I can think of all sorts of things that I told my kids to beware of when they were little. Strangers. Stoves. Shady friends. In my role as pastor, I can think of all sorts of things that I told congregations to beware of. Addictions. Cynicism. Hate. Bad roads that lead to bad ends. Easy answers to complicated faith questions. What is troubling to me is that in the lesson today, Jesus is telling the crowd around him to beware of…me.
Well, not me exactly, but someone that could very well look like me, scribes. In a time when most people couldn’t read or write, scribes were the ones trained to do this. They were employed by the government or religious institutions to preserve knowledge and to communicate ideas and laws to the common people that couldn’t read. In a day when people were either rich or poor, with little in between, scribes were kind of in between.
In Jerusalem, scribes were the front line worker bees in the temple. The full time priests came from the best families, lived lavish lifestyles, wore great clothes and overate at fancy meals. Scribes would not have been that wealthy, but they would have looked pretty wealthy to the peasants that followed Jesus. They likely dressed, ate and were treated more like the priests they worked for then the peasants they daily dealt with. And being human, they likely enjoyed the nice clothes, fancy meals and public honor that came with working so close to the wealthy priests. Jesus tells the crowd to beware of the scribes, singling out those that enjoy the perks of the office a little too much.
Next in this sermon, I was going to identify the religious scribes of our day, so you could beware of them. I wrote down the usual suspects, televangelists and their private jets, megachurch pastors who justify exorbitant salaries, and high church officials with their robes and staffs with bloated salaries to match. Then I started to wonder if these big cheeses in the modern religious industrial complex weren’t closer to the priests and high priests of Jesus day then scribes. Scribes would be more like me.
This thought made me very defensive. Well, I don’t like nice clothes. New shirts at the Kohl’s bargain rack are about as nice as I ever get. My fancy robes are actually the great liturgical stoles and chasubles that were donated to the church by Pastor Hartman. I suspect he did that because my stuff looked so shoddy. I don’t go to a lot of feasts either, although I do belly up to quite a few good old fashioned potlucks, and often eat more than a poor person in Myramar likely does in a week. I will say this, I make it a point to be last in line rather than first. While these thoughts are running through my head, the wise words of Dr. Bowman in seminary came to me, “Whenever you encounter defensiveness, sinfulness is nearby.”
I do get paid well. My salary is about $78,000 a year plus benefits. This is the minimum guideline of the ELCA, but still more money than 75% of Americans make in a year. Our entire household income more than 95% of Americans. This means I live very comfortably by any standard of measurement in the United States or the world. Though I stand last in most lines, usually dress almost embarrassingly shabby, drive a ten year old car and a 15 year old $1000 scooter, and don’t ever identify myself as a pastor in public to get special treatment, except police officers at traffic stops of course, I am…rich.
Being rich and working for the church, means that I need to hear the judgment in this text. There is a special condemnation for scribes who enjoy their stuff a little too much, Jesus says. Though Jesus didn’t nail my stuff in the description of the scribes, I’ve got stuff that comes with being rich and I like my stuff. What do I do when asked to preach a sermon that begins with the words of Jesus saying beware of people like…me? What do any of us do when we stumble on a scripture that convicts us?
We head over to the baptismal font and sprinkle water on ourselves to remind of us the day that Jesus washed us, held us and promised to love us, no matter how filthy in this world we might get. At the font, we confess our sinfulness honestly not because we are courageous, but because we have been saved by grace. Why lie to ourselves if God knows everything about us, every hair on our head and promises to forgive us no matter what? Then we scramble to the table, eating hungrily at the best feast in town, where being last is the greatest honor. This buffet serves the only meal that really matters, the wine and the bread that hold the presence of God. Convicted of sin, reassured of forgiveness, we eat greedily the presence of Jesus who died so that sinners like me could taste freedom from sin. Then, we change, repent, or, at least try to figure out what faithful change is needed. Forgiven, fed by the presence of God, we can confront our brokenness.
First, I better be sure I am not overpaid, which would be like stealing money from widows. I need to encourage our council to look carefully at my salary to determine whether it is fair and justified. This might mean double checking the guidelines published by our bishop, comparing it to pastors in similar churches, Lutheran and non Lutheran in the area, and comparing the salary to jobs in the area with similar levels of responsibility, experience and education. The church should live always in the tension of honoring their call to be fair to her employees and good stewards of the wealth shared for ministry.
Second, I need to come clean, and count myself as wealthy, even though I don’t look like it with my shabby clothes and ridiculous scooter. Finally, all of us need to use our gifts where God’s creation aches. For the wealthy, our gift is money. Jesus is clear, the wealthy are expected to share this gift abundantly in the world. My first priority is to the church. I tell people to give an amount that they notice, that they have to think about. Currently, Paige and I give about $15,000 a year to the church. It sounds like a lot, but is it an amount for me that weekly draws my attention? The wealthy have a responsibility to their families. I should be generous with my kids starting out as young adults, my parents aging on a fixed income, my siblings or cousins in financial distress. Finally, I need to share my wealth with those organizations that are responding to God’s ache in the world, so they can thrive, places like HEART Food Pantry and Joseph’s Coat. I must pay my taxes and not hide from my responsibility to my community. I must be generous to neighbors and strangers who approach me with needs. I have been given great gifts, great gifts are expected of me.
If we consistently read scripture sure that Jesus is talking about someone else, then we miss the opportunity to grow closer to Christ. If we fear honest inspection, then we don’t trust the love at the heart of God. If we embrace the promises of our baptism, that God’s grace covers us, then we have nothing to fear from the judgment that our sinfulness brings. Amen