This is the sermon I preached at 10:00 a.m. this morning at Grace Episcopal Church in Norwalk, Connecticut. It turned out to be my annual stewardship sermon, but the word itself never appeared. In the end I decided intentionally to leave it like that, because I'm pretty sure when people hear the words "stewardship sermon", they close their ears and take a nap. Here it is.
Sermon Pentecost 17
September 27, 2009
Grace Episcopal Church
The Reverend Lois Keen
Esther 7:1-6,9-10; 9:20-22
Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, spent her life living among the poor and serving them. One day a wealthy woman wanted to see what was going on so she visited the Catholic Worker offices. She was so moved by what she saw going on that she took a large diamond ring off her finger and gave it to Day.
Later in the afternoon Day was working with a poor, single mother who lived in the tenements. This woman had nothing but ugliness in her life and all around her, and Day wondered what she could do to bring some beauty into the woman’s life. Then Day remembered the diamond ring.
She took it out of her pocket and gave it to the woman. End of story. (Based on a story told in, I think, an issue of Christian Century but am not sure – source misplaced.)
Now that wasn’t a very smart thing to do. After all, Day could have sold that ring and invested the proceeds to use for her continued work among the poor. And that’s probably what the wealthy woman had expected her to do with the gift. Certainly the giver never imagined Day would just give it away like that, for the sake of bringing some beauty into someone’s life.
But Day worked on the basis of God’s economy. She invested the ring, but not like we would invest money. She invested a little piece of the kingdom of heaven in that poor woman’s life, with no strings attached.
That, of course, is the only way to give for Jesus’s sake – with no strings attached.
The disciples, on the other hand, today are in danger of investing in hell.
That word we read in today’s gospel, hell, is actually gehenna, which is a real place. It’s the Jerusalem garbage dump of Jesus’s day, located in the Kidron Valley between the temple mount and the Mount of Olives. It was perpetually burning, hence the line in the gospel, “…the fire is never quenched.”
However, before the Jews conquered that place, the inhabitants that preceded them sacrificed their children to their god Moloch, throwing them in Moloch’s fiery furnace which was always burning.
So you see, Gehenna, or hell, is made by human hands, not divine ones. (This concept comes from Paul J. Nuechterlein, copied and published in the September 27, 2009 issue of Synthesis.) Hell is on this side of life. We make our own hell.
The disciples are busy building a hell of jealousy. There was, after all, that one incident when they were unable to cast out a demon. Now here’s this upstart, this nobody, this stranger succeeding where they failed, through the power of Jesus’s name, and he doesn’t even follow Jesus! How dare he! And for that matter, how dare Jesus put up with it!
But Jesus has invested his life in everyone who ever was, is now and will be, not just in his followers. His followers are there to be taught how to continue to do what Jesus is doing, invest their lives in everyone else. So what is a non-follower values Jesus’s name so much that he uses it for good – mazel tov! Good for him. Let him keep doing it. It will be good for him as well as those he heals.
God’s economy is nothing like ours. God’s economy is wasteful. God’s economy is prodigal. It counts the cost, yes, and then it spends everything anyway, no matter the cost.
In Jesus, the cost was a life, Jesus’s life. It was spent on all humankind, although humankind had done nothing to deserve that cost. The gift was given anyway.
In God’s economy everything is gift. We have been given the gift of our lives. We have been given the gift of our daily food and shelter and clothes. All of these are gifts from God. Our whole life is a gift.
Why should the disciples care, then, if someone else is doing better than they are, as if there was only just so much blessing from God to go around and that non-follower exorcist over there was stealing it from them the disciples?
A long time ago, before I even went to seminary, I was parish secretary for a church in Elkton, Maryland. One of the parishioners, Barbara, as it happens her name was, used to come in and ask me questions about the faith while I was working.
It happened that often when Barbara was there I would have to call the priest to come over from the rectory to help someone who had come to the office for help. Barbara knew the priest called these people bums, and that he begrudged them what he called handouts. He held onto his funds jealousy for the use of what he called people who deserved it.
Barbara thought that made sense, but she also knew that I didn’t agree with the priest, that I hoped that if I were ever in his position I’d just give the money away no questions asked.
The day came that Barbara herself needed financial help. As she was about to go and ask the priest, she turned to me and said, and I’ve never forgotten this, “If you were the priest, I guess all that money would be gone by now and there’d be nothing left for me.” What could I say.
Now that I am in that position, I have to say that as a priest, I have never been able to spend down all the money given to me for the help of the poor. I gave money away hand over fist in Milford, Delaware, and as much as I gave away, there would always be another funeral honorarium or other donation to the priest, which is always put in the priest’s discretionary account. But I’ve never forgotten what Barbara said to me, nonetheless.
Here at Grace I don’t have any direct contact with the use of the People In Need grant we receive from the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund, although I do have oversight of about $500 in a checking account, for the relief of people who come in off the street.
Sometimes, though, I think about keeping some cash locked up just for giving away indiscriminately.
I have a friend in the city, New York, who keeps a few $1 bills in one pocket, to give to anyone on the street who asks for it. He gives it out until that pocket is empty, then that’s it for the day. This is his personal money he’s using. He has no discretionary account. I have to tell you that I haven’t evolved as far as Chris has, I’m ashamed to say.
But the disciples are penny-pinching with Jesus’s love. They’re trying to hoard it all to themselves, and that makes me think twice about myself and what my friend does with just a few dollar bills a day.
In Jesus’s day, if a person was poor or disabled or sick or widowed or orphaned with no support, it was seen as a sign that they were sinful and being punished by God. They deserved their poverty. The wealthy and healthy, on the other hand, believed they were righteous because obviously they were being blessed by God, unlike those bums and beggars and lepers and homeless widows.
We are not much different today. We give to the relief of the poor, but we also want to be sure they are the deserving poor. We give with reservations.
But Jesus said to the righteous, “Careful. Better that you tend to your own house – where your eye wanders or your foot treads or your hand grasps, before you look down on those less fortunate.”
And he says to the unrighteous and the sick and poor, and the ones working the system, “Blessed are you. You will see God.”
What a curious economy. Quite upside down, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense at all. About as much sense as giving a valuable diamond ring to a poor tenement woman for no other reason than love of Jesus.
God’s power in Jesus Christ is exercised not in the things that make sense, but in mercy and pity. The disciples in today’s reading still have to learn that lesson, and they’ll learn it the hard way, as we all do.
But we have the benefit of hindsight. We have the words of today’s collect to guide us. In Christ Jesus, all of us, all people, no matter what, are equally deserving of God’s love. The grace of God comes from the least expected places – from a man who does not follow Jesus but who serves the poor, or from a person on welfare who is working the system and gives us the opportunity to serve Jesus with no strings attached, just for love of him.
God’s promises know no limit, no boundaries. The treasures of heaven are there for all to claim, if we would open our eyes and see, and it is for those of us who have more to then be generous enough to let those treasures go, without anxiety, without counting the cost, with no strings attached.