Sermon Notes on Proper 20 year C

Almost every week I write about the questions I’m asking as I read the lectionary texts for the week.  This is not an academic enterprise, but my reaction to the text as I read them.   I ask the questions in advance because it helps me preach without a text.

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

What does it mean to be healed?  Can having money be healing?  Is it possible to have a sense of being complete, of joy through spending?  Certainly when we have none it’s possible to question our own worthless.  Is healing a feeling of peace?  When do we feel whole?  Why is it fleeting?  What is it like to move from satisfaction to dissatisfaction? 

In Psalm 79:1-9 the author says:

79:5 How long, O LORD? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
79:6 Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name.
79:7 For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.
79:8 Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.

Here it’s almost as if, after asking for God to punish other nations, he is saying “Oops, I guess I wasn’t that great a guy also.”  This is how we feel about other nations – and religions.  But then he reframes his prayer:

79:9 Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.

Often our prayer is like a movement.  It goes from one stage to the next.  Our spiritual and emotional lives are always dynamic.  We initially seek revenge; but that is not where God is.  Instead of destroying others, we need to be saved from ourselves.

In the first letter to Timothy (2:1-2) the author seems to say, don’t look in my direction, King.  I don’t need your approval, I just want the best for you.   So just assume I’ve got your best interest at heart.  Don’t kill me.  I don’t think this is obsequiousness, but conveys the sense that the work of the church is not the same as the secular work of kings. 

The gospel of Luke this week (Luke 16:1-13) is the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. 

I think of the manager as being average:  not frugal; just a cog in the machine.  The rich man gets wealthy through exploiting the work of others; and his manager is no different.

The manager thinks differently.  The prosperous are those who count every penny; they measure relationships through a careful inventorying of what allows them to accumulate.  The middle manager knows he will not have that kind of luxury to make those calculations. 

Debt and the accumulation of wealth are deeply linked.  Some argue that the origin of money itself is upon the backs of owing lives:  of the debt implicit in slavery.  Money is the accounting of a life.  The middle manager is divesting himself of that sort of debt.   

When Jesus says “dishonest wealth,” I wonder if he is implying that all wealth arrives through some sort of dishonesty.  It is not that people make money just through lying, but that we accumulate through denying the truth that a life cannot be counted. 

I might explore what is wealth for?  I’ve suggested before that it is to be spent and circulated, not hoarded.  But I also think that there are components of wealth the gospel critiques.  In our own culture, I believe the gospel would critique our culture of convenience, our implicit frugality in trying to get the cheapest deal, and the hastening of time and space which our economy has created.   It is not merely money that Jesus critiques, but money as a certain sort of technology that alters the way we manage our social life.

It is also possible that this is a problem of administration.  The reason why capitalism became successful was because of the interplay between prudence and discipline with accumulation.  Virtues associated with the church became a part of making money.  All economic institutions from the corporation to the state require administrative virtue if they are to be effective. 

What does it mean to serve wealth?  Money is an effective incentive, and counting matters.  But why does it matter?  For what do we strive?  It is not the buying things that is the problem; it is how that convenience, that quick gratification distracts us from God.

Hoarding and the Multiplier Effect

A few months ago I came across an article about the growing number of people who have been discovered with the mental illness of hoarding. As they get older, they accumulate stuff that eventually becomes a hazard. It’s not much different than the cause of our current economic state: in times of insecurity, institutions hoard. Then money stands still and people lose work. Money doesn’t do what it is supposed to do: move.

A market economy discourages hoarding and encourages exchange. Free exchange is better than the alternative: force. But as the market gets more complicated, hoarding wealth harms more people. People stop becoming generous when money doesn’t move.

But generosity multiplies. In simple capitalism, the economist Keynes, along with most modern economists, describe the importance of the “multiplier” effect. It is an accounting of how the market catalyzes trade, which ideally encourages jobs. When we employ people, we give them purchasing power, which employs more people, which encourages even more purchasing power. You get, then you spend.

In times of desperation, entrepreneurs get scared and hoard. In those cases, those who have cash lack confidence. Confidence is a dangerous position. It is an appropriate corollary with faith. It is the catalyst of making decisions. Good ones. Bad ones. It’s great when everyone’s making money. It’s bad when it drives us off a cliff. I know I’ll survive. It’s just a cliff, and I’ve been doing hundreds of squats a day.

Church economics takes this general map a step further. We give what we can, and even more so, risking ourselves. Last February we held a party to raise money for an organization that represented the homeless. It was noted that we probably needed the money ourselves. “How can we spend when we’re the ones struggling?”

But with that generosity, a few things were catalyzed. Our refrigerator broke that month; the organization replaced it. The United Way then came in and offered us cash to help with our Kitchen. Even now a funder has come to offer work on it. All following from our willingness to give to others. Because most people are surprised when a church gives cash to other people.

Without expecting a return back.

What we created was a “stimulus package.” It was the multiplier effect. And when we live lives of generosity, we’re catalyzing communities.

Granted, there are limits. The highest form of charity encourages sustainability, not dependence. And there are lots of steps along the way. The first step, alas, is coercion. Or “guilt” as they say in the religiosity business. The last step is out of love, so that the other person can get back on their feet.

For what its worth, there are about 5 tag sales happening in the area on the same day. I imagine that people will buy from several of the sales, and next year, they will donate them to be sold again. I can’t help but think that we got donations of things that were bought from this rummage sale several years ago. The money gets passed around, enough for us to pay a few bills and continue the daily work. But the catalyzing force was the generosity of people willing to bring goods to the church.

The work of the church then transforms other people’s castaways to what other people desire. As people stop hoarding, money is multiplied.

Like love.