Proper 23: Amos 5: 6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90; Hebrews 3:1-6; Mark 10: 17-27
October 15, 2006
Pastor Mary Blessing,
Vicar, St. Philip’s, Scotts Valley CA
How many times have you heard this story of the “rich man” who refused to give up his wealth to follow Jesus, and thought to yourself “It’s a good thing I’m not rich. I don’t have this guy’s problem. Nothing’s keeping me from inherit eternal life!” Well, that’s pretty much what my attitude has been—I’m not rich. This is not my problem. Until recently. I’ve begun thinking about what it means to be rich—wealthy with money—in a new and different way. I’ve been thinking globally, and suddenly, I realize, I am filthy rich.
A friend of mine, who is from Turkey, traveled home recently. While visiting his parents, he went on-line and showed them the virtual tour of my home in Morgan Hill. His parents sat wide-eyed and exclaimed: “ That’s a home for ONE family? How can that be? It’s big enough for 4 families!” In Turkey, my 4 bdrm., 2.5 bath home would be a palace. On a world wide scale-- I am filthy rich.
The question now becomes, “what am I going to do about it?” I have to ask myself, “Is my money a stumbling block to my relationship with God, or is my money something I can freely give so that it enhances my relationship with God?” I don’t want to make my husband nervous, but, if I took Jesus seriously, wouldn’t I look at the question: “What if I sold my house and gave the money to the poor, or at least a significant portion, and bought a more modest home? Would that please God? Would it help reduce world poverty? And, would it remove a stumbling block I may have in my relationship to God? Let’s consider this from the scriptural point of view:
If we listen to the prophet Amos, as in today’s first lesson, we can hear someone crying out to us to pay attention to the poor. Amos sees that the wealthy of northern Israel (8 centuries before Jesus) did not lived up to their end of the covenant with God. God gave them the promised land. Now they selfishly refuse to do the just and righteous thing. They are not caring for the poor, they are not sharing of their abundance with those who have little or nothing. In fact, he says, they “trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain” Amos warns, they will experience the wrath of God—their homes will be ravaged by war, and they will not be allowed to live in these beautiful “houses of hewn stone”, nor drink the wine of their “pleasant vineyards”. Within 40 years of Amos’ prophecy, Northern Israel was taken in war. Amos tried to hold them accountable, but because of their social injustice and religious arrogance, the people of Israel loose their possessions—they have worshipped their homes and their land more than they have listened to the call of their God.
Likewise, Jesus warns the rich man who comes to him, if he does not sell all that he owns and give it to the poor, he will not inherit eternal life. The rich man clearly believes he has been a righteous, God-loving man, following all the commandments. No doubt, he, like the Pharisees and most the people of Israel, believes that his possessions are a SIGN that he is in FAVOR with God. Israel taught that God blesses the righteous with good things. But Jesus looks within this man’s heart, he LOVES him enough to speak the truth: Jesus knows that these possessions are a stumbling block to the man’s relationship with God. By walking away grieving, the man acknowledges he is more attached to his “stuff’ than he is to doing the right and just thing. If he cannot sell all his stuff and give his money to the poor, then his heart cannot truly be converted. And if his heart is not converted, that is, if he lays his treasure on earth and not in heaven, then, we would say, he does not inherit eternal life. To inherit eternal life means finding that which gives your life its true meaning, that your life will make a difference to this world, and that a legacy will form from the life you have lived. One way this happens is by freely sharing the money you possess, so that others may benefit.
Do you know anyone who has freely given their money to the poor in such a way as to make a significant difference not only in the life of those poor people who received the money, but in a way that truly converted the person’s life from one of selfishness and guilt to one of freedom and wholeness? Of course there is St. Francis of Assisi, whom we heard about a couple weeks ago, and Mother Teresa. But what about someone just a little more “ordinary”. Someone who may not have even started out thinking this giving was for the purpose of gaining “eternal life”, but through the observation of others came to realize that his giving brought “eternal life” not just to him, but to the poor whose lives were changed.
Have you ever heard of Thomas J. White? Some of you may well have heard of Partners in Health, a non-profit organization that began in the ‘80’s in Haiti, and is now operating in countries all over the world, including Africa, Russia, Latin America and the United States. The story of Thomas J. White and his financial relationship with the doctor and anthropologist, Dr. Paul Farmer, can be found in Tracy Kidder’s book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, a reference to a saying in Haiti that can be interpreted as either hopeless, or hopeful. Hopeless, as it means “trouble beyond”, because there are so many more mountains to cover, and going from village to village on foot seems impossible. Hopeful because these mountains are beautiful, and filled with more opportunities to make a difference in the lives of the many poor people who live there. Here is a thumbnail sketch of the story:
Paul Farmer went to Haiti as an idealistic medical student wanting to make a difference in the lives of the poorest of the poor. He believed that if you trained local persons in basic medical treatment you could bring better health to whole communities of people who had little or no medical professionals. His work was written in his alma mater, Harvard’s, magazine, where another Harvard alum, Thomas J. White, read about it and was intrigued. White was a wealthy man who had worked hard to build up his father’s construction business into the biggest, best construction company in Boston. White was a high society man in the 1960’s, rubbing shoulders with the Kennedy’s and other wealthy people. But as he aged, White had a nagging “guilt” inside him, something that said his wealth was to be shared. When he read of Paul Farmer’s work with AIDS patients in Haiti, he wrote and asked to come down to see what it was all about. Thomas White shared with Dr. Farmer this sense of guilt he had for having all this money, and said, “guilt is such a useless emotion”, he wanted to give away all his money right then and there and become a missionary. But Farmer said, no, that would be the greater sin—Farmer said that sense of guilt the wealthy feel is a good thing, because it motivates people with money to give to the poor. On one occasion Farmer met up with White and had no money because he had just given his paycheck to an AIDS patient who could not pay his rent. When White said why would you give away all your money so that now you are poor, Farmer said something like, “ because God sent you here with your money to share with me.” And White gave him a $100. He found it easy to give a $100. here and there, and in time, Thomas White helped Farmer set up the Partners in Heath non-profit health care system that gives free health care to people with no money, people with AIDS, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases that are prevalent among the poorest of the poor. People in poverty have been brought into new life because of the generosity of wealthy men like Thomas White, who gradually gave away all his money to feed, clothe, house and give medical treatment to the poor, not only in Haiti, but in his native Boston and throughout the world. Thomas White gave away so much money, that he ended his life as a poor man, without much personal wealth, but he lived the end of his life filled with that sense of purpose, a special meaning, that brought him “eternal life.”
I read of the fundraiser St. Philips did last year, called “Starfish House”( Food for the Poor) to build a house in Haiti. With great enthusiasm, people in this congregation gave up some of their wealth for the sake of a family that had nothing. I look forward to hearing more about what you did, and perhaps seeing if we want to do it again. When I saw the photo of a “Starfish House”, I was humbled by the joy this family shows, standing in front of their small, one-room structure: 4 walls and a roof. It is not a palace, yet they appreciate their home as if it were fit for a king.
Did you know that our National Episcopal Church passed a resolution this past summer at the General Convention that calls us to seek the “kingdom” or “reign” of God by doing all we can to end to world-wide poverty? Convention voted to support what many nations are calling “Millennium Development Goals”— goals that if achieved would produce a world that is free of poverty and disease that kills so many people every day. It is this eradication of poverty that is at the heart of the medical work of Partners in Health, it is a vision of the world that looks dramatically more like God’s kingdom. Reaching the Millennium Goals can feel quite daunting, but it this work is at the heart of the mission of the church, and begins right here with you and with me. Jesus challenged his followers to give up everything to enter the kingdom of God. Can we do it? Can we let go of all the stuff that makes its claim upon us, so that we, too can help create the kingdom of God for all?