Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs
“Prayerfully Choosing Your Spiritual Priorities”
Psalm 113, Luke 16:1-13
Sunday, September 18, 2016
There are two paths that brought me to my sermon today. The first occurred last Sunday and the second, Thursday evening. On Thursday, I was at a meeting with several other clergy. We were interviewing someone who wants to be ordained as a UCC minister. He mentioned that he didn’t always preach from the lectionary text; that is, the readings from the Bible that have been laid out so that over the course of 3 years, you get through most of the bible, which many Protestant churches and most Catholic Churches follow. He then kind of made a side comment, saying something like, “especially when you have a reading like the one for this Sunday. Who knows what it really means!” Well, we all started laughing and agreeing with him. None of us has been able to figure this text out. In my research on this reading, I learned that biblical scholars also can’t agree on what this text really means, what the “original intent” of the author was. But, what they do agree on, is that it is rather obscure, and probably will remain so.
On Friday, I continued this conversation with one of my colleagues. I asked him his definition of the last word of this reading, “wealth.” Not surprisingly, he said, money and property and physical things. But, then I asked if there were intangible things that might be considered “wealth”.
My colleague thought about it for a few seconds and then said, “How about relationships?” How about forgiveness?,” I could see those as being considered wealth.” As I later pondered his answers, my sermon from last Sunday came to mind, about FCC being a safe space, a sanctuary not only for others, but for ourselves as well. That is what I believe is one of the priceless gifts here. It is wealth beyond comparison.
The other path to my sermon today came from a conversation Keith and I had last Sunday. We were meeting about today’s service. When we talked about what the scripture was, I said, “Well, I guess I will be talking about having to give up the theater, since I could not serve two masters and I loved the theater.” As I thought about it later, it kind of took me by surprise, because I had not thought it through. But, as I worked on my sermon this week, I found myself wanting to talk about that, but was concerned that I was going to be talking too much about me and not about God and our relationship with God. Through discussing this in Bible Study on Thursday and then with my Spiritual Director, I realized that as long as I kept my focus on my faith, I could keep this from being about me, and more about the journey I have been on with God. So, I know that you will let me know if I did not achieve the goal of being about faith and not only my journey, but yours as well.
So, this morning, I would like us to explore the concept of spiritual wealth and the importance of our acknowledging it and using that wealth to help others as well as ourselves. In that sense, I would turn around the phrase from “You cannot serve God and wealth,” to, “In order to serve God, you must have wealth. But, it must be wealth that is based on our spiritual priorities and not on other priorities, like money or physical property.
For as long as I can remember, I loved the theater. When I was about 5 or 6, my mother took me to see the touring production of The Sound of Music in Wilmington, Delaware, where I grew up. I loved it and wore out my parents’ LP listening to the music over and over. Then, when I saw the touring production of the musical, Oliver!, my fate was sealed. My life became theater. I latched onto it. I ate, slept and breathed theater when I wasn’t having to be in classes. I worked on school productions, and community productions. Any theater production I could get involved in, I did. I was madly in love with the theater. It was the place I felt safe and could be anyone I needed to be, depending on the role I was playing.
After college, I moved to New York and became a professional stage manager, working in regional theaters and then eventually NYC. After 12 years of stage managing, I went to work for my labor union, Actors’ Equity. My whole life was the theater. It consumed me. I loved it more than anything, except Pat, who I met when working in the theater.
In the mid-1980s, I started attending Riverside Church and learned from the Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin how to put feet on my faith, to not just sit in the pew listening, but to get up and make a difference in the lives of people who were struggling. Dr. Coffin told us that this is what Jesus expected us to do – to be his hands and feet in our world.
Then, in the late 1980’s, several of my male friends started dying from an awful disease no one understood, but you could get it off a door knob or from breathing the same air. I would go and visit them and was appalled at how they were being treated, or rather not being treated. I eventually found myself answering a call to ministry, to hospital chaplaincy, especially with those with AIDS-related illnesses. I started seminary and began that part of my faith journey. In my entire professional career, I had only worked in the theater and at the age of 39, I was embarking on a scary, amazing, and grace-filled part of my journey. I had changed the focus of my work in the theater over the years, but this, this was a complete change.
When I started seminary, I had to buy books on theology, ethics, biblical studies, etc. Well, I came home from seminary one night with this stack of books. I looked around and realized that every inch of space of the 4 floor-to-ceiling bookcases I had, were filled with my previous life. I had scripts from shows, musical scores, biographies of all of the interesting people from the theater; I had quite the collection. As I stared at this overloaded bookcase, a voice within me said, “It’s time to choose. You cannot serve two masters. Your spirit is in a very different place now. It is time to open your heart to the love that will come to you as you begin to serve the least of these.” I realized that I was holding onto a part of me that was in the past. I needed to focus on serving God in whatever way God wanted me to serve God. I could not maintain my love for the theater and my love for God. I had to choose. And, I already knew the answer. It was a matter of physically doing what I had already done inside. I knew beyond a doubt that I would not be going back. I would be moving forward to learning new priorities, spiritual priorities that would enable me to draw closer to God and to those whom I was going to serve.
So, I gave my theater book collection to a local high school, and began to fill the bookcases with books on theology, ethics, and pastoral care. Quite honestly, it took quite a while for me to be able to let that love go. Pat and I would go to the theater and I would start crying, especially during the curtain call. It was a very painful process of letting go of something within me that I had clung to. Theater was my safe space.
Eventually, that vast place inside of me that held my love for theater, began to fill in. It filled in with love for those whom I was serving. The families that allowed me into their lives when they were facing health crises or even death. The patients that taught me how to live as well as how to die. The patients who taught me that I didn’t need to hold fast to my belief that God had to be gender neutral. That God was larger than any gender and so could be referred to in whatever way worked for that person: Father, He, God, Jesus, Allah, H’shem, etc. I also learned about prayer and how people pray to God in so many different ways. As I have mentioned in prior sermons, it changed my own prayer life, as I found different ways to talk with God. The hospital became my safe space.
And, then I came here. Yesterday, as I fretted about this sermon, and as I talked with people about FCC during Community Day, I realized that the vast expanse inside of me that had been my love for the theater, has been amazingly filled. But, it seems to have a bottomless capacity because I continually fill that place as I learn from all of you. I am continually humbled and amazed that God has called me to serve with you. My spiritual priorities have shifted as I have come to walk along side of you in your own faith journeys. I have learned from our confirmation classes and their mentors as we have struggled together with questions about God, and Jesus and Spirit and where we each fit in. I have learned from all of you who freely volunteer your time, whether it be to usher, to serve on a committee or Board, help with the Barn Sale or Tag Sale or Community Day or ESP or tending to our grounds, or…..
I have learned from amazing people like Ruth Robertson, Micheline Sorrell and Don Lunetta, and others who have allowed me to journey with them while they are dying. I have learned from parents who are struggling with their kids growing up and moving from high school to college or middle school to high school, struggling with issues around being the sandwich generation and understanding health care directives. And, the list could go on.
Friends, I have learned that I can only serve God and others when I am willing to open myself up to the intangible wealth of God’s amazing Spirit, which fills me with such thankfulness and grace. And yes, FCC has now become my safe space, my sanctuary, my home.
And so, as I tell my story, I wonder about yours and what intangible wealth you have found as you have drawn closer to God. Have you had to make difficult choices that seemed so hard at the time, but can look back and now see the hand of God involved, perhaps gently, or not so gently leading you in a new direction, one where your own needs become less important and the needs of those who are the least of these has come to the fore? I have seen the smiles on peoples’ faces here when we serve our homeless guests. I have seen the looks of joy when we open our doors to give away what is left from Barn Sale or Tag Sale. I have seen the look of hope on faces when our young people start their confirmation journey and when they stand up here 7 months later and profess their own faith and join our community on their own. I have also seen the sadness in people’s eyes when they worry about their loved ones or have to make a difficult decision about a loved one’s ability to live on one’s own or go off to college or when a member of our congregation dies or when someone is struggling to find God.
What intangible wealth has been stored up in you, has filled you, has helped you, has brought you to a new place in your own life where you know that God is walking beside you and working within you? What is it about being in this safe space, this sanctuary, that has enabled you to be open to serving God anew? I invite you to think about that this week. And I invite you to prayerfully choose your spiritual priorities so that you are responding to God’s call to serve others. Where is your wealth in terms of your relationship with God?