Sunday, September 29, 2013

Those Rich People

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ Proper 21, Year C/ September 29, 2013

“Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches … they shall now be the first to go into exile.”

“Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

“The rich man … died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented …”

Oh, thank God! A set of readings that’s not about us! God sure isn’t happy with those rich people! I’m so happy I’m not rich, and we’re not rich, so these readings can’t really be for our ears. No, we can enjoy them. In fact, we can just sit back and watch the smiting begin. Who’s with me?

Michael Douglas in Wall Street
Because the readings aren’t about us, right? They’re about those rich people. You know—Wall Street types. Stock brokers, corporate raiders, the one percent, right? The people who rig the political system to keep from having to pay any taxes. The people who pull the strings behind the scenes and are really the ones in control. Oh, we hate them, don’t we? And the Bible slams on them all over the place, too! The rich people … not us … no, this can’t be about us … can it?

British comedian Eddie Izzard once did a routine about Robin Hood. Robin Hood is riding through the countryside and comes upon a very well-dressed horseman.

“Give us cash! I steal from the rich and give to the poor! Give us cash!”

“No, I’m not gonna give you cash.”

“Go on, I steal from the rich. Are you rich?”

"No, I’m … comfortable.”

“That’s no good, I can’t steal from the fairly well off and give to the moderately impoverished! That’s not gonna swing, is it?”

Hmmm. Maybe there are grey areas. Could it be that our society isn’t cloven distinctly into “the rich” and “the rest of us”? You know, I noticed something at the height of the Occupy movement. In all our talk about being the 99%, few of us noticed that we’re only the 99% if we look solely at the United States. When we compare ourselves to the rest of the world … well … things suddenly don’t look so good for us, do they? No, indeed, we become the rich—even those of us who struggle to pay more than one mortgage, and those of us who won’t be able to send our children to college after all, and those of us who must keep adding more debt to the credit card. We’re still the rich, even if we don’t feel like it.

Now, we’re not lying on beds of ivory (which sounds profoundly uncomfortable to me),  but compared to most people on earth, we are feasting sumptuously every single day. I have not gone a single day in my life without enough to eat, and I bet that’s true for most of us here today. So what’s the minimum standard? How worried should we be?

Well, I think the writer of the first letter to Timothy gives us a pretty solid baseline: “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” It seems to me that once we have something more than the means of bare survival, we receive two things: we receive enough material wealth that we could share some and not die; and we receive an urge not to share, just in case our luck runs out. Let’s say we are a little better off—a home of our own, perhaps, after scrimping and saving for a down payment. Maybe there are kids to feed, and perhaps a job is going sour. What will I do if something goes wrong? No, it’s not time to share yet.

Now, as time goes by, let’s say material success becomes a reality. Just maintaining the level of comfort we’re used to costs quite a bit of money, and we’re never quite certain that the money will keep coming. And next thing you know, we’re the rich man, feasting sumptuously every day, and walking right past the starving beggar. We’ll give eventually, we say. We’ll help our suffering neighbors once we have enough to feel secure.

I’m not saying all this to make you feel guilty; after all, I’m implicated just as much as anyone else. I’m a seminarian, which means I’m relying on financial aid and a lot of generous people to enjoy the luxury of three years of study. I don’t feel financially secure, and I know there’s no guarantee of financial security after I am ordained and graduate. Jobs for clergy are scarce in the places I could imagine my family living. But by our broader definition, I’m still among the rich. So let’s stop for a minute and look more closely at the readings, because there is indeed hope there.

Amos—the prophet Amos, 8th century B.C.E.—does not rail against all rich people, but against those
who “are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph”—that is, of the Jews’ ancient ancestor. Amos is shocked at the level of decadence in the two Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He’s also aware that the Assyrians are getting ready to sweep into Samaria, where they will march the elite of Jewish society into exile. Of course the rich will be the first to go, and then the Assyrians will be able to subjugate the poor and uneducated people who remain. The rich and educated of Israel have made themselves vulnerable by their carelessness, as they have the means to make a just society but don’t act on it. Those who don’t care about the poor systematically undermine the nation’s stability.

Now let’s look at this letter to Timothy. This is, of course, where we get the aphorism, “Money is the root of all evil.” But that’s not a direct quote; the writer does not find sin in those who are rich, but in those who want to be rich. Their driving force is to make more and more money, so that they can relax and not worry about anything or anybody else. It is the love of money that is the problem. Those who, through whatever hard work or fortuitous circumstances, find themselves able to make money are charged to use it to help others, not merely to help themselves. So in the first letter to Timothy, you don’t even have to be rich to be in the wrong about money. This passage isn’t about having; it’s about the ability to let go. This is what it means to be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” This is how we “take hold of the life that really is life,” as opposed to the life that really is a living death.

Sawai Chinnawong, "Lazarus and Dives"
And this brings us to the rich man in Jesus’ parable. In this gripping story, Jesus gives us much of the imagery we still attribute to the afterlife: a heaven above, a burning fire of hell beneath, and a giant chasm between them. Doubtless Dante drew on these images and expanded on them when he created Inferno and The Divine Comedy. We should remember that this is a parable, not a divine description of a metaphysical reality. It’s a story, sort of an ancient equivalent of the old “A man dies and meets St. Peter at the gate” story. Except, in this case, St. Peter is actually listening to the story! Huh.

Jesus seems to be illustrating continuity between our lives now and our lives on the other side of death. From Hades, where he is being tormented, the rich man instructs Abraham first to send Lazarus to him with just a drop of water, and barring that possibility, then as a messenger to warn his family of their potential fate … as if poor Lazarus were still some poor lackey he could order around. But it is too late. This man’s entitled soul has never practiced the art of generosity. What if he had noticed Lazarus at the gate? What if he had started giving early on, before he became a self-made man, when he didn’t have two dimes to scrape together, but when he could have given one of his two nickels away? How might things have gone differently? Would he ever have become so rich? And if not, what would have been wrong with that?

Many of Jesus’ later parables, especially, urge us not to wait to change our lives. We don’t like to imagine a time, on either side of the grave, after which it will be too late to change. But if we assume a continuity of existence, then we can’t assume that death means we will suddenly become infinitely wise or abundantly giving. At what point will change just become too difficult for us to bear? Must it take death to spark change in our lives? And is this moment, right now, too soon to begin really living?

And so we come back to us. If we have any wealth beyond that which we need, we have the privilege of deciding what to do with it. Being responsible with money means knowing how to spend and knowing how to save, of course, but it also means knowing how to share—and that sharing is an indispensable piece. None of our wealth really belongs to us; everything in our lives is a gift from God, and the gift of material resources is particular to our earthly lives. Whether or not we use it, we will lose it. So God says, “Use it!” Because to whatever degree we do not share with those in need, we are implicated in their suffering. We cannot live our lives separately from them because we are not a planet full of isolated individuals. We were made to love each other.

That’s Good News. And that’s why the psalmist is able to proclaim, “Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! Whose hope is in the Lord their God … who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.” May we also be instruments of justice for the oppressed, and may we always share what we have with those who are in need. Amen.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

What Will This Cost Me?

sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Silver Spring, MD
by Josh Hosler, Seminarian
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ Proper 18, Year C/ September 8, 2013

A few weekends ago, Christy and Sarah and I took a short trip to Charlottesville, Virginia. We took in the lively nightlife on Friday evening, found a little hostel to stay in that night, and on Saturday morning, we headed to Monticello to explore Thomas Jefferson’s home. If you haven’t been there before, do make a point of it—it’s an amazing place. Jefferson was indeed a genius. He was always thinking and learning, and he was always finding ways to make the necessary doings of his life more efficient so that he could set aside more time to think and to learn.

I was impressed with the way Monticello is presented to tourists, and I was especially impressed by certain features that must be very new indeed. Doubtless most of us are familiar with the firmly established theory, now well supported by DNA evidence, that Jefferson fathered one or more children by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Not only does the presentation of Monticello not gloss over this fact, but it positively celebrates our knowledge of it. Panoramic displays talk about Jefferson’s slaves, name them, and inform us of each one’s household or farm responsibilities. Every opportunity is taken to explore the tension within the man who authored a world-famous document promoting individual freedom, who spoke out time and time again against the evils of slavery, but who, throughout his life, owned hundreds of slaves. Yes, Jefferson was a genius. But do we have to admit this contradiction as a glaring a blind spot? Or must we entertain the possibility that while he proclaimed brave new ideas, Jefferson was, in more personal and very real ways, something of a coward? Was he, perhaps, somewhat like us?
Sam Neill and Carmen Ejogo
in "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal"
photo by Charles Haid

Certainly, had he set his slaves free, Jefferson would have had to give up most of the luxurious aspects of his life that gave him the leisure to think and to learn as much as he did. No doubt his thinking and learning were a great gift to the world, and I think he knew it himself. Perhaps he counted the cost and decided that it was better to keep several hundred people enslaved than to deny the world any part of his genius. But that doesn’t paint him in a very favorable light, does it? And here’s another wrinkle: In his will, Jefferson only set a handful of his slaves free. The rest were sold and scattered upon his death, and even the journalists of his day noted Jefferson’s hypocrisy on this matter.

The African American graveyard at Monticello
Surrounded by a series of parking lots at Monticello, we found a small patch of land. An information board there tells us that only a few years ago, the remains of some of Jefferson’s slaves were discovered there. It is now a featured part of Monticello called the African American graveyard. But it is out of the way, easy to miss, and it bears no gravestones or names, for we do not know them. When I explained to my 8-year-old daughter Sarah that this unremarkable piece of land was actually a graveyard, she was shocked and silent for a moment. Then she exclaimed, “It’s just not fair!”

Thomas Jefferson was an Episcopalian. But while he honored and respected Jesus, he did not believe that Jesus was in any way the Son of God, and he did not hold to any understanding of the Trinity. In The Jefferson Bible, his edited version of the gospels that kept the wisdom of Jesus while throwing out his miracles and anything else Jefferson deemed superstitious, only half of today’s passage appears: the second half. It seems that Jefferson pondered today’s gospel passage and decided not to take up Jesus’ cross and follow, but merely to count the cost of his massive building projects, many of which went unfinished at his death. Through his words and ideals, Jefferson was an architect of freedom for many, but he did not free those closest to him, the ones whose emancipation would have come at dear personal cost to him.
The Jefferson Bible, with cutouts, at the Smithsonian

All of us Christians must ponder this matter. How much will Christianity cost me, really? I mean, if I really give it my all? What will it cost me? Can I hedge my bets? How much certainty do I have of keeping the things that are most important to me at this point in time? And if I were asked to give up something very important, would I have the courage to do so, if even a man as great as Thomas Jefferson did not?

For Jesus does urge us to take up our cross and follow him. What might that look like for us? The cross was an instrument of torture and death. Imagine Jesus saying, “Whoever does not get into my electric chair with me cannot be my disciple.” Now, that doesn’t mean seeking out a violent death, but still, why would anyone be crazy enough to commit to something like this? Jesus demands that his disciples give up all their possessions. That’s not necessarily the same thing as parting with them. But it does mean letting go of any guarantee that we will keep them—because we’re going to die anyway, and then they won’t be ours anymore. What are we holding on to? What are those things through which, were we to let go of them, others might be emancipated? And in setting others free, might we be made free ourselves?

But that’s not all we find in this difficult and raw gospel passage: Jesus also tells us to hate our families! I want to pause for a moment to explore Jesus’ use of the word hate. When I read this passage, the first place I went was my Greek Bible, hoping against hope that “hate” was a poor translation, and that I’d find a milder definition. But I was disappointed: the word is miseo, from which we get words like misogyny—the hatred of women. Or misanthropy, the hatred of humankind. Hate is a strong word, we may remember our parents telling us. And I think that’s why Jesus used it—with an internal smirk, and with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. Like, “They’ll remember this one!”

So no, contrary to a literal reading of this text, I don’t believe Jesus was asking us to hate our family members, or to hate life itself. But at the same time, I’m not going to explain the word away as if Jesus hadn’t used it. Rather, you might imagine Jesus saying that God is so loving that any love we experience in this life is little better than hate. Following Jesus takes so much commitment—he tells the huge, trend-minded crowd—that we may as well forget about everything else entirely. If we want the Great Pearl that is God’s Kingdom, we’d better be ready to let go of everything, because nothing else even comes close, and nothing is so important that we should let it get in the way.

But that part isn’t in Jefferson’s Bible. And as his Bible only contained gospel passages and nothing from the epistles, I really wonder what Thomas Jefferson thought about Philemon, the recipient of a letter from Paul. Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus. That was a very common name for slaves in the Roman Empire, because “Onesimus” means “useful.” Paul uses a play on words here, turning on their heads our ideas of slavery and freedom, of usefulness and uselessness.

We don’t know exactly what happened to prompt this letter. But we might imagine that Onesimus, in an opportune moment, has managed to escape from his master and wonders what to do next. He becomes the consequences that might await him if he returns home. After all, if a runaway slave is caught and returned to his master, the master has the legal right to beat or kill him. But Onesimus knows how to find Paul, who is currently under house arrest. So he goes to Paul and pleads for his help.

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles,
probably by Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632)
Source: Wikipedia
At some point, Onesimus has been baptized. He is a Christian, and Paul uses this simple fact as the core of his appeal. Paul returns Onesimus to his master with a letter addressed to the church there, in which Paul explains that Philemon has a moral choice to make. We can see the options. Philemon can choose to free his slave, at great monetary loss to himself, or he can choose to keep living in the inconsistency of owning a person who is supposed to be his equal, his brother, his very flesh and blood in Christ. If Philemon has other options, I don’t know what they might be. But while we can imagine these two options, Paul never lays them out. He doesn’t even assume that there are only two: the way of life, or the way of death. Instead, he says, “I am confident that you will do the right thing and even more, because I know what a big heart you have.” And then in the conclusion of the letter, Paul says, “By the way, prepare a guest room for me, because I’ll probably be released soon, and I plan to come visit.” What situation will Paul find when he arrives? What will Philemon have done?

Presumably, since this letter became part of the Bible, Onesimus did make it back to his master. Maybe he showed up just in time for Sunday service, and he had this letter from the community’s spiritual leader read aloud, as was the custom. Clearly, Philemon did not just tear up the letter in anger. It became treasured, and it continued to be read in worship in the surrounding communities … and we read it today. I think this letter changed Philemon’s life, and Onesimus’s life, and then the lives of a great many other people. And this is largely because Paul did not tell Philemon what to do. He reminded him of the vows he had made at his baptism, and then he trusted him to be true to those vows with his entire life—with his money, with his possessions, and in his human relationships.

Jesus asks us to do the same: to count the cost before deciding what commitments we will make, and then to make those commitments boldly. He asks us not to take any of the wonderful gifts of life for granted, but to use them and to enjoy them in the service of others, living fully and joyfully. Will there be a cost? Absolutely. But the more we commit our lives to Christ, the more willing we will be to pay any price to free others. Amen.