The Eye of the NeedleRead Now
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
I begin today with a story about a man and his wife, who in some ways are very different from us and in some ways very much like you and me. Let’s call them Paul and Theresa. They lived in Bordeaux, France, and they were from wealthy families. Perhaps they were more influential than most of us, but like us they were two people who had been moved by their faith in God. And that potent kernel of faith was a driving force in their lives. For many of their contemporaries, faith was just sort of there…it wasn’t central to how they lived their lives, and it existed more or less in the background of their day-to-day affairs.
Paul and Theresa were unlike most of us, though, because in addition to their property in France, they had large land holdings in Italy, and Theresa’s family also owned some of the best and richest land in Spain. This is a true story about real people who lived not in our time, but in the later years of the Roman Empire, in the late 300s. Their wealth and influence were difficult to calculate, because they had such vast properties, scattered across southern Europe. One historian writes that their wealth was comparable to a modern multinational corporation.
Then tragedy struck the family. Like so many of us, when big changes happen, doors close before us and new windows of opportunity open. Do you know the kind of changes I’m talking about? Those moments test our mettle and sometimes provide the occasion for metanoia, for changes of heart, and new beginnings. Here is what happened: Paul and Theresa’s only son died. For them it must have seemed like the end of their world, because to them – like many of us – family was everything. For three long years, Paul and Theresa searched their souls and eventually reached the decision that they would live lives devoted to Christ, living essentially a monastic existence. They thought about Jesus and how he had said to his followers when his own family wanted to get through the crowd to reach him: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Not quite the modern family values some of us espouse.
In the course of this decision, Paul and Theresa essentially renounced the family ideal that was absolutely central in their culture, in other words, they committed “social suicide.” They were what many considered Franklin Roosevelt to be: traitors to their class. They opted out of the uppermost stratum of Roman society for something even more powerful.
But that wasn’t all…Paul and Theresa knew what Jesus had said about wealth: that it was easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for them to enter the kingdom of God. They began to dismember and sell off their estates and to distribute the money to the poor. Can you imagine a multinational corporation, dissolving itself, and giving the proceeds to the poor?
Paul and Theresa moved to Barcelona, and in the cathedral there on Christmas Day in 394 Paul was ordained as a priest. He was the first member of a Roman senatorial family to be ordained not as a bishop, but as a mere clergyman. More social suicide.
Soon thereafter, Paul and Theresa sailed across the Mediterranean to a village called Nola, outside Naples. And it was there Paul had visited the tomb of St. Felix when he was much younger. It was there that Paul and Theresa used all their remaining wealth to build a shrine to St. Felix, a Syrian immigrant who had been tortured for his faith in an earlier era. The fine mosaics at the shrine of St. Felix were excavated by archeologists in the 20th century, and they are beautiful. Paul and Theresa built a basilica there dedicated to St. Felix. They built hostels for pilgrims to come and visit the shrine, and they provided monastic hospitals for the free healing of those who were ill or dying. They made it possible for even the poorest to come to this shrine for worship and healing.
What would you do with all that wealth? If you were going to give it up, how would you craft your renunciation so that it did the greatest good? And what factors inform your choices?
Paul and Theresa saw themselves as imitators of Christ, the Christ who an ancient Christian hymn says, “though he was in the form of God…he emptied himself taking on the form of a slave…and humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” That is the life they tried to create for themselves.
Paul (who is actually St. Paulinus), was interested not just in getting rid of his wealth, but doing so in a way that he thought was like transferring his treasure to the kingdom of God.
What would you have done if you had wealth at your disposal…even if it wasn’t immense wealth? How does your faith inform and influence how you would fund something to do what Christ did?
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Going back to Mark’s gospel, what is your reaction when you hear Jesus pause — feel compassion for the rich man — and then tell him to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor? Are you somebody who thinks that Jesus is being unrealistic? Does it seem like Jesus is always talking about money? Perhaps you think Jesus is being too demanding with the young man…after all, Zacchaeus the tax collector (also described as a rich man) gave up only HALF of his wealth and won favor with Jesus. What is YOUR reaction? How does it make you feel? Do you wonder what it would be like to stand face to face with Jesus and to have him ask you to renounce your wealth? How would you respond if that were the case?
Jesus isn’t easy on those of us with possessions, and by the standards of the ancient world, almost everyone in this room is rich, which means you have food, housing, access to education and medical care…it doesn’t mean having two cars, nor two houses. Jesus seems to intuit that this rich man is deeply, unhealthily attached to his possessions.
Here’s the bottom line: virtually all of us are rich compared to the rest of the planet, and we live far better than royalty in ages past. So, what are we called to do with our wealth if we want to be faithful followers of Jesus?
Imagine what we could do in terms of mission and outreach at Plymouth if we had an annual budget based on every member tithing 10% of their income. And we do have members at Plymouth who tithe! Median household income in Fort Collins is $74,300. So, if 350 average-income families gave $7,430 our budget would be $2.6 million — more than two-and-a-half times what is being proposed this year. Do you know what kind of impact we could have on homelessness in Fort Collins with that income every year? Imagine how many kids in South Africa, who have been orphaned by AIDS, we could feed, clothe, and educate. Think about how many more kindergartens in Ethiopia we could build and support. Closer to home, we subsidize housing for one housing-insecure CSU student each year…what if we made it 10 students?
For most of us, giving ten percent wouldn’t kill us…and it might actually save someone else…and maybe save us in the process. We do a good job of talking our progressive talk, but I for one could do a better job of putting my money where my mouth is…and where my heart is. I wonder if there is a disconnect for those of us living in the affluent society not simply about how we can make a difference, but how we are called by Jesus himself to share our wealth, and how it might liberate us.
Here is the question I put to myself, and I also put to you to wrestle with: Where is my heart…and what am I going to do about it? Jane Anne and I are still talking about our pledge for 2022, and this year we have pledged $12,000 to Plymouth. We could probably do even more, because we are blessed by being compensated well for our work, and like some of you we have a kid in college, we are saving for retirement, and we have some extraordinary healthcare costs.
What I'm trying to do is hold up a mirror not to embarrass anyone or make anyone feel guilty or to exclude anyone because they aren’t in a financial position to give anything. Rather, I'm trying to introduce us to the possibilities that we can make a difference…that the kingdom of God is among us and that we are called to form Beloved Community.
We can write Jesus off and say that he was simply using hyperbole when he told the rich man to sell all he had and give it to the poor, or we can try and take it seriously.
We can write Jesus off when he says that it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich woman to enter the kingdom of God, or we can try and take it seriously.
We can write Jesus off when he commends Zaccheus the tax collector for giving half of all his possessions and distributing them to the poor, or we can try and take it seriously.
We want faith to be easier…and it just isn’t. There is no magic bullet, no pill we can pop, no creed we can recite, no confession of faith we can offer that will make the narrow way of Jesus any less rigorous. But here is the good news: we are here to walk this road together. We are “All Together Now”…forming Beloved Community. We are here to seek new ways of being faithful, to live transformed lives and to work together for the kingdom of God.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Peter Brown, Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. (Princeton: Princeton, 2012), page 209.
 Philippians 2.6-12
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
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