Monday, June 8, 2015
The Sunday Sermon: God's Crazy Abundance
Erik Olson Fernandez is crazy. Growing up poor in a Mexican-American family in Ohio, he saw how hard his mom worked and how little progress his family made. He vowed to do what he could to create more opportunities for immigrants like her. However, after graduating from Miami University with a bachelors in urban planning and from Northeastern with a law degree, he had $90,000 in student loans to repay. But before he begrudgingly began paying back the stiff cost of the American Dream, he looked up how much the CEO of the bank he owed the money to made the previous year -- and it was 38 million dollars. So he decided to begin paying back his loans to UNICEF and to a local youth program instead, places he thought might need the money more. (I told you he was crazy!)
Now student loans are backed by the federal government, so after a few years of this the bank was able to start garnishing his wages. So he stopped paying his taxes so he continue giving to UNICEF and a local youth program instead. Of course, a couple years later the IRS also began garnishing his wages. As he turned forty he was finally able to retire the debt. And somehow this crazy man was able to find a woman who would marry him -- and he and Gloria now have a nine-year old daughter, Dana, all of whom are members of this Cathedral.
Erik just wrote a book, and his new project is to begin an organization called Nuevo SNCC (as in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), that will help support students organizing for a California educational system that truly serves all students. (Which isn’t such a crazy idea -- it’s actually a pretty good one. I mean, we’re ranked 50th in per-pupil spending.) The craziest thing about Erik these days is that though he just works for a union and puts away hundreds a month for the organization he’s launching, though he has a mortgage to pay and a family to care for, he feels amazingly rich. How can someone give so much away and yet feel so intensely a sense of abundance?
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is the crazy one, at least in the eyes of his family and some out-of-town religious leaders. They find him in a house chock full of sinners -- the poor, the misfits, the confused, the sick -- and he’s listening to them and caring for them and healing them. The whole thing seemed so crazy to his family that they rushed over to take him away, to save him from embarrassing himself from this talk that all people are forgiven for their sins and all people are deserving of God’s abundant love. The clergy were a little less compassionate -- they just accused him of being possessed by a demon.
In response, Jesus wonders aloud: let’s say you want to take what’s in the house of a strong man . . . how are you going to do it? You’re going to have to tie up the strong man first -- then the house is yours. Jesus appears here to be tagging Satan as the strong man who must be bound before a plundering can take place. And Jesus, the stronger or “more powerful” one, is the only person fit to bind this strong man. Thus Jesus is able to heal the sick by overpowering the demons tormenting the mental “houses” of the suffering, freeing them again to thrive. So, Jesus concludes, far from my being possessed by a demon, I am able to free others from their demons because I am more powerful than they.
Demon possession was the diagnosis for plenty of ailments in Jesus’ time, but I suspect it doesn’t come up all that often in medical school these days. But the presence of evil and torment in our lives, the presence of obstacles in the way of our flourishing is still very real. These are strong men whom only Jesus can overcome.
I have a strong man in my life that needs to be bound, and it is my relationship with money. I have been taught since a young age to maximize the return on my investments, to strive for the “highest and best use” of the modest capital afforded to me. This is, of course, nothing other than what our global financial system is based upon. It would be crazy to do otherwise. But, with God’s help and not without much struggle, I have to tell you, Laurel and I haven’t been maximizing our investments for a while now. In fact, we’ve been putting more and more of our money (I mean, we’re not talking tons of money here) into funds that don’t invest in alcohol, tobacco, and firearms; that support women and minorities in leadership positions; that promote renewable energy; and that invest in poor neighborhoods. This means that we receive a lower return on our investment, which over several decades could mean A LOT of money. And this is crazy because we have two kids and college only gets more expensive and unless we end up with a genius somebody’s going to owe a lot of money. (Sure, we’re saving for their education, but we’ll end up with less than what it could have been.)
But can I tell you what else is crazy? That the Episcopal Church’s Church Pension Fund has $11.5 billion in assets, assets which grew $800 million in the last year, and this fund has allocated a mere seven percent of its holdings in what it refers to as “responsible” investments (investing in women and minorities, the environment, poor neighborhoods). And after describing these “responsible” investments (which makes me wonder, of course, what they call the rest of their investments), their web page concludes: “As fiduciaries, the investment team understands that The Church Pension Fund’s investment objective cannot be compromised, even with the best of social intentions. We are pleased that the carefully selected and managed programs in which The Church Pension Fund is invested provide the opportunity for attractive investment returns while fulfilling greater social purposes.” Now its investment objective is to help Laurel and me, among others, with our retirement some day, and for that I’m grateful . . . but there’s still something awry here, no? There’s a strong man keeping us from investing more in the lives of those who need it most, an obstacle that “cannot be compromised.” This is a strong man in my life and among us that I myself cannot bind, and neither can you. We need help.
What is your strong man? Ask Jesus to bind him!
What the strong man’s presence constrains is our imagination. Imagine what could happen if we invested more in our neighbors who need it. Imagine what it could mean for our diocese if the seven biggest churches (which includes us) began partnering financially with the area’s struggling missions? We are just four miles from St. Luke’s North Park and six miles from St. Matthew’s National City -- but these predominantly Sudanese-, Filipino-, and Mexican-American congregations can only afford a 10-hour a week priest.
These congregations are quite large -- St. Luke’s has more kids than we do -- but without the resources for even a Sunday School curriculum. What would these churches look like if the Cathedral invested in them? Imagine a St. Luke’s Godly Play room as lovingly painted and carefully arranged as ours, and a teen room with a computer or two, a place where young people could feel safe and get some homework done. Imagine St. Matthew’s with a website and resources for a stewardship campaign, or some help recruiting, training, and tracking volunteers. Imagine these churches serving as community centers for cultural groups that don’t always feel fully at home in this time and place.
It’s been a joy to watch a partnership unfold with St. Luke’s. Along these lines, I invite you to our St. Luke’s clean up day on Saturday, June 27 from 9 to 1 -- it will be a great chance to meet some parishioners and get a sense of the amazing potential of that church to blossom in the years ahead with a little help.
What could these congregations look like if the Cathedral invested in them? What would our return be? Would that be enough? But that’s a crazy question. Of course it would it would be more than enough -- it would be a chance for us to experience the abundance of God’s grace in the world. The funny thing about abundance is that you never feel like you have enough until you start giving it away.
It’s not crazy to think that with God’s help we can do grace-filled works in the world that may seem crazy by the world’s standards -- because Jesus is that strong. He can bind these and other strong men in our lives, thanks be to God!
The Rev Colin Mathewson