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Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Greatest Love

Agnus Day
A Sermon preached at All Saints, Rehoboth Beach, DE
Pentecost XIX - October 23, 2011
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

I will admit that I’m old enough to remember some of the songs that kids nowadays call “Old School” – by which they mean the 70s and 80s. You know – during the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Perhaps you remember one of the artists from that time. His name was Harry Chapin. I don’t think you have to be ‘ancient of days’ to remember his song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” – a song about a father and son and how we teach our children more by how we live our own lives than any thing we say to them by way of lessons.

It may be due to the fact that I spent this past Tuesday hanging out with the folks in Zuccotti Park in the movement known as Occupy Wall Street, but I’ve been hearing that song in my head all week. It seems to grow louder as I’ve considered the story of Moses in the first lesson of Deuteronomy its juxtaposition to the story of Jesus we hear in Matthew’s Gospel.

It’s become the song I’ve been humming to myself as I’ve considered how to talk with you this morning as we begin “Stewardship Season” here at All Saint’s Church and St. George’s Chapel. By what standard will we consider ourselves “successful”? What do we teach our children?

And here is the question which I think is at the heart of Stewardship: "What do you do with all that you have been given after you say, 'I believe'?"

Let me be clear: What I saw on Wall Street in NYC was not a bunch of hippies and lazy ne’er-do-wells protesting for the sake of protesting. No one was suggesting that we all become like the Amish. No one was protesting success or luxury. What I saw was a large, diverse group of people of all ages who are angry and disgusted by greed and corruption that masquerades as success.

I think Jesus himself would have sided with their position. Indeed, I think this morning’s lessons from scripture give us something to consider about success and ethical behavior and stewardship and what it means to be a faithful Christian.

Let’s take the Hebrew Scripture first. Here we see Moses, at the pinnacle of his life’s work, standing at the top of Mount Nebo, in the land of Moab, looking out over the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to which he worked so hard to return to his people, and which he, himself, will never occupy. He’ll never taste the milk and honey in that land. Never know – on this side of Eden – the sweetness of a dream fulfilled.

It’s a poignant, bittersweet moment. Moses is not able to fully enjoy the fruits of his life’s labor. Does that mean his life’s work was a waste? Does it count him a failure? Which begs the question: What IS success? How does a Christian measure success?

That’s where Matthew’s Gospel makes it interesting. Here we find Jesus catching it from both ends of the political spectrum. Just before our passage, the Sadducees (the landed aristocracy whose power was based upon the Temple and inheritance, legacy-based traditions) go after him. In this passage, the Pharisees (those concerned about the people of the land, and a more democratic movement) go up against him for the sole purpose of "testing" and entrapping him.

But Jesus pandered to no one: not Sadducees, not Pharisees, not Zealots (the nationalistic movement that repudiated any cooperation with Rome who occupied their country), not even Rome itself. Over-indulged religious leaders and government officials alike found it impossible to get him to sell-out. Jesus remained single-minded throughout his life: Love God and neighbor, neighbor and God. Then, let the chips fall where they may.

They ask Jesus: "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" It’s an ethical challenge. Jesus responds with solid teaching – part of the Shema – worthy of Moses, which any decent Rabbi or Jew of his day would know by heart.

"'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Notice, please, that Jesus doesn’t flinch. He is radically orthodox in his teaching which is grounded in the teachings of Scripture. For Jesus, it’s not about money or the things money can buy. For Him, it’s all about love. And, relationships. Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do that, and you will know success.

Here's how you know if something is Christian or not: Does it promote the flourishing of all creation? If not, it may be expedient and satisfying, but it's not Christian. Does it have to do with love and the relationships you have with others? If not, it may be successful, but it’s not Christian.

I want you to consider the Stewardship insert in your bulletin. There are five points to the Starfish with five scriptural points to an understanding about the relationship with have with money and God. Each week, you’ll be hearing a little bit about each one of those theological understandings about Stewardship. This week, it’s about relationships.

The scriptural basis for this comes from Leviticus 26:12: ”I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” That is why God created us and the world we live in – so that we might be in relationship with God and each other and the entire rest of creation. That relationship is defined for us through Jesus, who teaches us how to fashion our lives and shows us the path where we might find God in – and within – ourselves and each other.

Let me tell you a story of how I learned this at an early age. I am the oldest of four children. When each of us turned seven years old, we got an allowance for the chores we did. Every Saturday evening we were given two shiny quarters as an allowance. The rule, however, was that we had to put one quarter into our piggy bank, and put one nickel to the church in the collection plate on Sunday. That left us with two whole dimes to spend on ‘penny candy’ and other, otherwise forbidden treats like soda or a milk shake at the soda fountain.

I thought that was grossly unfair. I mean, I understood the wisdom of savings but giving one tenth of my hard-earned money for the church was simply over the line! To my mind, that was five pieces of penny candy I could be enjoying. And, what was the church going to do with that money? Buy candles? Or incense! Preposterous!

Besides, there were times when my parents could not afford to give even two shiny quarters. My brother was a sickly child and often I heard my parents lamenting that they owed $75 dollars (which might as well have been a million back then) to the Rexall Drug Store to pay for his penicillin.

And, my father always seemed to owe someone named Jack Daniel who demanded a line item in the family budget. My mother hated this guy named Jack Daniel, but my father insisted that it was the only enjoyment that he, as a workingman, ever requested.

One day, as I was sitting in church during one of the offerings, I watched the long handled baskets pass by me as I slipped in my weekly pledge of five cents. We always sat near the back of the church, so by the time the collection basket got to us, it was teaming and practically shimmering with shiny quarters, dimes and nickels. That’s when I got a brilliant idea.

I figured that I could easily glide my hand over the top of the cold hard, cash, drop in my nickel, and then scoop out a quarter or two. When no one was looking, I could then slip the quarters into my anklet and, before too long, I could afford to pay off Jack Daniel so there would be more money for Mr. Rexall. It was a brilliant plan! I was a budding successful entrepreneur -  and a potential hero!

I didn’t mean to set myself on a life of crime, but suddenly, I was so successful that I began to think that, once I paid off Mr. Daniel, I could begin to save for a new home for my parents – one with a bedroom for each child so I wouldn’t have to share my bedroom with my three sisters and we could all have our own room just like my brother, whom we called “The Little Prince”.

Things came crashing to a halt, however, when Sr. Bernadette – the one with the eagle eyes who was meaner than a junkyard dog – spied me from across the church and reported me to Father. I still remember my palms sweating as I was called into Father’s office, with my parents, and being confronted with the evidence as reported by Sr. Bernadette. Through tears and sobs, I confessed my plan to pay off Mr. Daniel and bring peace and harmony and prosperity to my family.

I don’t really know what happened after that. I only know that I had to leave the room and Father had a long conversation with my parents. After that, Mr. Daniel disappeared from the family budget, Mr. Rexall was paid in full. I had to spend the rest of that Sunday repenting in my room, after which, nothing was ever said again about the incident. My lust for greed was permanently curbed, I returned to obeying the rules, and I was spared from a life of crime and corruption.

For me, that is a story of the church at its best – offering forgiveness and hope and help. It’s a story about how relationships in community are the cornerstone of the church. It’s a success story that the world wouldn’t count as success, but it is the kind of success that would make Jesus beam with joy.

I suspect that the good priest who counseled me and my parents never lived long enough to know that the child in his office would one day become an Episcopal priest, but I’m sure he’s standing in heaven, along with Moses and a whole host of others who never tasted the fruits of their labors on earth, just waiting to greet me when I get to heaven.

When I think about why I pledge to the church, I think about this story and what the church teaches about success. I think about the story of Moses and the gospel of Jesus confronting the Pharisees. And yes, these days, I think about all those folks in Zuccotti Park and what they have to say about greed and corruption and success.

Indeed, they ask what we, by example, are teaching to our children about success. I think about the fact that while the eyes of the world may be on Wall Street, the eyes of God - and those of our children - are watching us, to see if what we speak with our lips is lived out in our lives.

And I find that I sing to myself, “The cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon / Little Boy Blue and the Man in the Moon / when you coming home Dad, I don’t know when / but we’ll get together then, son, you know we’ll have a good time then.”

I'll leave you with a Stewardship question: "What do you do with all that you have been given, after you say, 'I believe'?" Amen.

1 comment:

Dom said...

Very nice sermon!