Sermon: Sunday, July 31, 2022

Of the four Gospels, the Gospel of Luke has the most to say about wealth, its effects on those who possess it, and what those with more than they need for basic necessities should do with their excess. Throughout this Gospel we see Jesus bringing hope and good news to the impoverished and warning to the privileged and comfortable. The warnings start even before Jesus is born, with Mary declaring about the impending birth of Jesus, “He [God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53).

Or perhaps you remember Luke 3:11 “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.”

Then there is the Sermon on the Plain: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who are hungry now for you will be filled. . . . Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Luke 6:20-23).

Or Luke 16:13 “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Or the story of Lazarus and the rich man who ignored Lazarus’ suffering and ended up in the afterlife in Hades in perpetual torment (Luke 16:19-31).

Then there is the story in chapter 18 of Luke of the rich ruler who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus tells him, “Sell what you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me” (Luke 18:22). When the rich ruler finds that he cannot do this, Jesus says, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, 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” (Luke 18:24-25).

Or maybe you remember the story of Zacchaeus, a wealthy and corrupt tax collector who is attracted to Jesus’ message and finds himself hosting Jesus in his home. Zacchaeus is changed by hearing Jesus’ message and says “’Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost’” (Luke 19:8-10).

And of course, we have the story from our Gospel reading for today. The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21). The man who built bigger barns to store the abundance of his harvest.

Luke and Jesus, whose story he is telling, care a lot about money, security, and privilege. And more importantly they care a lot about those who don’t have the basic necessities of life because they live in poverty. And for people who are seeking to be faithful, and who also have money, security, and privilege, these stories can be extremely challenging. It can be tempting to either ignore them, or to simply do as the rich ruler in chapter 18 did, to sadly walk away knowing that giving up everything is just too hard. And let’s be honest here, most members of Episcopal Churches fall into the category of having more resources than we need for our basic needs, security, and privilege. Most of us would also balk at walking away from everything we have. So, is there Good News for us in these passages?

I think the answer to that question is yes. I think that the reason these very challenging passages are in Luke’s Gospel is precisely because God cares about those with more than they need too, and God understands that wealth can separate the holder of that wealth from their neighbor and from God. I don’t hear Jesus saying that money is bad or having it is bad. And indeed, money isn’t bad, or good. It is simply a tool, and as with all tools, it can be used for good or ill. Money does build hospitals, roads, food pantries, solar and wind farms, churches, mosques, temples, homes to shelter us from the elements, clothing to protect us from the heat and the sun, farms on which our food is grown, and so on and so forth.

But money can also divide, isolate, alienate and harm. Families are torn apart by inheritance issues. Those with resources can use these resources to consolidate their power and keep those who don’t have power in their state of powerlessness. Money can be hoarded and stored up while others die of starvation and exposure to the elements. Money can be used to keep the holder of the money distant and unaware of the needs of their neighbors. And possessing more money, security, and privilege than is needed to secure basic necessities, can change the very way we view ourselves and our neighbors. Money can separate us from our neighbors and from God.

A lot of research has been done in the last few decades to understand how wealth effects how the holders of wealth view the world. I am not going to review all of that research in this sermon, but I am going to share a few important points from this research. It appears that the more a person’s wealth, security, and privilege increases, the more that same person’s empathy and compassion decreases, particularly if the person uses that wealth to separate themselves from those who have less than they do.

It boils down to this: wealth, security, and privilege, bring to the holder of these things greater and greater control over their life and a greater and greater ability to make choices about all the various aspects of their life. Those with wealth, security, and privilege tend to assume that those without these same things have the same ability as they do to control their lives and the same number of choices that they have, even when they don’t.

So, when a person without wealth, security and privilege is struggling, the one with these advantages says, “well, they are where they are and they are struggling as they are struggling, because they are making bad choices. It is their own fault. Why should I help them, or pay taxes to help them? I would just be enabling their bad choices.” Those with wealth, security, and privilege, also tend to believe that what they have is simply a result of their hard work and merit, and therefore those who do not have these things, simply do not work as hard as I they do. This choice and meritocracy mindset becomes more all-encompassing the wealthier and more privileged you become. Wealth and privilege do make it harder to love your neighbor as yourself. And you don’t have to be super wealthy like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. I’ll tell you a personal experience of mine to explain what I mean.

I was once part of a task force in Southington, Connecticut whose charge was to bring together all the groups, agencies, and organizations in town who provided services to those in need of food. I represented the faith communities. A teacher from one of the local schools represented the school system. One day she brought up school lunches and how discouraging it was to her that many parents of kids who need free lunches never filled out the paperwork to receive these lunches. We thought she was seeking help to solve the issue, so we began asking her questions about the application process, thinking together we find a solution.

We discovered that parents had to download the form from the school system’s website, print it out and return it to the school. The form was quite complicated and involved the sharing of a lot of personal financial data. And finally, we learned, that in the cafeteria it was quite obvious which students were receiving free lunches and which students were not, as they were had to verbally say their free lunch id number to the cashier.

As we started talking about ways that the system needed to be changed to make it easier for these parents who may not own a computer or a printer, have internet access, understand the forms, be willing to share private information or want to have their children singled out, the school representative jumped in. She said, “None of that is really the issue. These people are just lazy, and they don’t care about their kids. If my kids were going hungry, I would do anything I could to make sure they had the food they needed. They can find a computer if they really want to. They are choosing not to.” This teacher was very middle class, and her middle-class comfort, security and privilege had blinded her to the needs and struggles of her neighbors. She could not see that they did not have the same choices that she had and that there were many obstacles in their way. Obstacles that were simply the result of being poor and not caused by them in any way shape or form. Obstacles that they could not surmount on their own, or at least not easily.

I think this is what Luke and Jesus are getting at in our Gospel story for today, and in the many other stories about wealth and privilege found in this Gospel. The rich fool in our reading for today can’t imagine a world beyond himself, that he exists in community, or that his wealth could be a blessing for others. He never refers to God or anyone outside of himself. He never asks what God requires of him. He expresses no gratitude to God or to the workers who planted and harvested this bumper crop. He has no thought of sharing his good fortune with anyone else, including those who made his good fortune possible. He is blind to the fact that his life is not his own to secure, that his life belongs to God, and that God can demand it back at any time.

Zaccheus is held up as a positive example in this Gospel, even though he had lived a very unvirtuous life prior to meeting Jesus, because he grasps this message about wealth, changes his mindset, and seeks to use his wealth in a way that God would have him use it. Zaccheus becomes aware of the needs of his neighbor.

And for me this is the good news. We can wake up. We can recognize that the ways in which we see the world and our neighbor are affected by our level of comfort and security. We can begin to break down the walls that we use to isolate us from those who have less than we do. We can share what we have and have compassion and empathy for the struggles of those who do not have enough. We can use what we have to try to change the system that creates haves and have nots in the first place. We do not have to lose our souls as the rich fool did. And God loves us enough to keep calling us back to a place of health and wholeness, even if it makes us uncomfortable. And we will experience the peace of God which passes understanding when we do.

I leave you with words from our Psalm (107:9, 43) for this morning:

For God satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.
Whoever is wise will ponder these things,
and consider well the mercies of the Lord. Amen.