Sermon for 14th October 2012.
The Revd. J. Michael Povey, at St. David’s, Englewood, FL.
Job 23:1-7; Hebrew 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Do you ever fantasise about winning the lottery? I do. I understand three things about this. First, it would help if I actually bought a lottery ticket. Second, that I stand a greater chance of being struck by lightning than winning the lottery. Third, that our state sponsored lotteries are a fool’s game, played by fools.
Yet I fantasise. The first thought I have (pious as I am) is that I would be very generous with my winnings. But then my conscience or perhaps the Holy Spirit says “how about being generous with what you already have?”
Then I go on to think that I would buy a nicer house (not that there’s anything wrong with the one I now own), and of course that fancier house would need a security system - even better it would be in a gated community.
Next I would begin to invest my money - stocks are a bit risky, and bonds pay next to nothing in interest - so I would start to worry about the security of my wealth.
Then I would have to think about my friends. Is this person a true friend, or is she/he hanging around because I am wealthy.
The list would go on. I have a feeling that within a short time I would not possess my wealth, but my wealth would possess me.
And I would probably forget the most important question “where is God in all this?”
I grew up in relative poverty. Not grinding poverty, but poverty none the less. I am one of ten children and my dad (the sole breadwinner) made a very low wage.
So I grew up with “hand outs” from good intentioned people; with necessary welfare supplements from the government - without which we could not have survived; and with a mother (she was in charge of the money) who devised every frugal habit you could imagine in order to feed, clothe and house us. It was not fun. Worst of all, we knew that we were poor, and we knew what it felt like to be patronised by albeit well meaning folks who somehow managed to convey the message that we were somehow responsible for our poverty.
Thus I have very ambivalent beliefs about money and possessions. I despise poverty. I distrust wealth.
The scriptures teach a great deal about wealth and poverty, and much of the teaching is not to our liking.
That’s why we need the bible - to teach us things that we find to be downright disturbing.
The book called Job addresses the connection between wealth and righteousness. The presumption was that wealth was God’s reward for upright living. Job had been fabulously rich - therefore – it was thought – he must have been entirely upright.
In a flash all of Job’s wealth was taken away. Job’s friends think that they know why. They are sure that he must have sinned gravely, and that his current distress is as a result of his sin.
Job is as certain as any human being can be that he has not sinned, and that God is not punishing him.
He is also quite certain that God is inscrutable, so much so that God has disappeared in this moment of utter distress. “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right but I cannot see him” (vv 8/9)
God is absent from Job. But Job is not mealy mouthed about this. “If I find God” he says “I (will) lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments” (v 4).
In short, in God’s eyes, human poverty is not a result of sin, and human wealth is not a sign of virtue. Life is much more complicated than that, and the ways of God are deeply inscrutable.
Nonetheless, we can “take on God” and argue our case before him. God is accountable to us.
The other side of that coin is that God can take us on, can challenge our ways of life, can call our beliefs into question. We are accountable to God.
God in Jesus Christ challenges a man in today’s gospel reading. He is a likeable man, he is a righteous man. He “has it all”, but he wants one more thing. He wants to “inherit” eternal life.
(Interesting is it not, that this man sees eternal life as something one can “inherit” as a right, rather than something one can receive as a gift).
Jesus loves this man, and he loves him enough to tell him a home truth. Jesus is saying, you cannot receive the gift of eternal life as long as your possessions possess you.
Jesus’ home truth is not directed only at this man. It is a direct call to modern Christians who value their possessions more than they long for eternal life.
It is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God, and we, on a world scale, are amongst the richest.
I have known poverty.
These days I have a comfortable lifestyle and a more than adequate income.
That’s all very well in its own way, but I’ll not be able to take any of it with me.
So the questions I face as one who seeks to be a follower of Jesus are these:
Am I possessed by my many possessions?
Or am I possessed by a passionate desire to follow Jesus, and thereby to enjoy the gift of eternal life?
I cannot have both.