Pentecost XVII – Proper 20 – September 20, 2015
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Wealth in God’s Economy
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA
Jesus is giving the same lesson in chapter 9 of Mark that we heard in chapter 8 in our gospel lesson last Sunday. Today we have a second prediction of the coming betrayal and of Jesus’ death. In this hard message about what is to unfold betrayal, death… and then resurrection… the disciples still do not understand. How could they? Maybe they could wrap their minds around concepts of betrayal and death… but resurrection? What does that mean for them? What does it mean for the future of this movement of which they are a part… and have invested the whole of their lives? What would resurrection look like? The notion was beyond the framework of their current understanding. It didn’t make sense to twelve. All seemed to have been going along just fine. They were enjoying this great adventure with Jesus travelling from place to place, hearing his stories and teachings, and witnessing marvelous things.
But Jesus was beginning to feel pressed about getting the message across to the twelve about what was going to be happening in the not-to-distant future. Jesus was on a trajectory towards Jerusalem and confrontation with the earthly powers-that-be that lay ahead. Life as the disciples had known it was going to change.
In our lesson today the group is on the move. Jesus had gotten them out away from towns and crowds, away from parents seeking healing for their children, away from the curious masses straining to get a glimpse of the itinerant teacher they had heard so much about. Jesus gets the disciples away and alone, out on the road past Galilee, to relay the hard prediction once again. … and once again the disciples do not understand. … and fear begins to seep into their hearts and minds. The twelve were afraid to ask questions “teacher, what does this all mean?” Rather than asking to learn more, rather than trying to delve into heart of the lesson, rather than staying with the raw painful images that Jesus had just set before the disciples, the whole group flips the channel channel, changes the subject, and promptly delve into a contest with one another… seeking to win the “Who is the best disciple?” competition. What does a teacher do with a rag tag bunch like that?
When they arrive in Capernaum Jesus calls the disciples on their bickering and boasting by asking “What were you arguing about on your way over here?” The group, that had been so very animated just a few moments before, fell silent. Jesus had their number and he had their attention. This is what they call a “teachable moment.” Jesus now shifts the lesson from, what for him are visceral, palpable issues of his own coming death and the big news and paradox about life conquering death. Jesus shifts the lesson from ideas that the group could not yet wrap their minds around, or see, or touch, or begin to imagine.
In this teachable moment Jesus changes his approach by giving a down-to-earth lesson and illustration in gospel economics… an economics in which death is not the last word… economics that does not focus on Wall Street or the Federal Reserve… not on earthly economics that measures fiscal health in dollars and cents, or uses metrics and calculations that factor in new housing starts or sales of durable goods. … not the kind of economics that waits with baited breath to hear from Janet Yellen about whether or not the prime interest rate is going to be raised or not. Jesus is not talking about economics in terms in shekels, drachmas, or dollars. He is talking about God’s economy in which paradox is at its heart, in which our earthly ideas and notions about wealth and success are challenged, and turned upside down and inside out. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all… and servant of all.” Success and wealth in Gods economy is not achieved by standing on the backs of others, or by having categories of winners and losers. Success, wealth and prosperity, in God’s realm, is when all of God’s beloved are valued and have a seat at the table, and are recognized, and invited to participate and offer their contributions and gifts no matter how small or large. In God’s economy “Whoever wants to be first must last of all and servant of all.” To illustrate this lesson Jesus takes a child, puts it among them, takes the child in his arms and says to his students… This is where you will find God’s treasure for you, and for our world… it is as simple and as complicated as this…
It is easy for us in our YouTube saturated age to go all mushy over the image of a child especially if the child says or does something cute and outrageously adorable… giggling uncontrollably, or dancing with delight and abandon in ways that only little children seem to do. If we think that Jesus’ lesson was about the heart warming innocence of children, as we know them, we are missing the point.
In Jesus’ day were children valued very differently than in our time… The value of the small, young version of a human being was not in their present form, but lay mostly their potential for future productivity. A child would grow up to procreate and produce the next generation…. and carry on the family name… and be care takers to their elder parents. As workers children were considered somewhat useful, but not nearly as much so as they would when they were grown. Child mortality rates were high. It was probably best not to get too emotionally attached to the young. Two thousand years ago children were barely acknowledged, barely seen. They were considered among the least. When Jesus lifts up the child, he is not saying that the child is the model of discipleship or that innocence is the ideal. Rather, Jesus is offering a tangible, real life illustration about the meaning of true discipleship… in an economy in which the last shall be first. The one who welcomes the child, the one who honors, values and serves the child… who in this story represents the least in any society… the one who dares to step away from earthly measures of wealth and success…. is a true disciple who will not strive to be better, more powerful, more recognized than anyone else. Getting to the head of the line means letting go of worldly measures of success. Success in God’s realm is measured in paradox. It is measured by the sincerity and daring of fully welcoming the outcast, the beggar, the invisible poor, refugees without a country, the forgotten veteran, the warehoused prisoner, those lost to mental illness, those lost to addiction, the ones who are on the very periphery of our limited vision, the ones who, too often, are deemed unworthy and unlovable. The child represents those of any time or place who are at the bottom of society’s heap… least valued by society and the world, and too often tossed aside as expendable. The economy of the Gospel makes the welfare and integrity of every human being the gold standard.
In Christ, we are challenged to let go of what we think we understand… in order to see things differently… to live into God’s economy with Gospel vision… The “up-side-down” truth of the Gospel is that it challenges us to let go of the way we have been holding tightly to our limited understandings of wealth and prosperity and success. The upside down truth is the seeming folly of our king riding triumphantly into Jerusalem on a humble donkey… to be crowned with thorns… and elevated on a cross… And it is out of this upside down kingship… through the confusing painful scene at Golgotha on Good Friday… that we have been given the gift of new life in the resurrection… a new life in which we were invited to be Easter people and to live into God’s rich and paradoxical economy. It is difficult to understand… but the only way we are able to recognize Easter out of the depths of Good Friday’s sorrow… is not to stay caught in the grips of fear and despair, but to enter into it, dare to look at hard truths when we would rather look away, to receive the experience, and then let go into this new way of discipleship and dedication to God’s way… and in such letting go… we can know new life and live into God’s vision of true wealth.
Shifting systems, living into God’s economy as a people of the resurrection, is actually less challenging than we might imagine… it is a simple, prayerful gesture really… It means shifting our focus from fixating on whether Wall Street posts gains or losses… and letting go into Christ’s boundless love and hospitality… truly seeing and welcoming those who our different from us…. … inviting the least among us… releasing ourselves into God’s wealth that cannot be counted in dollars and cents… God’s wealth and success is not about measuring our worthiness, and those of others, in terms of winners and losers. True wealth in God’s realm is about living into the mystery, the paradox and the love that is much more than we can ask for or ever imagine…
I pray you, us, and the whole world… wealth and prosperity in God’s economy.