Before this sermon was preached, the church read these lessons and prayed this prayer:
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
As of this week, I’ve been a priest in the church for twelve years, the last seven of which I spent on the campus of a public university, at a missionary outpost of the Episcopal Church. Working among heathens, I mean, university students. Bright, young, minds. It was an incredible honor to walk with those students, to get close and see what God is up to with them, what God is showing them. To be a person of faith on campus, as a student, in a living and visible way in 2019, well, it’s something of a miracle, and one the church does well to come alongside, support, and to be interested in.
Of course, that doesn’t mean my only conversations on campus were with people of faith. Far from it. Across seven years I talked to a lot of folks who had either stopped or never started believing. “Fr. Jonathan, I don’t know how to tell you this, but…”
My mechanic one time told me, talking about his own college-aged son who’d stopped going to church, he said, “I think a little bit of science can hurt a person’s faith, but a lot of science can make it stronger. It’s stopping at a little that presents some challenges.” Same with philosophy, I said. Universities, it turns out, have plenty of a little of both.
So I would find myself from time to time at coffee with a friend self-identifying as agnostic or atheistic and I would remind them, “You know, you atheists and we Christians have an awful lot in common. In fact, atheists have made some tremendous contributions to the Christian faith. No really, you are always reminding us how dangerous a thing it is to worship false gods. You and I both believe it’s a good thing to guard your loyalties from unworthy idols. True, we disagree on the gods we don’t believe in, but just think! In a world that will worship sports teams and Botox amidst all kinds of other things, you and I agree that our worship is worth reserving only for that which is holy and true. Thank you for that witness and reminder.”
The earliest Christians were accused of being atheists. In a marketplace full of gods, pluralist Rome, melting pot of deities, it wasn’t such a big deal to believe in a god, it was a big deal to believe in just one god, to say, as the Jews and Christians did, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God; the Lord is one.” This put Christians a half-step at odds with their culture, and especially with the Roman emperors, who liked to join the game of build-a-god and claim divine status for themselves. They’d print on the coins that got traded across the empire, next to their faces, “Caesar so and so, son of god.”
For Jews and Christians, it was bad enough that they lived in occupied territories ruled by blasphemous politicians claiming to be gods, but to be forced to carry the coins, the little pagan graven images in their pockets, in order to navigate the market and put food on the table added insult to injury. After all, the first Christians took to heart the commandment to “have no other gods before me.”
All of this is background for appreciating the truly shrewd, subversive instruction Paul gives Timothy in the epistle today. “I urge you to pray,” Paul says. I know, it sounds unremarkable, boring. I urge you to pray is just the kind of thing you’d expect a preacher to say. Don’t forget kids, brush your teeth and say your prayers! But in the immortal words of Rafiki, “Look harder…”
“First of all,” Paul writes, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone (so far so good), for kings and all who are in high positions (why not?), so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity (read, pray no one starts a war while we’re asleep). This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For (news to some, the truth is) there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus…”
Did you catch all that there? Pray for the kings. God pities their ignorance and desires that even they would come to know the truth about the world. Forget the coins and absurd inscriptions. Pray for the kings who think they are gods. Maybe nobody told them, but there’s only one God. So I urge you to pray. Pray for the politicians, bless their hearts, who think the cosmos revolves around them. Who think salvation comes from congress. Who believe the end is in their hands. Poor things. Lord, give them the good sense to let us live in peace and quiet. And, Lord, while you’re at it, help us to remember that, no matter how many robocalls from unknown area codes they throw at us in election years, no matter how earnestly they attempt to persuade us otherwise, to make us accomplices to their delusions of grandeur, help us remember that you are God and they are not.
I was sitting across a table at dinner from William Cavanaugh, a political theologian, hero of mine, who - to my shock and astonishment - had just suggested to our dinner party that we should consider unplugging from the news of the day in order to keep our sanity. Turn off your phones! He said. “But Dr. Cavanaugh,” I objected, “There are people who would call that a tremendous exercise in privilege, say it’s irresponsible. Sure, they’ll tell me, straight middle class white guy, you can plug your ears and pretend it’s not happening. No skin off your back. What would you say to that person?” Dr. Cavanaugh nodded. “It’s a fair point. I suppose it depends on how you understand unplugging.” I asked him, “Well, how do you do it?” He said, “I unplug from the media madness by going to church, where my family and I were recently assigned a refugee family, Muslims from Syria, to partner with. Once a week, we play games and take them to Target, so they can get what they need. Only our sons speak a common language, so it’s awkward and clumsy, but…”
“Wait, you unplug by spending time with your church-sponsored Syrian, Muslim refugee family? That’s crazy. Literally no means that when they say they’re unplugging...That’s - a kingdom not of this world.” “Yeah,” he shrugged. “It’s what our church invited us to do.”
Pray for the politicians, bless their hearts. They don’t know what to do with a creativity as defiant as church; one that invites us to be part of an alternative people who agree that our worship is worth reserving only for what is holy and true.
Speaking of things holy and true. I wonder if remembering that only God is God and worthy of our worship isn’t also a helpful key for unlocking the mess of a parable Jesus gives us today. I say mess of a parable because by the end Jesus is piling on explanations like spaghetti noodles on a dinner plate. Of course the final takeaway is “You cannot serve both God and wealth.” And because we Christians appreciate the danger of worshiping false gods, I find Jesus’s highlighting the story as a matter of God v. Wealth (idolatry) helpful. It saved me from my initial assumption stated nowhere in the story is that one of the lead parts, the part of the rich man, is played by God. Unlikely.
In case you aren’t persuaded by Jesus’s one-liner at the end, consider that the story that follows this story is about a poor man, Lazarus, in heaven and a rich man whose name Jesus fails to mention being licked by flames in hell. So the likelihood is high that God is elsewhere in our story.
Maybe it’s obvious, but it’s still worth appreciating. The confession God is not the rich man is not always easy for us to see or believe all the way. We can tell we are being tempted to believe that the rich man is God when we, from time to time, take wealth to be a sign of God’s favor in our own lives and in the lives of others; when we regard people according to their dollar value or the position we think we stand to gain from them. The temptation is ingrained in us to the point of reflex, simple fact. But then God shows up elsewhere in the story, shouting “Not it!” as we try to pin God down, and just then we discover some of the other gods Christians don’t believe in.
If God is not the rich man, the manager is performing his life for an insidious something other than God, caught up in a system making false promises, extracting moral injuries, in exchange for a status, a position he’s betraying others to keep a hold of. Then the plot unfolds, he loses his job but, much more than that, he loses whatever it was he thought he was getting in exchange. In what will later be commended as our hero’s shrewdness, the manager cuts some deals, gives up what he’s already lost, and resigns himself to life lived with the poor, to life as the poor. Among friends.
At the point Storyteller Jesus is content to close the book and call that the story’s happy ending. The manager having found eternal homes with the also-rans of society. No wonder they tried to shut him up and run him off. No wonder most folks said “No thanks” and opted for the other, shinier, more compelling, gods instead.
But not Christians. Taking our cue from the atheists, we believe it matters what you worship. We believe in one God, the creeds have taught us to say. And we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Monotheism, believing in just one God, doesn’t come naturally to human beings. That’s why, when a person desires to be baptized, the church says, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’ve got some other gods to put down. Here, let us help you.”
Cue the prayer book’s baptismal liturgy: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? I renounce them. Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? I renounce them. Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? I renounce them.
And then, after turning to Jesus and professing the faith, the earliest baptizands were stripped of their clothes, lest a false god touch the water, lest the symbols get confused, lest it not be clear that it’s just the one God claiming this life for God. The rest gets stripped away.
Knowing that the world is full of false gods to distract us, the desert fathers of the early church fled to the desert and prayed that God would meet them there. Occasionally, they reported visions. The risen Christ appearing with radiant skin, in beautiful, expensive robes. Seasonal inventory at Nieman Marcus. They’d flee these visions, convinced that they were impostor appearances of the devil, unconvinced that extravagant robes were the uniform of the same crucified and risen Christ who promises God’s kingdom to the poor. Perhaps not coincidentally, the prophets of scripture, like Jeremiah today, are continually looking to Israel’s care for the poor as the lead indicator of Israel’s faithfulness; that is, their belief in just the one God.
Believing in just the one God, being a Christian, doesn’t come naturally. We need God’s help and we need the church, that is, we need practice and practices, we need one another and others, the gift of holy friends. Friends whose friendships make us holier for having been made friends. Friends who will help us live more truthfully than we would have lived without them. Holy friends who will take our hands and pry our fingers loose of the idols when we fall for them. Friends who can be trusted to help open our hearts, help us put down our lies, and make us God’s generous people in the world.
The Good News is that God has given us help, God’s own self, and plenty of holy friends who believe our worship is worth reserving only for that which is holy and true. Thank God that in Christ Jesus God has given us everything we need to be God’s generous, Spirited people in the world. What a treasure. Christ IS our treasure. What a gift.