Sunday, September 29, 2013

Give Like You Are God's Own
(the gospel's tellbull and wonderful news)

My kids have this new favorite bedtime storybook. It’s called, “Count the Monkeys.” The book is about, well, counting monkeys, but the joke of the book is that there are no monkeys in it. On the story’s first page, there’s a cobra that has scared away the monkeys. Then some mongooses come and scare away the cobra. Some crocodiles come next and scare away the mongooses. Then some bears, some bees, bee keepers, wolves, lumberjacks, more lumberjacks, and, finally... polka-dotted, bagpipe-playing rhinoceroses with bad breath - each group scaring away the ones arrived before them. With the arrival of the rhinos, toward the end, the stage is finally set to count the monkeys. But, then, on the next page, there’s this devastating message: “Oh no. It looks like we’re out of pages. This is terrible. We made it to the end and there are zero monkeys in this book. Now we’ll never get to count the monkeys.” And this is my wife’s favorite part, because she knows that Jude, our youngest, - who hangs on every word - will yell as she reads it, “Oh no! TELLbull! TELLbull!” It’s the cutest terrible thing you ever saw.

Today, I have some TELLbull news. Only it’s not especially cute. It’s real talk, and it’s difficult. And there are no mongooses to scare it away. In Luke’s gospel, we receive the difficult news that material success in this life is not a reliable, positive indicator of the health of your life with God. Prosperity in this life is not God’s endorsement of you. Contrary to everything American consumer capitalism will tell you, having stuff doesn’t mean you’ve got it figured out. 

Now, I’m well aware that, for a growing number of people, this is not terrible news, because closeness with God and the good health of one’s relationship with God are not on the short list of their practical considerations for daily life. But presumably, you are not among these people. Relationship with God is important to you. You are glad to be in the presence of God. I hope you are glad to be in the presence of God. Let’s take a second; turn and tell a neighbor, “I’m glad to be here.” But even you who enjoy the presence of God and are glad to be here may be tempted toward a twinge of insecurity in light of tonight’s terrible news. After all, and here’s the deeper question, if you can’t look at something concrete in your life - like your stock holdings, for example, or perhaps, closer to home, your coursework, job prospects, or dating life - to know for sure you are making the grade, how can you know for sure that you’re making the grade? And if you can’t know that, how can you know what it is to be good; how can you know what’s really important? What if, left to yourself, you can’t? This is the bafflement of the rich man of tonight’s gospel who finds his world and his every expectation turned upside down on its head. In life, this man had been admired and independent; had had all the answers. Now, he is pitied and helpless; alone in his questions. What went wrong? The rich man’s dilemma is picked up, mockingly, in the title-song of Pink Floyd’s 9th album, ‘Wish You Were Here.’ The song begins,

So you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

So Jesus’ parable about a rich man who appears to have read the signs wrong exposes an existential fear - a deep and personal insecurity - about our ability to know what’s really real. But it and of itself, this fear does not account for how it is we end up trying to justify our existence primarily by our wealth. How is it that followers of the Jesus who said, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” - and who was crucified by the state - learn to think good measures for faithfulness might include six-figured salaries and 401Ks? 

It’s not just a rhetorical question. As I’ve already hinted, I think our national context is the beginning of an answer that, in part, accounts for the existence of money-centric Christians, Christians who fight questions of meaning with commercial profitability. By that, I mean it’s not entirely surprising that inheritors of Manifest Destiny should look to wealth as a sign of God’s favor, right? It’s less surprising still that a nation whose people are publicly referred to by our leaders as ‘consumers’ would see their value to their manifestly destined country in terms of their ability to buy expensive things for the good of the economy. So in one Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin tells his dad, “As the wage earner here, it’s your responsibility to show some consumer confidence and start buying things that will get the economy going and create profits and employment. Here’s a list of some big-ticket items I’d like for Christmas. I hope I can trust you to do what’s right for our country.” Undergirding an understanding of what it is to be American is an implicit commitment - and assumed ability - to buy stuff. In the American understanding, economic consumption is equated with being a person of value. 

So basic is this understanding of personhood and value that it can be hard to imagine an alternative to it. But "Jesus" names the alternative that would heal our imaginations.

So a man who did his part to consume for the national good ends up in hell. The reversal seems to catch him by surprise. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them that being a good, MasterCharging, American patriot ain’t what it used to be; evidently, earthly wealth should no longer be taken as an implicit sign of God’s approval of those who have wealth. Abraham tells the rich man that his brothers have received sufficient warning through Moses and the prophets. The rich man insists that they’ll listen - that they’ll see it - if some one comes to them, risen from the dead. Because we know that Jesus is the one who will rise from the dead, we know that Luke’s gospel is inviting us to see Jesus as the poor man on whom the story hangs. In the words of Paul, Jesus, “ though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Elsewhere, Isaiah will say in words the earliest Church heard as referring to Jesus, “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.” This is what the God who alone is good, and who has purchased our souls with a price, looks like - a lot like Lazarus.

So this is the TELLbull and wonderful news: material success in this life is not God’s endorsement of your being; but Jesus is. Jesus, by his life, death, and resurrection, is God’s emphatic affirmation of your worth, no matter what else happens in this life. Your measure is not determined by consumer price indices. You are not the sum of your expense receipts. You are of value, of immeasurable worth, simply because you belong to and are loved by God. Your measure was sealed in your baptism as God’s dearly beloved child. You’ve got nothing for which to grasp, nothing to withhold or lose. You are free to touch the poor man. You are free to give freely. Not because your giving enters you in a raffle to win a better prize, but because in the space of your giving, you most fully receive the gift of Christ.

The self-emptying of God has filled the chalice of salvation. This is the heart of the Christian’s understanding; this is the heartbeat of the Kingdom of God: that in the poverty of God revealed on the cross, our own poverty is exposed, touched, and healed. So we can no longer look down on the sister or brother in need and say there is a more important thing. 

One last story. I met a friend who told me she had only recently become a Christian. The single, best thing in his life. Two years now, and counting. We talked about transitions of friendships after her becoming a Christian, family acceptance and lack thereof, insights and surprises, on and on for a while. I listened. Finally, she looked up and said, “But you know what, there’s this nutritionist I’ve been reading for the last twenty years - her teachings have changed my life. I’ve been reading her books and shaping my life as a result of what I’ve read, and if I stopped following her teachings tomorrow, my life would be radically different, like all-over different, night and day from where I am now - a lot more would change if I stopped following her than if I stopped following Jesus. I’m not saying this is a good thing,” he said. “I’m just saying.”

My friend’s confession stayed with me that day, and late into the night. I was haunted by the reality that my friend was likely not alone in this honest struggle. Finally it hit me. If I could have had that moment over, I think I would have asked her...if she tithed - how much she gave. I know, a disappointing, lame, and churchy answer. But - hang with me here - there’s simply no way my friend could have worried that the Christian life wasn’t changing her own life enough if she had been giving large sums of money away - in ways that sought to mimic and participate in the generous self-giving of God. 

Real change - the life that really is life - says St. Paul - experienced not just in the pinch of economic sacrifices like giving up cable, but generosity conceived as the space, says the gospel, in which we receive and grow into our baptismal identity as children of God defined not by what we buy, but by God’s love for us. We live our true identities as God's children in the giving. In the loving. In the reaching. Not consumers of crap, but children of God. For this you were made. You are God’s child. You are so much more than the sum of your expense receipts. Give like you are God’s own.


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