Year B, Proper 23: Journey to Generosity
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Year B Proper 23
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Journey to Generosity
I remember when I was the co-chair of the Adult Spiritual Formation Commission at our parish in Philadelphia, we were having a conversation about themes for the upcoming program year—going around the table and discussing possible foci and classes. After about ten minutes, a usually kind and gentle older woman jumped in with a rather exasperated comment: “What is all this talk about the spiritual journey? What are you talking about? I come to church on Sundays, isn’t that enough?”
It was an eye-opening exchange—one where all of my assumptions about the Christian life were called immediately into question. It made me realize that many of the things I’d taken for granted about how I approached the life of discipleship weren’t shared by others. I had found the recovery of a sense of the adventure of the Christian path, walking the way of love, the journey to God whose deepest desire is for union and communion with us to be transformative and life-giving. She found it scary. It made her fearful and she lashed out as her understanding of herself and her faith was challenged. She didn’t want to go anywhere thank you very much and she was happy with the way things were. Journeys were for pilgrims and pilgrims were vagabonds and she was certainly no vagabond. She later joined the Cemetery Committee.
Back in the 70s, when Fr. Thomas Keating,OCSO was abbot of the Trappist monastery at Spencer, Massachusetts they used to get pilgrims nearly everyday knocking at the door. The Porter, trained to greet each person as Christ, would lovingly open the door, greet the person with a profound bow and welcome them in. The only trouble was, the pilgrims didn’t want to come in. They needed directions. To the newly established Buddhist retreat center down the road. Finally, Fr. Thomas decided to engage one of these pilgrims in conversation. “What are you looking for at the Buddhist retreat center?” he asked. “A path, man! I’m looking for a path!”
This exchange opened Fr. Thomas’ eyes. He’d grown up assuming that Christianity was a path. What else could it be? But to the outside world, Christianity was anything but a path—a rigid set of doctrines and beliefs to which you give intellectual assent, perhaps, but not a path of transformation of mind, body, and spirit, not a journey from image to likeness, not a way to know oneself to be loved and how to be that love for others.
The recovery of the calling of every Christian to walk the spiritual journey to union and communion with the living God is one of the greatest gifts of our contemporary moment. No longer is this talk reserved for priests, monks, and nuns. It is the birthright of each one of us—created in the image and called to journey into likeness, Christ-likeness. That journey, away from self-centeredness and towards God-centeredness, from the illusion of separation to knowledge and love of God as the ground of our very being is what it means to follow Jesus, to learn to walk the way of love, to open to the transfiguring power of God who slowly, gently, lovingly makes us a little more like Christ as we consent to God’s presence and action within.
Our Gospel for today presents us with a picture not unlike the woman on my Adult Spiritual Formation Committee. Here’s someone who’s checked all the boxes. He’s fulfilled the commandments perfectly since birth. One almost gets the sense that he’s looking for Jesus to say something like, “You’re good, my friend. No journey necessary. Eternal salvation is yours. Well done.”
Instead, Jesus makes it quite evident that the man hasn’t even really begun the spiritual journey. He has many possessions to which he is attached. Material possessions? Perhaps. But there are all manner of things that can possess us—the desire for power/control, the over-weaning need for safety/security, the addiction to affection/esteem and looking good in the eyes of others. Jesus’ call to “come and follow me” is a call to begin the journey into freedom that is at the heart of Christian message. Follow me out of enslavement in the land of power, prestige, and possessions—trying to secure your identity on the shifting sands of that which rusts and moths consume—and into the freedom that comes from letting go of those carefully managed identities and their exhausting strategies of constant monitoring and maintenance. Follow me, Jesus says, into that wilderness where neither, power, possessions, prestige, property, family lineage, or the size of your house is a determining factor of your loveableness.
Jesus’ way is always the way of littleness, openness to the Father (“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”), surrender, and letting go. It’s the upside down world of the Gospel where losing is gaining, and gaining is losing. It’s the way of the open hand and not the balled fist. Which brings us, to the question of stewardship as a matter of spiritual formation, as an esential aspect of the spiritual journey. We tend to think of stewardship season in the same way that we think of fund drive on KUER. We give in order that we can sustain and support the good work that the organization does. If you want to continue to hear BBC World Service you had better give, or else we won’t be able to offer this valuable programming any more.
I could go through the whole list of things the Cathedral does—feeding 30,000 people a year, giving generously to local community partners who minister to the last, the least, the lost, and the left behind, our carefully planned year-round formation offerings, our 7 worship services a week, our outstanding music program and children’s choir, our participation in Family Promise that calls on the help of over 70 volunteers to house, feed and provide companionship to homeless families, our ___ trained pastoral care ministers from Commuity of Hope who journey with the sick, the elderly and the dying in local hospitals and care facilities in the Salt Lake Region. I could talk about things like what it costs to pay the insurance on a physical plant this size ($72,000/year) or the costs of opening the doors at 8:30 a.m. each day ($1,500/day).
But none of that would really get to the spiritual heart of stewardship, which is all about living from gift, being transformed by, and journeying into generosity. Our God is a generous God. He won’t hold anything back in order to draw us to Himself, to bring us to joy, abundance, fullness of life. Stewardship has nothing to do trying to come up with enough money to keep the lights on. Of course, that’s important. But the real meaning of stewardship is what happens when we start to live from the recognition of what God has already done for us. We lack, literally, for nothing. And everything we have is from God. We like to claim it as private treasure, and chalk it up to our good efforts, but when you get right down to it, everything we have—our life, our breath, our families, our money, our health, our community, our ability to praise God and to serve others—everything we have is from God. The only thing to do with something that’s not ours to begin with it is to share it with others and hold nothing back.
Jesus was inviting the Rich Man on a journey into generosity: a recognition of the generosity of God and the kind of life that results from living from that generosity—in the Gospel freedom that allows Jesus to forgive his persectors on the way to the cross, or Paul to rejoice in his sufferings. Giving is a spiritual discipline. In the same way that we order our days to make time intentionally for daily prayer, dwelling on God’s word as revealed in Holy Scripture, worship, serving others, sharing our faith, we need to be prayerful and intentional about the time, talent, and treasure we give to God’s mission in and through this place. And just like those other spiritual disciplines, stewardship has just one goal in mind—teaching us what it means to live for God and God alone and inviting us to the freedom of freely giving as God has freely given to us that our life might be more like his and our joy may be complete.
That’s why stewardship is not just a tip for nice liturgy on Sunday. That’s why stewardship is more than grudging duty. That’s why stewardship is more than annual membership dues to a radio station or a private club. That’s why stewardship is more than a reciprocal form of exchange in which we give in order to get something back. There is no “in order to” in God’s love for us. When we really understand and live from that world-shattering reality, it transforms how we think of generosity. Stewardship is no longer a fee for service, but the result of clearly seeing that nothing we have is ours in the first place, and that selling everything and giving it away is the way to true and lasting happiness, peace that passes all understanding, and a rootedness and groundedness in the one thing that can sustain through the ups and downs, the hilltops and valleys of life.
The Rich Man went away grieving because he missed an opportunity to make the journey into the generous life. He missed the opportunity to be transformed by generosity and for his idea of generosity be transformed from giving in order to receive into giving because we see that God is all we need and everything else is just gravy. If that sounds radical and scary, that’s because it is. Better people than me have said no thanks, and turned back, and decided the journey wasn’t for them. But the thing of it is that they are always in some way grieved. They know in their heart of hearts that on the other side of that barrier of fear, on the other side of the wall of the myth of scarcity that keeps us penned into a claustrophobic world of never enough and perceived lack, is a freedom, joy, beauty, bliss, and goodness that they we are literally made for.
My hope for us this stewardship season is that we can see our giving as participating in the sacrificial self-offering of Jesus. My hope is that our giving will pinch a bit and nudge us into a new ordering of our resources with God at the center. My hope is that we heed the invitation to the journey into generosity, and not, like the Rich Man spend our time with the gnawing sensation that we missed and opportunity to discover what is on the other side of our fear and our attachments. My hope is that we’ll give prayerfully, sacrificially, and in imitation of the one who gave everything for us that we might know the riches of God’s grace. My hope is that we’ll heed Jesus’ call to come and follow him, to journey in to the generous life of the generous God.