|Van Gogh - Wheat Fields with Reapers (Toledo Museum of Art)|
Go to an art museum like Cheryl and I did last weekend, and you’ll see pieces of art that are all considered valuable. But what makes art valuable? Is it not what a person is willing to spend? What goes for art goes for baseball cards. Consider the 1910 Honus Wagner card. It recently sold for more than two million dollars. That’s a lot of money for a piece of cardboard with a picture on it. I have a baseball card collection, but none of my cards are worth that much. Apparently age, rarity, and condition, along with personal interest can give a piece of cardboard with a picture on it a premium value.
Besides, if you have enough money, you can spend it however you wish, even on things that some people might think are foolish. At the same time, if you don’t have money, life can be difficult. While money can’t buy you love, it doesn’t hurt to have at least a little!
When it comes to the church and money, most preachers would rather talk about something else. Maybe it’s because some people think that when preachers talk about money they’re meddling in things they shouldn’t. Or maybe it’s because we’ve heard that people stay away from church because they perceive us to be always asking for money. Or, perhaps it’s because Scripture talks about money being the root of all kinds of evil – and that’s a can of worms we’d rather not open (1 Tim. 6:10). Nonetheless, the Bible sure does talk a lot about money and how we use it. Besides, it takes money to run a church!
By now most of you have received your packets inviting you to make a financial commitment to the church’s ministry. If not, you’ll probably get one before you leave today! Last Sunday Rick preached on the theme of generosity, and you’ve already heard two testimonies about the value of giving through the church. There will be one more sermon and one more testimony, and then on November 22nd we’ll bring in the harvest of our commitments.
This year the stewardship theme asks us to measure what matters most. It’s a question Jesus raises in his encounter with a man who runs up to him and asks what he needs to do to gain eternal life. The man isn’t just asking how to get into heaven when he dies. He wants to know how he can experience God’s realm now. He’s asking Jesus what we ask when we recite the Lord’s Prayer, praying that God’s realm would be present on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus answers the man by pointing him to the commandments, which isn’t just a list of moral virtues. These commandments, which include bans on murder, adultery, bearing false witness, and defrauding people, along with a command to honor parents, are signs of God’s covenant with God’s people. Each of these commands comes from the Second Table of the Law, which describes interpersonal relationships. If you’re going to enter the realm of God, then according to Jesus, you need to be in right relationship with your neighbor. The man tells Jesus that he had done this. He’s a good guy. He’s treated his neighbors well. So is that it, or is there something more?
According to Mark, Jesus looked at the man with love. We don’t hear this very often in the Gospels, but that’s how Jesus felt about this man. He knew the man had a good heart, but Jesus wanted even more from him. So, Jesus says to him: Go and sell everything you own, give it to the poor, and then come and be my disciple. That sounds quite radical. If this man sells everything and gives the proceeds to the poor then he himself will be poor. That makes no sense! Why would you do such a thing?
Are you surprised that he walked away? I’m not. But then we also hear that the man grieved as he walked away, because “he had many possessions.” He wanted to be with Jesus, but his possessions got in the way. This is one of those hard sayings of Jesus. Everyone wants to know whether Jesus is serious about this. We also want to know if it applies to us! Surely there’s a loophole? Maybe it only applied in this case and not in our situations.
As you ponder these questions, the story continues. Jesus looks around and then tells the disciples that it’s easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the kingdom of God. What does this mean?
Back when I was in college I attended a rally at a church put on by a well-known multi-level marketing firm. The rally opened with prayer, but before long we were chanting praises to money. We were told to cut out pictures of Cadillacs and put them on our refrigerators to help focus our attention on achieving our goal of getting rich. Why? Because God wants us to be rich. Unfortunately, it’s easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle. Unless I’m mistaken, that’s simply impossible!
If you’re finding this difficult to swallow. You’re not alone. The disciples are mystified! That’s because in that culture, wealth was seen as a divine blessing for being righteous. So if the rich can’t get into the realm of God, who can? All that Jesus will say is that with God all things are possible. Still, the man walked away because he had too many possessions, and I wonder – do I have too many possessions?
While St. Francis took this message literally and sold everything and adopted a vow of poverty, should we do the same? As we consider this question, would it help to know that Mark and his community assumed that the end of the age was on the near horizon. If the end is near, then perhaps there’s no need to plan for the future. But we’re still here after two thousand years. Isn’t it prudent to prepare for what our future might hold? Isn’t that why we have pensions and buy life insurance?
While I don’t think I worship money, I’ve not taken a vow of poverty. I might not think I’m wealthy, but I’m also not poor. So what does Jesus want from us when it comes to money? What does he mean when he says that the last shall be first and the first shall be last? Could it be that the problem here is that the rich man didn’t recognize the one who is poor as his neighbor?
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who dies and ends up in a place of torment. He notices Lazarus sitting with Abraham, and he asks Abraham to have Lazarus bring him something to quench his thirst. Now in life, Lazarus had sat at the doorway of this man, hoping to share the scraps from the rich man’s table – with the dogs. Unfortunately for the rich man, Abraham refuses. It seems that if you don’t recognize the poor in this life, then you’re bound to suffer in the next (Luke 16:19-31).
When stewardship season arrives we often talk about how much we should give. We might talk about tithing. But as my friend Steve Kindle has put it, when we think about much to keep we might be asking the wrong question. Perhaps it would be better to ask God how much we should keep. So, as you and I prayerfully consider that question, perhaps we might consider another question: Do my possessions own me or do they belong to God? The same question could be asked of the church. Are the resources of this church an end in themselves, or are they resources for mission?
As we measure what matters most in life, where does money fit? Or, to put it differently, in what would God have us invest our lives?
Soon it will be Christmas. It’s quite likely that many of us will either read or watch a version of Charles Dickens’s The Christmas Carol. In answer to the question of what matters most when it comes to money, perhaps we could consider what Scrooge learned that Christmas Eve. While, I don’t think Scrooge gave away everything, neither did he walk away in sadness! Thank you very much!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
24th Sunday after Pentecost
November 8, 2015