action was, of course, to secretly bury it in the backyard where no one would find it. I would know it was there, squirreled away until I needed to get it and use it to buy my first car.
So, I took it outside, got a shovel from the shed, and buried it under the clothes line. Since we never actually hung clothes out to dry, no one would really go over there. Once it was buried, I was relieved. My sister’s schemes were thwarted and I could sleep easier.
It wasn’t long, of course, until I completely forgot exactly where I had buried it. I didn’t tell anyone for the longest time, because they would think it was a dumb idea—and my sister, of course, would find it immediately and steal it all.
We moved from that house a few years later and I never found it, in spite of searching and digging little holes all over that part of the yard. It was like gophers had infested our yard, but it was just me, trying to find the meager treasure I had hoarded away out of anxiety and fear.
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Go,” Jesus said, “sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
This is one of those texts that makes people squirm—or just check out. It is designed to get a reaction out of us, to make us think, to make us feel pinched. Jesus used money and wealth as an illustration very often because he knew then, as we know now, that it carries enormous symbolic significance. He knew how people worked, how people thought, what motivated them. He knew that we each, at the end of the day, are that little kid burying loose change in their backyard to protect it, hoard it.
That is why we hear so many stories about money: the pitfalls of burying treasure buried in a field; buying a pearl of great price; paying those who worked only part of the day the same amount as those who had worked all day; resisting the devil’s temptation to gain wealth by worshipping him. Time and time again, Jesus used wealth as an example to demonstrate the pressures of faith, the cost of discipleship.
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus says. Hard, not impossible. Difficult, not because money in and of itself is evil, but because, honestly, we want to construct our own realities around us rather than stop our grasping and rely on God’s guidance. That is the heart of our spiritual practice: this urge we have in our lives to grasp onto our agendas and hoard so we can retain our power and control—rather than trust, release, be vulnerable, share, all of these rich expressions that foster community and Christian discipleship.
I remember the first year I was ordained, when it was time to file our tax returns. Clergy taxes are notoriously difficult. I am, in my person, considered my own small business. I don’t think I’ll ever understand that, but I went to one of the storefront tax people. I only did this once.
I actually went the first meeting (of many) wearing my clericals, and when I sat down, he looked at me and said, “Now, we need to make sure we approach this appropriately. Have you taken a vow of poverty?”
“No,” I told him. “I have not taken a vow of poverty.” At the time, we had a one-year-old, a mortgage, two cars, school loans, normal life for countless people. I also had an inordinate fondness for book and truffle oil to sprinkle on my French fries with Parmesan cheese. But I had not taken a vow of poverty.
And, herein lies the rub that so many people have. Some of my colleagues may not agree with me if they hear this, but here goes: To be sure, there are religious orders in the world whose charism, whose spiritual gift, is poverty. There are distinct vows that certain religious orders make: poverty, chastity, and obedience. And these are holy endeavors indeed. They are graces from the Holy Spirit, and I affirm them.
But what about folks in the parish? What about religious communities such as ours? How are we to understand this text? Do we take a literal approach to “sell all we have?” How do we support our families?
Now, I would not shy away from telling someone, if the opportunity arose, “do you really think you need that second boat, or that third house, etc.?” I think that is a fair comment to hear from your priest when we hear Jesus’ call to love our neighbor.
But I don’t think we take a vow of poverty. I don’t think that is actually what Jesus is saying here. Maybe you agree; maybe you don’t. Hear me out.
I think Jesus is calling us to be aware of the reality of possession. The text says that the man went away sad “because he had many possessions.” Here’s what I think was going on: it wasn’t that the man possessed his things. It was that his things had possessed him. He was so trapped in grasping onto them, as if they were the defining quality of his life, that he couldn’t imagine another way of living, a way that was marked by freedom, vulnerability, release. By gratitude and compassion.
While we may not take a vow of poverty, we do take a vow. We should remember this well, my friends. Our vows are our Baptismal Covenant, if you will, on page 305 in The Book of Common Prayer. I invite you to open your Prayer Book:
Do you believe in God the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit?
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Those are our vows, and they anchor our lives as followers of Jesus.
And here is where our understanding of stewardship connects. There is a persistent impression in churches that our offerings are dues paid to a club in order to get certain services. We each pay our dues, and we expect certain things in return for our investment, for our payment. Hymns we like. Classes. Better food, and so on. But churches are not clubs and our pledges and offerings are not dues. Christian community is not defined by a quid pro quo system. We should be very thankful that God does not give us what we deserve for what we pay God, to put it that way. Right?
At the end of the day, our shared parish budget is nothing more and nothing less than our shared household budget that allows our common life to exist—a common life marked by our shared desire to live into our Baptismal Covenant. Our budget is an embodiment of our commitment to these core values of a Christian community. What does it look like to be followers of Jesus? What does it look like to embody Christ’s love and hope in this world? It looks like this at Grace Church: shared ministry organized in our clusters, with effective administration, formation, compassion, liturgy and creative expression, and participation.
It looks like you. It looks like Kimmey Boyd reaching over and holding Henry Bond’s hand during a difficult Gospel reading about marriage. It looks like the children coming up to go to chapel. It looks like Children of Grace preschool and their weekly chapel services. It looks like Will Gotmer driving by himself to the hospital to see Joe Iannarone without letting us know he was going. It looks like Brenda Morgan’s institutional memory. It looks like when I walked into the sacristy the other day and found Linda Martin in there polishing the brass offering plates—along with Cody the dog.
It looks like the enormous amount of time and energy that Doug McDuff and Mary Lynn Coyle and the Campus Vision & Development Committee are pouring into the Bicentennial Campaign details. It looks like Jason Voyles and Tate O’Rouke and the Steering Committee’s focus on creative and inviting ways to encourage us all to participate.
Our budget is our embodiment of Grace—both God’s grace given freely to us, and Grace as this communal expression of God’s love in this place at this time. It looks like open hands and hearts, sharing compassion with the wider community. It sounds like music—and laughter. It looks like people coming together tomorrow to celebrate a remarkable life.
It looks like gratitude, not grasping. Hope, not hoarding. Breaking open jars, not burying them in the back yard.
* At the 8:15 service: [So, let me say this to you: thank you. Thank you, not for giving to the Church as though it was some separate organization you pay dues to, but for being the Church, the Body of Christ in this world. Thank you for opening your heart to love as we live together.]
* At the 10:45 service: And this morning, it looks like this: surprising one of the most incredible human beings I have ever known on her birthday. To take a minute and say thank you for her willingness, for her family’s willingness, to literally sell what they had and move up here to be with us. To give of herself so freely. To show us what it is like to be human.
So if you will, let us stand together and celebrate this day! [Sing Happy Birthday to Cynthia!]