St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Place Your Bets”
Collect: Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
I have always been a sucker for musicals. They are so fantastical, so outrageous. Wouldn’t life be easier, and far more entertaining, if whenever we faced a problem or deep emotion we broke into song, and everyone would join in with a rousing chorus or a lively dance number? Alas, life is never that choreographed.
One of my favorite musicals is based on the short stories of Damon Runyon, writing about a mythical New York from the 20s and 30s that never existed. The caricatures he wrote about were ridiculous, but fun. Guys and Dolls encapsulated a few of those stories into a single narrative. One of my favorite characters, Sky Masterson, was nicknamed Sky because his bets were Sky High. He would wager staggering amounts on the most insane things. And he rarely lost. In the show, he wanted to date a woman who was in the show’s equivalent of the Salvation Army, the Save-A-Soul Mission just off of Times Square. She refused him, first because he was a gambler, and because she had to try and fill the mission for a midnight prayer meeting or it would be shut down according to her superior. He gave her his marker, a promissory note, for one dozen certified sinners for her prayer meeting if she would go on a date with him. He refused to give details. So she took his marker, and he made the bet of a lifetime. He walked into Nathan Detroit’s Crap game, and made a bet that was beyond belief. For the thirty-odd people there, he bet them $1000 EACH for them to attend this prayer meeting. “$1000 against their souls,” as he put it. Like I said he rarely lost. And in the moment he sang one of the stand-out songs of the show. “Luck Be A Lady” A great song. Marlon Brando sang it in the movie version. I heard a much better rendition by Frank Sinatra (who played Nathan Detroit in the movie, by the way) later on. But the sentiment he sings about is the same. What are you willing to stake it all on? In whom do you put your trust?
Life is risky. And we all can fail when it comes to being successful in this world. We could take our meager holdings and invest them, like Jesus talked about in the Parable of the Talents. But even then, we’ve all seen or heard the ads. Investing is always a risk, so legally one must have Risk Disclaimer. It usually goes something like this...
DISCLAIMER: Futures, stocks and options trading involves substantial risk of loss and is not suitable for every investor. The valuation of futures, stocks and options may fluctuate, and, as a result, clients may lose more than their original investment.One looks at the things that could happen, and then at the potential rewards and they decide whether to invest or not. Jesus is going at that in today’s Gospel. Investment advisors say the average person who invests spends more time planning their vacation than they do planning their retirement. Jesus takes it one step further, you work and sweat in this life for gain, but spend no time on your eternity. Where do you put your trust? Where do you invest your greatest asset, your very soul? We are all given only one, one ride on this merry-go-round. Broadway had a show called, You Can’t Take It With You, (later turned into a movie) and folk singer Tracy Chapman sang that “All that you have is your soul.” We are constantly receiving the invite to Go Deep, but are we willing to take the chance? Or rather, are you willing to take the chance to not Go Deep?
I do not gamble, not with money anyway. It has never been something that attracted my attention. Just after college I visited a Casino when I was in the Bahamas, and walked out with a little more money than I walked in with. I figured it was beginner’s luck, but also, as I saw it, walk out while you are ahead. I am not wired for the adrenaline rush that gambling gives. Some people become addicted to it, and find it near impossible to stop once they start. They gamble with their very lives and livelihoods by the choices that they make. But Jesus is talking about the biggest gamble there is.
When the whiny little brother comes to Jesus, he is asking for a judgment. Now the oldest child would receive the lion’s share of the inheritance, and maybe this one is coming to Jesus to ask to make it “fair.” It goes against the customs of the times that would enable the oldest child to hold onto the family farm or holdings so that it could stay together and in the family. Whatever the reason was for the one to come to Jesus, Jesus’ response is to not worry about the trappings of this world, and to focus instead on what could make an eternal difference. He tells the story of a man, well-off, not worried one crumb over his soul.
As Jesus ended his story, “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
So you and I have a choice. In this life we are forced to gamble. We all have to choose where we are going to invest our time and energies. We have a phrase for people who invest in the small and in so doing miss the large. “Penny smart, and pound foolish.” Very British. As Yanks we would probably say something more like “Majoring in the minors.”
The man in today’s parable, building up storehouses and saying to his Soul, “Eat, drink, and be merry.” And then the next day he did die. If he had known that this was his last day, how would he have spent his time? How would you?
If you knew that you had 24 hours left, what choices would you make? What difference would it make in how you spent your time? Who would you call? Who would you reach out to? Who would you forgive? Who would you apologize to? What would you make sure was said?
Now none of us knows the day or hour when we will be called home. So what does that leave us?
Live life in the Now. Invest these precious moments in making a difference. A poll was taken of nurses who work with people who were near the end of their lives, and what were the common concerns or regrets. Number one on the list was worries for their loved ones they were leaving behind (50%), followed closely by the worry that they should have worked LESS, and spent time with family MORE (42%). (Source)
One thing I love about the Episcopal Church is that we teach and preach that all are beloved children of God. All are welcome, accepted, and loved. There is nothing you can do to make God love you any more, and there is nothing you can do to make God love you any less. (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel) We welcome the smallest newborn and those with a foot in the grave, for all are welcome in the family of God. Because of this, many of our folks do not have that “born again” experience, because they always accepted the Grace and love of God and resided there. Some come running to Grace, having experienced things in life that had them make a decision to place all their chips on God. Both are right. Both are okay. It is not either/or; it is both/and. No matter where you are coming from or what you have done, or haven’t done, God loves you and wants you to come home. “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” (Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance)
I was shocked this week when it struck me on August 1 that it had been exactly three years to the day since I was laid off by my parish in Richmond. It gave me pause. It caused me to reflect. It had me send a few thank you emails. I posted a comment on it on Facebook, and was overwhelmed by the response. Many had prayed for me and my family along the way, and were witnesses to the idea that God is with us through thick and then. The lean times are better with God, and the gravy days are there because of God. In three years God has proven to be with us day in and day out. God landed us here, and I could not be more thankful. God is bigger than us. God can see over the horizon, and guide our steps in the now so that the vector we are on intersects with an outcome beyond our hopes, wishes, or dreams. THANKS BE TO GOD.
This morning I got up very early, even for me on most Sundays, so that I could bring up the horrific acts in El Paso yesterday. A disturbed young white man decided to bet his life on Hate, even writing a manifesto celebrating hate according to the reports. He took this one chance and went all in on killing others. 20 dead, and 26 wounded when I last checked this morning. And when I went to check, I learned that in the short night of sleep I had, something else happened that you may have missed. Another shooter attacked the club and restaurant district in Dayton, Ohio, killing 9, wounding 16 before he himself was killed. I pray those numbers did not go up more before the service this morning. With the blare of these headlines, you may have missed the one about the person who decided to drive his car into a group of people who were marching in an Anti-Violence rally. When going to Wal-Mart is a risk, when going out for a night on the town is a risk, when marching in an Anti-Violence rally is a risk, God help us all. But we cannot allow Hate or Fear to win.
In my preparation I glossed over the Collect for the day. You may have as well in your hearing of it. Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord… We need to pray this for our nation, as well. People are betting it all on Hate and Fear. Jesus tells us clearly, DO NOT. Do not bet on Fear, or Greed, or Hate. Bet on Love. Bet on God. In the face of such evil, it is easy to be bitter. It is easy to be jaded. Even worse, it is easy to become numb. The scariest part of the Headline “In Today’s Mass Shooting…” is the word Today’s. In the face of such evil, we would do well to remember, “Love is the strongest force in the World, and yet it is the humblest imaginable.”-Gandhi. Millions of people loving, millions of people rejecting hate and fear, millions turning their backs on greed are going to overwhelm the handful that think their one wasted gamble can win. Where are you going to place your bets? On God and Love? On Greed or Fear?
When it all comes down, I am going to bet on Love. I am going to bet on God. “All that you have is your Soul.” Amen