Monday, October 12, 2015

Money: Intoxicant or Eucharist?

A Sermon on Mark 10:17-27
Year B, 18 Pentecost, Proper 23

For thirty years Thomas Cannon was a postal worker. During that time rarely made more than $30,000 a year including overtime. What made Thomas Cannon unusual is the fact that over the last twenty-five of those years, he gave away $96,000 to various individuals and groups in need. Math has never been my forte, but I figure that comes to about $3,800 a year. On a salary of $30,000 a year!

Cannon said, "If people work hard to buy a Cadillac, nobody asks why. But if they give it to philanthropy, nobody understands."

In his entire life, Cannon, who died in 2005, never knew luxury. His preacher father died when Thomas was 3 years old. Although he received a degree in art education from Hampton Institute, Cannon opted for the steady salary of the post office to support his wife, Princetta, and their two sons. After serving in the Navy in World War II, Cannon settled into his post office job. The family lived in a tiny, kerosene-heated home in a neighborhood of Richmond that was poor even then and has since acquired a reputation as a drug marketplace. Cannon never gave a thought to luxuries: "We had food, we had clothes, we had all the basic necessities," he said. (Who needs $96,000?) Here was a man with a carefree and generous attitude toward money.
(From Parade Magazine, September 21, 1997, page 16)

Which brings us to this morning's gospel. A man ran up to Jesus and asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life? I've followed the commandments to a “T” and led a blameless life. Surely, that's enough." Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said, "You lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, give your money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me." In other words, “If you want heaven, if you want to start shaping your life in that direction now, if you want to point your heart toward your deepest joy; you lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, give your money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me."

As if that weren't bad enough, after the man refused his offer, Jesus said, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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." Ouch! It is one of those hard passages that begs to be played with so that it will say something other than what it seems to say. Surely Jesus didn't mean to say it is impossible for people with more than enough money to go to heaven. After all, that's you and me. We are the rich man. The rich people. Just by virtue of the fact that we live in the United States. By any standard, past or present, most of us are among the wealthy.

This gospel is hard for us to hear – and not for us only. The rich man was shocked. The disciples were perplexed and astonished. Ever since, people have found this a problematic text. Consequently, various ways have been proposed to interpret this passage in order to make it softer.

1) A particularly popular one is that the eye of the needle refers to a narrow gate in the city wall of Jerusalem. A camel, the story goes, could just squeeze through the gate after being relieved of its cargo. NO. There is no evidence of such a gate and the interpretation does not show up until the late middle ages when an imaginative monk put it in a commentary on the gospel.

2) The Greek word for camel is spelled like the Greek word for rope. A rope still won't fit through the eye of a needle, but it is less preposterous than a camel. NO. There is no evidence that the writer of the Gospel of Mark had a spelling problem or that Jesus did not pronounce his words clearly.

3) Jesus is only referring to those who trust in their money. NO. That’s not what it says. Look again. Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” Someone who is rich. Period. John Wesley was probably right when he explained that, “[I]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for those who have riches not to trust in them.”

There’s no getting around it. Jesus said what he said and meant what he said. He was a master of hyperbole, the exaggerated image. The absurd image of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle drives home a point. And the point is that there is something perilous, spiritually, about wealth. Like anything in our lives, money and wealth can be used as a means to praise and serve God and neighbor. Or it can be used to hide and shield us from God and others. The problem is money and wealth have a particular and powerful tendency toward the latter. Jesus suggests that the best thing we can do with our wealth is give as much of it away as we can.

The burden of wealth (however much we have) offers us great opportunities and responsibilities. It might or might not be that having money and stuff is, in and of itself, sinful. But wealth and money are particularly dangerous to the soul. Money, along with the things it can get for us, is not neutral such that it can be used just as easily for God's kingdom as for anything else. No, money has a power of its own. It takes a good deal of spiritual discipline to have much of it and not let it seduce our hearts or intoxicate us.

Money is a lot like wine that way. You can get drunk on it and destroy your relationship with God and your neighbor. And just as many alcoholics deny they have a drinking problem, few of us are willing to admit that we have a money problem, that we have an attachment to our money and belongings that is dangerous to our souls and separates us from God.

You can use wine to get drunk. You can also use it to make Eucharist. The Eucharist is the particular place where we enter into communion with God and one another. In Eucharist wine is a means of grace. Perhaps we can learn to see money eucharistically so it can also become a means of communion and of grace. How do we use our money eucharistically?

1) Remember Jesus is present with you. He is your true wealth –not your job, not your income, not your house. He is your security. He is your hope for the future. Begin to see everything else as revolving around him. The more we attach ourselves to Jesus, the more we can lose our attachment to money and stuff.

2) Trust in the power of God working in you to release you from the grip of money and
possessions. Like all addictions, this one is hard to overcome. But, Jesus assured his disciples and us that, though it is impossible for mortals, for God all things are possible.

3) Learn to see it as not an end in itself but a means to serve and encounter God. Every time we give, especially when we give until we feel it, we make room in our hearts for God’s Spirit to move in our lives and to draw us deeper into his heart and to fill with his life. Giving can become prayer and praise.

4) 'Eucharist' means 'thanksgiving'. Give thanks for al you are given. But, constantly remind yourself from whom it all comes and to whom it ultimately belongs. When we present our offering to the altar we say, "All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee." We can learn receive it with thanksgiving and pass it on in gratitude. Giving becomes a way of giving thanks, of making Eucharist.

That was the man's problem in the gospel. He had allowed himself to be deceived into believing his wealth was his own. When the real owner showed up and told him what to do with it, he was not prepared.

What if we began to imagine, to really believe, think, and act as though everything we have was on loan? A gift? Not only what we give but what we have left after we give. It's all God’s, so we are accountable for how we use all of it. The real question is not how much of my money will I give for God, but how much of God’s money do I need to keep for myself? What would God have us do with it?

This is a troubling passage. It is good for us to be troubled by it. Maybe it will shake us loose a bit from our attachment to money and wealth. And the anxiety that often comes with it. Then we can engage our money eucharistically – with gratitude, freedom, and trust in God.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

When the World Will End

A few years ago a radio preacher, Harold Camping, made a splash by predicting May 21, 2011 as the day of Doom. He was wrong.

Then there is much talk about the Mayan calendar and the speculation that because it only runs through December 21, 2012, the end appeared to be near. But, not so near after all.

Now Chris McCann, the leader and founder of something called the eBible Fellowship, has predicted October, 7, 2016 will be “the day that God has spoken of: in which, the world will pass away,”

We woke up on May 22, 2011 and again on December 22, 2012 with the world still going on pretty much as it has. And, though October 7 is not over yet, I expect to wake up on October 8, 2015 with the world no more annihilated than it was two days before.

I am confident that the world will not end today. I know this because I am an Episcopalian. As an Episcopalian I know when the world is going to end. It is really quite simple. And, because I care, I am going to let the world know so everyone can plan ahead.

The secret is in the Book of Common Prayer. There is an elaborate set of rules for determining the date of Easter each year. Helpfully, there are Tables for Finding Holy Days in our Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 880. The Prayer Book even saves us the trouble of applying those rules by listing future Easter dates in the following pages.

And here it is . . .

The Book of Common Prayer has dates for Easter through 2089, but no further. Therefore, I predict the end of the world will come on or after April 4, 2089.

Remember, you heard it here first.

Actually, anyone wondering about the end of the world would do well to consider the following:

But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.
– Jesus, Matthew 24:36

For he says, 'At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.' Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation
– Paul, 2 Corinthians 6:2

And here is something from C. S. Lewis’ fine essay, "The World’s Last Night."

I do not find that pictures of physical catastrophe – that sign in the clouds, those heavens rolled up like a scroll – help one so much as the naked idea of Judgment. We cannot always be excited. We can, perhaps, train ourselves even now to ask more and more often how the thing we are saying or doing (or failing to do) at the each moment will look when the irresistible light streams in upon it; that light which is so different from the light of this world – and yet, even now, we know just enough to take it into account.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 8. Jesus on Marriage and "God made them Male & Female," (i)

Marriage, Divorce, & Remarriage

Marriage does not appear to have been a topic Jesus was inclined to say much about. He does not say nearly as much about it as he does other things. When he does talk about it, his primary concern appears to be divorce, remarriage, and adultery. And the way he understands them to be linked.

In the two incidences where Jesus says more than a line or two on marriage, he is not the one who brings it up. The conversation is initiated by others in an attempt to trip him up. One of those conversations is recounted in Mark 10:

2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ 5But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

Since this passage is thought by many to be one where Jesus precludes any possibility of the faithfulness of same gender unions, we will look at it now.

First of all, to state the obvious, this passage is first and foremost about the question of divorce. There was a debate among the Pharisees themselves about the grounds for which a man might divorce his wife (it was exceedingly rare for it to go the other way). One school of thought, associated with Rabbi Hillel, interpreted this broadly such that a man could divorce his wife for almost any cause. The other school, associated with Rabbi Shammai, argued that a man could divorce his wife only for serious transgressions. That is the context for the question posed to Jesus. Is he relatively strict or relatively lax? “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” is how the question is asked in Matthew 19:3. 

The other context of this question from the Pharisees was John the Baptist's preaching against the divorce and remarriage of Herod Antipas, preaching that got John imprisoned and eventually beheaded. Are his opponents trying to trap Jesus and get him into similar trouble?

But, Jesus does not take their bait. Instead, he reframes the question. Rather than play the male game of debating when a man could divorce his wife, Jesus sets the text of the first two chapters of Genesis alongside the text in Deuteronomy that this questioners are focused on (Deut. 24:1-4). In doing so, significantly, he seems to indicate that he takes some parts of the Old Testament as more authoritative than others.

And Jesus’ teaching on divorce is clear enough. A straightforward, literal, face-value reading of what Jesus actually says is clear:

1. Divorce is wrong – “what God has joined together, let no one separate”
(Mark 10:9)

2. Remarriage is impossible – “the two have become one flesh” (Mark 10:8). That cannot be undone. Uniting sexually with anyone else is adultery. Thus any remarriage is living in sin. This teaching is reinforced in Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18. In Mathew, Jesus does allow that sexual immorality on the part of the wife is a legitimate  perhaps necessary  grounds for divorce. But that is it.

Jesus is emphatic and uncompromising. One could conceivably repent of a divorce, in which case the ideal would be to reunite with one’s spouse. But, if that is not possible, remarriage to someone else is out of the question – at least as long as the spouse is alive. This is because Jesus appears to deny the actuality of divorce. Once the two have been joined together by God and become one flesh, no judge or writ, and certainly not the whim of the husband, can undo it or separate them. Hence, any “remarriage” is de facto adultery and sinful. So, while one might repent of, or feel remorse for, being party to a divorce; it would be impossible to repent of the adultery that is remarriage while remaining in that subsequent marriage.

This is a hard teaching. In fact, in Matthew’s account of this encounter (Mt. 19:1-10), Jesus’ disciples protest, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

But, make no mistake, that is the plain meaning of what Jesus says. And it was almost universally the teaching of the early Church. It is still the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, however much the annulment option allows for a release valve. Until quite recently, it was the accepted teaching of the Anglican tradition (See the three representative quotes in the comment section below).

If Christians allow for divorce and remarriage now, that allowance is not based on the plain meaning of what Jesus said when he spoke directly on the topic.

But, Jesus quotes another passage from Genesis to address the phenomenon of divorce as understood in his context. And this is the basis for the third thing he has to say on the matter:

3. Men need to get over their presumption that they are more significant than women and therefore divorce is their prerogative – a prerogative that the Deuteronomy passage seems to support. According to Jesus, from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” There is no male priority. Women are not lesser versions of human. Both male and female are created in God’s image (Mark 10:6). Husbands are no more free to abandon or divorce their wives than wives their husbands.

This is an important part of Jesus' teaching on divorce. And it might indicate why he took the issue so seriously. In his time and place, a woman unattached to a man was in a desperate situation and very often left choosing between destitution or prostitution. Thus, the ease with which some men were prepared to divorce their wives left women in a seriously tenuous and vulnerable position. Perhaps this is why in both Mark and Matthew this debate about divorce is followed by Jesus welcoming and blessing the little children – another group that was particularly vulnerable in first century Palestine.

Let me be clear. I believe that divorce is a serious breach of Christian faithfulness. But, I also accept that sometimes – more rarely than in current practice – divorce is the least worst option. And in such cases remarriage can be a holy thing even though not the ideal. I think the Church needs to do a lot more thinking and teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. But that is not the point of this blog post.

My point is this. This text, including, “God made them male and female,” is not addressing same sex relationships. It is about divorce and remarriage. And, if all we had to go on was what Jesus says when he addresses the topic, the Church would have to forbid all remarriage except in the case of sexual immorality of the wife. Whether or not Paul allows for remarriage of a believer after being rejected by an unbelieving spouse is another question, the answer to which is unclear. Certainly he does not allow for the believing spouse to be the initiator of a divorce (see 1 Corinthians 7). 

As I said above, until recently, it has been the accepted teaching of most of the Church that remarriage was not an option. The Eastern Church has historically allowed for remarriage – once only   but the legitimate reasons for divorce has always been quite limited. In any event, they go beyond the strict meaning of the scriptures in doing so.

It makes sense that the scriptures and the Church look askance at divorce. The image of God's covenant and "marriage" to Israel along with that of Jesus as the Bridegroom and the Church as the bride of Christ are foundational. As is the promise that God is faithful to his end of the covenant. Christian marriage is a witness to that faithfulness. Any divorce, and still more remarriage after, would seem to be a counter-sign.

The reality and prevalence of divorce and remarriage undermine marriage. As far as threats to marriage go, gays and lesbians committing themselves to one another in bonds of faithful, self-sacrificial love is not even in the same ballpark.

But in our time, many Christians do allow for divorce and remarriage. We need to explain why. Why do we allow divorce and remarriage in our churches? Why do we recognize the legitimacy of remarriage? If, in spite of what Jesus said, we have decided that remarriage after divorce is not always sinful, why not? What rules of interpretation do we use to come to a different conclusion? Is it just arbitrary? Or have we discerned that there are things about the cultural and historical context that need to be taken into account?  How much does our experience inform how we engage Jesus and the rest of the Bible and Church Tradition on this issue? How does it inform our conclusions? Is it that we have decided that what Jesus teaches about divorce needs to be interpreted in light what he teaches elsewhere, say, concerning mercy?

Some of us have direct experience and most of us know people who have been in marriages that were awful. Most of us know people who have been divorced. Most of us know people who have remarried and whose subsequent remarriage has all the marks of a good and holy union. Do we believe those remarriages are inherently sinful? It might well be that Jesus would say that those unions are adulterous and sinful regardless of what appear to be their good fruit. Perhaps the faithful thing to do for Christians who cannot live with the person to whom they are married is for them to live apart under the discipline of sexual abstinence and resisting the temptation to any other romantic relationships? But, that does not seem consistent with the mercy he teaches elsewhere in the Gospels.

I am inclined to agree with Martin Luther who allowed that there is more than one legitimate reason for divorce. He held that celibacy after a divorce was preferable, but if one was unable to endure that vocation one could remarry because "God will not demand the impossible.”

What does all this have to do with changing my mind on same-sex unions?

The passage where his opponents test Jesus is not about gays and lesbians. It is about divorce and remarriage. Not only is it primarily about divorce and remarriage, taken at face value, it is a stark teaching. Most Christians are prepared to interpret the passage in such a way as to allow for less stark practice.

I suggest that if Christians accept that it is possible to remarry after divorce and that the remarriage is not inherently adulterous and sinful they might also entertain the possibility that those passages in the Bible that refer to some kind of same gender sexual relations are also open to alternate readings. And perhaps trying to become heterosexual or remaining celibate are not the only faithful options for gays and lesbians. Perhaps, "God will not demand the impossible.”

That said, while it is not the point of what Jesus is up to here, he does say, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’" I’ll take another look at that in the next post.