Saturday, August 31, 2013
Friday, August 30, 2013
I had three substantive telephone appointments on my calendar today (two related to deployment and one related to Anglican Communion matters), so I had fairly low expectations of general productivity, given that talking on the phone taxes my introversion at pretty much the same rate as an in-person encounter. I did make a little progress wrapping my mind around the preaching responsibilities I will have on a planned visit to our companion Diocese of Tabora, Tanzania in November. Also prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary, entered the schedule for next month's House of Bishops meeting in my calendar (one of the sessions is actually entitled "Moving Diagonally," but I have nothing to do with it!), kept on top of an unusually steady stream of incoming emails, and prayed the morning and evening offices in the cathedral.
Thursday, August 29, 2013
- Customary Thursday morning workout: weights and treadmill.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Brief attention to some administrative details relating to mission strategy and deployment.
- Finished drafting a sermon for my September 8 visit to St George's, Belleville.
- Scheduled hour-long (plus) phone visit with Bishop Gregory Kerr-Wilson of Calgary, a classmate from seminary. He and I have a covenant to intentionally stay in contact and support one another in our ministries.
- Lunch from McD's, eaten at home.
- Processed a small batch of emails.
- More attention to some mission strategy practicalities.
- Worked on some Nashotah House board business, in preparation for a major conference call next week.
- Filled out an online college application reference form for a former parishioner.
- Devotions in the cathedral; Evening Prayer in the office.
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
- Began processing emails at home over breakfast.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Continued email processing, which generated tasks that consumed the rest of the morning, including writing a "From the Bishop" column for the next issue of the Current.
- Lunch from the Asian place next to TG, eaten at home. (Inexplicably, China 1 was closed.)
- Responded affirmatively to the Diocese of Western Michigan that I will attend the consecration of their next bishop on 28 September. Made concomitant travel and lodging arrangements.
- Reviewed an Association of Theological Schools document on board governance. This is a subject I am currently "going to school" on.
- Worked on the diocesan website, adding a bunch of content here.
- Hand-wrote greetings to clergy and spouses with September birthdays and anniversaries.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
- Task planning at home; Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Talked with the Archdeacon and the Administrator over an emerging administrative and pastoral concern.
- Produced a working script of my homily for this Sunday at St Christopher's, Rantoul.
- Two care of two relatively small chores related to the annual diocesan synod.
- Lunch from TG, eaten at home.
- Took a scheduled phone call from an individual who is in the ordination process.
- Devoted the rest of my afternoon to a somewhat urgent project aimed at helping Nashotah House retain its accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
- Out to dinner with Brenda in the evening to celebrate our 41st wedding anniversary.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
Since I was already in Mattoon, and their Sunday liturgy is not until 10am, I got to sleep in and feel a bit self-indulgent. It was, as always, a joy to preside and preach for the good people of Trinity Church. There is certainly a critical mass among them for seriously engaging the emerging mission strategy paradigm of the diocese. After the coffee hour, I accompanied Fr Truelove in bringing Holy Communion to a homebound parishioner. I then headed up I-57 to Champaign, where I had a meeting with a priest of the diocese over some administrative and pastoral concerns. It was nearly 5pm before I got home. As I settled into my recliner with a plate of homemade tacos on my lap, I stumbled on the beginning of the film Forrest Gump. I saw it when it first came out in 1994, but it was fun to reconnect. What a fancifully sweet and compelling story.
Trinity, Mattoon--Luke 13:10-17
I served for 13 years in the Diocese of San Joaquin, from 1994 until 2007. During that time—and I’m not quite sure how this happened—I acquired a reputation as the font of all knowledge for anything liturgical. Some may even have thought of me as a bit of a “liturgy geek,” and I know that the term “rubrical fundamentalist” was applied to me at various times. (Rubrics are the “fine print” in the Prayer Book that give various instructions about how things are to be done.) But if I’m a liturgy geek and a rubrical fundamentalist, then I have a fairly mild case of the disease, because there are those with full-blown symptoms much more impressive than mine. I have a book on my shelf that offers detailed ceremonial prescriptions for every conceivable contingency—how to celebrate the Eucharist when the Bishop is not present, when the Bishop is present, when the Bishop is present in the room but not at the altar, when a bishop other than the diocesan bishop is present, when an archbishop or primate is present, and on and on and on.
Of course, even ordinary lay Christians—especially Episcopalians, perhaps—can care about certain liturgical details, and use churchy jargon in ways that make perfect sense to them, but leave outsiders scratching their heads—Rite One, Rite Two, what parts of the service are sung and what parts are said, special practices during Advent and Lent, and the like. To many outsiders, both Christian and non-Christian, it can easily seem a little much; it can seem like “religion” getting in the way of “faith.”
This seems to be something like Jesus’ point in the synagogue encounter we read about today in the thirteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he sees a woman who has symptoms that look like what we would call osteoporosis—she can’t straighten up. We’re not told that she even asks for his help, but he simply says to her, “Woman, you are healed from your infirmity.” Then he lays his hands on her, and she immediately stands up straight. Pretty impressive, huh? The congregation in the synagogue evidently thought so; it certainly wasn’t what they were expecting when they showed up for worship that day. But the ruler of the synagogue, the head guy, was miffed because, you see, what Jesus did was a violation of the rubrics—indeed, to apply our Episcopalian terminology to the situation, it was a breach of canon law. It was the Sabbath, and you’re not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath, and what is healing somebody from a disease if not work, right? But Jesus comes back with, “Look, get a grip here, people! [I'm paraphrasing slightly!] Every one of you at least feeds your animals on the Sabbath day, and here we have a child of God who’s been cursed with this disease for eighteen years, and you want to make her wait a day because it’s a violation of the rubrics? Come on, get real!” To borrow one of Jesus’ sayings from another context: “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.”
Now, we intuitively agree with Jesus in his condemnation of “religion” for its own sake—this is not one of his “hard sayings” such as we dealt with last week. No, this is one we are easily on board with. Yet, there are those—I think we can safely say there are many—who would want to take it a step further and have a very casual or even dismissive attitude toward formal and outward religious practices such as corporate worship, especially corporate worship that uses liturgical forms, and especially liturgical forms that contain such things as rubrics! There are those who automatically and instinctively devalue spiritual disciplines and sacred objects and symbolic actions, the keeping of special days and seasons. And then there are those who not only dismiss and devalue such things, but condemn them outright. One could think here of the Puritans who had such a stormy relationship with our Anglican ancestors three and four hundred years ago. (The Puritans, you know, didn't even celebrate Christmas.) One might also think of some of our evangelical Protestant friends, for whom much of what we do in our worship seems either baffling or foolish or just plain boring. And then there are those who are inclined to let values that they may describe as “compassion” or “justice” trump any other concerns, and for whom liturgical texts and rubrics are matters of trifling importance.
So we have a bit of a paradox here, an apparent contradiction. As Anglicans, we have a liturgical and spiritual tradition that is rich and complex and, at times, quite detailed. We have rubrics! But within that very tradition, we have this gospel story in which Jesus’ own words and actions can be seen as granting a license to take the whole tradition very lightly, or even to ignore it. Well, as is the case with so many aspects of our Christian experience, the truth is found not in opting for one polarity or the other, nor is it found in splitting the difference between the two, but in maintaining both polarities, both ends of the tightrope, in their full integrity. We can be faithful to our tradition—even the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer!—and still live in the spirit of what Jesus reveals when he heals the woman in the synagogue. A balanced Catholic Christian perspective sees religious practices—like, for Jews, keeping the Sabbath, like worship and prayer and fasting and abstinence on certain days—we can see all these things as signs, shadowy counterparts, of heavenly realities. For example, when we honor the Sabbath principle of stepping aside from our routine of work on a disciplined and regular basis, we are allowing God to prepare us for the eternal rest that he promises his people in Heaven. When we are faithful in our attendance at corporate worship on Sundays and Holy Days, we are opening ourselves to the sort of communion with God that is our destiny, that to which our souls are naturally bent and inclined. When we practice abstinence and self-denial on Fridays and during Lent, we are walking the way of the cross, we are allowing ourselves to be conformed to the example and image of Christ. Saying our daily prayers and making our confession and keeping Lent, and other such religious practices, put us in mind of the sort of training an athlete or a performing artist undergoes in preparation for a contest, even as we are preparing to receive the crown of life on the Day of the Lord.
Of course, the important caveat to bear in mind is that these religious practices, wholesome as they may be, are means to an end, and not ends in themselves. They are intended to make us holy, not to make us proud of our accomplishment. Today’s gospel incident rightly teaches us to regard them precisely as vehicles toward a destination and not the destination itself. Nonetheless, religious practices, liturgical texts, and even rubrics(!) can be invaluable means to a very important end—that is, the salvation of our souls. Like they say about tradition, religion is a tyrannical master but a most excellent servant.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.
Saturday, August 24, 2013
Slow morning ... processed a ton of emails ... Bowflex and treadmill ... packed ... wolfed down leftover chili for lunch ... met with a seminarian in my office ... hit the road to Mattoon for a 5pm dinner date with the Bishop's Committee of Trinity Church.
Only a day after a transatlantic flight and crossing five time zones, I had to hit the ground running. Morning Prayer and a good bit of email processing at home. Prepared for, presided, and preached the Eucharist (Votive Mass for the Mission of the Church) ahead of the regular August meeting of the Diocesan Council. Presided at the meeting. Met with Fr Swan briefly afterward, first in his capacity as EfM coordinator for the diocese, then in his capacity as rector of the parish hosting Synod. Then met with Don Monty, senior warden at St Andrew's, Carbondale regarding some issues related to their search process. Lunch from LaBamba, eaten at home. Afternoon: Deployment issues, sermon finalization for this Sunday in Mattoon, phone calls, more email processing, Lectio Divina, Evening Prayer in the office, and finally dealing with a plumbing emergency when I was the only one on the building! (All is well.)
Now ... as for my trip ... this was in response to an invitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Communion Partners Bishops to send a delegation to visit him. I of course cannot go into very much detail, but we discussed a range of issues and concerns affect the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church, and the Church of England. He gave us four hours of his time, which included lunch and a celebration of the Eucharist in his private chapel in the Old Palace in Canterbury. We left very grateful and encouraged.
Since I was already going to be "across the pond," I tried to leverage that fact and extended the trip by a couple of days to tend to other relationships that might benefit from some attention. As it turned out, the primary ideas I had in mind did not come to fruition, but I had some useful conversations nonetheless: with a bishop-elect in a key position, with a young American priest in Cambridge who may have a future in the Diocese of Springfield, and with the Vice-Principal of Ridley Hall, one of the seminaries of the Church of England.
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Saturday, August 17, 2013
Writing on what is mid-morning central time, but mid-afternoon where I am, which is London. Took the red-eye from Chicago yesterday afternoon, landing at Heathrow around dawn. I am joined by some of my Communion Partners bishop colleagues. We have an important meeting on Monday, about which I hope to share more later, and I have a couple of "lesser" meetings into the week. I fly home on Thursday. Internet connectivity here is awkward on many levels, so dispatches may be sparse.
Thursday, August 15, 2013
- Customary Thursday early morning weight and treadmill routine.
- On the phone to a hotel and an airline about an upcoming trip while I chow down on my breakfast bacon (dismaying the dog by not thinking to share any with her).
- Morning Prayer (memorized short form) in the car driving to the office.
- Processed a batch of emails.
- Scanned and otherwise disposed of the hard copy items in my physical inbox.
- Kept a phone date with my co-trustee for the Putnam Trust, along with the trust's investment advisor. This was a routine regular review of investment strategy. The Putnam Trust generates significant income for two of our parishes.
- Began developing a draft for my sermon at Trinity, Mattoon on August 25.
- Attended Mass in the cathedral chapel for today's feast day--a sung liturgy, no less, celebrated by Fr Gus Franklin.
- Lunch from McD's, eaten at home.
- Completed the above-referenced work on homily for Proper 16.
- Worked on the agenda for the annual Synod in October.
- Began to lay out the broad strokes my address at that same Synod.
- Worked on some clergy deployment issues.
- Wrote a substantive email to the Nashotah House board summarizing what the Executive Committee accomplished during our Texas meeting Tuesday and Wednesday.
- Evening Prayer in the office.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Reconvened the "expanded" Executive Committee of the Nashotah House trustees by sharing in the regular 9am Eucharist at St Vincent's Cathedral in Bedford, TX. Then we worked until around 12:30--very productively, I would say--then headed to various airports and various destinations. Because I was traveling "in uniform" I was able to meet Bishop Kevin Vann of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, formerly of Fort Worth, and also formerly pastor of Blessed Sacrament parish in Springfield. He was traveling "home" for a visit with his father, who lives here. I got home just before 5:30.
Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Out the door in time to catch a 7am flight from Springfield to Dallas-Fort Worth. Happily, I can make it from my driveway to the departure lounge, having cleared security, in about twenty minutes. The Executive Committee of the Nashotah House board of trustees is meeting from midday today until midday tomorrow with a consultant who is helping us get ready for an Association of Theological Schools accredication visit in October. It is a valuable meeting.
Sunday, August 11, 2013
Awoke in our O'Fallon hotel room and hit the road eastbound on I-64 a few minutes before 8am. This put in in Mt Carmel in plenty of time to visit with Fr Brant Hazlett, who was waiting for us, and get ready in a leisurely fashion for the regular 10:30 celebration of the Holy Eucharist. There were 34 in attendance, which is pretty good for St John the Baptist. And three of them were babies. What more encouraging sign can there be than to see babies in church?! Well ... one candidate might be adults publicly committing themselves to Christian discipleship, so we rejoice in the adult whom we confirmed as part of the celebration. We were on the road to Springfield just past 1, and pulling into our driveway at 4:45, having been delayed by a spur-of-the-moment decision to shop on a Mexican food market we noticed while driving through Effingham. Strangely, Springfield is devoid of such stores.
St John the Baptist, Mt Carmel -- Luke 12:32-40, Genesis 15:1-6, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
When Brenda and I lived in northern Indiana, we discovered a restaurant in Fort Wayne called Flat Top Grill. When we came to Illinois, we were happy to discover that there’s a Flat Top Grill in Bloomington, and if the timing is right and we’re in the area, that’s where we eat. Here’s the deal at Flat Top Grill: It’s kind of a do-it-yourself Asian place. They give you a bowl and you go through a line where there are all sorts of ingredients—rice, vegetables, spices, and meats. So you put what you want in the bowl, pass it to the cooks at the grill and go back to your table. A few minutes later, they bring you your meal. If you like it, you have only yourself to thank. If you hate it, you have only yourself to blame. The freedom of choice is wonderful, and great fun. But without some self-control, it’s easy to add too many flavors and the resulting hodge-podge is not always a winner. As I go through the line assembling my ingredients, all these flavors, flavors that I really enjoy, are calling out my name. But I’ve learned to filter most of them out, and be very careful about what I select. If I choose too many, their individuality gets lost in the mix, or there might be a couple that just don’t play well together.
At the risk of seeming to channel Forrest Gump, “Life is like eating at the Flat Top Grill”—particularly those aspects of life that are spiritual, that relate to questions of ultimate meaning and significance. We are given great freedom in assembling our “spiritual stir fry”, but with that freedom comes great risk and great responsibility. If we don’t choose wisely and judiciously, the resulting concoction means nothing because it means everything.
When Jesus walked the earth, we hear a great deal about “the disciples”—it’s always “when Jesus and his disciples were there” or “Jesus said to the disciples…”. But, in any given scene, there are usually a great many more people than just “the 12.” There are those on the margins, those who wish to be present and to observe, but do not wish to make a commitment. It’s like they’ve put too many flavors into their Flat Top Grill bowl, and they want to see if Jesus might be one more that want to add. But there are so many competing voices calling out to them that they have a hard time really hearing what Jesus says and really seeing what Jesus does.
When we hang out on the margins of what Jesus is up to, we fall prey to the illusion that this world and this life are where we need to invest ourselves fully, that here we do indeed have an “abiding city.” The author of the epistle to the Hebrews warns us against this as he concludes his catalog of heroes who stepped out courageously in faith in response to God’s call: “If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” When we are completely invested only in where we are now and what we have now, we are incredibly vulnerable to the fear of loss, and all the destructive behaviors that go along with being controlled by fear.
But the good news is, we have a choice. Rather than putting ourselves in the position of the marginalized “crowd” in the gospel stories, we can choose to see ourselves as among “the disciples.” When we make the decision to follow Jesus, when we accept his invitation to become a disciple, Jesus becomes the first window through which we view our experience. Jesus becomes the prism through which we look at the stuff that happens to us and the things we do. And through that process, over time, over a lifetime in most cases, we lose our attachments to all the things that have the potential to distract us from Jesus—in fact, ultimately, all that is not Jesus. It’s like when we find a style of automobile that we really like or are considering buying—or one that we currently drive and enjoy having—we suddenly start seeing that make and model on the road wherever we go, when, before we discovered it on our own, they would have gone right by us without our noticing. When we really hear what Jesus says and really see what Jesus does, everything else begins to fade, and we begin to see Jesus only. His becomes the only voice we hear, the only flavor that calls out our name as we go through the line and add ingredients to the bowl that represents our lives.
Then we come to a turning point. At Flat Top Grill, when you’ve done your job well, and they bring your bowl back to you all cooked and stirred together, and you taste it, it’s an incredibly rewarding moment! It was hard to resist the temptation to just throw everything in there, but now you’re glad you did resist, because you can taste why you did so. Assembling the ingredients of our spiritual stir-fry is full of temptations. But when we resist the temptation to be indiscriminate, and filter out the voices that compete with the voice of Jesus, when we leave the margins of the crowd and enter the inner core of the disciples, then we discover the Jesus who is at the same time both master and one who is a servant. We meet the Jesus who puts on an apron, rolls up his sleeves, and waits on us—unworthy sinners that we are—Jesus waits on us with his own life as we are “at table” with him in the Eucharist. At this altar, every Sunday and holy day, Jesus, the Lord of the Universe—God from God, Light from Light, true God from True God—becomes our servant and feeds us with his very life, with his own Body and Blood.
This is really too awesome for words. As a result of our encounter with the Risen Christ at this altar, we are changed; we are never the same. Jesus here releases us from fear. Jesus here releases us from slavery to all the “things” that we like to think we own, but which, in fact, own us. Jesus, by giving us himself, enables us to sit loosely to all the things we like to think of as our possessions, all the things to which we so easily become attached as we assemble the ingredients of our lives. When we belong to Jesus, we may own nothing, but neither can anything own us.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.
Saturday, August 10, 2013
Morning devoted to relaxing and getting some exercise. Early afternoon devoted to processing emails. Then we headed south to St Louis, where we met our friends Deacon Marion and Deb Carpenter from Indiana, with whom we had a date to watch the ball game at Busch Stadium. It was a great game, and the right team won! (Not that there's anything wrong with the other team.) Spending the night in O'Fallon and heading to Mt Carmel in the morning.
Friday, August 9, 2013
Wednesday, August 7, 2013
- Morning Prayer fell through the cracks today, as I was immediately engulfed upon arrival at the office by a chain of phone calls, both incoming and outgoing, that lasted until nearly 11:30. All were with either clergy or wardens in the diocese, pertaining to various emerging issues in various parishes.
- Refined and printed the working notes of my sermon for this Sunday (St John the Baptist, Mt Carmel).
- Lunch from China 1, eaten at home.
- Plotted a course toward being prepared for my guest preaching gig in the Diocese of Tennessee on September 22, when the House of Bishops will be meeting in Nashville.
- Took care of various bits of administrivia (for example, printing and signing forms giving consent for bishops in other dioceses to retire--yes, my life is that exciting!).
- Wrote out birthday and anniversary greetings to clergy and spouses for the rest of August .
- Scanned and otherwise processed the pile of hard copy detritus that was in my physical inbox.
- Evening Prayer (memorized form) in the car on the way home, as it was already well past 6.
Tuesday, August 6, 2013
- First day back in the saddle after a good vacation. Morning Prayer at home.
- Debriefed over a range a matters with the Archdeacon and the Administrator.
- Began processing the accumulated "snail mail" that I found waiting for me on my desk.
- Met with members of the diocesan Finance Department to take a first crack at the 2014 operating budget.
- Continued to work on processing mail.
- Presided and preached for the regular Tuesday Mass in the cathedral chapel, observing the day's feast--Transfiguration. This was a joy.
- Picked up an Italian beef sandwich (Chicago style) and took it home to eat.
- Finished hard-copy mail processing and turned my attention to a stack of 25 emails that needed my attention. They consumed the rest of my afternoon, and a good portion of my evening at home. But I now have effective "inbox zero."
- Evening Prayer in the office.
Sunday, August 4, 2013
St Mary's, Robinson--Luke 12:13-21, Ecclesiastes 1:12-14; 2:18-23
A few months ago, the Power Ball lottery jackpot got up to such a ridiculous amount that it was getting a good bit of publicity. So Brenda and I were driving home from some event one evening, and we spontaneously decided to pull into a convenience store and buy a ticket. We were about a minute too late, and, as it turned out, the winning ticket was sold not too far away, in Redbud, Illinois.
Do you ever find yourself playing the mental game, "What if I won the lottery"? I certainly do. Sometimes we even find ourselves bargaining with God. "Lord, if you'll just let me win, I promise—cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye—I promise I'll be responsible. I'll tithe, a full ten percent, before taxes, even. I'll be very generous to all sorts of good causes— just think of the good I'd be able to do—if you'll just let me win the big one!"
Most of us, if the truth be told, don't even want to live in opulent splendor, with fifty-room mansions, a dozen servants, gold-plated fixtures, and all that, like the British royal family. We don't necessarily want to be featured on the next episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. What we really want is for money just not ever be a concern, to not have to deal with financial anxiety, to have the security and the freedom that comes along with being wealthy. The preponderance of evidence, all around us in the affluent western culture in which we live, suggests that such freedom and security can indeed be bought, that it is possible, if one is fortunate enough, to amass enough wealth to be able to say, "Take this job and shove it", and to secure our lives and the lives of our loved ones against the vicissitudes of the unknown future.
And so, we've grown accustomed to using wealth—one's personal balance sheet and cash position—as a sort of unconscious, unofficial, but very real measuring stick by which we place a value on ourselves and on others. What if ... what if we here at St Mary's had heard it on good authority that, say, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and one of the richest people in the world, was going to visit Robinson today and worship with us? Don't you think there would have been a certain amount of pressure to hire a professional maintenance crew to come and make the buildings and grounds look just as beautiful as they can look? And if Mark Zuckerberg actually did show up at St Mary’s, would we be looking for him to drive into the parking lot in a 1985 Toyota Corolla? No, we'd rather more likely expect to see him emerge from a chauffeur-driven black Cadillac limousine, because that's the symbol that we associate with someone to whom we instinctively assign a certain intrinsic value and importance and status merely because he has the ability to write a check for a hundred million dollars with full confidence that it will clear the bank. And because the great majority of us harbor a certain amount of envy of such check-writing privileges—envy really of the freedom and security that it represents—one of the great temptations of our lives is to begin to treat wealth, the accumulation of money and things that money can buy, as somehow transcendent, as worthy of our ultimate allegiance, as something that is almost ... well ... divine, a god.
Now, a god is that from which, or from whom, we find our meaning in life, a meaning that puts our everyday existence in some sort of satisfying larger context. Without God, and without the meaning that God provides, our lives are just pathetically irrelevant. We may as well have never been born. This is the realization of the author of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, we he writes, "I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind."
Without the eternal context that God provides, all is, indeed, vanity. But just as not everything that glitters is gold, not everything that looks divine is God. There are such things as false gods, and false gods we call idols. We sophisticated modern westerners like to think of an idol as some crude statue that a group of pre-literate tribesmen prostrate themselves in front of. That image lets us off the hook. An idol, though, is any false god, anything from which we derive a sense of self, something on which we rely for present and future security, but which will eventually let us down. An idol will, in the end, abandon us back to the vanity of life without God. "So I turned about", the author of Ecclesiastes writes, "...and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil."
If the character in Jesus's parable—the "rich fool", as he's called—had been a better student of the Hebrew Scriptures, and read the Book of Ecclesiastes, he may not have been so cocky about his accumulated wealth and the security he thought it would provide. "And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.'" He may not have left himself wide open to those chilling words from God, "Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?"
The rich fool of the parable literally had more than he knew what to do with. But even our middle class need for present and future security—a fashionable car, an occasional trip to Disneyworld, and a comfortable retirement—this need for security can be an idol. And idols, you see, are very seductive. They cloud our perception and judgment. They're like the Sirens, the feminine characters in ancient Greek mythology, who called out to sailors from the rocky shoreline. Their voices were so appealing as to be irresistible, but if the sailors steered their ships in the direction of the Sirens, they inevitably crashed on the rocks, and all perished.
Most Christians, when they think of Jesus as "savior", imagine him stretched out on the cross, winning the forgiveness of our sins. But in this instance, Jesus's "saviorhood", if I can invent a word, is shown in his delivery of a simple warning, "Take care, and be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." This warning was delivered in response to a request from someone in the crowd that he arbitrate in a legal dispute over the distribution of an inheritance. But Jesus was able to see beyond the concrete legal technicalities of the dispute and identify the underlying issue as a moral one, an issue of greed (or "covetousness," as the Revised Standard Version translates it).
Jesus said, in effect, "There's something more potentially dangerous than the possibility that you might not get your fair share of the inheritance, and that's the spiritual danger to your soul that is represented by the greed in your heart. Losing your inheritance may cheat you of a some comfort, or even some freedom and security, in this earthy life. But if you persistently harbor greed, envy, jealousy, and malice, that will rob you of your relationship with God, and consign you to an eternal existence of pathetic irrelevance, devoid of anything that it means to be human."
Jesus stands at the edge of the abyss, warning us to look before we leap, to think twice before we embrace an idol. He reminds us that our right standing before God—a standing that is based not on anything we accomplish or earn, but simply on grace, through faith—this right standing is the only valid measuring stick for valuing ourselves or anyone else. What made the rich man a fool, Jesus says, is not that he was rich, but that he was not also "rich toward God." He had so much more than he actually needed, that he was planning to tear down his barns and build new ones in order to store all his super-abundance of grain. One of the fathers of the ancient church wrote that the "larger barns" this man was looking for could have been easily found in "the mouths of the hungry.” Being "rich toward God", then, means, among other things, using what we have not only for ourselves, but for others. It means realizing that none of our wealth is really even ours, but is given to us in trust, a trusteeship for which we will one day be held accountable. We are, in fact, stewards, and our attitude toward our material wealth should be one of stewardship.
So, by warning us against greed, by calling our attention to the spiritually dangerous seductive power of money, Jesus gives us an opportunity to experience genuine and lasting fulfillment. To be sure, giving up the idol of security means that there will be moments when we feel ... well ... insecure! But on the other side of the insecurity, is freedom—freedom from the anxiety of trying to hang on to what we think is ours. My money is not my own, so you can't take it from me. My time is not my own, so you can't take it from me. My family doesn't belong to me, so you can't take it from me. My career, my health, my future—all these belong to God. I am but a steward, so you can't really take them from me.
Do you see the freedom that Jesus offers us in his warning? My value is not determined by the amount of money I have. My value is determined by God, and I know how He values me. Quite honestly, I couldn't ask for anything more. Amen.