Sunday, August 04, 2013

Rich Toward God

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
August 4, 2013

Year C, Proper 13: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Rich Toward God
            Our Wednesday morning healing Eucharist has become one of the highlights of my week. And this week was particularly special because we celebrated the feast day of one of my favorite saints, Ignatius of Loyola.
            Ignatius was born into an aristocratic family in the Basque country of northern Spain in 1491 – just before Columbus’ arrival in America. As a young man he was interested in all the typical things a man of his time and class would have been into: women, chivalry, and battle.
            And, actually, Ignatius’ life was forever changed by an injury he suffered during a battle; a cannonball shattered his leg. He spent a long time recovering – a recovery that included the excruciating and futile re-breaking of his leg, done out of vanity: he didn’t want to walk with a limp.
            Anyway, during those long months of recovery Ignatius only had a couple of books to read. One of them was a life of the saints. And as he read about the great Christian martyrs and heroes of the past he gradually began to imagine himself as a different kind of soldier – a soldier for Christ.
            To make a long – and at least I think interesting – story short, Ignatius ended up starting a new religious order, the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits, as they are known, will get involved in many areas of life but are to this day especially focused on education. Right here in Jersey City, St. Peter’s Prep and University are Jesuit institutions.
            Anyway, in recent years lots of people – not just Jesuits – have become interested in the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola.
            Ignatius believed that we could find God in all things.
            He believed that God can and does speak to us through our imaginations.
            And, Ignatius was especially interested in the challenge of discernment – the hard work of prayerfully figuring out what God is calling us to be and to do.            
            Obviously, there’s no discernment needed if we’re thinking about doing something wrong. We don’t need to pray to see if God wants us to steal or lie or hurt someone’s feelings. We already know the right answer.
            Discernment is always about choosing between and among good things. And that’s hard.
            So, Ignatius put together what’s called The Spiritual Exercises to help people use their imaginations to discern God’s will in and for their lives.
            So, let’s say we’re faced with a tough decision between good things. One of Ignatius’ exercises involves imagining that we are on our deathbeds. He says imagine you’re on your deathbed looking back at your decision. How do you feel then? Did you choose the greater – the greatest good?
            Although I’m sure we don’t like to imagine our deathbeds, I think you’ll agree that imagining it does help focus our thinking – helps us get our priorities straight!
            I was reminded of Ignatius’ deathbed exercise when I started reflecting on today’s gospel lesson.
            In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus offers a couple of pretty clear warnings against greed.
            First we’re told that “someone in the crowd” asked Jesus to intervene in a dispute about family inheritance. If any of you have been involved in that kind of situation, you know just how much fun that can be. Jesus is no fool and has no interest in getting drawn into that kind of mess.
            Instead he says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
            Then Jesus illustrates that point with a little parable about a rich man who does very well by the standards of the world. His land produces so much. He has the rather nice problem of having to build new barns to store all of his grains and other stuff. He takes great comfort in his security and his abundance, telling himself that he can “relax, eat, drink and be merry.”
            And then, it’s all over in a flash. This is no deathbed exercise. Suddenly the rich man’s life is demanded of him. None of his stuff matters anymore. All that grain, all those possessions, all the plans for new barns are meaningless, pointless and useless.
            Jesus ends the parable with a haunting statement: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
            “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
            In the movie Wall Street the character Gordon Gecko (played by Michael Douglas) says the now-famous line: “greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
            We live and breathe in a society that in a very real way is based on greed – a culture that teaches and encourages that the more we buy – the more we have – then the better we are – and the more secure and happier we’ll be.
            A couple of years ago one of the fastest-growing industries in our country was the storage business. Suddenly all over the place storage facilities began to pop up offering units to store all the stuff we couldn’t fit into our homes.
            Jesus’ message is as clear and timely as ever. Greed is not good.
            So, if we’re greedy, we need to stop it because it’s bad for us and it’s bad for the world. If we’re greedy, then we need to change our ways because at the end of our lives – on our deathbeds – all of our stuff will be meaningless and useless.
            But, I’ve known many of you for a long time. And I’m getting to know many of the rest of you.
            And I know that many, if not all, of us are under a lot of financial pressure – struggling to pay bills, sacrificing things we might want or even need, worried about how we’ll pay next month’s rent or the PSE&G bill, anxious about the financial futures of kids and grandkids. Most of us wouldn’t mind a little more to store away in our “barn.”
            I’ve never seen a lot of evidence of greed among the people of St. Paul’s.
            Instead I’ve always seen deep generosity here.
            Just in the couple of months that I’ve been rector, there’s always been a generous response each time I’ve asked for your help or support.
            When the choristers from New Mexico visited us, to be honest I wondered how that would all work out. But, I didn’t have to worry! Thanks to you, we ended up with way more sleeping bags and pillows – some of them brand-new – than we needed.
            Each month our food container in the back of church fills up faster and faster as more of us remember to buy a little more at the market and offer our abundance to our neighbors in need.
            And, not to be crass, but week after week the offering here at St. Paul’s is increasing – more and more of us are dropping money into the plate – more and more of us are pledging – more and more of us want to support the good ministries that are happening here – to move St. Paul’s closer to financial self-sufficiency and growth.
            So, I’m not sure greed is our problem.
            So, if we’re not greedy, does today’s gospel lesson have anything to say to us?
            Let’s look at the story again.
            The man in the parable is interpreted as being greedy. But, I’m not sure that’s really true, at least the way Jesus tells the story. As far as we know, the man doesn’t cheat anyone for his wealth or for his goods. As far as we know, the man doesn’t neglect his obligations. As far as we know, the man isn’t mean or cruel or even particularly selfish.
            Really the man failed at the task of discernment.
            It seems that he discerned that the greatest good was insuring his own material security and enjoying his life – filling up the barns and relaxing, eating, drinking and being merry.
            Relaxing, eating, drinking and being merry are not bad.
            But, as the rich man learned, they are not the greatest good.
            The greatest good is being, as Jesus says, “rich toward God.”
            So, we all have some hard but exciting work to do.
            First, if we’re greedy, we need to knock it off.
            But, we all have the hard but exciting work of discernment – of prayerfully choosing among and between good things. Following the example and teaching of Ignatius of Loyola, we all have the hard but exciting work of using our imaginations to discern what God is calling us to do – what God is calling us to be.
            We have the hard but exciting work of discerning the greatest good – discerning how we can be even more loving and even more generous.
            So, let’s imagine ourselves at the end of our lives, on our deathbeds, looking back at our lives.
            What decisions can we make right here and now that will make us “rich toward God”?