Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sermon for Proper 23

St Andrew's, Edwardsville--Mark 10:17-31

There’s a rather inane movie from the early ‘90s called The First Wives Club, that I probably wouldn’t even know about, except for the fact that Diane Keaton was in it, and I’ve had kind of crush on Diane Keaton since the ‘70s. At the end of the film, after they've supposedly got their lives and their relationships with men all straightened out, the three members of the club sing a hit song, from the ‘70s—You Don't Own Me.

They were referring, of course, to their former husbands, who had all behaved rather badly, and in that sense they may have been correct. But these three ladies, whether they realized it or not, were very much still owned. One was owned by an obsession with her own good looks, and went to more than extraordinary lengths to preserve them as her years inexorably advanced. Another was owned by an idealized vision of the perfect mother and perfect wife living with her perfect family in their perfect home. The third was owned precisely by the lack of any vision of who she was as a unique human being. And all three were owned by—possessed by—a desire for all the creature comforts and material perks they could get their hands on.

In that aspiration, they probably represent the majority of us who are gathered here in this church, and the majority of those in our surrounding culture. North Americans and Europeans in the second decade of the third millennium tend to over-focus on the accumulation and preservation of material wealth. When I was in grade school, futurists were predicting that the major social problem my generation would face as adults is what to do with all of our leisure time. Technology was going to make human labor obsolete, nuclear energy too cheap to even run through a meter was going to drive the cost of living down, and everybody would enjoy an abundance of freedom to pursue hobbies and become citizen-philosophers. Instead, the average work week, after bottoming-out sometime around 1970, has crept steadily upward. Yet, average income, adjusted for inflation, has gone down. True, more and more households enjoy that elusive “middle class lifestyle,” but we do it with two full-time paychecks instead of one. And the list of standard equipment for that hypothetical middle-class household keeps growing. Cell phones and personal computers—to say nothing of smart phones and tablets—which were luxuries for the elite when my children were young, are now considered normative, essential. Yet, when Brenda and I were married 43 years ago, cell phones were still the stuff of science fiction (remember Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio?), and the internet, such as it was, was the playground of egghead scientists.

The bar keeps getting raised, as we're working longer hours at less per hour to continue to be able jump over it.  Oh, sure, there are “the rich,” the “well-to-do,” the “financially independent.” But do you know what my working definition of “rich” is? Anybody who has a dollar more than I do. And I would suspect that that's the definition for everybody here, although the amount will vary according to how much we have. Most of us have the feeling of being just behind the curve financially.  How much would it take to feel like we're ahead of the game?  Not much.  Just a little bit more than I'm bringing in now.
That would give me some breathing space.  Only when we start to make that little bit more, that amount we had in mind, it still not quite enough.  How much would it then take to get ahead?  Just a little bit more.

You can see how this plays out. Whether we're living on twenty thousand dollars a year or twenty thousand dollars a month, it isn't quite enough. If you're living on that lower figure, you probably find that difficult to believe.
But if your income is in the neighborhood of that higher figure, you're probably thinking to yourself that I've called it correctly. But wherever we are in relation to those two figures—below, above, or, as is most likely the case, somewhere in between, we are probably in a position where we can truthfully say that we don't own our possessions, because our possessions, in fact, own us. We may be able to sing You Don't Own Me to our spouse, or our parents, or our children, but we cannot sing it to our bank account or our 401K or our living room furniture or the clothes hanging in our closet or the books lining our shelves or the paintings adorning our walls or the trees and shrubs and flowers in our yard or the car sitting in our garage. In fact, when we reflect on it, these things do own us, just as surely as if they had recorded a lien on our lives down at the county courthouse.

When Jesus said that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he wasn't talking about Bill Gates or Donald Trump or Warren Buffet. He was talking about us—you and me. The young man who approached Jesus wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life discovered, to his great sadness, the extent to which he was owned by his possessions. Indeed, he was faithful in keeping the commandments, and Jesus commended him for this. But even in his exemplary conduct, the young man was fearful.

Perhaps he was once poor, and didn’t want to ever be poor again. There aren’t many still alive who can remember the Great Depression, but many of have experienced second-hand the effect that the Depression had on our parents and grandparents, and can empathize with the fear of the young man in our gospel story. Perhaps the young man had an insecure ego, an under-developed self-image, and very much enjoyed the social prestige and recognition that came along with his wealth. You and I know people—don’t we?—who fret interminably over what significant social events they get invited to, or don’t get invited to. Someone whose financial star is rising is presumed to be of more personal substance, and one who has fallen upon hard times is presumed to be somehow unusually flawed.

So the rich young man who was so good about keeping the commandments was also afraid of losing the material and social security that his wealth afforded him. And when Jesus paid him the highest possible compliment, and invited the young man to follow him, to become a disciple, he could not accept the invitation. One of the consequences of following Jesus—and in this case Jesus actually spelled it out clearly—is to dis-connect ourselves from anything that might distract us from that one all-important obsession, the obsession with discipleship. In the case of the rich young man, this involved a garage sale of monumental proportions, and he didn’t have the heart, didn’t have the strength, didn’t have the consuming will, to go through with it. He may have wanted to find his security and fulfillment in following Jesus, but he couldn’t make the leap. He couldn’t let go of that which would have become an intolerable weight on the road of discipleship. He could not bring himself to sing to his worldly goods, “You don’t own me.” He did not realize that Jesus was offering him freedom. By saying to Jesus, “You do own me” he would have been empowered to say the opposite to the wealth which hung about his neck like an albatross.

As the scriptures teach us, to be a slave to Christ is to be free from every other form of bondage, which is a pretty good deal, because his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Following Jesus enables us to be a steward of our wealth rather than a slave to it. A steward operates under a different emotional dynamic than either an owner or a slave—in fact, both the owner and the slave have more in common with one another than either has with a steward. A steward knows he doesn’t own the property he manages, therefore it can’t own him. When I write a check from my personal checkbook, I wince a little bit—or a lot sometimes—because there’s some pain involved. When I write a check from the Bishop’s  Discretionary Fund, it feels much different. I might have a little anxiety if it’s running low, or over whether I’m making a wise decision about who I'm helping, but I don’t get nearly as emotionally invested as I do with my own bank account, because it’s clear that I’m just a steward of the Discretionary Fund. I don’t own it, so it can’t own me.

Now, the fact is, of course, the exact same thing is true of the checks that say “Daniel H. Martins” across the top as the ones that say “Diocese of Springfield.”
In both cases, I am a steward, not an owner. When I electronically send my pledge payment every month, I am not giving away “my” money. I am exercising the primary duty of my stewardship. And it’s a generous deal: I get to keep the great majority of the assets that are entrusted to me! What other fund manager can get away with a 90% expense ratio without getting audited—and then fired?!  When I look at tithing, not as having to give away 10% of my money, but as getting to keep 90% of God’s money, it becomes something else entirely.

Stewardship season is upon us. I’m not sure just where St Andrew’s is in the process, but the pledge cards may already be in the mail—or maybe they’ve already been collected, I don’t know. But this morning’s gospel invites us to ask ourselves whether we are slaves or stewards. Either we are slaves to our wealth because it owns us, or we are stewards of it because we recognize it all belongs to the Lord. Will we succumb to fear as did the virtuous young man who could not bring himself to have that garage sale? Or will we follow the lead of the disciples who left everything to follow Christ? Even they had some anxiety about the whole thing. Peter spoke for them all: “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus responded with a re-assuring promise:
“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands…and in the age to come eternal life.”
Being a steward of the Lord’s assets is a well-paying job! He promises to meet our needs—not all our desires, necessarily, but our needs—in this life, and to exceed all that we can ask or imagine in the life to come.  So which is it, slave or steward? I will pray that you make the right choice. Please pray for me, that I do the same. Amen.

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