Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Rennis & Amir; Fred & Angie at the pre-installation Banquet at Raffles Convention Center.10.19.12

Some of guests include Bishop David Lai of Taiwan; Prime Bishop Edward Malecdan of Philippines; Bishop Kwon Yi Yeon of Taejun, Korea.

A lovely photo of the family shown at the Dinner.

Current Archbishop of the Province of South East Asia, Datuk Lapok, former Archbishops Moses Tay and John Chew with other guests archbishops and bishops.

 Canon Fred David of West Malaysia; former Archbishop Moses Tay; Bishop Ponniah and me.
Some of the former Golden Harvest leaders include a lady missionary to Thailand (Wai Keng); legal counsels Lawrence and Wee Teen Boo; banker Alfred Chan and wife Jean Wong; and lawyer Soek Bee Tan, hidden.
The facade of St. Andrew's Anglican Cathedral. Not shown at the background is Raffles City Hotel & Convention Center, the tallest building in Singapore so far.


(Singapore, October 20, 2012: Brief historical note: From 1980-1986, I was privileged to serve as missionary-priest in the Anglican Church of Singapore, in-charge of the  new church plants of St. Andrew’s Cathedral. In one of these missions called "Golden Harvest" (the other is Bedok) I worked with an incredible talented Lay Leader who served as my Senior Warden, Rennis Ponniah.

Rennis had just graduated from the National University of Singapore as a sociologist and was working with the Housing Development Board. A gifted Bible teacher, diligent Lay Eucharistic Minister and exemplary Christ's disciple, he eventually answered the call to priesthood and lo and behold, he is now the new Bishop of Singapore. In a solemn and grandiose Anglican liturgy of Investiture and installation, the Most Rev. Datuk Bolly Anak Lapok, Archbishop of the Anglican Province of South East Asia, led some 3,000 clergy and lay representatives from the Diocese of Singapore's 27 parishes, Southeast Asia deaneries and well-wishers from the worldwide Anglican Communion (including Episcopal Church's Bishop David Lai of Taiwan and Prime Bishop Edward Malecdan of the Episcopal Church of the Philippines) in laying hands and praying for Bishop Ponniah. 

I like to thank my Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori; our Chief Operating Officer, Bishop Stacy Sauls and my Missions Director, Sam McDonald; and my colleague, Partnership Officer for Asia & the Pacific, Canon Peter Ng, for encouraging me to attend this wonderful occasion.

Prior to his election as the 9th Bishop of Singapore, Rennis, 57, has been vicar of St. John’s-St. Margaret’s Church; Canon of St. Andrew’s Cathedral; Archdeacon and assistant bishop. In addition to his many roles, he also served as Dean of Laos; Coordinator of Diocesan Parish Life; and Examining Chaplain for Ordinands. Raised by deeply-religious Anglican parents (who originally came from Madras, India), Rennis married Amir Caldwell who also is daughter of an Anglican priest. They are gifted with four children (Renita, Amaria, Abraham and Johanan). I officiated their marriage and baptized their first child before I left for the United States in 1986.

My visit to Singapore today, in response to his personal invitation not only renewed our friendship as family friend and co-workers (my wife, Angela and I and Rennis and Amir are like brothers and sisters) but also gave us a wonderful time to meet the current leaders of South East Asia and reconnect with my former church leaders, some of them have become priests and others active diocesan leaders and missionaries. As to the Cathedral extensions, he GH has now become the English congregation of All Saints Bi-Lingual Parish while Bedok Extension is now the Parish of Christ Redeemer.  The following is Bishop Rennis’ Testimony, which I edited slightly to fit my Facebook context. - Fred Vergara.)

MY TESTIMONY – By Rennis Ponniah

Like every servant of the Lord, mine too is a story of His amazing grace upon my life.

I see the Lord’s grace in giving me my family of origin. I was born into a God-fearing Christian family with parents who love the Lord and His Church. Daily family devotions, my Dad’s robust faith, and my Mom’s disciplined effort to get me to memorize the Psalms from an early age were the foundational rocks of my spiritual formation.

From my teens when I was a ‘server’ at the Communion table, I grew in my love for the ministry of the local Anglican Church. The call to ‘full-time ministry’ was probably sown in my heart in the late 1970’s before I was even twenty years old but the Lord had His way of ripening the seed and of preparing the instrument until I was ready to answer His call to be an Anglican priest in 1990.

Then, I also cherish God’s providential grace in the woman I married and the four children He has given us. Amir, my wife, is herself the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, Revd. Abraham Caldwell. I thank God that she is a tremendous support to my ministry. She is a fervent intercessor, a worker in the background, a close and trusted companion, and the one who manages our home and nurtures the children with warmth, joy and sacrifice. By the sheer grace of God, our four children have a living and personal relationship with the Lord. It’s a very special joy for my wife and me to catch a glimpse every now and then of them doing their "Quiet Time" and serving in our church.

As I look over the years, I am conscious too of how God has formed me through precious friends and ministry allies. I thank the Lord for the privilege of studying under godly and gifted teachers at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Chicago), Regent College (Vancouver) and Trinity Theological College (Singapore). Added to that are the special friends who have walked with me in life and ministry, several have served side-by-side with me in the work of the Gospel, especially in the churches I have been part of (Christ Church, Golden Harvest Extension Centre, All Saints Church, St. George’s Church, Our Savior’s Church and St. John’s-St. Margaret’s Church).

There have been several episodes in my life where I have known God’s power in my weakness and have experienced His mighty saving acts. Therefore, as I consider the journey thus far traveled, I see God’s goodness beyond measure and am led with the help of His Spirit to offer my life as a daily offering of thanksgiving to God, Psalm 116:12-14 says, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people."

The Lord has called me in these days to be the shepherd-leader of this Diocese of Singapore, having given me an anchor text  from Zechariah 3:6-7: The angel of the Lord gave this charge to Joshua: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘If you will walk in obedience to me and keep my commandments, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here.” The meaning of those verses given me many years ago, has now reached another level of fulfillment. I know that being a Diocesan Bishop is not a prize to be won but a cup to be drunk. Matthew 20:22 says: Jesus answered (the disciples) by saying to them, ‘You don't know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?’”  

May the Lord give me and my wife the grace and strength to drink His appointed cup of sacrificial love and service for the love of Him; and may He make it a cup of resurrection power and joy! I put my trust in Him to enable me to lead His Church to know Him more and to make known among the nations the wonders of His salvation in Christ Jesus.

I value the co-leaders He is giving me and I thank God for every member of the flock He is entrusting to me. My family and I cherish your love and prayers. All honor and glory be to the Lord Almighty, our great Shepherd-King, who leads His people on!

Your pastor and shepherd-leader,
Bishop Rennis

Post-notes: Seated in his Cathedra after his installatuion, the new bishop addressed the congregation:: “My brothers and sisters, in Holy Scripture we heard how Jesus came among us as one who serves. I ask you now to pray with me and for me, that I may follow the pattern of leadership given to us by the Lord Jesus; that I may know God’s grace in the task that lies before me; and do it all in His strength.”

Then he knelt and after a short silence, prayed: “O God, take my mind and think through it; take my lips and speak through them; take my heart and set it on fire with love for you and for your people; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” AMEN!

(The service began with sunshine; it was a hot and humid Singaporean weather; but it ended with heavy downpour with thunder and lightning as thunderous applause by some 3,000 people was heard when Bishop Rennis and his family were presented. The event continued with "International Food" in the cool-shaded grounds of the historic St. Andrew's Cathedral. - Fred Vergara 10.20.2012)

Monday, October 15, 2012



(From the  Parable of the Rich Young Ruler -Mark 10:17-31)

(Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Winfred B.. Vergara at St. Michael & All Angels Parish, Seaford, New York, 10.13.2012)
“There is one thing you still need to do. Go sell everything you own. Give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the man heard this, he went away gloomy and sad because he was very rich. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for rich people to enter in to God’s kingdom.”(Mark 10:21-23
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The rector announced on the pulpit one Sunday, “Brothers and sisters, I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that we now have the money to do the needed repairs in our church, we now have the money to feed the hungry in our neighborhood, and we now have the money to hire a Youth Director.” What’s the bad news Father? , the congregation asked, “The bad news is,” he said, “the money is still in your pockets!”

That is exactly the situation here with the rich young ruler. He has followed almost every commandment. He probably went to the temple regularly. But he asked Jesus to have eternal life, Jesus made the challenge, “Go and sell all your possessions and give it to the poor and come follow me.” That was bad news for him; he went away sorrowful because he has great possessions.

Today, we start a series of  stewardship  reflections called “Blessed to be a Blessing,” as recommended by the Office of Stewardship. This is in preparation for the coming year when we renew our pledges to pray and support the ministries of our church. Every Sunday, the readings and the reflections are designed to remind us, that all that we have and all that we think we possess, are actually God’s and that we are stewards of His great and manifold blessings.

It is important to understand that in this gospel today, the focus of Jesus was not on the wealth of this rich young ruler. The focus of Jesus teaching was on his attachment to wealth. We must also understand that the Bible does not say that “money is the root of all evil.” What it says (in 1st Timothy 6:10) is “the love of money  is the root of all evil.”  In this example the rich young ruler was unwilling to let go of his possessions in exchange for the vocation that Jesus offered. He had fallen in love with the gifts and forgot the Giver. He failed to realize that wealth is not eternal but God is eternal.  He failed to realize that when you have God, you have everything and when you don’t have God, you have nothing. It is God who gives us knowledge and skills and good health and strength to get wealth. Jesus said, in John 10:10 “I come that you may have life and have abundantly.” The apostle John also wrote to a friend, Gaius, “I wish above all else that you may prosper and be of good health even as your soul prospers” (III John 2)

As stewards, God’s blessings upon us are not meant to be hoarded but to be shared.  This story about the rich young ruler also reminds us of a parable of Jesus (Luke 12:13-21) where the man was blessed to have plenty of harvest but instead of sharing some the blessings, he built a big barn to store them. Then he had many more harvest but again instead of sharing with others, he built and built more barns. When finally he filled all the many barns that he had built, he said to himself, “Now I am ready to enjoy it” but that very day that he was to enjoy them, God took his life. It is interesting that this parable was called “parable of the rich fool.” It seems that the “rich young ruler” is also a rich fool.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church said, “there are three things we can do with money: first, we must earn as much money as we can; second, we must save as much money as we can; third, we must give as much money as we can.”The problem of the rich young ruler as well as the man who built so many barns is that they were able to do the first two things; they earned what they can; they saved what they can; but they failed and refused to do the third---they did not give what they can. Again the focus of Jesus is not their wealth per se but their attitude towards wealth.

The late Terry Parsons the former Stewardship Officer of the Episcopal Church said that “the desire to have more possessions than what we need are the primary temptations that come with money. Mansions, flashy cars, walk-in closets full of rarely or never-worn clothing, cabinets full of things that are seldom used but need to be dusted, all of the non-essentials that wealth tempts us to accumulate can become not signs of God’s blessings, but the barriers to a life-altering relationship with God. As prosperity grows, our decisions about using money move slowly from an emphasis on needs to wants. We have it not because we need it, but because we want it. “if you’ve got it, flaunt it..” The motto of this generation is “shop till you drop; the one with the most toys win.”

Terry continued, “As we watch the rich young man walk away, some recall the widow whom Jesus applauds when she, among all the people bringing substantial offerings, gives only two small coins. In Mark 12 we read: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she, out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Ironically, the widow has done what the Rich Young Ruler could not. Can it be that it is easier not to possess many things?

“Consider this lesson on how to trap a monkey. The story goes that African hunters wanting to capture monkeys unharmed would use as a trap a bottle with a long narrow neck, just large enough so a monkey could put its hand in it. In the evening the bottle would be tied to a tree, and in the bottom of the bottle they would place several good-smelling nuts. In the morning they would find a monkey with its hand clutching the nuts, held securely in the bottle. At any time, the monkey could have released itself simply by opening its hand and letting go of the nuts.”

Years ago as a seminarian, I served at student chaplain in a hospital in connection with my CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). I had the privileged of witnessing births and deaths and gaining pastoral insights. I observed that when a child is born into this world, the position of the hands is a close fist and the first thing that she learns is to “close-open, close-open” her hands. It seems to say that from birth, we have the tendency to “acquire and to acquire.” But when people die, the position of the hands are often open palms, as if saying “everything I acquired, I left behind.”

That "we can’t take them with us” does not mean that riches can’t be seen as coming from God. They can be and are. But our attitude to them is like that of the late Jaime Cardinal Sin of the Roman Catholic Church who said, “money is the manure of the devil but in the vineyard of God, it is good fertilizer.”

Riches can be seen as God’s gifts– just as we see time, talent, wisdom, good health, right opportunity and a host of other things as blessings from God. But again, they are marked for stewardship. God’s gifts carry with it God’s hope that they might be used by His stewards wisely for the kingdom of God. The rich your ruler was like the monkey who got trapped in the bottle because he cannot let go of his nuts. In the process, he failed to enter into a great adventure that will carry him surely to the kingdom of heaven.”

It is amazing that the fisherman “who left everything and followed Jesus” had his name written for all eternity--“St. Peter”  while this rich young ruler who clung to his possessions had his name buried with his bones, in complete oblivion and anonymity.

On this Sunday, think about what God’s blessings on you and ask, “How can I be a blessing?”

Friday, October 12, 2012


(Salzburg in Germany-Austria Border) How can a soil where the"hills are alive with the sound of music" and culture so rich and stunning that produced a Mozart likewise produced a Hitler? No human society is immune to human depravity.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, most brilliant and prolific composer of classical music born in Salzburg, Germany on January 27, 1756 and performed mostly in Vienna, Austria.
The "killing fields" during the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia is one of the horrors of modern history.

Adolf Hitler, dictator of Nazi Germany during World War II and who ordered the genocide  of the Jews. He was born in Branau am Inn, Austria, on April 20, 1889. He rose to power in German politics as leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party, also known as the Nazi Party. Hitler was chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945 and dictator from 1934 to 1945. His policies precipitated World War II and the Holocaust. Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, in his Berlin bunker..

 Cambodia, the soil of Angkor Wat, the most beautiful temple in the world is also the soil that produced Pol Pot, the Communist dictator who instituted the "killing fields." 

PARABLE OF THE SOWER & THE HUMAN CONDITION (Luke 8:1-15)                       
(Sermon delivered by The Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara at the Chapel of Christ the Lord, Manhattan, New York. 10.12.2012)
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.’

A parable is like a fable in that it uses visible objects to illustrate invisible ones. Or like a metaphor, it is a figure of speech that uses concrete and perceptible phenomena to illuminate an abstract and imperceptible reality. As our Sunday School defines it, “a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” The task of preaching is how to bring heaven’s thoughts down to earth. For the human preacher, it is quite an incarnational task.

I remember my first sermon when I was just fresh-off-the seminary. It was an English service in a Philippine Church but I believe I was speaking “Greek.” I mean, I spoke in the language that my people could not understand. I spoke in systematic theological terms I learned from John Macquarie, Paul Tillich, Rudolph Otto, Rudolph Bultmann, J├╝rgen Moltmann and all those big names in seminary. I was using such terms as “mysterium tremendum,” “eschatological expectation” and “transcendence” and “immanence.” My people were polite so they never said a word. But I was beginning to feel that many of them were beginning to fall asleep in their “ground of being” and some were already sinking in the “quagmire of existential vacuum.”I wonder if they ever learned but I think they were beginning to suspect that I just wanted to impress to them my erudition of theological language.

Another Sunday came and I got inspired from a Grade School book on Aesop’s fables. My theme was agape or God’s love and I chose the fable of the Sun and the Wind to illustrate my point. The Sun and the Wind had a contest on who of them was strong enough to remove the coat off a man walking on the road. The Wind blew hard and strong but it could not take the man’s coat because the harder it blew the more tightly the man held on to his coat. Then it was the turn of the Sun. It simply shone warmly; the man felt the heat and voluntarily took off his coat. Love is like the sun, I said. It does not force; it simply shines and waits for the result. As 1st Corinthians 13, says. “Love is patient and kind…it does not insist.” After the mass, a parishioner said to me, “Father, now I really understand your sermon.”

In this parable of the Sower, not only that Jesus described the soils in which the seed fell but he also endeavored to explain the meaning of the parable itself. The seed is the word of God and the soil is like a human heart. Heart number 1 is like a path soil: the word came to it but the devil snatched it away. Heart number 2 is like a rock: the word came and it lifted the heart with joy but because it was not rooted and grounded, it died a natural death; Heart number 3 is the soil with thorns and weeds; it heard the word but was choked by the cares and worries, the stresses and strains of this life; Heart number 4 is the good soil: it heard the word and kept it and with patience and perseverance, it produced good fruit.

It is indeed amazing that Jesus whose prayer is “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” would endeavor to illustrate His kingdom which is “not of this world” in the language that is “in this world.” In another context, he lamented the hardness of human heart when he said to Nicodemus about being born again. “ I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony…I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? “(John 3:11-12)

I recently had a vacation in Eastern Europe and visited Germany, Hungary and Austria. I was fascinated by the beauty of nature particularly in Salzburg and Vienna and the richness of their histories and cultures. But I was also intrigued by the thought that same culture that produced Mozart and Beethoven (and Maria Von Trapp of The Sound of Music) can also produce a Hitler. I shared this reflection with our Presiding Bishop she was quick to point out that the same culture that produced a “Cranmer and a Shakespeare also produced a Cromwell.” May I add, a “Bloody Mary” as well? And I’m not referring to the drink! (Queen Mary 1 of Tudor was the catholic Queen of England for five years, 1553-1558, but she had more than 300 persons burned at the stake for heresy, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.)

As an Asian, I also find it horrible to remember that the same Cambodia who produced Angkor Wat, the largest and most beautiful Hindu Temple in the world can also produce a murderous Pol Pot and the “killing fields.” As Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori wrote, “No society is immune to depravity.”
My favorite seminary story is about an Old Testament professor who during final exam would only ask one question:”Who are the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah and what have they done?” His reputation for this habit spread from one generation of seminarians to another and so it became a temptation for this new class not to review any other Old Testament lessons but to only to memorize the kings of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. But in that particular final exam, the professor had a change of mind. Instead of asking about the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah, he asked, “Who are the major prophets and the minor prophets?” Naturally the seminarians were dumb-founded and many of them could not answer the question. But one smar-alec wrote in his paper. "Sir, who am I to determine the major and the Minor Prophets? Only God can do that. But as to the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah, they are the following…”

As human beings, we can always wiggle out of the parables of Jesus. As the prophet Elijah said to the people of Israel, "How long will you go on limping between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him." And in his zealousness for God, Elijah was tempted to perform a surgical operation, a show of power in Mount Carmel.1 Kings 18 tells the spectacular story of Elijah proving he was the Lord’s anointed and triumphing against all the false prophets of Baal. Then he let “none of them to escape,” slaughtering them in the Kishon River.

This kind of surgical approach, however, was not sanctioned by Yahweh who is not an “either or” but a “both and” God.  (This makes me feel comfortable with the via media theology of Anglicanism). God is not all judgment; for if He is all judgment, then who can stand? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Sarah, Rachel and Rebecca and Mary, is God of both judgment and mercy. In Hosea 11, God said of the apostate Israel: “How can I give you up Ephraim? How can I hand you over Israel? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”

My favorite Asian theologian, the late Dr. Kosuke Koyama once wrote in an article, The Ritual of the Limping Dance (1980): “That is why we continue to limp because mortals continue to be mortals and God continues to be God.” If God executes his righteous indignation at the drop of a seed, then everyone of our knees shall turn into clay, for we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

That is why, we need to guard against a fundamentalism that reduces God to an “either or” God. It is easier to judge the condition of the human heart as static and unchanging than to understand that the same heart can also be dynamic and transforming. Who among the saints of old can claim to be only the “good soil,” of noble heart and good intentions? The Confession of St. Augustine tells us of our own struggle in the ritual of the limping dance.

We must guard against a fundamentalism that arrogates unto us the power that belongs to God alone. Righteousness exalts a nation but self-righteousness even in name of God can be a usurpation of God’s authority. A nation that exalts itself in self-righteousness will be tempted to do a surgical solution to another nation that it thinks an enemy of God. Not unlike the Elijah factor, it will be tempted to resort to “blanket bombing” so that no one escapes, or to release a nuclear show down to execute its judgment.

The “theology of the suffering God” tells us that God never gives up on us. Time and time again, He sent us the parable of the sower, planting seed after another, one prophet at a time, both major and minor ones. To teach us His ways and to call us to voluntary repentance and change. Then in the fullness of time, God sent His own Son, the ultimate Parable. The Jesus Parable came down from heaven and dwelt among us. Like the Sun, He shines into our hearts. The warmth of His love, the gentleness of His compassion and the power of His grace shall cause us to voluntarily remove our pretensions and surrender to His will and turn our “swords into ploughshares and our spears to pruning hooks.” Amen.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


(NOTE: Terry Parsons, well-loved former Stewardship Officer of the Episcopal Church passed away last October 3, 2012. This sermon is from "Sermons that Work" and is reprinted here as a gesture of gratitude for the life and work of Terry. She was the one who inspired me to develop my own training/seminar on "the Seven Principles of Christian Stewardship for the New Community.". She had invited me to present an Asian American perspective in some of the TENS (The Episcopal Stewardship Network) Conferences in the past. She will be missed by many of her colleagues not only in the Episcopal Church Center but also in many parts of the Church where her gift of inspiration, counsel and Christian Stewardship was deeply felt and appreciated. May she rest in peace and rise in glory. - Fred Vergara)

20 Pentecost, Proper 23 (B) – October 14, 2012

How wealthy was the Rich Young Ruler really?

By the Rev. Terry Parsons

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-15 (or Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 and Psalm 90:12-17); Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Today’s story of the Rich Young Ruler is one of the most familiar in the gospels. This may be due, in part, to the fact that it occurs in more than one gospel. In addition to Mark’s account, almost identical stories can be found in Matthew and Luke. It is familiarity with all three of these that causes us to call it the story of the Rich Young Ruler. Though he is rich, or at least identified as “having many possessions” in all three gospels, it is Matthew who tells us he is young and Luke who calls him a ruler. But no matter what we call him, the subject of the story is the same: wealth and its role, not just in the life of this man, but in our own.

Wealth bought privilege in the time of Christ, and it does today. In Jesus’ world, it could be seen as a reward for faithfully following God’s commands. Do you remember Job? When he lost his children, his flocks and herds, all that he had, his supposed friends, who came to commiserate with him, kept asking what sin he had committed to cause God to take away all these things. They assumed Job’s wealth, both familial and financial, were signs of God’s favor. Up to the point of the loss of this wealth, everyone had seen Job as a righteous man, one who had, therefore, received these signs of blessing. The loss of his wealth, therefore, must be outward and visible signs of the loss of that divine favor. As a rich man, he was one of God’s favorites. As one who had lost his wealth, Job had done something to offend God.

Now look again at our Rich Young Ruler. As a wealthy person who kept all the commandments, he must have enjoyed approval, privileges, the envy of his community and regard as one who did indeed enjoy God’s favor. We might expect that he was a favorite of the temple hierarchy, an honored guest among his friends, and probably seated at the head of the table instead of the foot. His wealth most likely placed him in the among the first of his community, most decidedly not the last.

To give away all his possessions was to risk losing all of this. His friends might look upon him as Job’s friends looked upon Job. What had he done that he must give everything away and atone by giving it all to the poor? Would selling all that he had include selling his home, not to mention all the possessions that furnished it? And how would he buy food? How would he live? Is it any wonder that he walks away in sorrow?

Our Rich Young Ruler is not the only one distressed. Imagine the expressions on the faces of the disciples when Jesus tells them it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. It is a powerful metaphor. People have struggled with it for centuries. Since Medieval times, some have believed that “the eye of the needle” referred to a very short gate into Jerusalem. However, there is no evidence that such a gate ever existed. The word used in the Greek text refers to an actual sewing needle. In any case, Jesus is talking about trying to push something much too large through an opening much too small. The only way to enter that small door is to get rid of all the excess.

Mansions, walk-in closets full of rarely or never-worn clothing, cabinets full of things that are seldom used but need to be dusted, all of the non-essentials that wealth tempts us to accumulate can become not signs of God’s blessings, but the barriers to a life-altering relationship with God.

Possessions are a primary temptation that comes with wealth. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. “I want it. I have the money; I’ll buy it.” As prosperity grows, our decisions about using money move slowly from an emphasis on needs to wants. We have it not because we need it, but because we want it. Throughout his ministry it becomes abundantly clear that Jesus hopes our want will be to satisfy the needs of others. In the third parable in Matthew 25, the sorting parable, Jesus makes it clear that those who have been attentive to the needs of those around them, those who have offered food for the hungry, something to drink to the thirsty, visited the sick and those in prison, these are the ones who will enter the kingdom of heaven. To care for these ones in need is to care for Jesus himself. Those who are not willing to use their own possessions to meet the needs of others can expect eternal fire.

Considering how harshly Jesus talks about the rich, it is reasonable to ask how Jesus feels about them. The young teenager was not alone when he asked the leader of the Bible study, “Does this mean that Jesus hates rich people?” Thankfully, Mark provides a clear answer when he tells us in verse 21, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” and then goes on to instruct the young man to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and come and follow him. Jesus’ reply is deeply rooted not in envy, distrust or any desire to put down one whose position of privilege came from worldly wealth. It comes from the kind of love that would yearn for this man to know his true worth without the possessions, the ways in which God’s love wants to provide for him in ways he can never provide for himself, to know the confidence that he is indeed one of God’s beloved and to live in that light.

As we watch the young man walk away, some recall the widow whom Jesus applauds when she, among all the people bringing substantial offerings, gives only two small coins. In Mark 12 we read: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she, out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Ironically, the widow has done what the Rich Young Ruler could not. Can it be that it is easier not to possess many things?

Consider this lesson on how to trap a monkey. The story goes that African hunters wanting to capture monkeys unharmed would use as a trap a bottle with a long narrow neck, just large enough so a monkey could put its hand in it. In the evening the bottle would be tied to a tree, and in the bottom of the bottle they would place several good-smelling nuts. In the morning they would find a monkey with its hand clutching the nuts, held securely in the bottle. At any time, the monkey could have released itself simply by opening its hand and letting go of the nuts.

“You can’t take it with you,” is a common bit of folk wisdom. It usually means that when we die, we have to leave all of our possessions behind, so we might as well enjoy them now. What Jesus seems to be saying to us is that not only can we not take possessions with us beyond the grave, but clinging to them, like the monkey to its nuts, holds us captive. There will be places we cannot go, experiences we cannot have, and insights that will never illuminate our lives if we let our possessions possess us.

This does not mean that prosperity should not be seen as coming from God. It can be seen – just as we see wisdom, talent, opportunity and a host of other things – as a gift from God. Too often, however, we fail to recognize that every Godly gift carries with it God’s hope for how it might be used. Joy for us is when we align our use of the gifts God gives with what we discern to be God’s hope. Our Rich Young Ruler is a monkey who cannot let go, free himself of the bottle, and enter into an earthly adventure that will carry him surely to the kingdom of heaven.

In reflection on today’s reading, three questions come to mind:
What are the gifts God has given us?
What is God’s hope for their use?
Are we able to let go of whatever it is that keeps us from following Jesus?

— The Rev. Terry Parsons served as the stewardship officer for the Episcopal Church from 1996 to 2008 and remained a churchwide resource for inquiries about stewardship, evangelism, marketing and congregational development. Most recently, she served as the rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Bay City, Mich.

[NOTE FROM THE EDITOR OF "SERMONS THAT WORK": The Rev. Terry Parsons passed away on October 3, 2012 (obituary). She is remembered with great fondness and respect by those of us who were fortunate enough to have known her and worked with her over the years. It is with heartfelt gratitude for her knowledge and expertise in the field of Christian stewardship that we offer this final sermon by the Rev. Parsons.]