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Getting Ready for Sunday

It's fitting to encounter this reading as we are moving into the time of year when many churches are considering the coming year’s budget, and turning attentions toward pledge campaigns and related matters. Most churches with which I am familiar don’t spend money extravagantly, but the need for money is fundamentally no different for churches than it is for any family. I would like to offer four observations about these things. 

1) What to do with your money is a matter for prayer.

We sometimes have a propensity to go off, as it were, half-cocked; to make decisions in an unconsidered or unadvised way. This, of course, is imprudent and wrong. And the more important or substantial a decision is, the more considered and advised it should be. And the greatest advisor, or Counselor, in our lives is the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me,” (John 15.26). So we should pray to Jesus to send us the Holy Spirit to enlighten us, and to enable us to give of ourselves in a Christian way – that is, with reference to Jesus, to whom the Holy Spirit bears witness. If, when we are trying to discern the right decision to make, we sometimes feel perplexed, we should pray. The epistle of St. James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask,” (James 4.2). If we would like clarity, we should ask God for it, with simple faith. So before you decide what to do with your money, pray about it. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you.

2) You should make a will, and make sure it is up to date.

A little-regarded passage in the Book of Common Prayer (page 445) says that priests are “to instruct [their] people, from time to time, about the duty… of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.” This is a duty that we owe to God, who has entrusted us with every temporal good we enjoy. As stewards of these things under God’s authority, therefore, we have a duty not to treat them with prodigality in life or in death, but to ensure that they are directed toward the glory of God. This likewise is a duty that we owe to our near relations – i.e. not to saddle them with the enormous burden of disposing of an estate in chaos when we die. After providing for our surviving dependents, leaving bequests to the Church is a sure way of orienting the fruit of our labor, and the residue of our lives in this world, toward the glory of God.

3) Giving money to divine purposes is a good-faith effort to discharge our debt.

The epistle of James says “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change,” (James 1:17). Similarly, Paul asks, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). All that we have and all that we are comes from God. In the grand scheme, we are all beggars, all living off of divine charity. If you are tempted to think that you have much because you are smart or talented, you might ask yourself: where did your intelligence and your talent come from?

4) Giving money to God’s purposes is Eucharistic, a way to participate in the mystery of the cross.

We owe God everything that we have. The old Prayer Book Eucharistic canon speaks this way explicitly: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee…” God has given us everything, and we so we owe him everything. Most of us spend the majority of our time transmuting the substance of our lives and our energies into money, but that transmutation is not like a divine tax loophole, an end-run around God’s just claim over the whole of my being. The income tax rate of the Kingdom of God is 100%, and there will be nowhere to hide our assets when Christ at last fills all things, searching even the recesses of our hearts. Everything we have and everything that we are must be devoted to God, in union with Jesus Christ, who offered the entirety of his being to his Father acceptably on the cross. THAT must be the shape of our giving. 

Thinking this way will require that we cease thinking the way that America has habituated us to think – namely that Sunday is the day on which we devote our time and energies to God. The truth is that God wants all of us. All of our time, all of our money, all of our being, “our selves, our souls and bodies,” all day, every day. While this may demand a rejiggering of our assumptions (what the New Testament calls “metanoia” or “repentance”), there’s a powerful incentive to get it done – i.e. that we might one day have spoken to us the words of the Savior, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”

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Getting Ready for Sunday: The Rev. Will Brown

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Many pertinent lessons have been extracted from the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). It has been read as a primer on the afterlife, a peek into the world beyond the grave, and about how things stand with the dead. In my own reading of this parable, and in my understanding of it, I have tended to emphasize its essential christocentricity – its pointing to Jesus – which comes out clearly in the last verse, where Abraham says of the five brothers of the rich man, still living in luxury and self-indulgence: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead,” (Luke 16.31). This is not really about ghosts; its about Jesus and the incredulity of many even in the face of his resurrection. 

But the parable is also, clearly, about poverty and our attitude to it. This lesson is especially pertinent for 21st century Christians. Father Richard Finn, a Dominican friar at Blackfriars, Oxford, sees in this parable a critical commentary on what Charles Dickens called “telescopic philanthropy,” speaking of the character of Mrs. Jellaby from “Bleak House” – “a burning, all-consuming, passion to do good at great distance.” 

This passion flourishes in our time, its flame fanned by the potential, literally at our fingertips, of social media. We do well to recall the raging indignation, and its real-world repercussions in the lives of individuals, attending the death of Cecil the Lion or Harambe the Gorilla. What would have been, twenty years ago, a minor headline in a single newspaper is picked up by virtual winds, and suddenly mob frenzy has gone viral, and everyone is an expert on wildlife conservation or Islam or gender theory or whatever cause du jour. It is now not even “philanthropy” as such that is “telescopic,” but the vagaries of benevolence and self-promotion.

But in the parable from Luke 16, Jesus says that Lazarus, full of sores, lay at the gate of the rich man. He is right there, a tangible, incarnate presence to be stepped around. Here is an implicit but sharp indictment of the ways we have structured our society, removing what is noxious to the margins, isolating and abstracting social problems such that our benevolence or outrage can be undertaken at a comfortable distance from the unpleasantnesses that might, after all, be communicable.

The upshot – the spiritual danger that this dynamic poses to us, who claim to be disciples of Jesus – is that we become ossified and self-confirmed. Commenting on the parable, St. Gregory the Great made much of the rich man’s purple robes and his feasting. He thus draws our attention to the fact that the root problem is not so much that Lazarus and others like him are ignored. That is a symptom of the real problems, the real sins, which are the rich man’s gluttony and pride, the taproot of spiritual disease. And his sins follow him to hell. Notice that in hell he won’t even address Lazarus, but speaks ABOUT him to Abraham, and seems still to regard Lazarus as a lackey: “Send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue…!” (v. 24). 

It would seem that hardness of heart has eternal consequences, that pride has a propensity to fossilize us forever. Thus our social propensity to abstract and marginalize our problems, to remove them to a distance at which they can be comfortably, unsacrificially engaged, poses enormous spiritual risk. It confirms us in our pride, and creates the illusion that our gluttony is, at worst, a victimless crime. When the sick and the poor are right in front of you, the task you face isn’t so much how outraged you will allow yourself to feel, but whether you will allow your heart to be broken and made new.



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This is a blog of essays meant to prepare parishioners for an upcoming Sunday reading.