An Attitude of Gratitude
A Sermon on I Timothy 6:6-19 and Luke 16:19-31
Ten years ago I left parish ministry, moved to a new city and became a chaplain in a retirement community. I learned a lot of things there, ministering among hundreds of people who lived and worked in different settings: independent apartments, assisted living, skilled nursing, Alzheimer's care. One of the first things I did was to interview as many apartment residents as I could, so I could learn more about what it had been like for them to make this kind of move after retirement. A resounding theme emerged from our conversations: "They call it independent living, but it sure doesn't feel independent to me."
Another thing I learned when I was a chaplain had to do with me. After working there for several months, the director of food services told me something about my behavior, something no one else, including my boss, had ever mentioned to me. "You know that place you always park in? That's not yours. Your parking place is out back, with me and the rest of the staff."
That moment was a major "Ah, ha!" As I heard what my colleague was telling me, I realized I had simply assumed that a prime parking space, the one closest to the front door of the main entrance, was mine. And why not? For years, as rector of a parish, I had always been given a place to park on church grounds, near a door. Parking privileges were part of my compensation package. Over time, I came to assume I would always be given that privilege. Now that I was a chaplain, I could no longer make that assumption.
I am telling you this story because it keeps on teaching me a major life lesson. This parking place story comes back to me, time and again, because, I believe, it symbolizes the assumptions I so easily make as a priest, assumptions about privilege we so easily make as human beings. We can see the problem of privilege writ large in the new movie "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." It's a 21st century update of the life of that greedy guy, Gordon Gekko, played again by an aging Michael Douglas. One reviewer describes the movie this way: "To the question 'What went wrong?' the film offers an answer that is both irrefutable and unsatisfying: human nature." (A.O. Scott, "The Pride That Went Before The Fall," The New York Times, 9/24/10). But...is it that simple? When things go wrong, is it simply our human nature? What IS our human nature? And what does the church teach us about privilege, money and all of this? The Episcopal Church's Catechism, our Outline of Faith can help here.
Please turn with me to page 845 in the Book of Common Prayer to the Catechism. I'll ask the first five questions. Please answer them with me.
What are we by nature?
We are part of God's creation, made in the image of God.
What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.
Why then do we live apart from God and out of harmony with creation?
From the beginning, human beings have misused their freedom and made wrong choices.
Why do we not use our freedom as we should?
Because we rebel against God, and we put ourselves in the place of God.
What help is there for us?
Our help is in God.
This theology of anthropology makes sense to me. We are free to make choices. Sometimes, we make wrong choices. Some of our wrong choices are, of course, worse than others. If we make our wrong choices often enough, over and over again, we begin to assume things. For example, we might begin to assume we are entitled to things that are not ours. Because America is the richest and most powerful country in history, we are wealthy in ways most other human beings on this planet have never known. From our relative position of wealth we can easily take on a privileged attitude. Over time, we can become unconscious of our attitude of privilege. We stop being aware of how the things we say or do can communicate our privileged attitude, our sense of entitlement, our longing for power over others. Eventually, we put ourselves, as the Catechism says, in the place of God. I deserve that parking place. I'm entitled to that money. I really need those new clothes, that new car, that new house, that new wife.
In the earliest centuries of the church, monks and nuns, "abbas" and "ammas," left nearly everything behind and went into the desert, seeking to follow Christ more completely. Although being a hermit is not for everyone, deep wisdom came during their times of self-sacrifice and self-examination. One piece of wisdom these mothers and fathers of our faith have handed down to us is this statement: "The root of all sin is the lack of awareness."
Notice the parallel to that wisdom statement in a verse from today's Epistle: "The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (I Timothy 6:10). To love money, then, is to be unaware of what is really going on. Money lovers, like the religious leaders to whom Jesus taught this parable, are unaware of what they are loving, unaware of what has seduced them. That's true of the characters in the movie or the real people on Wall Street when they act like those religious leaders. We, of course, can be just as unaware. When we keep making wrong choices about money, when we think we're entitled to things, when we assume an attitude of privilege - whether financial or religious privilege - that's when we're in trouble. That's when we are putting ourselves in the place of God. That's when we need to let God be God, so God can help us. Because God knows, whether we want it or not, when it comes to money, we need God's help.
Jesus' parable of the unnamed rich man and the poor man Lazarus is a story of the destructive power of privilege and the need for God's help. The rich man dresses well and "feasts sumptuously every day." He is a man of extreme privilege who appears to need no help. Lazarus, on the other hand, is so sick and poor that he longs for help. He lies at the entrance of that gated community, waiting for food to fall from the feasting table to the floor, to be gathered up and thrown out somewhere near his sick body. This, of course, is the kind of scenario 21st century Christians, with just one "click," can watch on television or find on websites. But the rich man isn't watching. He doesn't really see the poor man Lazarus. He certainly doesn't see his suffering the way Jesus does.
Then, as Jesus tells it, there's a reversal of fortunes. The feasting table is turned upside down. Lazarus, who was looking up from hell on earth, now looks down from heaven, swept up in death by angels to rest in the bosom of the great Abraham. The rich man, who, if he saw Lazarus at all, had been looking down on him, now looks up from his agonizing hell of a home. Now, finally, he admits he needs help. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus to him, with just enough water to cool his tongue. He's finally trying to be good, so he can save himself, but it's not working. He needs help, but in Jesus' story, it's too late.
A privileged attitude, like any kind of sin, has power over us. Its power can even persist in Hell. In Hades, the rich man is feeling tormented, and yet, he is still stuck in his privileged attitude. After failing to get some water, he asks Abraham to send a miracle to his brothers. If he has to burn in the fires of eternal damnation, perhaps members of his privileged family can survive! (It would be his brothers, because only men in those days had real privileges.)
Stepping out of one's privilege, one preacher says, may be "one of the most difficult journeys of transformation. Two chapters ahead (of this parable, in Luke 18:25) Jesus will compare it to getting a camel through a needle's eye" (Feasting on the Word, p. 119). All this, of course, assumes a new kind of attitude: that we want to be transformed. That we are willing to change our sinful behaviors. That we are ready to stop assuming a privileged attitude. That we long to make the right choices in our lives. The only attitude, the only behavior we can change, of course, is our own. But actually changing our attitudes, our behaviors, our choices - this is not easy. It can be even harder the older we get.
The only thing I have found that works is prayer. Prayer, as our Prayer Book Catechism puts it simply, is "responding to God" (p. 856). As different people, we respond to God, we pray in different ways. Yet no matter how different, we all stand in the need of prayer. A recovering alcoholic once said that he prayed as if his life depended on it. BECAUSE IT DOES, he said. My life, I have come to believe, depends on praying to the God who created in me in the divine image. To the God who helps me, when that image is damaged or broken. To the God who helps me change my attitudes and my behaviors.
Dear friends in Christ, it's not too late for us. Does God call us to follow Jesus with an attitude of privilege . . . or an attitude of gratitude? Privilege is a gift, granted by others or by God. If privilege is given to us, it is an occasion to thank God. Thank you, God, for a parking space! But privilege is never something we deserve. Today I am aware of my deep gratitude for all God has given me in my sixty-one years on this planet. One of my privileges is the gift of serving you as rector and priest. My gift of privilege includes the compensation you give me through your pledges and offerings and what that compensation provides: a home, a car, food and clothing. And it is from that gifted place, from that deep well of gratitude that I make my pledge and offerings, to God and to you.
Later today I will send to the Vestry, your elected leaders, and other leaders of this parish some information about making their 2011 pledge to All Saints' in the coming week. I have already made my pledge. You will receive information about stewardship and pledging throughout the month of October. We will officially gather up all our offerings and pledges on All Saints' Sunday, November 7, when Bishop Rabb will join us. Your Vestry has done a fabulous job of stewardship in managing the expenses of this parish. My prayer is that you will pray with me, in the weeks ahead, about our attitudes and behaviors about money. It is not easy to change. The journey of transformation is hard. But God in Christ is calling us to an attitude of gratitude. Let us pray. (BCP, 827).