21 Trinity 2008

The Twenty First Sunday After Trinity
October 12, 2008
Verse 48 of St. John 4:46-54
‘The Prospects Are Scary’

A friend sent me a Halloween cartoon by email. It was entitled ‘Haunted Houses.’ It shows a small group of children, dressed in their Halloween costumes, walking down the street, with ‘trick or treat’ sacks in hand. They’re not on Wall Street, or Main Street, they’re just walking a typical neighborhood street. They are passing by several houses seen in the far distance, houses which are dark and empty. The children’s faces have forlorn looks upon them: They haven’t collected much candy this Halloween night. The reason being, in the foreground, posted before each house is a sign that reads, Foreclosure!

Yes, it’s Halloween season! And we are definitely living in scary times! Many folks have had their homes foreclosed upon. Many financial institutions have failed or have been taken over either by the federal government or larger banks. Then the stock market suffered a substantial crash last week. Heaven only knows what this coming week will bring!

The 700 billion + dollars ‘bail out’ the federal government enacted last week to date hasn’t produced the positive economic effect so many had hoped for. We’re told that will take some time. People are worried about the investments they were counting on for their retirement years. Yes, it’s a pretty grim and scary world out there, to be sure!

And on top of everything else, the Church picks this time of year to once again preach about Stewardship and the consideration of what will be one’s Giving in the coming year. The economy might give rise to hesitancy relative to the generosity of the Giver; and it might result in the hesitancy of the Church to raise the subject of one’s giving in its annual appeal. This doesn’t seem a good time to speak of expansion of the Church’s Program; rather it might be more appropriate to speak in terms of certain ‘belt-tightening’ measures we can take.

It is fair to say, that as the days ahead begin to look as if they will be on the lean side, we will all take a closer look at our individual spending habits to consider appropriate areas where we might make some sub-stantial adjustments, hopefully without too much inconvenience or disruption to our current standard of living. But we know that it will mean more than simply cutting back one less coffee per week at Starbucks, and having one less dinner out per week, or one less evening out on the town.

The curious thing that happens in time of a Recession or even worse, is that people first start cutting back in the area of giving to charities, which many already have, and which eventually includes what they’ve been giving to their Church! They don’t do this to ‘punish’ God, or to ‘get even’ with God, for the fact that the economy has hit the skids. God is not the problem! Human greed at the top is the usual culprit. And corporate greed, as well as individual greed, coupled with other contributing factors is most certainly to blame for our present national financial crisis.

But we enjoy the life-style to which we’ve become accustomed and we’re interested in maintaining it as much as is humanly possible and without too much alteration. If we’re going to minimize the effects of the economy upon ourselves, we look to cut back in areas that do not seem to directly impact our ‘comfort zones,’ in one way or the other. Which means, we could probably give a little less to the Church next year, and the Church would never miss it. The Rector has no idea as to what we give. And God will never notice. But that is the scary part – because God does notice!

So here is an early Halloween sermon for your consideration. And be forewarned, parts of it are pretty scary! Jesus says, ‘Except you see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.’ Here are two stories – one from the Old Testament and one from the New – that are stories that end with signs and some pretty scary wonders. And as we rehear them, may they lead us to belief: There is accountability before God!

We read in II Kings, chapter 5, Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Syria and a valiant soldier, but also a leper. A young girl, a captive from Israel, served Naaman’s wife. She told her mistress that the prophet in Samaria (Elisha) would cure him of his leprosy, if only he’d go to him. The wife told Naaman, he tells the king and the king gives him leave to go and a letter. So Naaman leaves, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of festive clothing. He comes to the king of Israel to whom the letter was addressed that asked him to heal Naaman. The king, who can do nothing for him, thinks the king of Syria is picking a fight. When Elisha heard about the meeting, he sent the king this message: “Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.”
So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and men and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger, Gehazi, to say to Naaman, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” Naaman became angry that the prophet did not come out in person to do something personal like wave his hand over the spot and cure him of his leprosy. So he went off in a rage. But his servants said to him, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”
So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as directed by Elisha and his flesh was restored and became clean and smooth like that of a young child. Naaman went back to the man of God, stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. Please accept now a gift from your servant.” Elisha answered, “As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.” And even though Naaman urged him, he refused. When he could not prevail upon Elisha to accept anything in return, Naaman was bid to go in peace.
After Naaman had traveled some distance, Gehazi, the servant of Elisha thought to himself, “My master was too easy on Naaman by not accepting from him what he brought. I will run after him and get something from him.” Meaning, something for himself!
Gehazi hurried after Naaman who saw him running toward him and got down from his chariot to meet him. “Is everything all right?” he asked. “Everything is fine,” Gehazi answered. “My master sent me to say, ‘Two young men from the company of the prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim. Please give them a talent of silver and two sets of clothing.” “Take two talents,” said Naaman, urging Gehazi to accept them, with two sets of clothing. When Gehazi came to the hill, he took the things from Naaman’s servants and secreted them away in the house. He then discharged the men and they left straightaway.
Now this is where the story gets scary! Gehazi went in and stood before his master Elisha. “Where have you been, Gehazi?” Elisha asked. “Your servant went nowhere,” he answered. But Elisha said to him, “Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to take money, or to accept clothes.….Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants forever.” Then Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and he was leprous, as white as snow.
Nothing was hid from the man of God, Elisha; just as nothing can be hid from the Lord himself. Gehazi learned a hard and scary lesson that day. We think, if we keep back something for ourselves the intended Recipient will never know it? We think God will never notice?
Here is another scary tale, not from the crypt, but from the New Testament, in Acts, Chapter 5, which you can read for yourselves. In the earliest days of the fledgling Church, no one said that any of the things that he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. There was not a needy person among them, because as many as possessed lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it as the apostles’ feet, and distribution was made to each as he had need. They truly demonstrated remarkable love for one another.

Now a disciple named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet (Thinking, the apostles would never know what he’d done). Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.” (Now for the scary part!) When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. About three hours after, his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, ‘Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out also and buried her beside her husband. This account ends with these words, ‘Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.’ So, did you find all of these accounts somewhat chilling yourself?
This story ends with these words, ‘Now many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles.’ Jesus said to the man whose son was sick at Capernaum, ‘Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.’ What kind of signs and wonders does it take to make believers of us?
For the moment, our near-complete attention is on the scary economy and the effect it is going to potentially have, most probably on each and every one of us. For we know there are always consequences to bad actions, and penalties to be inflicted. The corporate executive greed and deception that have gone on for many years in the financial markets and within the lending institutions are being further disclosed with each passing day, and they’re having a crushing domino effect upon the lower income and average income American public. The irony is that, it is the American public, not the corrupt corporate heads, who will be having to pay the penalties as a consequence of the greed and mismanagement of others. ‘Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe.’ Well, we’ve seen enough current signs and wonders to make us believe the situation before us is grave!
But what the Scripture stories we related warn us of, and what we Christians must be wary of, is our own individual tendency toward Greed: Taking from God what is properly His or Keeping from God what is rightfully His. Greed, practiced under the mistaken pretext: God won’t miss it and He doesn’t need it anyway! To think that it all belongs to us to do with as we please is simply to fool ourselves! Gehazi, Ananias, along with Sapphira thought they could take what they wanted, withhold from God, that it would never be missed, for it was theirs’ to do with as they please. They were (forgive the pun) ‘gravely’ wrong.
As we begin to prayerfully consider what we wish to give to God and the work of His Church in the coming year, when it comes to our generosity with God, consider His generosity toward you.
If you cannot increase your giving next year, or if you cannot maintain the same as you’ve given this past year, let that be your honest appraisal of your situation. And let your decision be one that, with a clear conscience, you could explain standing before God, face to face. Or as you adjust your household budget in a ‘belt tightening’ mode, let God’s Portion of your budget be absolutely the last item to be reduced (if you must), after all other items have been realistically refigured. For some who may become truly hard pressed in the months ahead, the question may not be how much they can possibly give; but how much can they spare to give. God understands! God does not compel us to give back to Him; nor does He want us trying to hide our treasure from Him. We can no more hide our treasure from Him, than hide it, say, from St. Peter. Finally, this! Remember always, God not only loveth the cheerful giver; God rewardeth him. Believe this, and ye shall see marvelous signs and experience great wonders!