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Fr. Joseph Clayton Neiman
an Episcopal priest
  In Paw Paw, MI   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christ the King               Exekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23;

Mt 25:31-46                    Fr. Joseph C. Neiman

 

Theme: “Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34)

 

This week we have Thanksgiving and shortly afterwards Christmas. Somewhere in between you will have the opportunity to see on television the perennial “A Christmas Carol” by the English writer, Charles Dickens, who died in June of 1870 but many of his writings live on. Listen for a moment to the opening lines of another of Charles Dicken’s famous works of literature:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way….”[1]

 

The quote is taken from the first chapter of Dickens’ book, A Tale of Two Cities, which was about life before and during the French Revolution of 1789. These words could very well be applied to us today by a historian several years from now. Indeed we live in the “best of times” and in “the worst of times.” It is an age of “wisdom” but also an age of “foolishness.” It is the “spring of hope” and the “winter of despair” as the recent political election, world events and the economic crisis portray.

 

Marshall McLuhan, a communications scholar from Toronto in the 1960’s, is reported to have said: “Obviously it was not a fish that discovered water.” We need to jump out of the water of our daily lives for a few moments and see the water and what is stirring it. Then we can listen to the Word of the Lord for us today and pledge to act accordingly.

 

“It was the best of times.” Our American Revolution of 1776 “launched a political, economic, and social system” that continues to be a powerful beacon of hope and aspiration to the world. “In our short existence as a nation, we have enjoyed greater material quality of life gains than in all of prior human history." [2]    

 

Jim Rubens, a former state Republican senator in New Hampshire, documents with over 1000 footnotes in a his  book the success we have had. His book is called OverSuccess: Healing the American Obsession with Wealth, Fame, Power and Perfection. He notes: “We are, first of all, living longer – and better. Since just 1776, we have more that doubled our life spans from 30 to 78 years – an additional life and a half in which to become wise or to nurture grandchildren. When our nation was founded, death limited the length of the average marriage to twelve years, and forty percent of children had lost a parent before they turned 21.” He says epidemics were a fact of life, and notes that the 1918-1919 flu epidemic claimed the lives of 675,000 Americans in addition to thousands of others around the world. “Since then we have achieved a remarkable victory over many deadly infectious diseases. Over the past century, accidental death rates have been cut by over half, infant mortality has decreased by 93 percent, and maternal mortality in childbirth has fallen by 99 percent. Since 1950 heart disease has declined by over half, and since 1960, five-year cancer survival has been increased by over 60 percent.”[3]

 

In addition we live in the safest society in recorded history. We all read about the murders and acts of violence, but in comparison with Israel, Iraq, Sudan, and many, many other countries, our safety is assumed by most of us daily, according to an article in The New Republic in March of  2007.[4]

 

We are better educated, more comfortable, and have more time, money and space that our grandparents did. We have access to more information on the Internet and in the media than scholars had for centuries. Our homes are bigger and better. “Since 1950 the average floor space per occupant in the new American home has tripled.”[5] We use this increased space to house innumerable possessions. The old joke states: only in American do we leave a $30,000 car out in the weather because the garage is filled with junk.

 

Rubens summaries our wonderful life styles in this way. He says: “In our daily lives we have ever-greater conveniences and creature comforts, at lower cost. Most Americans never lack for precisely the food and drink we desire. Our homes remain at a comfortable temperature year-round. We can take a long, hot shower daily, free of any physical effort but turning a control knob…. We can summon at will the most sublime music of the past five centuries, flawlessly performed by the world’s most gifted artists. Most of us can travel almost anywhere we wish…” In short, “levels of health, wealth, safety, nutrition, affordability, and features of consumer goods and services have all shown spectacular gains…..”[6]

 

Indeed we live in the best of times, but are we thankful for the multiple blessings we have received? How is our thanksgiving manifested?

But it is also the worst of times. Quoting a variety of social science journals and reports, Rubens asks: ““So why are sixty million American adults – one in three of us – pervasively dissatisfied with our lives? Why do so many of us feel overwhelmed, intimidated, discouraged, isolated? Compared with those born before World War II, why is major depression seven times more likely among those born after 1970? Why are one in four of us addicted to at least one substance or behavior? Why is America drowning in record personal and public debt? …Why are eighty percent of women unhappy with their bodies? Why does America consume eighty percent of the world’s Ritalin-class drugs, and produce eighty percent of its serial killers?”[7]

Indeed we live in the worst of times, and that generates fear, depression, and apprehension in many of us.

If Americans misbehaved on Jan. 15, 2013 [Newtown disaster], as they typically do, then there were 30 gun-related murders and 162 people wounded by firearms in the country, based on the most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On top of that, another 53 people kill themselves with a firearm each day, according to the CDC.

Breaking it down further, three people are killed by a gun per hour and almost seven people are shot every 60 minutes.

The FBI's "crime clock" indicates that a violent crime occurs every 25.3 seconds. Data from last year isn't available yet, but the FBI reports that violent crime has fallen for five years through 2011, so the average number of murders and shootings may be somewhat lower.


In early 2013, the official website of the United States Department of Defense announced the startling statistic that the number of military suicides in 2012 had far exceeded the total of those killed in battle – an average of nearly one a day. A month later came an even more sobering statistic from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: veteran suicide was running at 22 a day – about 8000 a year...... The situation became so dire that the U.S. Secretary of Defense called suicide in the military an “epidemic.” Some have claimed that this spate of self-harm is because of the stresses of war. But the facts reveal that 85% of military suicides have not seen combat—and 52% never even deployed.

 

John Bogle, agrees that we live in the best of times and the worst of times. He says, in a book, entitled Enough: True Measures of Money, Business and Life: “We live in wonderful and sad times – wonderful in that the blessings of democratic capitalism have never been more broadly distributed around the globe, sad in that the excesses of that same democratic capitalism have rarely been more on display.”[8] Bogle is the founder and former CEO of the Vanguard Mutual Fund Group, and one of the “investment giants” of the financial industry. Time magazine name him one of the world’s 100 most powerful and influential people in 2004.

 

He quotes a wonderful story told by the Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock, a well known preacher and author from Georgia. Craddock imagined a conversation with a greyhound dog known for racing. “I said to the dog, ‘Are you still racing?’ “No,” he replied. “Well what was the matter? Did you get too old to race?” “No, I still had some race in me.” “Well, what then? Did you not win?”  “I won over a million dollars for my owner.” “Well, what was it? Bad treatment?” “No” the dog said. “They treated us royally when we were racing.” “Did you get crippled?” “No.” “Then why,” I pressed. Why?” The dog answered: “I quit.” “Why did you quit?” “I just quit because after all that running and running and running, I found out that the rabbit I was chasing wasn’t even real.”[9]

 

One of the fake rabbits we chase is money. It is an idol in our culture today. St. Paul wrote to Timothy: “10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Tim 6:10).

 

Money is energy to buy things, to do things. Some even measure their worth by the amount of money they have or that others have. The love of money, the use of money, these are spiritual problems and opportunities. We define sacraments as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace” (BCP p. 857).  And grace is God’s “love energy” radiating toward us through nature, through others, through the sacramental actions, and through the quiet presence dwelling within us (John 15).

One can easily apply a similar definition to money. It is an “outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual” value. The inward and spiritual value are the attachment and meaning we give to money and possessions. Bogle says: “The rampant greed that threatens to overwhelm our financial system and corporate world runs deeper that money. Not knowing what enough is subverts our professional values…. Worse, this confusion about enough leads us astray in our larger lives. We chase the false rabbits of success; we too often bow down at the altar of the transitory and ultimately meaningless, and fail to cherish what is beyond calculation, indeed eternal.”[10]   

 

I discovered the deep attachment to money when teaching the teens at St. Mark’s a number of years ago. As I told you before, we were discussing the commandments, you know, we heard about the two great commandments a couple of weeks ago. They said quite emphatically that they did not have any idols. I pulled out my wallet, took a $10 bill, and started to tear it up, little piece by piece. The teens practically leaped across the table to stop me. “Stop.  Don’t do that! That’s wrong! Save the pieces so we can tape them back together. And then wanting to make me feel guilty, they added: “Don’t you know that could be used to help someone. [11]

You see we in North America are possessed by our possessions, especially money. We quietly worship it and the possessions which it makes possible. The monk, Thomas Merton, says we wrap possessions around us like bandages around an invisible mummy. Yet you do not see a U-Haul trailer following the hearse after a funeral. We cannot take our possessions, not even our money, with us when we die. What truly matters to us as we face suffering and death are the relationships we have, the people who love us or who have loved us, and those whom we love. It is love which endures, St Paul tells us (1 Cor 13:13). And love manifests itself in our relationship with God and with our neighbor, those whom we encounter in our daily lives. Love is manifest in actions, as we hear in today’s Gospel, little actions with even unknown persons.

Jim Rubens, writing about what causes the worst of times, documents as one cause the loss of personal social status recognition available formerly within small villages and communities contrasted now with the constant barrage of media images of success on the part of the wealthy, the super stars, the rock stars, the Olympians, the perfect models, the perfect homes and autos, and all the other symbols of great success now presented to us constantly on massive digital television screens. When we realize these are not attainable for us, we sink into a self image of failure and live depressed, desperate lives. We lust for money to become the person we believe we should be and to have the things we believe we should have. We are no longer thankful for life and health, for those who love us and those whom we love.

We, like most of our congregations at this time of year, are focused on stewardship – how do we use our time, talents, and treasure? These are very, very important questions, not just for the benefit of the parish organization , but for our own happiness and well being. These questions pertain to the whole of our lives not just Church.

If the scholars whom I have been quoting are correct, then examining our use of time can help us get off the hamster treadmill and focus on what truly matters, the relationships of family, friends and neighbors. Time to grow and time to love. We all have 24 hours a day. The difference is how we use it.

If the scholars are correct, then with the use of our talents within a community where everyone knows your name (to quote from the Cheers TV show), we receive recognition but more importantly we experience the deep satisfaction of doing something that really matters. What matters is taking our place in the mission and ministry of the risen Lord in the world today. John tells us in his Gospel: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17). We are called to help save the world by our use of time, talent, and treasure.

If the scholars are correct, then what we do with our money is crucial. How possessed are we? We need to tithe, to give 10% off the top back to the Lord for Christ’s mission and ministry in the world! Tithing is God’s gift to us to keep us from being possessed by our possessions. Let me repeat that so we let it sink in. When we start with a gift of thanksgiving to God for the enough, for the many blessings we have been given, that forces us to adopt priorities for the other expenditures in our budget. When there clearly is not enough, then what has to go? What do I truly need versus what do I want? What is enough in my life? One of the joys of retirement is getting ride of stuff!

In have almost died three times in my life. One was in 1991 when I went to Africa representing the Diocese for a companion diocese relationship event. I contracted dysentery, a strong systemic bacterial infection. We had just purchased a new home before I left, and when I finally was recovering as I returned  home, I found myself detached from the house and everything in it. It was all just stuff. Now I am thankful each day as I awake for life, for health, for those who love me, for those whom I love, and for everything that will happen that day. That’s why Judi and I tithe and share our talents.

Your homework this week (I give homework and let the good Lord do the testing to see what you learned.) I ask you to find some solitude, some quiet time for prayer and reflection, and ask yourself these two questions: 1) How do I express my thankfulness for all that I am and all that I have? And 2) what do I do with my time, my talents, and my treasure that demonstrates a life of thankfulness and love.

God bless you and keep you this day and always, and remember that the good Lord loves you more than you can ask for or even imagine. Do you believe that?


 

[1] www.online-literature.com/dickens/twocities/1

[2] Jim Rubens, Oversuccess: Healing the American Obsession with Wealth, Fame, Power and Perfection Greenleaf Book Group Press 2009,  p. 4

[3] Rubens, ibid. p. 4.

[4] Steven Pinker, “A History of Violence: We’re getting nicer every day,” The New Republic March 19, 2007, pp. 18-21.

[5] Rubens, ibid. p. 5.

[6] Rubens, ibid., p. 6.

[7] Jim Rubens, Over Success: Healing the Americna Obsession with Wealth, Fame, Power and Perfection Greenleaf 2009, p. 4-7.

[8] John C Bogle, Enough: True Measures of Money, Business and Life John Wiley 2009, p. 1.

[9] Bogle, ibid., p. 211-212.

[10] Bogle, ibid., p. 2.

[11] Robert Farrar Capon describes similar ideas in his excellent book, Health, Money and Love and Why We Don’t Enjoy Them Eerdmans 1990.

 

Continuing