Several years ago before I went to seminary and we still lived in Selma, I was standing in line at Wal-Mart. I had made the mistake of coming on “check day”, the third of the month. The lines were long and many of the people there were buying groceries that would last for a month—bags of beans and flour, lots of canned goods and frozen foods. Most of the carts were full of staples that would last the month because those filling the carts knew they wouldn’t get another check until the next month. One of those folks was checking out in my line. She was an elderly woman with two little boys—her cart was not unique in its abundance of staples for her household pantry. The exception was two Totino’s pizzas that appeared to be treats for her two grandsons.
All of her groceries had been rung up and she was now holding up the line as she dug through her pocket book searching for her government check that would pay for the groceries. It soon became apparent that the woman had forgotten her check or at least couldn’t find it in her handbag. The more she searched, the more the line grumbled. She became anxious and the line began to verbalize some aggression with comments like, “What’s taking so long?” The elderly woman was on the verge of desperation, you could see her sense of despair and fear as she realized she would not be able to pay for any of her groceries, even her two little boys who had been happily climbing over the grocery cart were now tugging at her skirts and asking what was wrong. It was at that point that a customer behind her, took pity on her and wrote out a check for her groceries, quietly handing it to the cashier. The cashier looked bewildered for a moment, but the customer smiled and nodded and the cashier accepted it and completed the transaction. The elderly woman, frazzled as she was, also demonstrated bewilderment at this unsolicited act of kindness. She could barely say thank you, but the customer assured her not to worry about it and the woman and her boys left the store in a bit of a daze.
Martin Luther said. “You can’t feed every beggar in the world, but you can feed the one at your gate.” At Ascension, we have partnered together to do just that—care for the marginalized and poor who present themselves at our gates. We do that through Beans and Rice, Family Promise, New Beginnings, our financial support of various outreach organizations and ministries in our city and even abroad. As individuals we can practice compassion and care for the needs of some, as a group we can do that for so many more. By pledging a percentage of our income to the church we bind our money together in common purpose to care for the needs of others. And those efforts don’t simply begin or end here at Ascension, a portion of our church budget is designated for the work of our diocese by growing the faith through church planting and tending to the nurture and care of souls in efforts like Special Sessions and Sawyerville. The way we give to the church has a significant effect on the way we transform the world.
Giving to God is the recognition that all that we have is a gift from God of which we are mere stewards of those gifts. That is why at the Offertory not only do we offer the gifts of bread and wine, but those of money as well. Whereas in ancient cultures, grain and grapes may have been the fruit of one’s labor, in this day and age it is money that we recognize as the fruit of our labor. But that money, even the ability to earn it, is blessing and gift that we have been given by Our Lord and Savior. Scripture mandates that the first ten percent of the fruits of the land be made an offering to God. This first fruits, proportional, and sacrificial giving is more than simply a rule by which we are called to live, it is a path to transformation.
In our Gospel reading this morning, we hear the story of a rich man who spends his money on fancy clothes and feasts but shares no compassion for the poor man at his gate. In our Old Testament reading, we read that those who have fine furniture and eat meat and sing Beatle’s songs about Yellow Submarines and drink wine and use fancy hair products and are not concerned with those who live in ruin will be the first in exile and their revelry will be lost. Even Timothy tells us that those who want to be rich will fall into temptation and be trapped by senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. Over and over Scripture warns us of the harm that money can cause to our spiritual health. And the bottom line is that we, as broken people, will turn to whatever we think is easy in order to heal ourselves. We will choose retail therapy over relational therapy. We believe buying things for our selves will make us feel better than spending our money on another. But self-interest is never the path to transformation.
What would you give all the money you had for? Would it be to ensure the beggar at your gate had a better life? Last week John preached about Oskar Schindler, the Nazi who gave everything he had and lost his financial fortune to save a couple hundred Jews. He could not save every Jew, but he could save the ones at his gate and he did so. And in so doing, he left his ideologies and turned from beliefs in which he had predetermined privilege and power in order to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. He turned to the path of transformation.
Some of us will have the opportunity to stand in line at Wal-Mart and feed the beggar at our gate. All of us have the opportunity through the practice of stewardship in the giving to the church, to transform our love of money into compassion for others and discover the path that leads to righteousness through first fruits, proportional, sacrificial giving. For it is in this way that those of us who are rich learn to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share instead of greedy and possessive. For when we store up the treasure of a good foundation in spiritual practices with scriptural decrees we begin to take hold of the life that is really life. Its not always about whether or not we go to heaven or the other place—it is also about how we find life in this world, how we grow into the righteousness of God.
We are given opportunities at our gates to make a difference in someone’s life—it may be the opportunity to feed someone, more likely it is simply the opportunity to offer compassion. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, it is only the dogs who offer compassion by licking Lazarus’s sores. Surely we can do better than that.
16 Sunday Proper 21: Amos6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; I Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, September 29, 2019
Rev. Candice B. Frazer