August 4, 2019, The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost

August 4, 2019 - The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings:Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

From today’s Psalm, “Whoever is wise will ponder these things…” I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Again, let me just say how wonderful it is to be here with you this morning, to come home, and to share in the Holy Eucharist with this vibrant community of faith. I have missed you deeply. And I thank you for your prayers and support during my time away – a time that proved transformative, as well as refreshing.

     Now, I don’t about you, but when I heard Jesus’ words in today’s gospel lesson about storing up “treasures for oneself versus being rich towards God” I immediately thought, “Oh, it must be time for our Annual Stewardship drive.” This particular scripture usually serves as an anchor for our annual appeal for financial pledges for the coming year so that our Vestry can plan the parish budget. But I was wrong: Our appeal starts next week – or maybe it’s the week after. Nevertheless, I couldn’t get that Appeal out of my mind when reading this text. See, I think that because we hear the same scripture stories so many times and in the same context, it is easy to tune it out and in the process miss a broader, deeper and timely message for us that goes beyond the surface of what Jesus said. And so it is with today’s reading and, in fact, each of today’s readings. And the amazing thing is, the more and more I meditated on these texts, I kept recalling my experience of studying the life of St. Francis during my Sabbatical.

    Now, I will tell you that I have over two thousand pictures from that pilgrimage and it would be very easy to just show slides for let’s say – the next twenty weeks (yawning gesture) – instead of offering a sermon, but I won’t. Nevertheless, the experience of Francis sheds a brighter light on our scripture lessons and how we might respond as people of God living in America today. See, truth be told, we already know that regardless of what advertisers tell us, possessing more and more stuff will not bring happiness even if we do save 10% on our car insurance by switching to GEICO. No - today’s texts go far deeper than that. In fact, they teach about something far more sinister than the lure of possessions and money. Something that Francis learned and that we all must learn if we truly wish to follow the Christ.

     Francis of Assisi is a rather amazing historical figure. Born into a wealthy family – a part of the rising merchant class in Italy – Francis was raised as a person of privilege and yet, he had a heart for the poor and needy. But he wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree. He tended to read scripture all too literally. For example, upon hearing our Lord’s words to the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor as told in Matthew 19 and again in Luke 18, Francis decided to not only get rid of his own possessions, but to take his father’s entire stock of imported silks and fabrics and give them to the poor of Assisi. Understandably, his Dad was not pleased! He confronted Francis in the public square and demanded that he return everything. Francis responded by stripping off all his clothes, handing them back to his father, and then walking out of the square buck naked. That must have been quite a sight! From then on, Francis, now penniless, lived a vagabond life as a penitent preacher whose ministry focused on serving lepers, manual labor repairing churches, and a fervent devotion to the Eucharist. His initial rule of life was one of complete austerity being “on guard”, as Jesus says in today’s gospel, not about possessions, but “against all kinds of greed.”

And that is where our challenge begins. See, as his ministry grew and his order known as the “Franciscans” began to number in the thousands, Francis learned from personal experience that greed comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Yes, there is greed for money and possessions and that is kind of obvious to us. But there are more subtle forms of greed. There is greed for food as some of his companions were known to hoard their bread at the expense of others. There is a greed for power, for seeking loyalty from, and control over, others as he discovered with some of those whom he left in charge of various tasks. And there is a greed for perceived piety. That’s a desire to appear more holy before others and, therefore, more worthy of the promises of God than anyone else. Such folks love to tell us that real Christians “live just like I do or believe everything that I believe regardless of what scripture says.” See, greed is rarely about money and that is why it is so subtle. The dreadful paradox in greed is that it is never satisfied by what it desires. It is insatiable and can destroy communities of faith and our very souls.  There is a reason why greed or “avarice” is described as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. And greed has taken hold in American culture to the point where it seems that the majority of people now insist they are more important and more deserving of respect than others, (especially more than those who look different or speak differently from us). What’s more, many scramble to amass more and more stuff while their neighbors grow hungry or homeless. For many, greed has become a way of life. So much so, that Self-Storage facilities are now a 32 billion dollar industry in America today.      

     Jesus tells the story of the farmer who builds bigger and bigger barns in order to store all his crops. Now, there is nothing wrong with planning for the future – that is wise stewardship. The problem here is not the man’s desire to store up for the future, but rather, his greed manifest in his complete absence of generosity, of neglect in seeing that the needs of the poor were met and satisfied. See, he wasn’t building barns so that he would have an abundance to share with others, but rather, for his own benefit. He stored up treasures on earth at the cost of a lesson that Francis learned and that learning challenged and changed his life.

See, Francis came to understand that greed can distract us from clinging to what this gospel lesson and all scripture says matters most in life. And what matters most in life according to scripture is relationships: our relationship with God, with one another, and our neighbor. And scripture from start to finish tells us that all three of those relationships cannot be separated from each other nor can those relationships be purchased or hoarded, but rather, they must be nurtured every day.

    The Book of Hosea is the first prophetic book in scripture to equate the relationship between God and God’s people as a marriage: a solemn relationship that needs to be nurtured at all times. In Chapters 1 through 3, Hosea uses the image of husband and wife to describe the dangers of infidelity, of what happens when greed takes hold in our nation and culture so deeply that whole communities ignore all that God has taught us about loving God and neighbor. Chapters 4 through 11 speak directly to the politics of God’s people: politics that often push us away not just as a nation, but as individuals so that we no longer speak up when the welfare of others – our neighbors – is in jeopardy. Here Hosea uses the parent/child metaphor where the parent keeps instructing the child in the proper way to live, but, as Hosea says, “the more I called them, the more they went from me.” Finally, in chapters 12 through 14, he describes the joy that comes when one embraces not possessions, but rather, what matters most in life: relationships – relationships marked by fidelity to God and neighbor. We can’t have one without the other. For as St. Paul reminds us in today’s reading Colossians, when it comes to neighbors, we who have been raised with Christ – we who have been baptized – believe that in Christ there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free. We seek and serve Christ in all persons – in every neighbor - regardless of who or what they are because Christ is all and in all.

     Our nation today is divided by politics, by race, by religion, by income, by one’s place in the community, by our housing, our ability to secure healthcare – you name it and we are divided and frankly, much of that division has been caused by greed. And we need to confront it for what it is and choose to live differently. But, as Francis learned, for all his focus on earthly austerity and personal piety, real change can only come about in communities and nations when it abides in the changed hearts and minds of God’s people. Hearts and minds committed to nurturing healthy relationships with God, one another, and neighbor.

    The Psalmist said, “Whoever is wise will ponder these things.” May God grant us the wisdom, the grace, and the desire to not only ponder these things, but live them today and always. Amen.