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Remembering that one of my most important roles as your pastor is to be a non-anxious presence, and detecting, oh, a certain amount of apprehension in the room at the reading of those two passages, let me try to cut right to the chase:
I’m not going to tell you to sell everything you own and give the proceeds to the poor.
I’m not going to tell you to pool everything you have and hold it all in common.
I’m not even going to suggest that we create a First Church lending library of big-ticket but low-frequency-use items like chain saws and lawn mowers, leaf blowers and snow blowers, huge roasting plans, steam cleaners, tuxedos and ball gowns, car seats or, God forbid, cars.
Nor will I suggest that being wealthy is a deal-breaker in the spiritual life because, God knows, relative to most of the rest of the world even the poorest among us is wealthy.
Yes, we are in the midst of our annual stewardship campaign, when we encourage you to pledge a portion of your annual income to the ministries of First Church. Yes, we being a little more direct in our appeal this year, asking to visit you in your homes to talk about the church and your connection to it. (Even I got a visit the other day.)
But this is not about laying a guilt trip on you or making you feel obligated. We have not and will not keep harping on the subject until you get so annoyed that you jump up from the breakfast table and turn off the radio. (Oops—did I say that out loud? I love my NPR.) We’re certainly not going to suggest that the eternal disposition of your soul depends on your generosity. Nor will we give you a long laundry list of important things this church won’t able to do if unless you can part with a little more of your hard-earned cash.
Because I don’t think Jesus would do any of those things. I don’t think the early church, with its all-things-held-in-common approach, had pulled out all the stops just so it could pay a pastor, put in an elevator, or build up the youth program.
What I want to say to you today is that giving is not about buying your way into the afterlife. We do, after all, believe that we are saved by grace and that everyone has a place a God’s welcome table.
We’re not wanting you to hear these seemingly hard words of Jesus and consider the example of the first socialists—I mean, Christians—because we’re just that desperate.
What I want to say to you is that the Loaves and Fishes, or stewardship, campaign is about far more than drumming up support for the church—raising the funds to pay the staff, teach our children, and keep all our ministries going.
Well . . . okay, we do have bills to pay. Who doesn’t?
But what Jesus’ focus on money and possessions is about, what we hope our stewardship campaign and our semi-regular discussions of giving and letting go are all about, is the quality of our lives right now. It’s about how to make our way—not into the next world, but through this beautiful and broken world right here. It’s about the life-healing, community-building, justice-making, world-changing that glad and generous hearts can accomplish.
Which is not to say that it’s easy.
What Jesus seems to be saying to the ruler in our gospel story, and what the earliest Christians apparently discovered, is that receiving the fullness of the kingdom, the blessings of peace and interdependence, requires letting go of at least some of what we’re hanging onto so tightly.
This is not rocket science (though social scientists have repeatedly confirmed the psychological, emotional, and social benefits of generosity). It is not complex theology or hard-to-understand economics. This is some very, very basic physics: We cannot receive one more thing, no matter how wonderful or even small it is, if our hands are already filled with something else. Or, to extrapolate from introductory physics to Living 101: We cannot keep adding activities to our schedule or new, and even better, relationships to our lives unless we take something out. Something has to give. The system must be opened up and expanded. We have to make room.
Or, to move on to the one-sentence Jesus Course in Discipleship: We cannot serve both God and wealth. We have to make a choice.
As Jesus said to the man I call the poor rich ruler (“poor” because he thought he had to earn his salvation): “You lack just one thing.”
He had failed to put God first. He had put his security, his trust, and his heart in his own performance and all his stuff. And now he was asking Jesus how to get the good life.
That’s easy, Jesus said: Simply live for God and others more than yourself, follow my way, and you’ll know the joys of heaven here on earth.
I’m going to say it again: This is not about guilt. This is not about whether we can have nice things and enjoy them (of course, we can!). This is not about obligation. This is good news! This is an invitation to real life! This is a matter of acknowledging a basic reality so that we can make choices, set priorities, and open our hands and hearts to the fullness of life God wants for us.
Or, to put it another way: This is what popular magazines and everyone on the inter webs would call the “secret to happiness”: Trusting God to give you what you need, sharing generously of what you have with others, putting first things first(that would be God and the realm and values of God), caring for the least of these, and living in loving interdependence with your neighbors.
Then why is it so hard? Why did the rich ruler become sad (and, on the other hand, why were the hearts of those first Christians so glad)?
Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but: We like our stuff. And everything and everyone around us tells us stuff is what will make us happy. Stuff is what the good life is all about. And, I’m not going to lie: I like stuff, too.
But here’s the thing: The world also tells us that we never have enough. That we need to have more, get more, buy more, save more. That it’s all up to us. That there’s not enough to go around and so we have to get ours and hang onto it.
My friends, that is called fear-mongering. We’re good at recognizing it in political campaigns but we have a harder time seeing how it operates in our own lives.
And so we keep piling up things. We keep holding onto our stuff. Until, like the rich ruler, our stuff has hold of us more than the other way around. We’re not bad people! We’re just afraid to let go of what we have. And so is everyone else, which is one of the reasons we have historic levels of inequality in this country. But it has ever been thus. Which is why, 2,000 years ago, Jesus was saying: You want the fullness of life? Let go, and follow me! Give what you have to the poor, and follow me!
Again, I’m not suggesting that we sell all we have and give it to the poor. I’m simply trying to join Jesus in inviting us to experience the freedom and abundance that comes from giving generously. And, yes, I am also asking you to give generously to First Church Amherst.
And I know you are very generous people. (To be clear: I don’t know who pledges to the church or how much anyone gives. I simply see the totals given to the church and every special offering and emergency need that comes along.) I see you giving all the time. And it makes my heart so glad.
But I also know some of us struggle with how to decide how much to give. I know some of us feel that we can’t afford to give.
So how do we figure it out? How can we experience the joy of giving and the fullness of life? How can we let go of at least some of our attachment to at least some of our stuff? How can we worship God instead of our bank balances?
Well, I can’t say what works for you, but I will tell you what works for me:
Instead of figuring out how much of my disposable income I can part with, instead of figuring out how much to give from what I have left after I’ve paid all my bills, I give off the top. In other words, I decide how much I want to give (as a proportion of my income), set that amount aside, and then pay my bills, have my fun, and buy shiny things with what is left. And you know what? It works! I don’t have to agonize every time the collection plate comes around. I don’t feel guilty when someone asks me to give. I don’t have to sit down and do major budget calculations whenever there’s a new need. Instead, I can feel good about what I’ve already given and joyful about what I’m still able to give.
I’m not going to ask you to give until it hurts because, in my experience, giving does not hurt. It brings joy. It brings freedom. It creates glad and generous hearts and full and abundant lives.
This is the joy God wants for us. This is the joy I want for you. And, yes, I’m in an awkward position because you pay my generous salary and benefits. But my hope is that you get far more from First Church than you give. That you delight in knowing how much money First Church gives away. That it makes you proud to know that this big, old building is home to a busy soup kitchen, meeting space for two other churches and several recovery groups and choirs, and refuge for people without homes. My hope is that your children are growing in love and learning, that you are deeply blessed by our music, and grounded by our worship services. My hope is that you are challenged, encouraged and inspired by our anti-racism, ONA, earth and peace ministries. My hope is that who we are and what we do gives you hope in a world where so many bad and scary things are happening.
And, yes, my prayer is that we can keep doing all these things and more. That we will live and minister in trust, believing there is enough. That we can continue to be God’s hands and feet in this community and throughout the world.
How hard it can be to let go. But how wonderful it is to share in God’s abundance.