Saturday, August 3, 2013

Rich Toward God

RCL Proper 18C
4 August 2013

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus texts:  Ecclesiastes 1.2, 12-14; 2.18-23; Luke 12.13-21
            In February 1982 I began my curacy at Christ Episcopal Church in Denver, Colorado.  Christ Church, at that time, was one of the largest and wealthiest parishes in the Diocese with more than 700 families on the parish roll and an annual budget of $300,000 --- in 1982 dollars!  There were three full-time priests, four full-time lay staff, one non-stipendiary priest and a large number of regular volunteers.

            Christ Church had been established in the 1950’s to serve south Denver and the new suburbs as the metropolitan area grew rapidly in the economic post-war years.  The parish was originally on the ‘high church’ end of the Anglican spectrum --- not too high, no bells, no incense, but eucharist every Sunday.  During the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s a growing number of Christians from Pentecostal and Evangelical traditions started attending Christ Church.  These three strands created a vibrant parish centred around the eucharist with good preaching and lively prayer.  Given the socio-economic realities of the neighbourhood, most of the parishioners were politically conservative --- ‘Red’ Tories --- and traditional in their theology.

            One of my first responsibilities was to lead an mid-week evening study group.  After all these years, I cannot remember what we were studying when I first started, but I can remember that I got into trouble.  The trouble started simply enough.  I had mentioned an early Christian theologian, Origen, who believed that God’s love was irresistible, even after death.  Because God’s love is irresistible, Origen said, it’s possible that even the devil could be saved.  When I said this, I noticed some eyebrows moved and a few people whispered to their neighbours, but I didn’t think much more about it.

            A few days later the Bishop came for an evening event.  As was his custom, there was a question and answer session.  One of the parishioners who had been at my study session stood up and expressed his concern that the new curate was teaching heresy.  He repeated what I had said about Origen and then asked the Bishop what he thought and what he was going to do.  Bill thought for a few moments, the same moments that I pondered the end of my ordained ministry, and then said, “Well, I’m sure that Richard was careful in what he said, but I will talk with him about it.  I will also say this.  What happens to all of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, after our deaths is in the hands of God.  I won’t claim any special knowledge of God’s intentions, but I trust in God’s compassion and love.  What I do know is this:  God is far more concerned about how you and I live our lives in the here and now.  This is where you and I have some control.  So, the question really is this:  ‘How are we going to live as disciples of Christ today?’.”

            Despite the tone we hear in the opening words from the writer of Ecclesiastes, ‘Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity!”, our question is exactly the question that the writer tries to address. 

[The Teacher] observes the world in all its contrariness in order to overturn all notions of human certainty and underscore the inscrutability of God.  Yet he does not give up his quest to ascertain what is good, and he affirms the wholehearted enjoyment of life and the fear of God [as] the God-given ‘portion’ of human beings.  (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible 2003, 929)

He even takes on what might be called the ‘traditional’ theology of his time which taught that those who do good are rewarded in this life and those who do evil are punished.  He knew what we know:  the rich get richer and the poor get poorer; justice is so blind that injustice operates openly in our world.  The Teacher also realized that we cannot control the future; no matter how hard we try to hedge in how the legacy of our lives will be used, it will be out of our hands when all we have worked for, all we have hoped for, passes into the hands of our heirs.

            This is clearly the same message that Jesus shares with his listeners in today’s parable from Luke.  The landowner has done very well for himself; he’s reached that stage of his life when he expects to have a comfortable first-century retirement.  But God comes to him and reminds him that, in the end, we do not know the day of our passing and we shall leave everything behind.  What counts is not possessions but whether we have been ‘rich toward God’.

            Does this mean that we should not look to the future?  Does this mean we should not be responsible stewards of the gifts we have been given?  Does this mean that we should not plan for our retirement and make wills for the disposition of our goods?  No, it does not mean these things.  All of us have a responsibility to the future, whether the future of our family, our church or our world.  But our concern for the future should not be so overwhelming that we lose sight of the present.  This is the only moment over which you and I have any control.  This is the only dimension of time in which we actually live, breath and have our being.  The past is gone, the future unknown, but in this moment, in this hour, in this day, we are alive and have the opportunity to be ‘rich toward God’.

            To be rich toward God in this moment, in this hour, in this day, means tending the roots of our life in God:  worship, prayer and study.  It is good when we come together to hear the Word of God proclaimed, to offer our intercessions, petitions and thanksgivings and to share in the bread and wine of the eucharist.  But the question that God asks each of us, every day, is this:  Have we spent time in prayer?  Have we spent time learning more about the Scriptures and other knowledge that will help us live as disciples of Christ in the present moment?  All it may take is ten to twenty minutes of our day, yet the benefits will fill every moment.

            To be rich toward God in this moment, in this hour, in this day, means being a person of reconciliation.  I spoke last week of the many people I know who continue to carry with them ancient hurts and ancient wrongs.  They never seek to unload these burdens.  Perhaps they are afraid that it is not possible to do so or they have come to be so comfortable with their ‘wounded-ness’ that they know no other way of living.  But truly I say to you that we cannot live into God’s present if we do not get rid of the baggage of our pasts.  Forgiveness is not about forgetting; that is impossible.  Forgiveness is the decision to refuse to remain a hostage to the past and the decision to live into a new life free from the weight of these past hurts and sorrows.

            To be rich toward God in this moment, is this hour, in this day means remembering all that God has done for us and sharing that story with others.  God’s generosity may be as small as an unexpected kindness from a stranger or as great as long-voiced prayer being answered, but that generosity cannot remain secret.  When it remains secret or private, then our neighbours, friends and families may find themselves living an illusion of a world unloved by God, untouched by God’s presence. 

            To be rich toward God in this moment, in this hour, in this day means seeing Christ in all persons around us, whether in the grumpy salesclerk or the joyous child playing in the park.  Christ comes to us in so many guises, wondering whether we shall serve as we have been served, love as we have been loved, nurture as we have been nurtured. 

            To be rich toward God in this moment, in this hour, in this day means working in whatever way we can towards a world in which every human being is free and the dignity of every child of God respected, honoured and celebrated.  That world of freedom and dignity is not just a future hope; it is a present reality whenever someone looks into our eyes and sees themselves as God sees them, precious and unique.

            All we do is vanity if we do not seek God in the present.  All we do is vanity if we fail to grasp hold of the present and live in it as if it were the promised reign of God.  if we do this, then the future, always in God’s hands, will take the shape that it must.  But the present, my friends, will be filled with the glory of God as surely as the waters cover the face of the earth.  Amen.

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