Sunday, March 5, 2017
Sermon: Faith Prenups
James Sledge March 5, 2017
I’ve told this story before, but it’s a favorite of mine and, I hope, worth telling again. It took place a long time ago in Birmingham, Alabama, where James Bryan served as pastor at Third Presbyterian from 1889 until 1939. Over that time he became an influential and beloved figure in the city. Everyone knew Brother Bryan.
He was noted as an evangelist, for work on racial reconciliation, and especially for his work with the poor and homeless. There’s still a Brother Bryan Mission in Birmingham, along with a Brother Bryan Park and a statue of him that’s a well-known city landmark.
Bryan thought of himself as pastor to everyone he met. One day he met a well to do businessman, and in their conversations asked the man whether he was a tither. The man was not familiar with this practice of giving the first 10 percent of one’s income to God, so Brother Bryan launched into a stirring biblical argument for tithing.
The businessman responded, “Oh you don’t understand. I make a lot of money. Ten percent would be a whole lot more than I could afford to give to a church.”
Brother Bryan replied, “Well sir, I think we ought to pray about this.” He got down on his knees and cried out to heaven, “Cut him down Lord, cut him down! Lord, please reduce this man’s income so he can afford to tithe!”
I don’t know if this story really happened, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. Many make a lot or have a lot that gets in the way of being a disciple, just like the rich man who visits Jesus.
This rich young man seems like a pretty good guy, the sort any church would want as a member. He’s serious about the biblical commands, so unlike that businessman, he did tithe. But like the businessman, there were things he could not let go of. He wanted to follow Jesus, but he went away grieving. The thought of what he would lose was just too much.
This story has unnerved Jesus’ followers from the moment it happened. It might have been an isolated story about one rich man except Jesus adds a blanket statement. “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven… it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” This stuns the disciples. Like many of us, they think of wealth as a blessing. But Jesus speaks of it as a curse.
I had a seminary professor who said that the basic problem of humanity was distortion. We’re supposed to bear the “image of God,” to be like God, but things have gotten askew. God by nature is effusive, freely going out from Godself in acts of creation and giving. God as Trinity speaks of relationship in God’s very core, sharing and giving within God’s very being. God’s basic nature, this professor said, is this (throwing hands and arms wide open)!
We humans have the capacity to go out from ourselves, to share and give, but we also have a huge need to protect ourselves. At some core level, said my professor, we are like this (drawing arms in tightly to self). We are prone to clutch and grasp and cling to what is ours.
Most of you have probably heard of something called a prenuptial agreement where someone has a great deal of wealth, possessions, assets, or holdings that he or she wants to protect. The person says, “I’m going to enter into an intimate, loving relationship with you, but this part of me is off limits. You cannot have it.”
I suspect that prenuptial agreements are rarely used by people without significant assets. And Jesus’ warning about wealth as a barrier to relationship with God works much the same. When people have enough wealth, enough things, enough power, enough (you fill in the blank), the desire to protect it makes giving ourselves to Jesus, to God, quite difficult.
Perhaps this gives us a different way of looking at the story of the rich young man and at Jesus’ words on wealth as a curse. Rather than trying to figure out whether or not we’re wealthy by Jesus’ standards, what if we instead think about what we set off limits to God.
What are the things we put in our faith prenups with Jesus? Sure Jesus, I’ll be your disciple, but this part of my life is off limits. It’s mine and you can’t touch it. What are the things we want to protect from Jesus even if he doesn’t ask us to sell all we have?
Like marital prenups, faith prenups often include money. My money is mine Jesus. If there’s any left over when I’m done, you’re welcome to a bit, but only then. Time probably makes a lot of faith prenups as well. We have shows to binge, trips to take, busy schedules, and activities to participate in. If we have some time left, Jesus, we’ll try to work you in.
Just like with marital ones, faith prenups are about protecting ourselves and about a lack of trust. Prenups shield things valuable to us because we’re not sure we can trust the other person with them. And let’s be honest, most of us are a little uneasy about trusting God with too much of ourselves. And the more we have, the more difficult that is, as Jesus well knew.
“But for God all things are possible.” I have a feeling that Jesus doesn’t mean this the way a lot of people think. This isn’t about God ignoring our prenups and loving us anyway. God is wonderfully, incredibly loving and forgiving, but the impossible thing God can do is to transform us so that we start to trust Jesus and follow him.
What if during this Lenten season we dispensed with trivial rituals such as giving up chocolate and instead did some prayerful thinking about the items we’ve put in our faith prenup? What wondrous, even impossible thing might God work in us if we let go of some of those and opened ourselves to the transforming power of Christ?