Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sermon, Proper 23B, Mark 10:17-31

And the man went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

In today's gospel we hear the story of a rich man asking Jesus how he might inherit eternal life. Jesus gives him the standard line about following the commandments, to which he replies, "I've done all that since my childhood." And then Jesus shocks him -- Go, sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me. The man goes away grieving because he had many possessions.

One argument I have heard for ignoring this story is that Jesus was talking directly to the man. Unlike the general, "Take up your cross and follow me," Jesus isn't asking every person to sell all their possessions and lead a life of poverty. What this story points out is that Jesus knows our innermost thoughts and asks us to put aside those things that separate us or distract us from a relationship with God, his kingdom and his mission.

The fact of the matter is, though, that for most of us, money IS a leading distraction and hindrance to our walk with God. How many of us live in scarcity -- the idea that we are too afraid to give or pledge more to the church because we won't have enough? How many of us think about all the reasons we can't give, or reasons we can only give minimally? If this is the case, then that begs the question: who is really in charge of your life -- you or your money?

This is the traditional pledge drive season in the church. Parishes all over the country are canvassing for pledges so they can get a handle on next year's budget. In some respects we are no different. Members of our parish family will be getting a letter this week laying out our financial situation, a pledge card, and a request to prayerfully consider your pledge to the church and whether it can be increased. Let me give you a little preview today.

The vestry has approved the 2010 budget that requires an average of 10 pledges at $280/month. This sounds like a lot, and it is. In fact, it is almost double what we asked for last year. But it is also something I think we can attain. Granted, there are some who, because of their very limited financial resources, pledge a small amount and that's simply the way it is. But there are others who can either increase their pledge, or pledge for the first time, who can help us meet that goal.

Right now we have twelve pledges on record. If you throw out the single highest pledge, the remaining 11 pledges average $87/month. That's it. I'm guessing that most of us spend more than that in gas.

You may be asking, "Why such a large increase?" There are two reasons. The first is that we have reached the end of the 5-Year Plan which mandated all parishes to become self-sufficient by 2010. On the diocesan level, we have exhausted all our funds for financially supporting parishes.

The second reason is that we are growing; and as we continue to grow it becomes our responsibility to assume a larger portion of the combined expenses between Christ Church and St. Paul's. That combined expense, if you don't know, is me. Both congregations are able to meet all individual expenses, but we cannot fully cover the cost of a parish priest. And this is where I am asking for help. Help from you to cover my health insurance. Help from St. Paul's to cover my pension, housing and travel costs. And help from the diocese to cover my salary.

So, back to the gospel. Jesus tells the man to sell all he owns, give the money to the poor, and follow him. Jesus is asking him, "What is it worth to you to follow me? How much do you value the mission of God, and what will you do to help advance that mission?"

How much do you value the presence of the Episcopal Church in this valley, and how will you help advance the mission of God here? As we ponder and prayerfully consider how we will continue to give to that mission in general, and this church in particular, there are a few things to consider.

The first is that Jesus said anyone who leaves - or gives up - house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children or fields for his sake will receive all those treasures a hundredfold over. But before you start thinking of all the good things you will receive by following Jesus, listen to the rest of it: you will receive it with persecutions.

When we decide to follow Jesus, when we decide to totally commit to the mission of God, our lives will be changed. We will receive any number of blessings -- not necessarily the type of blessings proclaimed by the likes of Joel Osteen or by the authors of The Prayer of Jabez, but they will be there. And there will also be persecutions.

Second, our lives will be changed. A colleague of mine pointed out that when we give, if our lives aren't changed, then we aren't really giving at all. Donating to the church from what's left over isn't really a gift. Do we pay the church first out of our budget? Do we pay only what we think we can afford? And I'm not talking about giving until it hurts, or requiring people to pledge such large amounts that they can't eat. But when we give, does it affect our lifestyle? Do we begin buying generic instead of name brand? Do we cut down on how many times we eat out? Regardless of your financial status, does your giving to the church and the mission of Christ take priority over everything else?

And finally, as I was sitting in my deanery clericus meeting last week, somebody made the bridge from pledging to a marriage. Jesus told the man to sell everything he owned, give the money to the poor, and follow him. What Jesus wanted was a total commitment from the man. Jesus wanted him to offer to God everything he had. And this is just like the marriage service in the Prayer Book. As the rings are exchanged, the man and woman say the following words: ". . . with all that I am, and all that I have . . ."

With all that I am and all that I have . . . if we are willing to give everything of ourselves to another person, should we not be as willing to give of ourselves and our bounty to the one who gave us life itself?

God has indeed blessed our lives richly. Let us not go away grieving, but let us consider how we may present to God from his own creation a gift worthy of those blessings bestowed upon us.


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