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10-13-19 — Cleaning Up with Filthy Riches — Luke 16:1-13 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       A young minister arrived at his first parish right out of seminary.  It was a small, thriving congregation in rural Kentucky.  Full of zeal to proclaim God’s truth, he preached his first sermon on the evils of smoking.  After he had greeted the stony faces at the church door following the service, one of the elders pulled him aside and said, “Son, do you know what that stuff growing in the fields around here is?  It’s tobacco.  That’s what pays your salary.”  The next Sunday he took another tack and preached a rousing sermon denouncing the evils of drinking.  He got the same response from his congregation. The elder pulled him aside and said, “Son, don’t you notice those big buildings you drive by every day where half this congregation works?  What do you think they make in all those distilleries around here?  Holy water? You’re living in Bourbon County!”  Well, the poor minister was starting to wonder what vices he could preach against.  So the next Sunday he preached against the evils of gambling.  Same cold reaction.   Same elder pulled him aside after the service.  “Son,” he said, “you see those horses out there in the field? We don’t raise them for pony rides. Those are thoroughbreds. Haven’t you ever heard of the Kentucky Derby?” The next Sunday, it was obvious the young minister had learned his lesson.  After the service the congregation was beaming.  People told him they agreed with every word he said.  He had given them a rousing sermon against the evils of nude sunbathing in the Seychelles Islands of the Indian Ocean.

       I used to be a pastor in Kentucky, and I remembered that story every once in a while when I got my paycheck.  Sometimes I wondered where the money came from.  How much of it could be traced back to companies and financial dealings I’d rather not be associated with?  I really wanted to be pure and spotless, a true disciple among that chosen race, that royal priesthood whom Jesus has called apart from the world to holy and perfect.  So as a way of keeping my spiritual focus, every three months I took a day-long spiritual retreat to a Trappist monastery.  I’d go to get away from it all, to spend quality time with the Master.  But even there, among the brothers who have taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, sitting on the registration desk were full color brochures selling the line of products the monks manufacture to support their ministry.  The biggest seller?  Fudge.  Whiskey infused bourbon fudge.

       You can’t get away from money or the impurities of the world, and wherever you encounter it, there’s something ambiguous about it. The gospels reflect that ambiguity.  In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says, “Woe to you who are rich,” yet he eats with Zacchaeus the tax collector who got rich by taking advantage of the poor. After meeting with Jesus, Zacchaeus repaid everyone he had defrauded and gave away half his fortune to the poor, but that meant he kept the other half which meant he was still pretty well off. When Jesus sent his disciples out two by two to proclaim the kingdom, he told them to take nothing with them that would encumber them on their way, but Jesus blessed those who had the means to provide for him and the disciples along the way.  Jesus proclaimed, “blessed are the poor,” yet he praised the woman who spent a lavish sum of money to anoint him with precious perfume.  And in the parable we read this morning, he commends the dishonest steward for cooking the books. Of all the things God gives us to do the work of the Kingdom, there’s nothing more freighted with ambiguity and uncertainty, nothing that carries such potential for both good and for ill as money.

       When you read through the gospels, you’ll notice that Jesus has a lot to say about money – a lot more to say than he does about sex. I think he says so much about money because he knew it would be such a big concern for his disciples. For one thing, so much of our sense of self-worth is connected with our money.  How much money we have determines if we dine on beans or steak.  It determines whether we live in cramped, inadequate housing or a spacious home in a nice community.  It determines what kind of car we drive and the education our kids receive.  We know those material things shouldn’t be connected with our sense of worth, but it’s hard not to make the connection.

       After my father-in-law died in an automobile accident several years ago, I was talking with the family lawyer about the insurance settlement. He explained that it was going to take a while to settle because we had to prove the value of my father-in-law’s life.  Showing my naiveté in these matters, I expressed my shock.  “What do you mean by the value of his life?  How can you put a value on a life?”  He explained that we had to put a cost on the loss of his law practice and the value of his care for my mother-in-law who had Alzheimer’s disease.  From the insurance company’s perspective, I understand what has to be done.  But you can see why we get so uncomfortable when we talk about money in church.  It’s not long before it gets tied up with our sense of worth.

       There’s a legend that says when certain barbarian tribes of Europe were converted to Christianity, they submitted to baptism, but when they were immersed in the water, they kept their swords raised in the air. They were willing to give over most of their lives to Jesus, but they were warriors who lived by the sword, and they didn’t want the Prince of Peace to lay claim to their swords, their livelihood. Sometimes we’re like that with our wallets. We don’t mind giving Jesus our prayers, our time, our worship, but we depend on our money for survival, so we don’t risk subjecting it to him.

       We’re conflicted, and we look to Jesus to deliver us from the unsavory things that we often associate with money. Bernard Madoff’s greed for money led him to deceive hundreds of people who lost their life savings to his dishonesty. Floods of money from special interests threaten to corrupt our democracy. We can’t win the war on drugs because so many people, from Afghanistan to York, are making fortunes off illegal drugs. There are too many stories about movie stars and sports heroes whose decency is eroded by too much money and the fame and power that come with it. 1 Timothy 6:10 says, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” and it makes us squeamish to think that Jesus would have anything to do with something as corrupting as money.

       But Jesus didn’t come to make us pure by removing us from the world. Rather, in Christ we’re changed into people who are fresh and new so we can live in the world for him. It’s like he gives us a new set of eyes so we can see how to use the things of this world – like money – to save the world, and to save ourselves.

       That’s what the manager in the parable did. He was about to be fired for squandering his boss’s property. Anyone who knows anything about personnel management would have fired the guy on the spot, but the boss told him first to settle up his accounts. The manager was shrewd. He marked down the bills his boss’s debtors owed so he could get on their good side and they’d provide for him when he was out on the street. Instead of condemning his dishonesty, Jesus commended the manager as an example for us. “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth,” he said, “so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

       In this world, in this life, money has power. So Jesus tells us to make the best of it and use wealth to further the kingdom, to take what can be dangerous to our spiritual welfare and use it to prepare for that time when money won’t matter.

       One way we do that is by using the money we have to make possible acts of love and mercy and healing that proclaim the reign of Christ. When we give to the church or to hospitals, seminaries, or relief organizations, we harness the power of money and put it in the service of forces for good. I admire this church’s trustees, how they bring their knowledge of money management to the task of making sure every dollar we give to the church is squeezed as tightly as possible through sound investments, good money management, and careful budgeting to make sure that the wealth we give is working as hard as it can for Jesus.

       But giving our money isn’t just about making the world a better place. Giving away our money changes us. How we use our money is a spiritual practice. If you want to know what someone’s values really are, look at how they spend their money. We can talk all we want to about what’s important to us, but how we use our money is the real proof of what we believe. And that’s where money can be our spiritual friend. If God truly is the most important thing in your life, then the first thing you’re going to do with your money is to give it away just like God gives to you.

       One big objection to giving generously is, “Well, I’ve got all these expenses. I can’t afford to give generously.” What does that say about your values and your priorities? Once you start to give generously, you’ll see how God can reshape your priorities so maybe you don’t need as much as you thought you did. It doesn’t matter how much you earn. In fact, Americans with lower incomes give a higher percentage of their income than those who are wealthy.

       Sure, the church and charities need the money you give. Over the next few weeks, you’ll see how much Eastminster Church needs. Those needs are real. But the even bigger need is our need to give. We are made in the image of God, and God gives. In our giving, we follow God. Our giving shapes us in generosity and in gratitude.  The real blessing of money isn’t what it buys us, but how we can use it to have a part in the work of Jesus, and to practice being generous, just as he is so gracious to us.

10-13-19 Bulletin

10-13-19-bulletin

10-6-19 — Where God Meets Us — Psalm 137, Ephesians 4:25-5:2 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Psalm 137 is one of the most disturbing passages in the whole Bible.  Its closing line is what bothers me most: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”  An outburst like that seems out of place in the same book where Jesus teaches us to bless those who persecute us and forgive those who have sinned against us.

       Some have suggested that the psalm, so full of anger and hatred, shouldn’t really have a place in the Bible now that Jesus has come, that it’s made obsolete by Jesus’ gospel of love and forgiveness.  The problem is that God reveals himself to us through the entire Bible, not just those parts that suit our taste.  II Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…”  There are certain practices in the Old Testament that we’re no longer bound to do now that Jesus has come.  In the New Testament the Apostle Paul said that women should keep quiet in church, but we no longer have to refrain from eating certain foods like pork or shellfish.  Those restrictions were one way the Israelites set themselves apart from other nations, and now all nations are one in Christ.  We no longer prevent women from speaking in church.  Those restrictions were accommodations to social norms of the time.  But the anger that the psalmist expresses is as real today as it was 3000 years ago.  The only difference is that now instead of having to resort to rocks and spears to avenge anger, there are missiles and tanks and car bombs to use against enemies.

       One thing that can help us understand this psalm is to remember that although the Bible is inspired by God, it was written by and for human beings. One characteristic of the Bible that makes it so valuable is that it deals with every human emotion, from lust to greed to pity to romance.  The Bible has been called “the book that reads us.”  It not only tells us about God, it also tells us about ourselves.  As we learn about who we are from the Bible, we can also learn something about the way God relates to us.

       Psalm 137 shows us what kinds of things we can bring to God in prayer.  Many of us think of prayer as something we can only do when we’re in the right frame of mind – our souls have to be fresh and scrubbed and filled with pure, clean thoughts.  Maybe that’s why many of us pray so little: we’re rarely in the right frame of mind.  We try to put away all our anger and hatred and pettiness before we come to God so God can see us at our best, and we find that so often, when we sit down to pray, we’re just not ready.

       Now, that’s a noble goal, to try to be our best before the Lord.  But one wonderful thing about God is that God invites us to come before him just as we are.  We don’t have to have our spiritual house in perfect order before we can pray.

       In the 137th psalm the psalmist makes no pretense that he has any kind thoughts toward those who burned his home, raped his sisters, and carried his nation into exile.  He doesn’t pretend to keep his sense of humor when his captors make fun of his most deeply held beliefs by forcing him to sing sacred songs intended for God as light entertainment to help them wile away the evening.  No, the psalmist doesn’t try to put a pleasant face on his feelings.  He’s totally honest with God.  He would love to see the things most precious to the Babylonians, even their children, thrown headlong against a rock.

       Sometimes we have to voice our rage before we’re able to forgive.  As one writer put it, “Grief and sorrow that go unspoken may break the heart that hugs them tight.”  (Herbert Anderson, All Our Sorrows, All Our Griefs)  And where better to take that rage than to Almighty God?  God allows us to bare our meanest, most vicious side to him.  After all, God created us and knows our deepest feelings.  We can bring God our most human emotions confident that God doesn’t reject us.  God doesn’t turn us away because we’re made of flesh and blood and not perfect angels.

       It’s important to note that the psalmist didn’t actually go out and organize a posse to murder Babylonian babies.  He told God how he felt, but didn’t act on that bitter feeling.  He cried out to God for vindication, and left it in God’s hands.  About 100 years later God did deliver the Jews from captivity.  The Persians conquered the Babylonians and let the Jews go home to Jerusalem.  But Cyrus, King of Persia, was a relatively gentle conqueror by the standards of the time.  He didn’t murder babies.  He didn’t ravage Babylon like the psalmist wanted.  God did deliver the Jews from captivity, but in God’s own way.

       Another thing this psalm tells us about ourselves is that forgiveness isn’t something that can be forced too quickly.  It would be a lot easier to accept if the psalm ended on a note of forgiveness, if we could see some peaceful resolution in the heart of the one who wrote it.  But it doesn’t resolve itself that way.  It ends on a note of bitterness and resentment.  Sometimes anger has to run its course before we’re able to forgive.  And this psalm stops before it ever gets to the point of forgiveness. 

       To those who have never lived in exile, who have never felt the cold grip of the oppressor, who have never felt completely powerless over our destiny, such unresolved anger may be hard to understand.  I find the bitterness of the psalm, well, embarrassing because it’s just not proper to be so angry.  But not everyone in the world has the luxury of forgiving easily.  This psalm is a link with those who live in situations that seem hopeless, those whose only relief in suffering is to cry out their complaint to God who hears.  Although these cries of an exile may sound harsh to us, they resonate in the ears of a Palestinian who has been deprived of her homeland and is rearing a fifth generation of children in a refugee camp.  The words of the psalm may be the words of an Honduran father whose child was killed by in a gang war.  These words could be those of a woman in Syria who has been enslaved by ISIS and forced to be the wife of someone who has murdered her family. These could even be the words someone in your neighborhood who is held emotionally captive by an abusive spouse.

       Most of us have so many things that preoccupy us that it’s easy to overlook the kind of suffering and oppression that goes on in the lives of others, especially those who are separated from us by an ocean.  When you have a job to hold down, a family to rear, bills to pay, there’s not much time or emotional energy left to give much thought to people whose situation is very different from yours.  This psalm is our link with those whose only hope is in raising their cries of anger to a just God.  It’s one way that we who are free from oppression keep from seeing our freedom as something to take for granted.   It does something to our prayers to realize that they’re heard by the same God who hears the anguished cries of those who have been abused, that our prayers are mingled in the ears of God with those who have been put down and degraded.

       In Christ we have the assurance that he will come to make all things right, to deliver this world from all pain and suffering and oppression.  We know that in him there is nothing that can overcome us.  But God doesn’t expect us always to have a smile.  There are times when smiles aren’t appropriate.  It’s comforting to know that between the promise of the resurrection and its fulfillment on the day of judgment, we can come to God with our most human emotions, even our most precious hatreds, and God will hear us.  God meets us where we are. That’s not always where we want to be, but not even our  anger, our grief, our hatred can keep God away. He hears us and draws us to this table, where we partake of his healing grace along with all who have ever called on God’s name. Come. God meets us here.

10-6-19 Bulletin

10-6-19-bulletin

9-29-19 Bulletin

9-29-19-bulletin

9-29-19 — The Principled Fool — Luke 12:13-21 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Jesus has a way of getting to the heart of things.

       Someone came up to him and said, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Like so many families, the parents’ death had exposed the fault lines in the family system. The estate had become the focal point for deep-seated sibling rivalries. How the assets were distributed had become a matter of principle, and it’s only right to stand up for principles – especially if you have something to gain.

       So this principled man tried to enlist Jesus in his cause. He knew that Jesus is all about justice and fairness and what’s right, so obviously Jesus was going to back him up so he would get what was justly, rightfully and fairly his.

       But Jesus would have none of it. Jesus wasn’t going to arbitrate between degrees of greed. He was on his way to Jerusalem and a cross. He had far more important things to do than to get caught up in a dispute over who should get how much of a windfall. How the estate was divided may have been a matter of principle to the man, but Jesus knew it was a distraction from what really matters. That’s the danger of money.

       Studies have shown that very wealthy people give away a smaller percentage of their income than people who don’t have much money. Granted, if someone who has an income of 10 million dollars gives away 1%, they’re giving more money than someone who has an income of $10,000 and gives away 10%. The rich person who gives 1% gives away $100,000 whereas the poor person who gives away 10% only gives $1000. But the poor person is going to feel the impact of that gift more than the rich person. It’s going to be more of a sacrifice. Jesus made that point one day when he pointed to a poor widow putting a few cents in the temple offering. He told the Pharisees that her offering, given from her need, was greater in God’s eyes than a large amount of money given by someone who would hardly feel its loss.

       A study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology tried to find out why there’s that difference in giving between those who have very much and those who have less. Its conclusion was that lower-income people are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others because they are more attuned to the needs of others. The greater the gap between those with large sums of money and those who are poor or struggling, the harder it is for the wealthy to relate to the less well off. When a person’s income is closer to those who are in need, they tend to take the attitude, “There but for the grace of God go I.” But as the income gap widens, those at the top lose touch with those at the bottom. Another interesting study by the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University showed that only a small percentage of the charitable giving of the wealthy actually goes to the needs of the poor. It’s mostly directed to other causes like cultural institutions or universities where gifts often return the benefit of recognition by one’s peers with such things as naming privileges or access to other influential people.[1]

       As Jesus began his ministry, he told the people of his hometown of Nazareth what his mission was. He said God had anointed him “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…” (Luke 4:18). He invites us to join him in that mission, but he warns how easy it is to let our possessions distract us from what really matters.     

       Jesus told of a farmer who had great success. His fields produced more than his barns could hold. Being a responsible man, he made plans to expand his barns to hold all the wealth he had acquired. Like someone whose life goal is to make lots of money so they can retire early and enjoy life, he sat back when he’d finally arrived and said to himself, “Ah, I’ve made it. Now I can enjoy the fruits of my labors.” And who could take issue with him? Nowadays we’d say he’d accomplished the American dream. He’d worked the system fairly, and he’d been rewarded. He was satisfied and fulfilled. But for all his success, in God’s eyes he was an idiot. God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

       Usually we picture that as a deathbed encounter with the lesson being, You’d better live right today, because you might be hit by a bus tonight. But sometimes God, in God’s mercy, demands our soul of us long before our death. God encounters us, demands our soul, and gives it back to us, redeemed.

       I have a friend named Bob who worked very hard and became an officer and a large stock holder in a local bank. His bank was bought by one of those regional banks, and he received a sum of money that set him up for the rest of his life. Still only in his 50s, he was faced with the same question as that successful farmer: What is to become of all that I’ve worked so hard to achieve? He worked on his golf game, took some great trips, and bought property in the country. He also started studying the Bible. He joined the church. He became involved in a prayer group. In response to that spiritual quest, he felt his soul was being demanded of him. Bob turned his considerable executive skills to helping the poor. He was instrumental in forming a public-private partnership that tore down one of the most depressing, crime-ridden housing projects in the city and replaced it with a mixed income community that gives poor people not only a roof over their heads but also dignity. He became active in a community center sponsored by the city’s churches, went on its board, and helped it raise significant money to expand its services. He became very active in our congregation. He taught fifth grade Sunday school, was a confirmation sponsor, and was chosen to serve as an elder. Bob was a trusted friend of mine, and when we were discussing plans for the future of the church, he would always raise the annoying question, “How does this help the poor whom Jesus came to serve?” When God demanded Bob’s soul and asked, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Bob’s answer was, “They’re yours, Lord.”

       God doesn’t have anything against wealth per se. When God delivered the Hebrews from Egypt, God promised them a land flowing with milk and honey, a place where they would prosper and flourish. Along with that wealth God also gave them the gift of the tithe, the command that they return one tenth of their wealth back to God so they wouldn’t forget where their wealth came from. The tithe was God’s way of reminding the Israelites that even their skill and their intelligence that produced wealth were gifts they hadn’t earned. God told Israel to tithe so their possessions wouldn’t possess them, so they would always put first things first.

       That’s not a bad formula for us. The benefit of a tithe, or giving away a certain percentage of our income, is that it keeps us focused in the right direction. It’s a reminder that the other 90% that we keep also is a gift to us from God and that ultimately our relationship with God is what matters, not how much stuff we have.

       Like the farmer in Jesus’ story, we’re prone to think that we deserve all the credit for our success, that it’s something we did on our own thanks to our skill and our intelligence. But it’s interesting that when Jesus tells the story of the rich farmer, he says “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.” He doesn’t talk about the man’s skill or his diligence or his moral character. He’s rich because the land that God had given him prospered.

       Andrew Carnegie, who wasn’t a religious man, recognized the transience of wealth. Granted, he didn’t live a shabby lifestyle, but he’s famous for observing that “The man who dies rich is a failure.” He said he worked harder giving his wealth away than he did earning it. Warren Buffett, who’s also not very religious, recognizes the same thing. He doesn’t work so hard at being a philanthropist. He has bequeathed his fortune to the Gates Foundation because of their track record in making a difference for the poor and disposed of the world. Buffett knows he’s not totally responsible for his success. That’s why he doesn’t oppose paying taxes because he realizes that for all his brilliance as an investor, he couldn’t have achieved what he’s achieved without the infrastructure of public services and a wisely regulated marketplace.

       Philanthropists like Carnegie and Buffett and Gates aren’t necessarily motivated by faith, but they know that there’s something about the human spirit that wealth can’t satisfy. Jesus invites us to give away everything we have, even ourselves, just as he gave himself for us on the cross. That still leaves plenty of room for the great political debates of our day about the proper role of government, the burdens of taxation, and the place of regulations. But if we ask those questions with the accumulation of wealth as our highest ideal and not in pursuit of the common good, then we’re as foolish as the man who asked Jesus to arbitrate his greed.

       When Jesus warned that man about the perils of wealth, Jesus was on his way to the cross. He invites us to go to that cross with him, where all our principles, our values, our achievements and our possessions are nailed with him. We give all those things up to the cross, and what he gives back to us is life, a life that is committed to those things that don’t forsake us when our soul is demanded of us. Jesus invites us to join him in his work of peace and justice and love and righteousness and those things that last. He doesn’t invite us to join him so we can maximize ourselves. If we have wealth to bring along and contribute to that work, so be it. But don’t let your possessions, your principles, or anything else distract you. What he wants is you, and he’ll give you what you need so that you’re rich in what really matters – rich toward God. 


[1] Judith Warner, “Helping Hand?”  The New York Times Magazine, August 22, 2010, pp. 11-12.