Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church

Sermon: How Not to Give (or Live)

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 8, 2017, Pentecost 18A (Stewardship)

Matthew 19:16-26

How Not to Give (or Live)

It’s a curious story, and as is often the case, Matthew tells it particularly curiously.

It is told in the gospel of Mark, which was written before Matthew, but his author provides some details and wording that Mark does not, resulting in particular lessons for us that are emphasized to a degree that they are not in Mark (or in Luke, for that matter, which also tells this story; Luke is the only gospel that refers to this man as the “rich young ruler”).

I’m guessing the outlines of the story are familiar, “rich young ruler” or not. The young man comes to Jesus asking about eternal life; Jesus, after a sly remark about being called “good,” instructs the young man to “keep the commandments,” emphasizing the later commandments about interpersonal relations; the young man says he has kept those all his life, and Jesus instructs him to go an sell all he has and give it away to the poor, and to come follow him; the young man goes away sorrowing, because he has a lot of stuff (and presumably doesn’t want to sell it). The story is capped with some dialogue between Jesus and the disciples, dialogue that includes that famous line about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

The outline is indeed familiar, but Matthew does include some distinctive details. For example: while Mark and Luke merely depicting the man asking what he had to do to receive (or “inherit”) eternal life, Matthew phrases the question differently; “what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” I suspect Matthew’s version might resonate even more strongly for us modern-day Christians; whether Christians admit it or not, so many times the practiced theology of so many, both churches and individuals, uncovers the secret, even unspoken conviction that we are just fine with Jesus, or Jesus is just fine with us, if we do a few prescribed “good deeds” for some poor unfortunate soul.

Both Paul’s letter to the Romans, where we’ve spent the past few months, and the forthcoming five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, much of which was inspired by Martin Luther’s intensive study of precisely that book, call out the lie inherent here. Our salvation is by grace – God’s grace – alone; no deed of ours will ever contribute one whit to our “being saved.” (The later letter of James will remind us that if indeed we are saved, our lives will show it in the deeds we do, but those deeds reflect our salvation; they do not procure it.)

While Jesus could easily have pursued that theological argument, he was far more interested in the soul of this young man asking this (evidently sincere, but still misguided) question. His return with the prescribed commandments (with his own formulation summary, “love your neighbor as yourself”) draws forth (again distinctive of Matthew’s account) the stark admission of emptiness from the young man – “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” All the rigorous rule-keeping and the hole in the soul is still there.

Jesus’s challenge to the young man is not a universal proclamation. It is not an order that every follower of Christ sell every possession. What it does instead is challenge our understanding of what we hold dear. For some it is indeed their “many possessions.” For others it might be a particular possession, or simply accumulation of wealth.

To be sure, there are certainly non-physical or tangible things that can possess us the way this man’s possessions possessed him, and on another week given the awful and horrific headlines that have besieged us every day, those things probably would have taken over this sermon.

For one thing, I know Dorothy has been waiting for a “stewardship sermon.” We are rapidly approaching that Sunday on which we ask of you a pledge of financial support for this coming year of the church’s life. At the beginning of services this month you have heard and will hear of the various outreaches supported by this church to some degree through your gifts, regular and planned or special and extraordinary.

Preachers hate, and I do not overstate – I mean hate – preaching stewardship sermons. (A preacher who claims otherwise is not to be trusted.) In no small part they are profoundly uncomfortable to preach because it’s impossible not to be aware that part of what you are seeking in preaching a “stewardship sermon” is … your own salary. And it’s impossible not to feel that your own salary is probably too large a portion of the church’s budget, if you have a conscience. So yeah, it’s uncomfortable. It’s also not terribly thrilling to acknowledge that much of that budget the stewardship campaign seeks goes toward decidedly mundane things: paying the electric bill, keeping the grass mowed, getting the copier fixed so these bulletins can be printed, and so forth. Not exactly the stuff of thrilling oratory, no matter how practical or necessary.

And yet, keeping those mundane things going, keeping our fiscal house in order and the bills paid, are utterly necessary, and doing so involves a pledge to keep our priorities in order, to avoid being so consumed by some possessions or other that we do not contribute to the upkeep of the body of Christ, that we avoid the “I” that so consumed this rich young man questioning Jesus and remember the “we” that gathers here in this space weekly, as well as those members of the “we” that can no longer be with us physically but most certainly remain part of “we” in spirit.

By no means do I encourage you to give in order to “save yourself.” That’s not Jesus’s message to the young man, and it’s not Jesus’s message to you. By no means do I encourage you to give in order to assuage any guilty conscience you might feel. That doesn’t work either, and that is no less guilty of being “works righteousness.” By no means do I encourage you to give for any reason that begins with “I” or “me.” Give for “we.” Give for the edifying of the body of Christ. Give for the work of ministry. Give for the proclamation of good news.

Honesty compels me to acknowledge that this time of year – this “stewardship campaign” season – will not be the only time we ask for money or other donations over the course of a year. You know this; why pretend otherwise? There are, for example, some particular needs and opportunities that this congregation will likely be asked to extend extra generosity towards in the upcoming weeks, beyond this “stewardship campaign.”

We found out this week that a couple, formerly part of this congregation, was severely impacted by Hurricane Irma’s passage through Gainesville. In short, they lost everything, and have very little recourse to recovery. They are in need, and what is not relevant is to worry how they came to leave this congregation; what is relevant is the call to take care of one another.

There’s a new mouth to feed in one of the families in this congregation, as you may have noticed or heard. It wasn’t something they were expecting, to say the least, but what is not relevant is the particular circumstances of how this infant came to be with them; what is relevant is the call to take care of one another.

There’s a young woman in this congregation (same family, even) who has a spectacular opportunity to spend a year in Europe as a part of her ongoing education, an opportunity to engage, besides straightforward book-learnin’, in growing into “maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” to quote Ephesians 4:13. It’s not an opportunity that comes to everyone, and what is not relevant is that the pastor will be fully consumed with one of the Seven Deadly Sins (envy); what is relevant is the call to aid in the nurture and growth of this one of our own and to take care of one another.

I have no doubt that your well-demonstrated generosity will rise to these occasions, but first our generosity must rise to the call of taking care of the basics. Pledge cards aren’t fancy or thrilling, but pledging does call upon us to avoid the self-centered trap of the rich young man, and to pull together as the body of Christ, each contributing and giving and supporting to the best of her or his own ability.

For keeping the lights on, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #692, Spirit, Open My Heart; #706, Commit Your Way to God the Lord; #708, We Give Thee But Thine Own; #697, Take My Life

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credit: agnusday.org

Intercessory prayer…

With hearts broken and uplifted, let us raise our prayers and requests before the Lord our God.

In hope, let us pray for the church, here in this place and everywhere it is planted…

Lord, teach us your church to pray always. Let us never capitulate or stoop to “thoughts and prayers” that are not immediately followed by deeds of love, to build up all those you claim as your children.

God of mercy, hear our prayer.

In hope, let us pray for this earth, the creation you made and called good…

Form in us, Lord, the will to be good guardians of what you have given us. Teach us what is yours, and how to care for it without destroying it and ourselves.

God of mercy, hear our prayer.

In hope, let us pray for the nations of the earth…

Raise up leaders among us, Lord, who do your will in spirit and truth, and do not merely invoke your name for their own selfish pursuits. Give us your people discernment in choosing leaders, in lifting our voices in the public sphere, and in bearing true witness to you in all we do and say.

God of mercy, hear our prayer.

In hope, let us pray for this community in which we are planted…

Show us, O God, this place as if for the first time. Teach us to live without fear in a community we may no longer recognize, and to see the face of Jesus in all we meet.

God of mercy, hear our prayer.

In hope, let us pray for those in need in our community and among our beloved…

We pray for those who have suffered loss of all they know; who suffer illness or injury of body or mind; who are lost and isolated and alone; who are cut off from you through their own doing; who cry out for love. Show us how, in this place and time, to put those prayers into action.

God of mercy, hear our prayer.

God of grace and glory, give us your wisdom to follow these prayers into the world and to be your witness to all we meet, in deed and word; we pray in the Spirit through your Son, Christ our Lord, who taught his disciples to pray like this: Our Father … Amen.

 

 

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