Audio can be found here: https://soundcloud.com/jared-hillary-ruark/jesus-christ-financial
I work sometimes with a little church in Cookeville, TN. Cookeville’s about an hour and a half east of Nashville, halway to Knoxville, a college town of maybe 15,000. You get off of I-40 at Willow Road and as you’re driving through town for a mile or so you’ll see 20 churches. (It’s not called the Bible belt for nothing.) You see all sorts of churches and the signs all say “All are welcome” or “Join us for worship” or, I remember this one, “Visitors are welcome, Members expected.” But if you pass all of those churches and make it to this little UCC church in a repurposed office building, you’ll sit down, open the bulletin and see that familiar UCC slogan: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” But then underneath the slogan there’s a caveat, a point of clarification, it says “And we really mean it.” I hadn’t seen anything like that before so I asked the minister about it. He told me “most of our members are people who liked the idea of All Are Welcome but kept finding out that they were not a part of All. So we figured we’d better clarify that all really means all.” It’s been a pleasure to worship here because I get the impression that The Church of the Good Shepherd really means it, too.
I’d like to speak today about the Church’s reluctance to embrace Jesus as a financial consultant. We sometimes like to wonder about what Jesus might be up to in today’s world. If he were walking around in the flesh, incarnated, what would he look like, where might we find him, what might he do for a living. Have you heard this sort of speculation before? Jesus would be, oh, what a construction worker, a single mother, a man falsely accused and sitting on death row, a migrant laborer. You might think about it sometime. It makes for lively discussion and there are a lot of good answers.
But financial consultant is not a good answer. Jesus would almost certainly not cut it as a financial consultant. We already gave him a few chances way back when. Do you remember that young ruler who came asking after Jesus? He wanted eternal life, everything life had to offer, fullness of meaning and experience. Jesus and the young ruler have a little talk about keeping the commandments and the young ruler says “Oh yeah I keep those. I’ve kept the commandments my whole life. What else?” Jesus says, “you need to sell absolutely everything you own, give it to the poor, and follow me.” This is Jesus Christ the Financial Consultant. We gave him a chance.
It’s not that it’s bad advice. It’s good advice, it’s just a little too demanding. It’s such good advice that only the saints among us can follow it. They say that Saint Francis came from money. His dad was wealthy, very secure, probably a merchant. He got very upset when young Francis started squandering the family fortune on help to the poor. One day he gets fed up and confronts his son Francis in the town square. He’s fuming: “I’m not going to have you handling the family’s money this way.” Story goes that Francis renounced his family’s wealth on the spot, and just so they knew he really meant it completely he stripped the very cloak off of his back before he ran into the woods. St. Francis gave up everything and we made him a Saint for it.
It’s not that it’s bad advice. I have a friend from College named Marco, and he’s not a Saint but he’s someone I admire a great deal. Marco is one of the DREAM 9 activists. Maybe you’ve been following the story. The DREAM 9 is a group of undocumented twenty-somethings. They all grew up here from a young age. Marco was brought here when he was three, this is his home, but he’s not a citizen. You probably couldn’t tell Marco apart from me, or from any of our classmates, except that Marco’s life was very much different in that the threat of deportation was always looming over him. So it was good news when the Federal government announced some time ago that it would reprioritize immigration enforcement. No more families torn apart, no more young people detained and hassled. While we waited for comprehensive immigration reform they were going to focus on criminals—the violent ones. This was good news! If you’re Marco, or if you’re one of many thousands of other DREAM Act eligible youths, then you can rest easy. Well, the deportations and detainment continued. Families are torn apart. Young people are being detained. And the Dream 9 decided that they couldn’t sit around idly. They started a campaign of protest and organized acts of civil disobedience. They proudly and publicly proclaimed their undocumented status, and when they were incarcerated they gathered the names and stories of those people who were already being detained. They decided that security isn’t something handed to them by the government; security is found in solidarity with their community. About a week ago the DREAM 9 staged an unprecedented, risky act of civil disobedience. They crossed the border into Mexico, and a short time later tried to return to the States. They might be released or they might be deported. We don’t yet know, and neither did they when they stepped into the unknown.
And say what you will about the DREAM 9’s tactics, but I think that’s the sort of conviction we all wish we had. We admire those people who are willing to give up everything for the sake of their convictions. So when Jesus says give it all away, we can’t call that bad advice.
The Church is in a bit of a bind. Jesus gives good advice. His heart is in the right place but he’s a little bit too demanding. So Church management brings in Jesus for a performance review and they say, look, your numbers aren’t looking too good this quarter. Profits are sagging. We need to tone down the intensity on some of your financial advice. And Jesus says, “Well, what were you thinking?”
The Church says, “We like that story about the rich young ruler, but we want everyone to know that you were only speaking to the rich young ruler. It wasn’t advice for everyone and for all times. We have to consider the context.”
And the Church says, “There’s a lot of good stuff in that Sermon on the Mount. We noticed one time you said ‘blessed are the poor’ but another time you said ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’ and we decided it would be best to emphasize ‘poor in spirit’ since no one seems to know what that means.”
And before Jesus could get a word in edgewise the Church says, “There’s one more thing. You said that it would be easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s an exaggeration right?”
Jesus says, “No, I really mean it. Easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle.”
And the Church had to use its imagination to spin that one. Have you heard the explanation for the camel and needle remark? It’s completely made up, but it sounds good. Someone started telling a story about a gateway in the walls of Jerusalem. They said this gateway was called The Eye of the Needle, because it looked sort of like the eye of a needle. And they said you could fit a camel through the eye of the needle but there wasn’t very much room to spare. They said this is really a statement about keeping your wealth moderate. You try to carry too much and you won’t make it through, so you need to share a little bit with the beggars and outcasts sitting around the city walls. Isn’t that something? Again, completely made up, but people liked the sound of it.
Well, one day Jesus offered some advice we didn’t quite know how to spin. The scripture for today tells the story of a man who has been cheated. His father had just passed on his property, and what was typical in those days is that the older brother gets twice the inheritance of any younger brothers. This man is the younger brother and his older brother has taken the entire inheritance for himself. And he wants Jesus to tell his brother to do the right thing. Let’s be clear, this man is not greedy, he is not being unreasonable. He’s acting as any sensible person would act. In those days, about 80% of people were poor. I mean subsistence farming poor. One bad crop away from debt slavery poor. People in Jesus’ day prayed “Give us this day our daily bread” and they prayed it like they meant it because hunger is rampant and your daily bread wasn’t guaranteed. This man just wants the little piece of security to which he’s entitled.
You’ll remember from the reading how Jesus responds: “Who made me a judge or an arbiter over you?”
And then he tells a story. A certain rich man had an especially good harvest. He reaped so abundantly that he didn’t have anywhere to store it all. So he made a capital investment. He built bigger barns so he could store all of that grain. All the while he’s thinking just as soon as all of this grain is stowed away I’m going to retire, to eat drink and be merry.
And God says to this man, “This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”
God tells him just as you’re about ready to enjoy all of that your life will be demanded of you, and it’s hard to tell in the English translation, but the verse seems to indicate that it’s not God who’s demanding the rich man’s life. It’s the rich man’s stuff—his grain, storehouses, his blueprints and financial plans—it’s his stuff that’s demanding his life of him.
This one’s tough to spin. It’s difficult to make this parable more palatable, because Jesus isn’t demanding something of us so much as he’s telling us one of those hard truths we already know. It’s something of a paradox. We’ve been taught that peace of mind in this world comes with financial security, but this world is so filled with risk that the quest for financial security could make any one of us neurotic. We know all too well that security can’t very easily be secured. Even the most conservative, well-diversified investors took a big hit several years back during the financial crisis. For a long time we thought a house was a sure-thing investment. We all do our best but some things are outside of our control. And even if you’re so fortunate to find security you can’t hold onto your stuff forever. What’s that cliché about a U-haul and a hearse? Jesus says, “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” But At some level we know this already.
So maybe we can’t hope to secure our own future, but let’s not think that our search for security is hopeless. The Bible speaks of the possibility of security, but security is something we all do together. You may not find a biblical opinion on our Social Security program but the biblical witness proclaims again and again that all security is social. God will provide and it’s up to us to deal justly. We could alter that famous Gandhi quote slightly to say that God provides enough to satisfy every one’s need, but not enough for every one’s greed.
God will provide, but we carry some of the responsibility, too. Some time ago God delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. And you’ll remember that it wasn’t long before the grumbling started. The people say to Moses: “At least we had food in Egypt. Why would you bring us out to this bone-dry desert to starve?” And God heard their suffering and God provided. Every morning there was manna from heaven. Everyone could eat their fill but there was a stipulation: no one tries to store up more than they need.
And when God sent his Son to walk among us there was one day a great multitude gathered. 5,000 men all in one place and their families, too, all gathered to hear Jesus preach. It was getting to be time for dinner and there wasn’t any food around so the disciples wanted to send everyone away. Jesus says, “that won’t be necessary” and just as he’s saying it a little boy steps forward with his lunch—5 loaves and 2 fishes. They needed Jesus to multiply the food but he couldn’t do it alone. First someone had to decide to share.
These are some of our stories, and this morning I wanted to lift them up. Because I couldn’t presume to know what’s being asked of any of us personally, and I couldn’t presume to know what’s being asked of the Church of the Good Shepherd. But I remember some times that people were afraid, times that there were risks all around but the Spirit of God moved and people found security in community.
I remember that God sent manna from heaven and everyone was fed.
I remember that Jesus helped a child feed a multitude with 5 loaves and 2 fishes.
I remember that Saint Francis traded his trust fund for a beggar’s bowl.
And I will always, always remember what Marco said when he crossed the border hand-in-hand with the rest of DREAM 9. A reporter wanted to know if he had anything to say, what she really wanted to know is “aren’t you afraid?” And Marco said, “Perfect love casts out all fear.”
“Perfect love casts out all fear.” And I’ll say Amen to that any chance you give me.