There once was a time when a man woke up of a Sunday morn and decided that he wanted to go to church. The sheets were warm, and the pillows were soft, and for a moment he was tempted to stay right where he was and worship at the Church of the Holy Comforter by the Springs. But something in his soul was stirring, and so he dragged himself from the cocoon of his cozy bed, dressed, and walked into town, looking for a place to worship.
When he arrived in the town square, he found himself in front of two different churches. He headed first to the right, towards the building with the plain wooden sign that read “Church of God” in small, simple letters. He entered into the dark space, and when his eyes adjusted to the light, this is what he saw:
He saw a tall, arching ceiling that drew his eyes up into shadow. He saw plain, ordinary pews, all just the same. He saw people of all kinds – all shapes and sizes, all races and genders, the rich and the poor and the powerful and the meek – sitting beside one another. He saw children sitting there, too, just like everybody else. He saw people smiling, saying hello, or kneeling quietly in prayer. He saw people pass by him in the doorway, bow their heads, cross themselves with holy water before stepping inside. He saw gold and silver and rich satin, all assembled in particular spots, marking the spaces in the church that seemed the most sacred, the thin places where the human and the divine touched. And in the center of the church, he saw the figure of a man, hanging from a cross, humbled and beaten and rejected, but somehow, shockingly, lifted up for all to see, reigning over all with a great and quiet majesty.
The man stood and watched this scene for a moment, taking in the people and the cross and face of that man broken upon it. He felt his soul go still, and he thought he might stay. But there was that other building to try across the street, and so he pulled himself out of the stillness and back into the town square.
Across the street, the other building was strikingly different from the one he had just left. This one had all of its gold and gemstones on the outside, shining in the sun like beacons. There was a sign, too, but this sign was enormous. The letters were 20 feet high, covered in gold with lights that twinkled around their borders. They were placed high up on the wall of the building, towering above the square, and they proclaimed, in all caps, “CHURCH OF MAMMON.” The man shielded his eyes, looked both ways, crossed the street, and entered in. And this is what he saw:
Opulence, everywhere. The light inside the church shone on splendor spilling out all over the place. When people entered into the church behind him, they didn’t bow their heads and dip a finger into a bowl of holy water; instead they lifted their faces and examined themselves in a mirror on the wall, giving their hair a final pat or their tie one final tug. Those that were dressed in bespoke suits and designer dresses ushered themselves to a plush seat in the front row, into golden chairs studded with diamonds and lined with rich fur. Other people, whose clothes were lovely, but off the rack, took a seat behind the golden ones in chairs that were a bit plainer with only a simple cushion. Those who showed up in clothes from last season shuffled to benches in the back of the room, where they sat hunched over, bunched together, and largely ignored. The ones who came to the door worn and dirty were told there was no room for them in the inn.
The man saw that most of the people looked very much the same – they were powerful and pretty, they were almost all the same color and almost all the same age. There were no children to be seen, but the man noticed a few of them being whisked away to another room where they would have to wait until they were old enough to have something positive and profitable to contribute. And in the center of the room, where in the other church the man had seen that hollowed-out, holy man hanging from his cross, in this church, there was…nothing. The front of the church was completely empty. But the people didn’t seem to mind, busy as they were commenting on each other’s new things, looking around to see how they compared to their neighbors, worrying about how they might move up higher.
There was, the man thought, something to worship here, but it wasn’t holy and it wasn’t helpful. And it certainly wasn’t what he had woken up thinking about that morning. And so he turned and went back to the little wooden church to sit together with the rich and the poor and with all the little children in the shadow of that man with a face like love and his arms stretched out in what, in all truth, looked like a profound embrace.
If only it were so easy. If only we could see the signs so clearly, hear a verbal warning, “You are now leaving the Church of God and are entering the Church of Mammon.” Jesus told us that we cannot serve both God and wealth, and we agree, we nod our heads, but then we leave this church and step onto the street and wonder how exactly to tell. Am I serving God if I give money to a person on the street who may use it to buy drugs? Am I serving Mammon if I go buy a new book? A better pair of shoes? A luxury condo on Rittenhouse Square? We cannot serve both God and Mammon. Right. We know. But how do we know?
Truth is, it’s complicated. Figuring out what to do with our money, how to relate to our stuff, is a thorny business. But it is our thorny business, and Jesus wants us to pay attention to it. Why else would he talk about it so much? I mean, really, for a man who lived off of the generosity of strangers and had nowhere to lay his head, he talks about money a lot. He knows it's tricky, so tricky in fact that when he does talk about it what he has to say isn’t always crystal clear. Look at today’s parable of the unjust steward – what is even going on here? Is the rich man really so blameless in all of this mess? If so, why do his debtors owe him so much? When the steward has his master’s debtors pay a bill for half of what they owe, is he cutting his losses or cutting out the unfair interest? And why is any of this praiseworthy? It’s a confusing, complicated story, about a confusing, complicated subject.
It’s such a complicated subject, in fact, that if we’re going to figure it out, we’re going to have to be smart. We’re going to have to be savvy. We’re going to have to be shrewd. If the motives of the unjust steward are unclear and his merits somewhat murky, at least we know that he was shrewd. He was thinking; he was planning, he was clever and canny and he paid attention to detail. We have to be as shrewd as the unjust manager; we have to claim that shrewdness as a part of our discipleship and put it to work for God’s purposes. We have to take the time to think about how we spend our money, how we give it away, how we treat our stuff, and how we treat our neighbors. We have to be clever and canny, and most of all, we have to pay attention to detail. For our service to God or to Mammon isn’t determined – mostly – by what we do when we receive a windfall. Our service to God or to Mammon is determined by what we do with a very, very little, with the tiniest of tiny bits.
And when we are shrewd – faithfully, humbly shrewd - each of these tiny moments becomes an opportunity for grace. For God is there in each moment. God has been there for every decision you’ve made today, from the moment you woke up of a mind to go to church to the moment you sat down after the Gospel. God will continue to be there, from the moment you step out onto Locust Street until the moment you lay your head down tonight. So, you holy Church of God, come to this place and sit before the one with arms stretched out in mercy. Take in his love and feel your souls go still. And then go forth from this place like the beloved, glorious, shrewd disciples that you are. Be faithful, in a very little and in very much. Worship the Lord, and serve only him. And the Lord shall direct your going out and your coming in, your saving and your spending, your serving, from this time forth for evermore.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
18 September 2016
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia