Genesis 15: 1-6
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ 2 But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’[a] 3 And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ 4 But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ 5 He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord[b] reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith[a] our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.[b]
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised.[e] 12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’
13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Luke 12: 32-40
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
35 ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
39 ‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he[g] would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’
Sell your possessions and give alms, Jesus says.
Jesus talks frequently about money. Many of his parables contain characters who scheme and plot for financial reward. He has particularly harsh words for those hypocrites who make a show of religious piety but underneath it all are on the take.
But on this occasion, as we heard in last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus is responding to a question from someone in the crowd. The person, who is not named, asks Jesus to arbitrate, in a dispute with his brother, over their family inheritance. Jesus sees the man’s motive and responds with a warning: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed!”
Then he tells a story, about a man, a farmer, who receives a bumper crop and so has a plan, to pull down his barns, build much bigger ones, and then retire on his wealth: Happy days! He imagines a life of leisure, eating and drinking! But then that very night he dies.
The questioner is prey to greed, the farmer is focussed on hoarding wealth. Jesus suggests that both have missed the point.
After telling this parable, he goes on to teach the crowd. Look at the birds, he says. They have no storehouse, no savings, and yet God looks after them. And look at the lilies! See how beautifully they are clothed! If God looks after them, surely you can be confident that he will look after you all the more. Do not keep worrying, your Father knows what you need.
Oh you of little faith…
As you know, I have spent a career in finance, in the world of money. And so it’s a subject I have thought about. And what is interesting to me about Jesus’ teaching about money is that for him it is as much a spiritual concern as an ethical one.
That is not to say the ethics are not important. That some have far more than they will ever need, and know that others struggle for basic essentials, and do not share, is immoral, a denial of our common humanity.
But this is not the point being made here. For Jesus it is a question of faith. He sees that we are torn between two impulses: One is preoccupied with material possessions, driven in the main by worry and fear and an instinct to control, and ends always in disappointment. The other is the impulse of faith, of trust, of love – leading to true freedom and eternal life.
In another of Jesus’ parables there is a powerful image which resonates for me: the parable of the sower. Some of the young seedlings find weeds growing up around them, threatening to cut out the light and choke them. And the weeds are explained as “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth.”
Worry and deceitfulness. These are how I imagine the whispers of the weeds.
Those of us who have plenty are urged to give, in this teaching, motivated not only by charity for our fellow human beings, but more than this, as an act of trust, of faith, of blocking our ears to those anxious, deceitful whispers. So I urge - myself first and foremost - give compassionately if you can, but if you can’t, then give stubbornly, determinedly, hacking away at the impulse to worry and self-preservation, the weeds, lest they overwhelm you.
At the risk of offending our church wardens and treasurer, I suggest it matters less to whom we give, whether to the church or to another cause, than that we do it, that we act. I find there is always a gap between the thinking I will, and the doing of it. And often in life, action leads to a change of heart, rather than the other way around. As Jesus says, where your treasure is, there your heart will be.
For those who have little, Jesus has a softer message. The good news is brought to you; the Kingdom of Heaven shall be yours. The real worries which you must navigate each day, how you will cope, will be taken away.
But whether we are rich or poor, Jesus invites us to look beyond ourselves, to the birds, to the lilies, who are untroubled by such worries. Do not be afraid, he says, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.
This is the journey of faith, taken by Abraham, into which our readings from Genesis and from Hebrews encourages us – the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Faith, that God will give us his Kingdom, is not blithe optimism. It is not always emotional conviction. Sometimes it is hard fought, and hard won. A determination to see the world differently, as the love project of the creator, and to join with him in the difficult work of bringing his creation to fullness of life.
And faith is no guarantee of prosperity, still less of avoiding death. Abraham too is worried about inheritance – we heard how in his dream he pleads with God not to leave him childless, that his inheritance not pass to his former slave. God grants his request, that his descendants will be as many as the stars in the night sky; and yet he dies before he sees it come true. For him, as for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, life is brief. As it says in Hebrews, he and others died, having only glimpsed God’s promises from a distance.
This too is our calling, for unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
So, drawing all this together, Jesus invites us to enter the flow of God’s creation and his love, to resist the worry and deceitfulness of wealth, to work for the redemption of the world, but also trust in his goodness - accepting our mortality - and his promise of the life beyond.