Sermon from the Rev. Joe Hensley, Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | The twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, August 7, 2016
Today’s Gospel reading comes right after another passage in the Gospel according to Luke that is very famous but one that, for some reason, we do not hear in our Sunday schedule of lessons. Last week, we heard Jesus responding to a man who was upset about a family inheritance dispute. Instead of intervening, Jesus starts teaching about money and greed and the spiritual danger in putting faith in our possessions. Gay preached a great sermon about how we can’t take it all with us. Then Jesus turns from the crowds and begins to teach his disciples, his inner circle. This is the part that we didn’t hear. “Do not worry,” he says. And then most famously he illustrates what he means by saying, “Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” Consider the lilies. If you remember just one thing from today’s sermon, I want you to remember that each of us is a beautiful flower in God’s kingdom garden. Each of us has been given grace to bloom where we are planted, even more glorious than Solomon, more grand than the richest ruler we could imagine. Look around. We are all God’s magnificent flowers. It’s true. Remember that if nothing else.
We often do not feel like God’s magnificent flower. If there is something that can make us feel like a magnificent flower or make us feel wilted and unworthy, it is money or the lack thereof. And this is why Jesus talks more about money than almost anything else. One preacher I heard said that Jesus talks more about money than about salvation. It’s that important. Money and the possessions money can buy are idols which easily distract us from the love and grace of God. They always have been. The prophet Isaiah this morning brings a word of judgement from God, because God’s people have been faithful in offering their money to God but they have not been faithful in taking care of each other. They have let wealth create a system of have’s and have-nots, and they have neglected the widow and the orphan. The Psalmist describes God’s frustration with all our offerings when we are not faithful in our relationships. Offer me a sacrifice of thanksgiving, God says. Our relationship with money is an eternal concern that affects the politics and societies of every age. Jesus is pretty clear in his teaching. Do not worry about having enough money. Be careful of greed. Consider the lilies. They have no money, yet they are more beautiful than the richest person imaginable. And Jesus’ financial advice to his disciples, which we heard today, is this: “Sell your possessions. Give alms.” Imagine going to your financial advisor and they tell you, “liquidate your assets and use them to promote mercy and compassion.” Thanks for the advice!? Why does Jesus talk this way? Well, God delights in giving us the kingdom. GIVING us the kingdom. The kingdom is free. God does not expect payment in order to participate in God’s reign of peace. It’s free. The question is, are we free to participate? If we are worried and obsessed about our money and possessions as we often are, then we are not free to play in the kingdom.
Speaking of play, summertime is a season for vacations and recreation. How many of us know that feeling of leaving the house to go somewhere for a few hours or a few days, and for the first little while, if not for the whole time, we are worried about our stuff. Did I forget to lock something? Where your treasure is, Jesus says, there your heart will be also. And so how much time do we spend not being where we are, not being fully present, not blossoming as God’s beloved flowers, because our hearts are somewhere else with stuff that is not, in the greater scheme of things, all that important? Jesus knows this about us, and so he says, sell your possessions. Not because he doesn’t want us to have stuff, but because he knows we worry about it so much. He knows that we have used money and possessions as a way to falsely divide ourselves into categories of rich and poor and middle class (or as one preacher put it, “those with a lot or a little or somewhere in the middle.”). But in God’s eyes even the persons with the most has very little. We are all poor in God’s eyes. Jesus knows that money keeps us from unfolding into the beautiful and glorious flowers God has created us to be, that we use money to try to feel beautiful and glorious. So Jesus suggests that instead of worrying about the little we have, why not sell some of it and bless someone else.
There’s a famous story from the Zen Buddhist tradition about a master of zen meditation who receives a university scholar for tea. The scholar has come to learn all about meditation and enlightenment. The zen master serves the tea and fills the scholar’s cup so that it begins to overflow into the saucer. And then it overflows onto the table and spills on the floor. The scholar says nothing at first, trying to show respect, but finally he speaks up and says to the master, “Stop pouring! The cup is full.” The master replies: “You are so full of opinions and speculations. How can I show you anything if you first do not empty your cup?” Jesus might say something similar but a little different. “How can I show you God’s kingdom when you are too full of your concern for possessions and money? But do not just empty your cup. Pour what you have into the cup of another.” Sell your possessions. Give alms. God’s kingdom is free of charge, and in order to receive it, we free up space in our cups by filling others’ cups.
This is not the first sermon you have heard about possessions and money. We keep preaching, and we keep struggling with these eternal concerns in each new season. And I know that most of us are not going to go out of here and sell everything we own and give the money away. I am not planning to do that. Although some people have done this! I have never heard of someone who did it and later said they wished they hadn’t. But most of us are somewhere in the middle, and the question becomes, “what do we do?’ I find some hope in the prophet Isaiah, because at the end of the reading God says, “let us argue this out.” God is ready to hear our reasons for resistance. God is ready to work with us. And maybe in the process of talking this out with God, we come to see one thing that we need to sell, one thing we need to give, which is getting in the way of our becoming that glorious flower. What is keeping us from unfolding in glory as God wants for us? And maybe one thing leads to two things and on from there. As the church, we (and by we, I mean all of us, no matter where we fall on the political spectrum, no matter what our views are about economic policy), we are called to bear witness to what Jesus tells us over and over again. When we are faced with anxiety and worry, the path to freedom is not through grasping more tightly but in letting go. The antidote to anxiety is generosity. Sell your possessions and give alms. The lilies do not bloom by closing up tight. They open their petals and share the beauty God has given them with the world. There are some amazing water lilies blooming down along the canal path. I was down there the other day. I was walking early in the morning. I had woken up with a headache and was not feeling all that beautiful and was moving kind of slow. And I saw those flowers, open in the morning light. And they, in some graceful way, invited me to see beyond my problems and my pain. Consider the lilies. In the kingdom of God, we draw each other away from our personal problems and into a beloved community where we are invited to bloom exactly where we are. We are offered the freedom to give generously and without limit. The economy in the kingdom of God is always strong, because its currency is love. Its gates are always open, although they are narrow, and those of us who are greatly encumbered will find it hard to squeeze in. The inhabitants of the kingdom are beautiful and blossoming, not because they are rich or poor but simply because God made all of them good. May God give us grace to unfold, God’s glorious flowers in the kingdom garden.