Rich Toward God

Rich Toward God

            Luke is harder on the rich than any of the other gospel writers.  All of the synoptic gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke include the rich young ruler story, where a rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus answers, keep the commandments.  When the rich man responds that he has kept the commandments, Jesus tells him to sell what he has, give to the poor and come follow Jesus.  In each version of the story the Rich man goes away sadly, because he had great possessions.  In all three versions of the story of the rich young man, the text says that Jesus looked at the rich man, “lovingly.”  Jesus loves all people including wealthy people.  But in all three versions of the rich young man story, Jesus responds to the young person’s going away sadly, by saying, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  Some of our current politicians would accuse Jesus of “class warfare.”  I believe our scripture today and the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus can help us to understand why Jesus believed the rich have such a difficult time entering the Commonwealth of God.

        Our scripture this morning is sometimes called the Parable of the Rich Fool — the foolishness of accumulating wealth we cannot use.  What’s the point?  We’re all going to die anyway.  Is there some contest to see who can die with the biggest bank account, or does the person who dies with the most toys win?  What’s the point?  There are no pockets in a shroud, there is no U-Haul following the hearse.  Go visit the pyramids or go to the Cairo Museum and see the treasures of King Tut.  What good did they do him?  Vanity of vanities all is vanity.

Of course some people will try to accumulate money and then leave it to their children, or to charitable organizations to support causes of which they approve.  People sometimes try to use money to immortalize themselves.  Using money to immortalize ourselves is a sad exercise of ego.  Leaving money to children does not guarantee their happiness – in fact inherited wealth sometimes works to the detriment of the happiness of the heirs.  Leaving money to charitable enterprises is probably a responsible way to dispose of assets after our death, but how much more fun it might be to give or share those assets, while we are still alive, and see the good it is doing.  We should all ask ourselves, accumulating for what?  Jesus is also asking us in this parable, how much is enough.

           The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus has a different emphasis from the Parable of the Rich Fool.  In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the wealthy man is condemned for indulging himself, while he was ignoring the needs of a poor man who was suffering on his doorstep.  Of course one reason we have created gated communities and the social safety net, such as it is, is to make sure the poor and the homeless don’t show up on our doorstep.  On the other hand, in a world of pervasive media, the needs of the poor half a world away have a distressing tendency to show up on our televisions and computer screens.

I want to give credit, where credit is due.  We make an effort at the United Church of Huntsville, to share our resources and reach out to the needs of others.  One Great Hour of Sharing coming up on March 18th gives us an opportunity to share our resources with people in need worldwide through Church World Service.  Last year people in our congregation gave $1,676.  The Cookie Walk last year reached out to hungry kids at the Dump in Tegucigalpa with over $1,000 in aid.  We also gave over $1,000 to Ceder, ministry to homeless elderly people in Honduras.  Also, last Spring, people in our congregation inspired by Emma Prasher gave over $500 to the Peace Corp’s Camp Glow in Burkina Faso.  People in our congregation gave almost $1,300 to the Neighbors in Need Offering that supports Justice, Peace and American Indian Ministries.  And our Congregation continues to send warm clothing and this past year $250 to the Dakota Association of the South Dakota Conference, for our mission on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation.

Habitat for Humanity gives our congregation an opportunity to positively impact affordable housing right here in Huntsville.  Our giving to the Deacon’s Fund on Fifth Sundays supports the Huntsville Assistance Program that reaches out to poor people who are struggling here in the Huntsville area.  We have several people at United Church who volunteered at Foodline, and last year not only did our congregation give boxes and boxes of food, we also gave over $1,000 to Foodline.  Through the Mission One initiative at the beginning of November, our congregation brought in over 500 food items and raised an additional $175 for St. Mark’s Food Pantry.

Next Sunday, while I am gone, the Diaconate and the Stewardship and Mission Board are leading worship and they plan to feature many of the different volunteer ministries being pursued by members of our congregation:  tutoring, meals on wheels, water testing, tornado recovery, Habitat for Humanity, Foodline, First Stop, NAMI, Dining With Friends, Alabama Arise, North Alabama Health Care for All.  I think we will be surprised by the number of people who volunteer and the diversity of missions in this congregation.

The question we are always left with, however, whether we are accumulating money or stuff, or whether we are counting our donations or volunteer hours is how much is enough?  Is there an amount of income that is too much?  Is there a level of donation or a number of volunteer hours that are enough?

           I am reminded of a story attributed to the two authors Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut.  They were attending a party on Shelter Island, a private island, given by a Billionaire Hedge Fund Manager.  Looking around at all of the lavish facilities, luxurious food and exotic entertainments Kurt Vonnegut asked Joseph Heller, “Joe how do you feel, when we think that our host made more money in a day, than you’ve made on your book Catch – 22?

Heller thought for a moment and replied, “it’s o.k., because I have one thing he will never have.”

“What’s that?”

“Enough.”

           Sometimes I am tempted to believe that wealth can bring contentment, but in a study of members of the Forbes 400 “richest” list, the world’s wealthiest individuals rated their satisfaction at exactly the same level as did the Inuit people of northern Greenland and the Masai of Kenya, who have no electricity or running water.  Apparently multi-million dollar bonuses are not the answer to enough.

My sense is that part of discovering enough is returning to God.  Connection with the divine is the foundation of happiness.  One of the names for God in the Hebrew Scriptures is El Shaddai, the mighty one of the mountain, but it also means the God of enough, the God who gives enough.   This isn’t the Santa Claus god who gives us everything we’ve ever wanted, no this is the God of enough, who brings forth bread from the earth.

Earlier last week I was helping the Birmingham 8 finish up their project exploring connecting with the Divine.  They have identified what they are calling twelve pathways to the Divine that are fairly universal across the world’s great religions.  Various religious traditions give different emphasis to these pathways, and there is great divergence of opinion about the meaning of these spiritual practices, but beginning this coming Thursday evening we will explore these twelve pathways to the Divine.

The twelve pathways are:  sacred texts, rituals, community, sacred places, silence, awe, hospitality, compassion, mending the world, prayer, spiritual guide and transcendence in the presence of the Divine.  Connecting with the Divine is an important step in discovering enough.  For when we connect with God we discover we already have enough.  God has given us enough for all our needs — not just our needs to survive but our needs to thrive.   When we can give up the incessant need to consume, we discover that we live in a world of plenty.

Jesus also taught us to cultivate charity and compassion for others – “I was hungry and you gave me good, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick or in prison and you came to me, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”  When we cultivate a sense of enough that involves having less, we are more able to give to others in need.

I am convinced that no one can tell anyone else how much they should give either in time or money.  We can maybe help to inspire other people to give of themselves, but we cannot guilt them.  Sometimes the example of others can help to lead us into giving, but finally the motivation to give comes from within.  The commonwealth of God comes into the present moment, when we share our time and our resources.  Let us learn how to live generously, so we might become rich in relationship to God.

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