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The One Thing We Lack

A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock

at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 10 October 2021 [Proper23-B]:

Amos 5:6-7,10-15; Hebrews 4:12-16 Mark 10:17-31

Last week, we began our “Harvest Season” in beautiful fashion. I can’t recall our worship space looking more splendid. The work that was done to decorate this church and the number of members who were involved to do the work speak clearly to what we can do together as members of Christ’s Body – pandemic or no pandemic. But as we have been saying now for nearly a month, this church’s harvest season marks much more than a lovely autumnal demonstration. The truth is that our noting of the “Harvest Season” is meant to call all of us together as members of St. Philip’s to take note of what is in our church’s “barn”, that is, what do we gather in preparation for the work of next year?

This is the time of the year, when you and I take stock of our life, our mission, and our ministry as a faith community. This is the time of the year, when we take stock of where we are as a church, how we are doing, and how we might get closer to where God is calling us to be. This is the time of the year when we invite everyone who claims to belong to St. Philip’s to step forward and make a personal commitment of their time, their talents, and their financial treasure. In common terms, this is the time that we are involved in fund raising, the purpose of which is to create an operational budget that supports all that is good and faithful about our church.

This is the seventh annual time I have stood among you as Priest-in-Charge to call your attention to this parish harvest; and (as before) I will be direct with you now. We can use images of “harvest” all we want, but our life together in God is too important to avoid speaking about raising the money in support of what we say matters about our God-life. In this vein, would it surprise you to hear that Jesus spoke about money more than love? I wonder why?

This year, with the reliable leadership of Becky Taylor and her team of conveners, our “in-gathering” will take the form of inviting our membership to participate in conversation. We want to canvass our membership to talk about this church’s life and its future. These in-gathering conversations, held by pandemic necessity via Zoom, will convene a small number of parishioners into groups to talk – first, to talk about how we are personally in this trying time of flux and separation. The first part of these canvassing conversations is pastoral. We want to know how you are doing. The other part of these conversations is to speak about the place St. Philip’s has in your life, what means the most to you about our common life and what thoughts do you have about the way forward. For those among us who are uncomfortable with Zoom, individual phone chats will be set up so that everyone has the opportunity to contribute to the conversation. And from this honest conversation, we are asking for everyone who cares about St. Philip’s to make a personal and financial commitment toward our ongoing ministry and life.

For three weeks now, Becky Taylor has made herself available after church to answer any of your questions and to invite you to sign-up for one of the zoom chats. If you haven’t yet done so, please take a moment as you leave worship to choose one of the times that is most convenient for you. And please spread the word to those you know. Talk up this important event.

Now, I said that I would be direct with you about this year’s canvass and the raising of funds for next year’s operation. So, I hope you will receive what I am about to say with all openness. Making a pledge and doing what you can to show up is a central sign that we are members of this parish church. Conversely, not to make such a concrete step would seem to indicate not caring to be a member.

Please pray about the concrete steps you will take this next year in reiterating your membership at St. Philip’s and in supporting the life, mission, and ministry of this church and this community. If you need to speak with me personally and confidentially about your pledge, please let me know. Pledge cards are available at the rear of the church, in the NOW, and by request in the mail.

I admit that I have just made a blatant, unapologetic appeal to you to be the church, to invest in this local partnership that is a part of Christ’s Body, and to do this for our own souls’ sakes, as well as for the sake of the world. Moreover, I know that what I have said lies at the very heart of the gospel life because the issue of how we use our money (and our time) are irrefutable signs of how we use our power in service to who or what is at the center of our lives. And it just so happens that today’s gospel lesson from Mark is a precise illustration of using power in service of life. Let me quickly show you how this is so.

As Jesus continued his appointed journey to Jerusalem, suddenly a man ran up to him and knelt at his feet to offer a desperate question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What do you think he meant with this question? What was he saying? What was he asking for? And why does the man come to Jesus in the first place?

Once again, as he had done in the past when confronted suddenly, Jesus keeps his cool and immediately seeks to plumb what is really going on. So, Jesus asks the man why his opinion matters so much to the desperate plaintiff. Jesus initiates his response to the rich young man’s inquiry by referencing the Commandments. The touchstones Jesus names are murder, adultery, theft, and perjury. Then, he adds one more – don’t defraud – while surprisingly omitting the first four Commandments that speak of honoring God and reverencing the God-life.

As if to identify his sincere motivation, the young man meekly informs Jesus that the Commandments have been the guidelines he has always followed since his youth. What happens next is, I believe, the key to the entire reading. Mark simply reports that Jesus looked at him and loved him [10:21]. That look pierced the young man’s soul because Jesus saw him with God’s eyes, which is a vision from which no one can hide and a vision that always sees with love – no matter what. And like a good physician bent on healing, not mere amelioration, Jesus then prescribes that which will provide him with the answer to his question about “eternal life”.

As you heard, the specific remedy Jesus offers to the man is to “sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me.” As you also heard, with that recommendation Mark tells us that the man’s face dropped to his knees with disappointment and heart-broken grief. Devastated over what seemed to be the impossibility of such direction, the man went away, leaving Jesus to name the issue: He had too many possessions; there was no room for God’s life

As I said, I view this interchange as the lynchpin of this gospel passage: that in Jesus’ assessment the “rich young man” lacks one thing. What do you think it is that he lacks? And if you are willing to see yourself in that “rich young man”(which I believe is the true focus of this story), then the real issue is to confront what you and I lack. What is it? What must we do to alleviate this lacking?

As I view myself in the shadow of this man, I know that, like him, I have bought life insurance. I have insured my home and our cars. Both Bev and I are covered by health insurance. We try to have a “rainy-day” fund for the unforeseen. I have a pension. (God bless the Church Pension Group!). In your own ways, you exercise this type of responsible stewardship, too; but does all this and what it represents ease our sense of lacking? Does all the stuff in our lives that proports to save us really do the trick?

Some of us are so addicted to our stuff and the prospect that “the one with the most toys in the end wins”, that the only cure for the fear that makes us sick is to lose all the stuff, to give it away, as we heard in the gospel. Since there is no one present here who is not among the top 5% of the world’s wealthiest, what we lack is that serene sense of “enoughness”. Yes, we need a roof over our heads and food on the table and purposeful work to do – partly so that we have something to share with those in need. But when is it all enough? At what point do we have the answer that seems to linger in our hearts: Will I be ok? What does it take to be ok?

Jesus’ diagnosis of our dis-ease, our illness is not a one-size-fits-all. As I say, some of us as so addicted to stuff that we need to lose it in order to begin to see the truth of what you and I have fashioned into a three-part, theological mantra. Remember? God-in-Christ has given us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves; say “thank you” the gift; share (don’t hoard) the gift. This is the essence of the life of faith.

What the rich young man lacks is gratitude, steeped in the realization that God has given us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves. Sure we need insurance for the unforeseen slings and arrows of this life; but we also need a realization of the grace of God and the gifts of God. And in this realization, we know that we will be ok, that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”. [Romans 8:37ff]. This is a matter of “first things first”.

I close with this simple reminder that there are three types of giving. The most basic form of giving is “grudge” giving. You get buttonholed to give, taxed for what is due. Grudge giving forks over what is demanded and always with a scowl on the face and bitterness in the heart.

The second kind of giving is “duty” giving. I am obligated to give “my fair share”. It’s my duty, my obligation. I pay my dues for what I use and benefit from. I look around and see what others are giving in terms of their fair share to determine what I give as “my fair share”.

The third form of giving is “thanks” giving; and as you can tell immediately, it is the highest form of giving, the most liberating and creative form of giving.

A Prayer Book prayer captures the significance of being grateful. In the “General Thanksgiving”, found in the Morning Office, we hear this: “…And, we pray, grant us an awareness of all your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days…” [BCP., p. 101]

That’s it. What we so often lack is “an awareness of all [God’s] mercies – God’s gifts, a life that is anchored anchored in gratitude and not frantic, desperate grabbing.

And so, as important and as necessary as it is to support this church’s life and mission, the deeper significance rests in our need as God’s people to find ourselves in a place where we practice thanksgiving. Practice, practice, practice: Our giving is about our need to practice being grateful and turning our lives over – day by day, hour by hour -- to the experience of gratitude and, thereby, to the God-life in our midst, which is exactly what “eternal life” is all about.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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