I am often amused at the apocalyptic claims that the world has begun to infiltrate the Church. In light of recent events in the world, there is sometimes an attempt to generate a hysteria among “good Christians” about whatever particular issue. In more recent weeks, these pleas have centered upon marriage and gun control, but other areas have served as the foci. Just a couple weeks ago I received a claim desperate for money because the administration had declared that “Any soldier who professes Christianity can now be court-martialed and may face imprisonment and even a dishonorable discharge from the military.” The claim went on to say that even military chaplains were now subject to this new policy. The claim, of course, was in bold print, which meant it was as certain as anything found on the internet. Why are you all laughing?
I have in the past received letters from organizations purporting to be working hard to fight any number of evils in the communities in which I have served. And just when I think I have seen it all, just when I am convinced humanity has sunk to a new all time low, I tend to get a new one. It is incredible to me how many people, claiming to be faithful, will prey upon the gullibility of the masses and the people in the pews. No doubt some of us respond convinced of these truth claims. I guess enough of us respond to make this an effective way of doing ministry or business, but I really shake my head at the hysteria of the claims.
One of the reasons I tend to be less worried about society trying to overtake the Church is the simple fact that I am a classicist. In some ways, the greatest even in the history of Christendom, after the Empty Tomb, was the conversion of Constantine. In the profession of a ruler, Christianity went from being persecuted to being promoted, from being on the fringes of society to being in the center of power, from being poor to beginning the greatest capital campaign the world has ever seen. Of course, in some ways the worst thing to happen to Christianity since our Lord’s Resurrection was the conversion of Constantine. Constantine, and nearly every ruler who followed, demanded good order in the Church. Sometimes, that order was brought about at sword point. Our forebears took it upon themselves to build great edifices to God’s glory. But, some of our brothers and sisters, particularly those in older buildings in less than desirable locations, deal with the maintenance costs month in and month out. And who really has time to preach on the ties that developed between the political leaders and the religious leaders over the last couple thousand years? Life is complicated, as is the Church’s relationship to the world.
Another reason that I tend to be less worried about society trying to overtake the Church is found in Mark’s Gospel today. It is a hard thing to be a disciple of Christ. Jesus Himself describes it as cross-bearing. But we want it to be comfortable. We want it to be easy. It always amazes me how those new to the corporate world think that there is an easy way to the top. As an assistant manager in a brokerage firm, one of my primary jobs was to train new brokers. Now, you all have come to know me well enough to realize I am not a huge fan of wasting your or my time. Again, why are there chuckles? Imagine me in a less-pastoral role. Frightening, isn’t it? Every moment I spent on a broker that did not succeed was a waste of my time. At worst, I could be dealing with my customers. At best, those whom I hired could be making lots of money so that my manager and I could make more money. In between I could be at home with Karen and the kids or out on the golf course with colleagues or clients. I see the nods. Other businesses, particularly those dependent upon sales, work the same way.
I used to tell potential brokers that the job was anything but sexy and fun the first few years. Every day they would talk to three hundred people. Two hundred eighty of those people would never want to hear from them again. Of the twenty that did, maybe two would give them a shot to earn their business. I see the math happening in your heads. You used to think being a broker was glamorous work, didn’t you? Those that survive in the business simply get a thick skin. We get used to rejection. Over and over we are told no. And even if we are told yes, we still have to hope that the men and women running the companies are playing by the spirit of the investment laws. People get mad at brokers even if the companies run afoul of the SEC. Even if we do our jobs the best that one can expect, clients fire us over things outside our control. And so we continue to grind it, to work like apes on a treadmill.
Invariably, I would be told by a new broker they had a better idea for how to succeed in the business. Never mind the fact that in capitalism imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The new broker would have a short cut or idea. Some would be blatantly illegal; most just were the products of trying to get a return on the least amount of work invested. I get it. It is human nature. Some would eventually learn that what separated them from the broker making a nice living was not that they were geniuses, not that they were gifted businessmen and women, not that they had the “right” chart, but that they were hard workers. Those that learned typically succeeded; those that did not left or were let go. Human nature is human nature.
Our story from Mark this morning touches on this infiltration of culture and on the condition of humanity. A man comes up to Jesus and asks the Good Teacher what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus knows when someone is fishing for a compliment. A lot of us in some kind of authority know when someone is fishing for a compliment. Jesus reminds the man that only God is good. Since no one understands He is the God-Man, the irony is lost on the man and on those within earshot. Jesus plunges on and reminds the man of the torah. Upon hearing this, we can almost hear the man’s heart burst with pride. Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy. Then comes the spiritual wedgie. Jesus looked at him, loved him, and said, “One thing you lack, Go. Sell everything you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.” Mark tells us that the man’s face fell and that he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Why was the man there to question Jesus? We do not know. Mark gives us no answer to that question. Perhaps the man knew deep down he was doing something wrong and needed to hear an escape clause. Maybe, like some of us, he just wanted to be affirmed for who he was. Certainly he was sincere. When the man proudly proclaims he has kept the torah since his youth, Jesus does not begin drawing his sins in the dirt or accusing him of his failures. No, Jesus tells the man quite simply the one thing he lacks.
Mark does relate to us that the disciples were amazed at Jesus’ words to them. Jesus tells them that it is incredibly hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Why is that? Part of that makes sense on an intuitive level, particularly those of us living in a capitalist society such as our own. Those who run businesses are often trying to squeeze every last penny of profit out of every dollar of revenue. It makes sense as capitalist. But does it as a Christian? I can remember as a broker the consolidation of many of the restaurants during the nineties into publicly traded conglomerates. Weird restaurants seemed to be being bunched together. There was this weird private restaurant, though, that Wall Street wanted to bring public. They were not nearly as famous for their “spokescows” then as they are now. One thing that drove some bankers nuts was the CEO’s unwillingness to budge on the pledge to stay closed on Sundays. Chick-Fil-A’s gross margins were a couple points higher than all their comparables. If the CEO would simply open on Sundays, Chick-Fil-A would easily be the most profitable of that sector of fast food. Better still, whoever landed that IPO was going to make a killing!
The CEO drove them nuts with his rigidness. His increased productivity, he felt, was precisely because he tried to run his business more biblically. Being open on the Sabbath was a non-starter. Even if his employees never went to church, maybe they would spend time with their families. Even if they never went to church or spent time with their families, maybe they would use the time to pursue hobbies and other interests. Even if his employees did nothing but watch football and sleep on Sunday’s, at least they would be well-rested. The CEO understood that rest is important for mental, physical, and spiritual health, even if his employees did not. Rested and happy employees makes for increased productivity. The CEO understood that if he made the changes suggested by bankers, he would lose the advantage they were seeking to promote. Is Chick-Fil-A a Christian business? No doubt if we spent some time we could probably find a fault or two in the execution of their business plan. Maybe we could even find a few faults with the plan itself. But I like to think that their nuggets give us a glimpse, however shadowy, of the finger foods that will precede the great Feast! But I think their CEO understands something that we in the Church all too often forget.
We claim as Christians to serve a God who created all things. We claim to serve a God who placed us in His creation as stewards. Then we go about our daily lives and work often acting as if the things we are stewarding are really our own and not His. We forget that we follow a God who relates to us as our loving Father in heaven, except for those times we find ourselves in church. And we wonder why the rest of the world begins to ignore our testimony. The world does not ignore it; they follow it. He or she who dies with the most toys wins! And we modern Americans are not alone. When Jesus walked the earth, the rabbis specifically forbade what He commanded of this man in the story today. Scripture is filled with the spiritual dangers associated with wealth; yet the rabbis decided they knew better than God. No one was allowed to give away more than 20% of one’s wealth because the rabbis did not want someone to become penniless or a burden to others. Jesus is speaking into this very idea that we should trust in ourselves, in our efforts, in our acumen, in our own storehouses.
I know that many of us sitting here this morning are blessed with great resources. I know that the preacher’s discussion of money from the pulpit can seem crass or rude or downright ridiculous. But place yourself in the position of the man in today’s encounter. If Jesus told you the only thing you lacked was to sell everything and help the poor, how would you respond? Would the idea of helping others and facing persecution in light of eternal rewards and salvation make the following struggle seem inconsequential? Or would you walk away with your face down? Would you have to weigh the pros and cons? My guess is that more than a few of us might decide to enter into an argument with Jesus. We love to wrestle with God, so I am sure a few of us would be saying “Now wait just a cotton picking moment, Jesus, don’t You know . . . “ And we are not alone in those sentiments at Advent.
We belong to a denomination that is thought to be made up of the elite in America, but whose churches and diocese struggle to balance budgets. Why? We elect (or nominate those who fail to show up at Parish Annual Meetings) representatives to serve on a Vestry. We should be voting for those whom we respect in their spiritual life, their walk, with God. We ask them to run the business side of the church and keep the priest “in check.” Then, when the Vestry comes back to the parish and says this is what we need to subsist, the second-guessing really begins. I think we are overpaying our clergy—they only work one day a week. I don’t know that the yard needs to be mown as often as it does—sure, my yard needs it, but the church does not. Why do we give to the diocese? They just pay bloated salaries. Can’t the music director work for free? Can’t the teenagers cover the nursery? Yes, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I shared those same thoughts. I can laugh now because I know how ridiculous I sounded in God’s eyes, and certainly to Karen. In the beginning, we were starving grad-student newlyweds. We gave maybe $500-$1000 to our parish. I sat in pews just like these at Advent and argued whether our $500 was being spent wisely. You would have thought, listening to me, that God would never be able to find another $500 in the whole universe, if I wasn’t satisfied the money was being well-spent. And I am not saying that we should not ask questions and discern in community. But, if you voted for eight or nine or ten of the members serving the Vestry, and if you think they are competent men and women, and if you think they have been discerning these same questions, why do we fight with them so much? Why do we act as if they lost all their marbles when it came time to set a budget? And why do we act as if we are the owners and not the stewards God created us to be? Whose money, whose property, are we hoarding?
Want to think of something uncomfortable? How should we really be budgeting? What if we went around to all the members of the parish and asked how much they were giving, that the numbers offered would be our budget? Would good enough keep the lights on? The doors open?
I have skirted a line this morning. I know that in Episcopal circles we tend to place greater emphasis on economic success than spiritual success. I understand that most of us go to work in a culture that is materialistic and every bit the master of those who would be its slaves. I also understand that when we preachers speak about the subject of wealth and its place in our hearts and in God’s economy, we can sound like we are berating or condemning. Some maybe are. Not all of us have sat where you sat; not all of us have served the same masters as have you. I intend neither. Jesus looked on the man and loved him. Loved him. Just as Jesus looked on the blind, the lame, the deaf, the lepers, and everyone else, he looked on the rich man in love. But in that loving look, Jesus also saw through to the man’s heart. The man lacked trust in God and he lacked compassion for others. The man did a great job of keeping the letter of the torah, but he failed to grasp its true purpose.
Discipleship requires two significant qualities in the believer. First, we must trust God. It is all fine and well and good for us to bow at the name of Jesus or tell our friends that God will save us from our sins, but what Jesus is looking for in discipleship is trust. Picking up our cross and following Him means that we expose ourselves to the changes and chances of the future, that we become dependent upon our Father as a child. We live in a world that tells us we are our own masters, that we are captains of our own ships, that we have the right to have it our way; yet nothing could be further from the eternal truth of God! Trusting God means that we recognize not just His right to us, but that He will follow through in His commitment to us. Yes, bad things will happen. Paul describes it as a spiritual battle. But we are not the suppliers for this cosmic battle; we are not the owners of this fight. We don’t need the storehouses, because He has access to The Storehouse.
The second quality required of a believer is compassion. You and I are called to remember who we are and from what we were saved. That spirit of joyful thanksgiving is supposed to be the fire that drives our internal engines. What the man in our story kept out of legalism, you and I do in joyful thanksgiving. To outward appearances we look the same. Inwardly, though, there is quite a distinction. We serve a Lord who had compassion on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd; we serve a Lord who, in His encounters with people like you and me, gave willingly of His time and power; we serve a Lord who went even to the Cross for us while we were yet His enemy. How can we then claim to love others as ourselves and still argue with God over the appropriateness of His call on us, not just His call on our money, but His call on our time and our skills? If we choose the answer of the rich man, we are not really disciples. Let us pray that in our future encounters with our Lord, we would all respond as a disciple worthy of Him who laid down His life that we might share in His glory for all eternity.
In Christ’s Peace,