Wealth Intervention

USCurrency_Federal_Reserve

Mark 10:17-31

1.

Americans are wealthy.

Even if we don’t meet the Economic Policy Institute’s measure of the top 1% of America’s wealth—about $422K per year of household income in 2018 (minimum)[i]—we’re still wealthy.

We live in a wealthy country—one of the wealthiest in the modern world; and as for the history of humanity . . . well, most of us, even if we’re nowhere near that top 1%, live better than most royalty have lived in all of recorded history.

We hear about a widening gap between the rich and poor in the United States. While it may be true that the rich are getting richer, according to a Forbes article from June 1, 2013, the poorest people in our country are still richer than almost 70% of the world.[ii]

Eighteen countries were highlighted in this article. A bar graph shows a spectrum for each country: a red dot to the right on the bar indicates the top 10% wage mark; and a blue dot to the left indicates the lowest 10%. Everyone else—from 10% to 90%—falls somewhere on this spectrum.

When these 18 countries are compared, the U. S.’s red dot is the farthest to the right—but only just barely beating out Canada, Sweden, and Australia. Interestingly, the blue dots for these other three countries are to the right of our blue dot, meaning their poorest are better off than our poorest.

But that’s it! The poorest of the other fourteen countries are significantly poorer than our poorest; and—remarkably—the richest of seven of these countries are actually poorer than our poorest.

You heard me right: 90% of wage earners in Italy, Israel, Russia, Portugal, Brazil, Turkey, and Mexico earn less than our bottom 10% mark.

This gives us some perspective. We are wealthy.

Wealth is something like a drug, isn’t it? The more we have, the more we think we need it; and the more we take for granted what we already have.

Our social, emotional, and even spiritual lives become chemically dependent on our wealth.

It fundamentally alters us.

We are a nation of addicts.

2.

So, a question: how does this wealth affect our church?

It’s a difficult question to answer.

We know, on the one hand, that the Episcopal Church thinks a lot about money. We are required canonically to have an annual pledge drive—which, by the way, is coming up shortly. We encourage tithing, though we don’t require it. Most dioceses have schools and camp and conference centers—big budget items. We have the Church Pension Group, begun by J. P. Morgan himself (so I’ve heard), one of the strongest in the nation (also, so I’ve heard). There’s even an organization called the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes.

All this points to wealth.

But, on the other hand, it’s no secret that the Episcopal Church—along with mainline Christianity in the U. S.—is in decline. Membership is waning. We can’t make our budgets. Properties have been sold. Parishes have closed.

How do these factor into the church’s wealth?

Pew Research offers one answer. A survey they conducted looks not at churches per se, but at the individuals who attend churches: at average household incomes and religious identification in the U. S.

And their results, published on Oct. 11, 2016, are telling.[iii]

44% of those who identify as Jews in the U. S. make more than $100K per year of household income.

In second place, those who identify as Hindus; with 36% making more than $100K.

And guess who comes in third: Episcopalians, with 35% making more than $100K.

To give some perspective, Presbyterians come in at 25%; Mormons at 20%; Catholics at 19%; and Jehovah’s Witnesses at 4%.

The American average comes in at 19%, same as Catholics.

So, Episcopalians place third out of 26 groups; first of all Christian groups.

What does this indicate?

We are a wealthy church.

In fact, as far as churches go, we’re in the top 10%.

And that can generate all kinds of attitudes to watch out for—attitudes Jesus cautions us against—attitudes like privilege, entitlement, superiority, and anxiety.

3.

Now, with this in mind, today we come to Jesus, kneeling before him, eager; and we ask him a question:

“Good Teacher, you’ve blessed us with so much—this building, beautiful liturgy and music, a vicar, friends, hospitality, a community! And we’re trying really hard.

“We’ve got a Stephen Ministries team together and LEVs to get Communion out to our shut-ins.

“We watch what we say about other people, trying to build them up and not to tear them down.

“All the leadership is fulfilling the diocesan Safeguarding requirements.

“We work as a team and give credit where it’s due, paying our bills and working towards becoming a full-fledged parish.

“And we try to be honest in all our dealings with each other.

“Good Teacher, what more can we do?”

I find it interesting that this story comes right on the heels of last week’s story.

Jesus just finished teaching his disciples that unless we receive the kingdom of God as a little child, we shall not enter it.

When a little child receives something life-giving—food, maybe, or clothing—what does that little child do? Nothing—except say, Thank you!

And now we come to Jesus with this rich man and ask, What must we do?

Don’t you find Jesus’ answer curious?

I mean, Jesus just finished telling his disciples—through a difficult discussion about divorce and remarriage—that the kingdom of God is about what’s possible more than about what’s permissible.

Jesus just finished demonstrating that we shouldn’t rankle over lists—this is how to get a Christian divorce and still be in good graces with the church, etc.

And still the rich man asks, What must I do? Tell me. Give me a list.

And Jesus does not say, “Don’t you get it? Receive it, that’s all, like a little child receives a parent’s love!”

Instead, Jesus says, “You know the commandments”; and he names them.

Well, the rich man says, “I’ve done all these things since my youth.”

And so have we.

And we have a darn good church to show for it!

But there’s still this, Jesus says: let go of your addiction to wealth.

4.

But how? It’s easy to say; difficult to do.

Well, as I mentioned earlier, we’re about to launch our annual pledge drive. . . .

More seriously, Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher, professor, and Christian layperson whose life spanned most of the twentieth century. He published 58 books, many of them exploring the intersection of technology and religion—still very relevant for today. He is credited for the slogan, “Think globally; act locally.”

So, in his book entitled Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective, he has this to say:

How [do we] overcome the spiritual “power” of money? Not by accumulating more money, not by using money for good purposes, not by being just and fair in our dealings. The law of money is the law of accumulation, of buying and selling. That is why the only way to overcome the spiritual “power” of money is to give our money away, thus desacralizing it and freeing ourselves from its control. . . . To give away money is to win a victory over the spiritual power that oppresses us.[iv]

How do we let go of our addiction to wealth? We give it away.

And, yes, the church is a wonderful organization to which you can give your money. Pledge according to your conscience.

But even more than I care about the church, I care about you.

Wealth is an addiction. The more you acquire, the more you want to acquire more; and the more you take on attitudes like privilege, entitlement, superiority, and anxiety.

Think of today’s Gospel as an intervention.

Do you want to be free from the love of money? Give away all that you possibly can. And when you’ve done that, give away even more.

Does this sound impossible? But for God, all things are possible.

[i] See https://www.epi.org/.

[ii] Cf. https://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/06/01/astonishing-numbers-americas-poor-still-live-better-than-most-of-the-rest-of-humanity/#29eee57e54ef

[iii] Cf. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/10/11/how-income-varies-among-u-s-religious-groups/

[iv] As quoted in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4, p. 169 (WJK, 2009).

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