Twenty years, three months, and 87 minutes into my life was maybe the wealthiest I’ve ever been. I was a Psychology student at the University of Missouri and worked part-time as a bank teller at Boone County National Bank. My brother worked at another bank in town and between us, we rotated about three dress shirts and a couple of ties between us since we had to dress up for work. The first floor apartment I lived in was a little sketch but it was a roof over my head that kept out most of the elements. I also had a couple of great pieces of furniture – the bed that I grew up on and two pieces of hand-me-down furniture from my grandparents. A little hide-a-bed couch that had a nice green and brown floral pattern. A strategically placed blanket could cover most of the trouble spots. The other piece was a burnt orange recliner with a lime green pattern of something that resembled a crest you might normally see on a bath robe. Those pieces, essentially all of my possessions, had been moved out of the apartment that week. I had a full stomach having enjoyed dinner at the Golden Corral (on someone else’s dime!) – can’t beat that buffet for a college student’s usual diet of canned meat and ramen noodles. So there I was, sleeping on a borrowed air mattress with a single sheet to cover my body in an otherwise empty sketch apartment twenty years, three months and 87 minutes into my life. Why was that one of the wealthiest moments of my life? I was going to sleep with a full stomach. I was good with Jesus. And… in less than twelve hours I would marry the woman of my dreams. How can you beat that? And, yes, if you’ve been listening closely, this means that our wedding rehearsal dinner was held at the one and only Golden Corral of Columbia, Missouri. But hey – Carrie was nineteen and I had just recently crossed the teenage threshold myself – that was pretty much living the high life. Wealthy, we were.
Why bring this up today? Well, I got stuck on this question early in the week that I simply couldn’t shake. “What is the wealthiest you’ve ever been?” What is the wealthiest you’ve ever been? I do not know why that question captured me like it did. It’s not like I haven’t considered that before. I knew all of the words in the sentence without having to look any of them up. I even knew the gist behind the question itself. It’s layered right? Especially when a pastor is asking. It’s like the children’s moment story you’ve probably heard before. A pastor had the kids of the church come forward for a little teaching moment and she starts in by saying, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The kids were excited to show her what they knew and leaned forward with their hands ready to raise. The pastor says, “I’m thinking of something that lives in trees and eats nuts…” (No hands). “It can be gray or brown and it has a long bush tail…” The kids looked around at each other but still no hands. “It chatters and sometimes it flips its tail when it’s excited…” Finally, one little boy shyly raised his hand. The pastor was sort of relieved and said, “Great. Michael. What do you think it is?” “Well,” he said, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus but that sure sounds like a squirrel to me.” That sounds about right. It’s why people will soon be worked up about what Starbucks holiday cups look like. Some of us just don’t feel quite spiritually whole until Starbucks says the answer is Jesus. They thought we just wanted a Grande Carmel Macchiato but apparently that wasn’t exactly what we were after. “What is the wealthiest you’ve ever been?” “I’m on to you now, Mister Question Asker,” I thought as I read that question over and over again. For some reason, I just kept thinking back to that moment on that air mattress with that single sheet in that sketch apartment with a tummy full of the best Golden Corral had to offer and the woman of my dreams interested enough in me to say “I do.” What is the wealthiest you’ve ever been?
This troubled me. So what do you do when you’re troubled about something? You try to get other people troubled about it too. So I did. I emailed some people from this church to drag them into my quandary. We established last week, after all, that all y’all are saints so I figured you could help me out with this. So “send” I did – “What is the wealthiest you’ve ever been?” I was just waiting to see how many, “Sounds like a squirrel” answers I might get. Do you want to hear some of your responses? Good. I thought you’d be interested. Some responded very quickly. My caveat after all was for them not to think too deeply about it but simply respond with a line or two of what first came to mind when they read the question. The first response arrived in my in-box about thirty seconds after I sent the message. It said, “I never think of financial worth, I always think of all of the love in my life. I’ve been so blessed with a healthy, loving family, how could I possibly ask for more (which of course I doJ). A second followed shortly: “Every day I am the wealthiest I have ever been. Married to the love of my life, children doing well, grandchildren doing well…”. The next response? “Due to my lack of monetary wealth, mine was probably last summer when we did a family trip to Colorado. Getting to be together and experience the things we love so much as a family was one of the best experiences of my life and one that I wouldn’t trade for any amount of the other kind of wealth.” The next sagely response said simply, “When I remember enough is enough. One of my life lessons? “If you are healthy you are wealthy.” Another friend said something very similar to that. She said, “I recently had a medical procedure and the nurse was asking me the litany of questions about my health history. After answering “No.” to all of the conditions, she looked at me squarely and said, “You are a fortunate person.” She followed that line saying, “I felt very wealthy.” Others could relate. One said, “Wealth can be a building block or a stumbling block,” which seemed like a good point to me. He named some of his wealth building blocks to be mind, body and soul (not necessarily in that order). What is the wealthiest you’ve ever been?
One friend shared about emotional wealth – how the greatest moments in life are the ones that she’s so full of thankfulness and joy and love that everything else (all the worries and concerns) fade away. She shared a story about a wedding on New Year’s Eve. They went to the bride and grooms home after the ceremony for an after party. There was family, best friends, simply all the people she loved the most. She wrote, “At midnight a few of those good friends started singing Auld Lange Syne and the crowd of about thirty twenty-somethings all joined in. Granted only 2-3 people knew all the words, but it didn’t stop anyone. It was just one of those perfect fill-my-heart-up moments.” Have you had moments like that?
Another admitted first that since enrolling in college meant assuming student loans – “By net worth, the wealthiest I’ve ever been financially was my senior year of high school.” A couple people mentioned this and/or thriving on a shoe string budget in grad school. Following this opening word, my friend offered this beautiful doctoral dissertation worthy response about the Hebrew word Tzedakah. It’s a word used in scripture that is a combination of justice and charity – not separated out like oil and water as it often is in our cultural context. Tzedakah signifies in scripture and rabbinic law that no one should be without the basic requirements of existence and that those who have more than they need must share that surplus with those who have less. Tzedakah is to be exercised by everyone, meaning that even people who receive tzedakah must give it. This may seem counter-intuitive but giving is an essential part of human dignity and those who receive must also be dignified by being able to give. My friend went on to say, “Isn’t this the model of stewardship that God has shown us; giving to us so that we might give as well?” What is the wealthiest you’ve ever been? This friend feels wealthiest by practicing Tzedakah.
There were other HACC friends who answered by saying, “We’ve never been wealthier financially than we are right now.” But they often followed with “But the money doesn’t minimize the stress and worry of our lives these days.” Others mentioned being wealthy in good friends and some noted never feeling wealthy in time. I suppose most of us know what it’s like to feel overcommitted or time-impoverished – sometimes with regrets of the many things we once thought worthy of our time but now wish we would have invested in building relationships.
Another friend wrote, “The wealthiest I have ever been was when my family was whole.” She told about a family reunion. “To most we were poor but we were so rich in togetherness.” While they lived in a shack with no running water, they left on this reunion trip in their mother’s car, a limousine, as that was her business. A “life of oddities” she noted. “We were whole on this trip,” she wrote. “My middle brother drove us through the worst traffic in California. On our way home, we stopped at a pizza joint and my youngest sister told jokes and we shared memories of our childhood. We were all so happy and content! This was the wealthiest time,” she recalled. A year later, her middle brother died in a car accident and while they hold one another in grace, the pain… even a couple decades later, remains. There is something about wealth that seems to involve the way we cherish the present for we know not what the future holds.
Several tapped into this reality; the wealth of “today.” Today meant snuggling with spouse and kiddos all in one bed. For another, the wealth of today is where it’s at as today always holds the possibility of both good and bad, learning and teaching, happiness and grief, differences and forgiveness and on and on. Another reasoned that the wealthiest I’ve ever been is today because it is the day he had accumulated more days of living than he ever had before – enjoying the good ones and learning from the tough ones. The wealth of today meant appreciating the moment. One friend didn’t answer, “Today!” but instead said, “Always!” “Always is as close as I can come,” to answering the question. Even living paycheck to paycheck, I’ve never wanted for a thing.” What is the wealthiest you’ve ever been? A few folks acknowledged feeling wealthy when the comfort of resources of any kind have been stripped away. “When I have had little,” she wrote, “is when I have had the most.” She described ‘drop to your knees’ experiences – times when “I was rich beyond measure because God and I were utterly and completely present with each other.”
Another started analytically, utilizing the tried and true process of elimination. “In this case of wealth,” he wrote, “What builds wealth? It’s sure not “stuff”, and it’s not “more” unless maybe it’s more children. It’s not being happy all the time, or thinking that whatever you’re doing for yourself will make you happy, as in new clothes, new cars, and new homes, “stuff on a fast track. That’s self-delusion, truly inverted logic; why strive to be an object of envy? I think “wealth” is more an emotion, a feeling, the kind when you realize that you, or someone, somewhere, sometime, overcame whatever was the obstacle, connecting the dots, and we are all the better for it. I, here, am thinking of truly wondrous performances, be it music, art, sport, science, whatever. Am I missing something not having a Twitter or Facebook account? I doubt it. I find God is revealed when I’m trying with all my heart, mind, soul and strength. It’s never easy, but is always the most enriching thing I experience.” What is the wealthiest you’ve ever been?
One friend admitted that numbers weren’t her thing. I laughed when she noted that “there’s a good chance that more than one of those “8 for a penny” CD clubs are still looking for me.” Do you remember those? They sucked me in too. For a time, this friend lived in Los Angeles. While she had not the money to take in all that consumed the culture there, she “loved when the marine layer rolled in off the ocean about 1a.m., and blurred the blinding lights with a misty, sea salt curtain. I loved,” she said, “when the sun went down and the delicate scent of night blooming jasmine filled the air. And since everyone else was so preoccupied with award shows and luxury cars, I loved that it felt like I had all the natural beauty of L.A. to myself.” High rent and low income required creative meal menus including scoring a few extra saltines and mustard packets which went down pretty well while taking in the beauty of UCLA from a nearby bench on campus. And then she wrote this so poetically, “What I lacked in a paycheck, I was generously compensated with optimism, creativity, vitality, wonder, new experiences and adventures. By my calculations, it’s the richest I’ve ever been.”
Another yet reminisced about the glories of childhood – reading books from the bookmobile up in a giant tree in her yard and dressing up in brand new outfits with hats and white gloves to celebrate Easter Sunday singing “Up from the Grave He Arose!” Church picnics, school carnivals and family pancake eating contests. Beautiful accounts, one after another. I was so touched by your stories and helping me figure out the answer to this question that was troubling me so much. What is the wealthiest you’ve ever been?
You know we’re doing this stewardship campaign – “For All the Saints…” asking each of us to consider what it is we’re called to do to support the ministry we’ll share together next year. And Carrie and I are thinking about our pledge and we’ll make that commitment this week. The Stewardship Team has asked us to make our pledges by next Sunday. And you think about the money, yes, because we make a financial commitment to the church so together we can determine what our reach to the community will be next year. The number matters. But in thinking about this question – “What is the wealthiest you’ve ever been?” – it seems it has little to do with the money. People pointed to value, investment, experience. I’m not sure why we care so much about the money – the money certainly doesn’t care that much about us? But we give it such power. Jesus famously said, “What good is it for you to gain the whole world… to get everything you want… but forfeit your soul in the process?” (Matthew 16:26). Nobody that pondered that question seemed to equate wealth to the gains of this world. What they treasured were times when their souls were at peace. There were moments when they saw life through a perspective of appreciation – that life was somehow a gift and they were a part of it. The Apostle Paul suggests, in my estimation that such a vision is a part of the gift of sainthood. It is recognition of the indwelling of Christ. Paul says to the Philippians, “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Somehow, we are wealthy in this recognition and live out of that gift of God. Maybe my friends were on to something here. What is the wealthiest you’ve ever been? Maybe its when we recognize God, in Christ, is just waiting for us to see it, feel it, and respond.
Several of the responses named this. One mentioned, “many times blessings are multiplied in my life that I cannot comprehend or understand. The greatest treasure is my faith in Jesus Christ.” Another said, “The wealthiest I’ve ever been in my life is when my heart is full of gratitude and love for my Creator and his Creation.” Another said they are the wealthiest whenever the gift of the presence of the Living Christ is at the foundation of my life.” One who was a numbers person said “I first thought of the time my gross income was the largest but I couldn’t remember when that was or anything I spent it on so I figured that wasn’t the right answer.” There was the ongoing weaving of pondering the possibilities but this friend finished with this: “Truly, the wealthiest day of my life has to be when I was able to recognize and accept the saving relationship offered by Jesus Christ—that was when I received something that permanently changed my “net worth” and my life, and will last forever—for eternity—that day I received wealth beyond measure that will never rust or disappear—and I still have it!”
I was just overwhelmed by the beauty of each and every response to this question. As I was combing through them, marveling at the wealth of my friends, I got a text message from one of my favorite mentors who just seems to know when I need a boost, a prayer, a good quote to chew on. He’s been sending me pictures from Fall Ball – from his seats in Surprise, Arizona where he soaks in the joy of up-and-comer major leaguers battling it out for a spot on a Major League roster next season. This timely text exchange started with a prayer for me saying… “Beyond baseball, a prayer for you…” which gave me good reason to stop and hold that prayer close. He’s a timely friend, a wise mentor, and a man who was seriously close to death this year – two major surgeries (heart and back) that really cut his legs out from under him which is hard for a guy who goes like he does. I responded back to his prayer with one of my own, ending with a hope that he was thrilled with what that day held for him yet. I held my phone and watched as that word bubble popped up on my phone with those three little dots blinking as he typed his response. Giving the year that he has had and the perspective of what matters given the trials we all face, he said, “I am settling into an overall contentment with my life as I find it. That, I never thought I would live to see —.”
What do you want to live to see? Maybe that has something to do with your answer to the question, “What is the wealthiest you’ve ever been?” Both questions seem to get at what we value most in life. How would you answer that question? Your answer just might make a difference in how you choose to invest your time, your abilities, your resources moving forward. It may have nothing at all to do with anything we’ve earned, but simply what gift is already at work inside of us. What is the wealthiest you’ve ever been? What is the wealthiest you ever hope to be? Sometimes the answer in church sounds like a squirrel and should be a squirrel. But sometimes, maybe most of the time, the answer in church (and in the world) may sound a lot like Jesus… and it is.
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 I am indebted to beloved members of HACC who responded swiftly and faithfully to my emailed question: “What is the wealthiest you’ve ever been?” All of the responses shared in this message are their answers and reflections to that very question. I remain inspired by their wisdom, vulnerability, and faithfulness to the journey we share.