Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
Last week the scripture was about divorce, and that wasn’t too fun to preach on. This week it is about money, and no one likes talking about money at church; least of all me. But I probably should do more of it, because other than the Kingdom of God, Jesus talks more about money than any other topic.
Here is why: money is the easiest symbol against which to contrast our kingdoms with God’s kingdom. “Kingdom” is a weird word that I use a lot. In essence it means the reach or extent of our influence. Money is the clearest, most universal symbol for measuring influence.
I used to work for a man named Bob Macauley. He is a good example of money and influence. He was born into money and made a lot more along the way. At some point he decided that he would send airplanes full of relief goods to places that were suffering from war or natural disaster. My job was to make sure the supplies got to where they were supposed to go. Bob had a big kingdom—a lot of influence—and it was directly related to money, and there is nothing wrong with that. Most of us have less money than Mr. Macauley. And yet, we still have realms of influence; we still have our kingdoms.
The stories Jesus generally tells around money have to do with the sufficiency we place on our own kingdom over and against the reality of our dependence on God. What Jesus noticed, and the point he is making with the camel and needle imagery, is that the more kingdom real estate we have to manage, the less likely we are to recognize that there is a kingdom inside of which our kingdom is situated. In other words, the more kingdom real estate we have, the less often we bump up against the limitations of our influence in a way that gives us pause to stop and ask, “I wonder what I am bumping up against. I wonder what this wall is. I wonder what is on the other side.”
When our kingdoms are big, broad, and beautiful, and the influence we have has the impact we want, we might not be too curious about what is on the other side of that wall. Because we are the king, and that is pretty good. Until it is not.
This was the case with the rich young man in today’s scripture. Something drove him to his knees. So he came to Jesus, because Jesus seemed to draw from a difference power source, and he asked, “How can I have a life like yours?”
Jesus’ response was to recite six of the Ten Commandments:
“You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness.
You shall not defraud (covet thy neighbor).
You shall honor your mom and dad.”
Now why did Jesus site just these six?
I’ve been wondering about that this past week, and I’ve come to see that these six commandments are the “taking responsibility” commandments. They are the commandments that adults keep when adults are acting like adults. They require a measure of self-control. So, it is no surprise that the rich young man has been able to keep these commandments. After all, wealth is often acquired through diligence and hard work and self-control.
Jesus likes this. Jesus values self-control. Jesus is happy when adults act like adults,
Which is why scripture says that he loves this man. In fact, he loves him so much that he tells him to take his wealth and throw it over the walls of his kingdom and then peak over, because he will see that God has something greater in mind for him.
But the young man can’t quite do this, because he likes his influence and impact, the bigness, broadness, and beauty of his kingdom, more than he dislikes whatever it is that is driving him to his knees. He understands the tension between the two, which is why he goes away bummed out.
Then Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Children…” This is not an accidentally chosen word. It is a word that reflects a reality of the Kingdom of God. Our kingdom sits within the realm of a greater kingdom upon which we are dependent, like a child is dependent on his parents. The order of the Ten Commandments reflects this dependence. You may recall the first three commandments:
“You shall have no other God but me.
You shall not make images of God.
You shall not take the Lord God’s name in vain.”
These first commandments exist for no other reason than these: God is God; and God is King; and God’s kingdom is that place into which our kingdoms are set. And we would have no kingdom—we would have no influence—without God. We are God’s children first and adults of this world second. And that is what the rich man turned upside down. He knew it, but he didn’t have the courage to change it.
At Epiphany we know better. I’ve learned this lesson from you. The 100 Year Building Campaign was my education. We said, “Whatever we raise will be enough.” We didn’t limit our thinking to “conventional wisdom” or “best fundraising practices.” We tried to avoid setting goals or putting boundaries around what was possible. God had something better in mind, and the fruits of that are seen all around us as we go through this wonderful renovation of Epiphany. Some people were amazed that a little church like ours could raise so much money.
But God is like that.
You see, church is meant to be a stepstool that we get on to look over the walls of our influence into the greater expanse of the Kingdom of God. And when we are up on that stepstool, we set our money on the wall. And then we put our hands on that wall, we fill our lungs with the air that God gave us to breathe, and we shout, “THANK YOU.” Then we scatter that money off the wall to the other side. For Jesus money was not about influence or impact. It was just another way for us to be in relationship with God. And within the church, it became an easy way for us to express our gratitude.
And this kind of gratitude has a name in the church: it is tithing. Usually when I say that word, ears are stopped up, the eyes shutter, and the mind begins to do math. The question I always get is, “How much is a tithe?”
Forget it. Forget that question. A tithe is not an amount, it is an attitude. It is the action of gratitude measured by the most obvious symbol of our influence, which is our money.
Why do we give the tithe to the church? I don’t really know; but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that other philanthropies are about the impact we can make through the influence we have within the realms of our own kingdom. And that’s not church. We do not exist to have influence or impact, we are about relationship with God.
There are two things Epiphany does with tithes. First, we run this institution, which exists to say “thank you” to God. That is what the church does. This is what worship is. The Eucharist means “thank you.”
It takes about $1.4M a year to keep this place running. That is more than last year because we are doing more worshipping around here. We set a goal against a budget, as adults do. And as adults we will reach this goal, because we are self-controlled, hardworking, and diligent. It will be close. We will worry. I’ll panic a bit. We will call every single one of you to get 100% participation. Then we’ll have to cut back a little here and a little there, and we’ll just make it! And that is the normal, responsible way for adults to act. Jesus loves that!
And it is this love that leads to the possibility of a second thing happening here at Epiphany: That something bigger than our minds can imagine will unfold as a secondary benefit to the primary point of the tithe, which is “thank you” to God.
So imagine with me. What if, by the abundance of our collective tithes, we could invite scholars and authors from all over the world to come here and stay with us and teach us what it means to be beacons of love in a broken world? What if, by the abundance of our tithes, we could fully fund an orphanage in Haiti, operate it, and then send all of their children to college here in Seattle? What if we filled this place with young clergy who came here to learn about leadership and faithfulness from all of you? What if every day we fed the homeless with meals made right here in these fabulous Epiphany kitchens? What if we could bring young people from Israel and Palestine to live with us, honoring their traditions, and teaching them to honor one another for a lifetime? What if we invited burned-out clergy, cared for them, reminded them that they were loved by God, read the Bible with them, prayed with them, and even taught them how to praise God again?
What if every single room on this campus was filled with people making the case for Christianity, through argument, prayer, study, care, love, and devotion by healing, listening, laughing, and eating together. What if that is what God has in mind for Epiphany? What if that is the secondary effect of our wildly abundant “thank you” to God? What if that were the case?
But I think even that is too small. I believe God has something even more magnificent in mind. I can’t wait to see what it is. Waiting for it makes me feel like a child again.