Everything that we have, that we enjoy, that makes us human and makes our lives worth living comes from God and is given into our keeping. Our homes, our children, even the breath we breathe are gifts we have to care for. Every single day – really, many times a day – we make decisions involve choices of how to use our time, expend our energy, or invest our resources. These are all stewardship decisions.
Here’s a brief story for Stewardship Season. I’ve read several different versions of it, but this one is Jack Kornfield’s:
A famous rabbi living in Europe was visited one day by a man who had traveled by ship from New York to see him. The man came to the great rabbi's dwelling, a large house on a street in a European city. A servant directed the visitor to the rabbi's room, which was in the attic. The traveler entered to find the master living in a room with a bed, a chair, and a few books. The man had expected much more.
After he and the rabbi had exchanged greetings, he asked, "Rabbi, where are your things?"
The rabbi paused, and then quietly asked in return, "Well, where are yours?"
His visitor replied, "But, Rabbi, I'm only passing through." And the master answered, "So am I, So am I."*
The lectionary, during these weeks of stewardship season, provides us with many of Jesus’ teachings relating to wealth (and Jesus in fact spoke quite frequently about wealth and the choices people made regarding it.) Today’s Gospel is one of those, Mark’s version of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Man, a story that is also told in Matthew and Luke.
As we just heard, a man runs up to Jesus as Jesus is “setting out on a journey”, kneeling before him, asks “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus reminds him of the Commandments to be followed – he must not murder, steal, lie, cheat, or commit adultery, and must honor his father and mother.
The young man declares that he is already doing these things. Mark tells us that “Jesus loved him”, and told him this:
You lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Mark tells us the young man was shocked, and walked away, grieving, “for he had many possessions”.
Jesus then chose to reinforce teaching to the disciples – How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God, and offering one of his most dramatic and memorable metaphors, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
We don’t know what the rich young man wanted or expected in approaching Jesus. To my mind, he seems to have approached with humility and sincerity. It really seems like he was a good person, a good citizen, living his life in the way his faith tradition prescribed. And yet somehow he felt there was something missing, some truth he had not yet understood which would offer him eternal life.
I wonder whether the young man didn’t offer a clue to his problem in the language he used in his question to Jesus?
He looks at the life of fulfillment, of perfect righteousness and right relationship with God as something more he can “inherit” and thereby, presumably, “own”, beyond what already fills his life.
Perhaps he lives a life dominated by possessions and he is caught up in a worldview in which meaning and fulfillment come from “possession”. He doesn’t lie or cheat or steal, but perhaps his wealth has insulated him from true connection with others and with the suffering that so many in his time and place experience.
The thought of divesting himself of all of those possessions, to take up with Jesus and the disciples with just the shirt on his back is a leap that it seems he cannot make.
This is the fundamental challenge in living a life of stewardship – remembering that, like the visitor and the rabbi, we are “just passing through”, and that the blessings we receive are just that – gifts given into our care, for us to hold in open hands and make use of wisely, to make the world a better place.
The rich young man’s wealth, rather than becoming the vehicle through which, by letting go, he could move beyond himself into a fuller life, instead became his prison and his source of grief.
Jesus calls us to live lives of generosity, and promises that it will bring us joy.
Generosity is always based in the fundamental knowledge that we have enough, and we can afford to give away the extra that we don’t really need. The trick, it seems, is in recognizing how little we really need.
To live generously, we need to truly trust that God will continue to provide what we need, that if we give away our time, our energy, our money, we will still have enough left.
To live generously, we have to truly believe that other people are as important as we are, as worthy of love and of blessing.
As we enjoy these beautiful days of fall in Central Mass, savor the last gifts from the garden and make ready for winter, let us notice our blessings, and let us be thankful for them.
Let us equally notice the needs outside ourselves in the world around us, and let us see the ways in which we can make a difference.
Let us keep our hands open as we hold the gifts with which we are entrusted, and let us remember to share – ourselves, our time, and our treasure.
I invite you to pry with me that we might be freed from the fears that cause us to grasp things too tightly.
To pray that God might help us to recognize the opportunities that surround us to live life generously, and to find freedom in trusting God’s care for us.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen
We declare our confidence, each week, that through the Bible “The Spirit is [speaking] to the Church”, and we sang as children that we can believe Jesus loves us because “the Bible tells me so.” So what do we do when what the Bible says seems to run counter to the loving, compassionate and just God in whom we place our faith?
We’ve talked about this before, but I think it may be time, again, to remind ourselves that there is more than one way to understand the nature of scripture, and then let’s take a look at what we have heard this morning.
Among many ways in which one can approach the Bible, at least two are relevant to our consideration today.
One approach maintains that the Bible is “Divinely Inspired”, assuming that God has directed what is written. This position maintains that what Bible tells us what God wants us to hear and know, and that, even though it may be hard, we need to accept the words of scripture as literal truth.
The other approach holds a more open-ended understanding of what we mean by “truth”. For this position, being “Divinely Inspired” assumes that the testimonies in scripture arise out of real human encounters with God that have changed human lives. From this perspective,
The Bible’s authors used words to help people – both themselves and others - make sense of their experiences of God:
They wrote to preserve truths they had discovered;
and they wrote to inspire faith in others coming after.
The Bible’s writings were shaped by the imagination of writers seeking to convey something essential and profound, but limited by of limitations of language.
God, in this way of thinking, was moving in lives of the writers, but not guiding their pens.
Jewish writer Judith Plaskow provides a metaphor I especially love. She cites the ancient Jewish understanding that God’s Word existed before creation – we might note that the Gospel of John opens with this same idea - and that this essential wisdom and essence is communicated in written sacred scripture. BUT, she says, written scripture is only “outer garment”, something visible, cloaking true Word of God that lies hidden within.*
I’m sure it is obvious that my interest lies in finding the Bible’s truths that lie deep within and behind the human words on the page.
The first troubling passage this morning comes from the Book of Job. While I don’t think it’s actually the most important for our faith, I’ll confess that Job is the book of the Bible I love the most. But we have to dig a bit to get beyond the story we heard this morning.
The passage we heard today is the beginning and end of the book’s Prologue, and it is a terrible story. In the heavenly court, God boasts of the faithfulness and righteousness of Job. Satan, (which litrally means “the Accuser”) suggests that Job is faithful and righteous because God takes good care of him, and suggests that Job would not be so faithful otherwise. God rises to the challenge and enters into a wager. Satan can test Job’s faith by inflicting whatever misfortunes he chooses – and so the Accuser kills Job’s children, destroys his wealth, and finally assaults Jobs own health – but Job retains faith in God.
This story is the basis for the familiar reference to the “patience of Job”.
Job’s “patience” does not last beyond chapter 2, however.
The Book of Job takes on the very complex question of suffering, asking, “If God is just, why do the innocent suffer?”
The prologue we heard today is not substance of Job. The prologue is followed by more than thirty chapters of poetry – a dialogue between Job and his friends, and then between Job and God. Job does not remain patient and submissive, but rather, cries out in anger and anguish to understand how God could allow injustice.
And here’s the thing: the Prologue (and the Epilogue at the end of the book) are taken from an ancient folktale that the poet/author of the book adopted to provide framework for the theological work that takes place in the poetry. The God-and-Satan wager is a borrowed story that provides literary context for theological reflection.
In the next three weeks, we will hear more key excerpts from Job. I look forward to it.
The second passage that makes me cringe today involves Jesus’ teachings on divorce. It is painful because even the best divorce is a painful thing, and virtually all of our lives have been touched by the dissolution of marriages – in our families if not our own. The passage, on the surface, involves Jesus prohibiting divorce and judging – quite negatively - those whose marriages fail. Not easy to listen to.
And further, Jesus, speaking within a particular historical context, speaks of marriage as solely involving relationships of one man and one woman. Today we understand that deeply committed, lasting, sacramental relationships exist between two women, two men, or, indeed, persons whose identity is gender nonbinary.
But again – let’s dig a bit.
The passage conveys an episode in the ongoing conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities – this time, about legality of divorce. Jesus asks for a review of Mosaic law that allowed men to divorce. Then Jesus imposes a more stringent understanding of nature of divorce, and continues teaching to the disciples: marriage is permanent, and so whoever divorces and marries another commits adultery.
How are we to understand this? The context is key.
In his ongoing conflict with the Pharisees, Jesus frequently reframed the way the Law is interpreted, to provide a more nuanced and compassionate understanding, and this is yet another example: Jesus’ teaching reframes question of divorce from legal concern to a relational concern, reminding his listeners of God’s intent in creation, that humans practice faithfulness to one another.
Jesus’ remarks are directed to those – specifically those men – who divorce in order to marry another. Jesus does not want divorce to be treated as a legal loophole to justify adultery.
As in many other teachings, Jesus’ concern is for the vulnerable in society – divorced women and their children were among the most socially and economically powerless in first century Palestine. In his arguing against divorce he takes a position in support of their needs.
Having concluded that these passages don’t necessarily mean what they say on the surface – what DO they offer us, especially in a season where we are thinking about our identity as stewards of God’s blessings?
We are blessed by and entrusted with complex, fragile lives, in “this fragile earth, our island home”. We are blessed by and entrusted with one another. May the God who is the ground and source of all relationships help us to live into our call. Amen.
So let’s recap. The first thing to remember about today’s narrative is the fact that Jesus had traveled into foreign territory, to the region of Tyre. It was a gentile region, a pagan region, not a place where a faithful Jew would travel without specific need.
And I think Jesus did have a need - he needed a break from the exhausting intensity of demand, rejection and conflict he had been experiencing among his own people.
Here’s what Mark tells us that he had been up to in the days and weeks before his sojourn in Tyre:
After feeding the five thousand, Jesus’ attempt to carve out some time for prayer was interrupted by the need to rescue the disciples, caught in a storm on the sea.
Landing on shore, (and virtually everywhere he went,) he was surrounded by crowds bringing those in need of healing.
His healing ministry was then, in turn, interrupted by conflict with the religious leadership, as he was repeatedly challenged over his disciples’ disregard of the Jewish Purity Law traditions.
He probably headed to Tyre to get a break, to recharge and renew his spirit. Entering the place he would stay, he asked that his presence and privacy be safeguarded; Mark tells us
He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.
But rumor of Jesus’ power had spread through even the pagan countryside. The daughter of a local woman, a gentile of Syrophoenician background, was suffering: she was gripped by an unclean spirit and could not find rest or peace.
It’s a measure of the mother’s desperation to help her daughter that she was willing to seek out the Jewish stranger, approach him, humble herself, and ask for aid for her child.
And Jesus’ answer was to dismiss her plea: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But the woman wasn’t to be deterred. Fueled by the passion of a mother’s love, she showed both determination and cleverness as she turned Jesus’ own words back to him: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
And here’s the remarkable moment where the story pivots: rather than chastising the Syrophoenician mother for what could certainly be seen as inappropriate behavior, Jesus rewarded her persistence: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
When we come to this story, every “B year”in our lectionary cycle, I’m bothered by Jesus initial refusal to help the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, and it disturbs me to read what certainly seems to be Jesus’ egregious rudeness to the mother.
I think, however, that there are two things going on here. One is simply Jesus’ exhaustion, the depletion of his basic resources including his patience and his compassion, but the other factor at play is his initial understanding of how the woman’s request fit into his own mission.
When Matthew tells the same story, Jesus explains that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus’ starting point is that the mother’s request falls outside of his scope of responsibility: he already has more than he can handle in teaching and healing his own people, and just can’t take on the problems of the gentile community. The mother’s persistence, however, somehow causes Jesus to pause and reconsider.
And in doing so, he broadens his vision and extends his care to include someone who is NOT his responsibility.
I love the fact of Jesus’ capacity to change his position, to be affected by the depth of love of a mother for her daughter. Unlike so many public figures in our own world, Jesus allows himself to hear feedback, to reconsider, to change and to grow.
The Syrophoenician Woman’s moment of persistence in fact sparks a turning point in Jesus’ Gospel mission. The mother helps the one who is the Chosen, but who is still living into the fullness of the vision God set before him, and to live more fully into his call.
I am also tremendously reassured, somehow, that Jesus struggles with discernment of what is and is not his responsibility, with where he should invest his energies. It’s a question I think about a lot, and I expect that you probably do, too.
Recently I read a wonderful piece by Nadia Bolz-Weber about this very dilemma, and I want to share some of what she has written. (Many of you know Nadia Bolz-Weber; we read one of her books for our summer book discussions in 2019, and she was recently installed as the first “Pastor of Public Witness” in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.) Here’s how she describes the problem – and I warn you that I’m about to read a word you wouldn’t ordinarily hear in a sermon:
…when I check social media it feels like there are voices saying “if you aren’t talking about, doing something about, performatively posting about ___(fill in the blank)___then you are an irredeemably callous, privileged, bigot who IS PART OF THE PROBLEM” and when I am someone who does actually care about human suffering and injustice (someone who feels every picture I see, and story I read) it leaves me feeling like absolute shit. I am left with wondering: am I doing enough, sacrificing enough, giving enough, saying enough about all the horrible things right now to think of myself as a good person and subsequently silence the accusing voice in my head? No. The answer is always no. No I am not. Nor could I. Because no matter what I do, the goal of “enough” is just as far away as when I started.
And yet doing nothing is hardly the answer.
Bolz-Weber offers us an analogy that I find incredibly helpful. She remembers an apartment she once lived in where trying to use her hair dryer when the stereo was on inevitably led to a trip to the circuit breaker panel to reset the breaker. The apartment, she observes, was just not wired to support both stereo and hair dryer on the same circuit.
And so with our own hearts and spirits, she suggests – they simply were not built to “hold, feel, and respond to ….every tragedy, injustice, sorrow and natural disaster happening to every human across the entire planet.”
Nadia encourages us to ask ourselves:
What is mine to do, and what is not mine to do?
What is mine to say, and what is not mine to say?
And then she offers us yet another wonderful analogy: “the world is on fire” she says, and we each have a bucket of water “to help with the fires.” We need to figure out where our water is going to do the most good, and throw it there. She also invites us to be “grateful for the people who are called to work on and respond to worthy issues that are not fires we ourselves are equipped to put out.” *
Jesus struggled as we struggle, facing the fires of the world. He got tired, as we do, and he had a whole lot more water in his bucket. One day in Tyre he decided that he could spare some water for the daughter of an unknown Syrophoenician woman.
May we not be overwhelmed by the fires, but rather, may we be blessed with true discernment of where to throw our water.
“If you can’t take in any more, there’s a reason”, essay published in “The Corners” newsletter, substack.com, August 17, 2021
It turns out that the ship was sailing in an area of the ocean called “the River Sea,” where the mouth of the Amazon River extends an area of fresh water for many miles out into the ocean. I’ll come back to this.
Today’s gospel is an immediate follow up to the story of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude in John’s gospel, which we heard last week.
All four of the gospels include feeding stories; Matthew and Mark actually both include two each. These stories are powerful for several reasons:
I think the stories also work in an effective way because being hungry and thirsty, and then having hunger/thirst satisfied is as powerful metaphor for all of the ways in which we hunger and thirst spiritually – we feel a deep need to make sense of our lives, to feel that our lives matter.
Jesus’ feeding the crowd physically also suggests an assurance that we will be fed spiritually.
And this is what John is addressing in today’s gospel. As always, the fourth gospel, written decades after Matthew, Mark, and Luke, focuses not just on what Jesus did, but also on what Jesus did means – often attributing to Jesus himself lengthy explanations of the mystical implications of his life and actions. The explanations we hear in John’s gospel are probably reflections of the faith of the early church more than they are historical memories of what Jesus actually said.
In this gospel text, then, having just fed the multitudes, Jesus seems to turn on them with accusations:
Jesus’ listeners really do want to be concerned about the right things: “What must we do to perform the works of God?”, they ask. At the same time, they can’t help going back to talking about being fed, and in this, they inadvertently prove Jesus right.
In suggesting that “We’d really like some proof that what you’re saying is true”, they refer to the way their ancestors’ faith was strengthened when the ancestors received manna in the wilderness from Moses. They want to be spiritually focused, but can forget worrying about their hunger.
John concludes passage with one of Jesus’ “I AM” statements that constitute a thread running through the gospel: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
This passage sounds a very familiar gospel theme: both disciples and crowds have a had time hearing and understanding what Jesus has come to teach.
The disciples, despite years of travel with Jesus, still see with eyes of the world, rather than eyes of God’s Realm.
As Kathryn observed last week, faced with hunger of the crowd, they can still see only scarcity: Philip seems rather desperate when he observes that “Six months’ wages would not buy enough.”
The disciples’ worries reflect lives lived with real anxiety over having enough; it’s hard to unlearn the need to worry about providing for the future, despite their actual experience that life with Jesus is a life of abundance. Jesus needed to show them, yet again.
Those in the crowds themselves, despite really wanting to be concerned with living lives faithful to God, also unconsciously revealed the underlying power of their concerns about their worldly needs.
I think John has put his finger on one of the fundamental spiritual struggles that we live with as human beings. We want to focus and direct our lives around what our faith tells us is important, the selfless and generous lives that God calls us to, but we constantly slip back into prioritizing and pursuing the outward symbols of success that the world tells us to value.
Rather than living primarily in gratitude for what God provides, it’s hard to stop fretting over what is missing in our lives - the “something more” that feels unfulfilled.
Even when we manage to free ourselves from material longings - easy to focus on what we don’t have and wish we did have – more time, better health, more love, more recognition…
I don’t mean to suggest that the deficits in our lives are trivial. We have just come through a period of really difficult deprivation as the Covid virus has forced us into isolation, separated families, and caused countless losses. These are not unimportant, and they’re not illusions.
And as you know, the news of the pandemic seems like it is getting worse again. The world has changed as a result of the pandemic, and what lies ahead of us is unclear: we don’t know what familiar parts of life are just not coming back.
When we are worried about whether we will have enough, or how we will manage in a changed world, or hurting over what we have lost, it gets hard to see beyond those concerns.
This is where Booker Washington’s story comes in:
John’s gospel reminds us that God has given us what we need.
The important message in the story of the feeding of the multitude is that God can do very much with very little – that when what we have is blessed by God, what we have is more than enough. Our challenge is to notice what we have, and to cast down our buckets and let ourselves be filled.
We probably spend too much time worrying about the what is to come, rather than living fully in the particulars of the moment.
God loves us as we are. God is ready to bless our strengths, and to use them.
Having begun with the words of one great thinker, I want to leave you leave you with the words of another, writing about a century after Booker T Washington. Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and writer. She says this, in An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith:
No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X [that marks the spot where the treasure is] is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no special equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.*
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