Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ignatius of Loyola

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler

In verse 4 of our reading from Proverbs today, the writer asserts that having lots of money can indeed be considered a gift from God. He writes, “The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.” I wondered at first whether the word here for “riches” had a figurative sense, but no. The Hebrew word means, literally, “making money.” And sometimes the Proverbs do fall into rather simplistic forms of conventional wisdom: if you do this good thing, this other good thing will be the guaranteed result. Certainly there are preachers in our time who will point to this verse and say, “See? God want you to have a Ferrari in your driveway!”

But there’s a much larger context here, of course. Regardless of whether you think riches are a direct gift or even a reward from God, we are told in the same passage that it is not a particular virtue to try to get rich. Personal integrity is of higher value.

image from Wikipedia
Today is the feast day of Ignatius of Loyola, sixteenth-century Spanish knight, hermit, priest, and theologian. I feel a special kinship with Ignatius because during my high school years I lived in the town of St. Ignace, Michigan—named so by the Jesuit missionaries who made first contact with the Ojibway people in Northern Michigan in the late 1600s.

Ignatius started out as a brash, glory-seeking knight. During the Italian War of 1521-1526, at the Battle of Pamplona, he was severely wounded. As he was recovering at Loyola, Ignatius underwent a spiritual conversion. He decided to serve only God, and not his own glory or Spain’s. He then proceeded to develop a series of spiritual exercises to order his life, and he shared them with friends. Later, while studying for the priesthood, he and six companions founded the Society of Jesus … the Jesuits. The Jesuits took a vow of poverty and dedicated their lives to serving the poor.

How interesting! They didn’t dedicate their lives to getting rich and then giving much of the money away. They chose to remain poor. As money landed in their hands, they passed it on, keeping only enough to maintain a bare existence. This was Ignatius’ perception of what it means always to put God first.

We might look at it this way: money is a tool that we use in this life in order to exert control over our environment. Anytime we find ourselves with that particular ability, we can thank God for allowing us that measure of freedom, whether or not we see the money as coming directly from God. But our money is by no means the essence of who we are as God’s creatures.

I don’t know whether this means that those of us who maintain a certain level of material comfort are dishonoring God. Certainly we don’t all have the same capacity for a life of constant discomfort. But often I do ask myself, “Do I have too much?” And it’s probably a good question for all of us to ask ourselves. Also: “By having the luxuries I have, am I keeping basic necessities from others, even in a way that’s hard to perceive or change? Where do I choose to invest, and do the companies in which I invest honor the rights of human beings who have little control over their circumstances?” These are hard questions, and we may not like the answers. But they open up all sorts of possibilities for spiritual growth. I’m sure Ignatius would not left us off the hook, either.

I saw something going around Facebook this week. It said, in essence, “Poverty is not merely about not having enough money. It is not having enough money, and also never having the opportunity to get enough money.” As a person who began in a life of privilege, Ignatius chose poverty in order to stand in solidarity with those who were chronically poor. And as a high-profile person who willingly denied a comfortable life, he called attention to the forces of injustice that keep large swaths of the world impoverished.

My colleague the Rev. Sarah Monroe in Aberdeen just received a $24,000 grant to work on alleviating poverty in that community. Furthermore, she plans to use her work as a case study in order for the Episcopal Church to learn how we might address poverty in other contexts. I am in awe of people who do this sort of work—embedding themselves in an uncomfortable situation in order to help others get what they need to survive.

So Sarah’s ministry will be in my prayers. And when I think of her and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Aberdeen, I will also think of Ignatius of Loyola and the good example he gave us 500 years ago. Amen.

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