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You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.

The leaders of the Living Church Foundation spent several hours at our recent annual meeting poring over plans for an endowment project, something with which the stewards of many nonprofit institutions will be entirely familiar. Ours is a humble — and venerable, vital — ministry that we hope the Lord may continue to bless, and indeed prosper.

Alas, according to our Lord, this perhaps was not such a good idea. In seeking financial development we have precisely planned to seed wealth. I might say that we would love to see our plans succeed; and so perhaps we are Pharisees, whom Luke tells us “were lovers of money.” They ridicule Jesus for saying “You cannot serve God and wealth,” and Jesus returns the favor, with what we might call a blunt rejoinder: “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”

Perhaps I should trot this out next time a donor says he’ll give a major gift on the condition that we name it after him. “Bless you, brother; even if your stipulation is, well…a bit of an abomination.” Admittedly, no such donor has come along yet.

Of course, the point is a serious one (and I do not actually think that naming buildings after oneself is forbidden by the gospel). Here’s the point: what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. Jesus says: forget “the sight of others.” Focus instead on God’s eyes. He knows your hearts.

God wants absolutely everything. And knowing God, he will have it, one way or the other. This is important.

We who would seek to follow and obey him must therefore be interested in how God will have his way because God is infinitely and utterly interesting. Let us ask: How will God plumb our hearts, focusing them on what Jesus calls “the true riches”? How will, or might, God do this for the institutions that we love and seek to serve — including, by the way, our dioceses, and the parishes within them? How will he wring faithfulness from us?

The honest answer is: Painfully, but fruitfully thereby. As Augustine of Hippo — or Paul or Jesus — might say, none of us are “good” until the end, and then only as covered by the cross. The pilgrim way is providentially strewn with stones for our sanctification and continual conversion.

I’d like to explore this theme in the light of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, who has never been formally canonized, though reported miracles at his tomb and elsewhere led to some momentum in this direction early on, and he is accorded a feast day in both the Church of England and Episcopal Church calendars.

Grosseteste lived a long life straddling the 12th and 13th centuries — 83 years in all — and he only became a bishop at age 65. He grew up poor but reputedly studied in Oxford and Paris, and was known throughout his life for “unbounding physical and intellectual energy” (ODCC). Little is known of his early life, but his surviving lectures and sermons from his mid-career in Oxford reveal a vast learning in science — astronomy, comets, rainbows — and Grosseteste produced the first known commentary in the West on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, the philosopher’s syllogistic discussion of demonstration, definition, and scientific knowledge. At the same time, Grosseteste produced a series of theological works, notably a Hexaemeron (on creation in Genesis) and commentaries on the Psalms and Galatians. In his 50s, he began to learn Greek and acquired an impressive (and rare) competence for the time. As Bishop of Lincoln, he convened a kind of school of scholars that produced an impressive program of translations from Greek into Latin — of Psuedo-Dionysius, John of Damascus, Basil, Aristotle, and others. Grosseteste’s translation of the Nicomachean Ethics paved the way for Albert the Great’s detailed commentary a generation later, taken up in turn by Aquinas.

As if that weren’t enough, Grosseteste was said to show “conspicuous energy and dedication in his work as a bishop.” Around age 60, he may have experienced a kind of spiritual conversion — a deepening — through his close association with the newly established mendicant orders of Franciscans and Dominicans. In his episcopal capacity he arranged preaching missions of the friars; and he famously took a stand against royal and papal appropriations of diocesan resources (parochial benefices), finally appealing for episcopal independence directly to Innocent IV at the papal court, in a “carefully prepared denunciation of the abuses of power in pursuit of family and personal gain by papal officials, by the curia, and by the pope” that would much impress John Wycliffe a century later (ODCC).

This is an interesting point for us. Grosseteste was no revolutionary and had a high view of both kingship as a divine institution and of the papacy as instituted by Christ. His appeal to the pope therefore carefully distinguished between papal power itself and damaging orders or decisions of the papal office. In the presenting problem, the pope had sought a canonry in the Diocese of Lincoln for his nephew, though the nephew had no intention of residing in his benefice. Were Grosseteste to acquiesce to this, he would be complicit, he wrote, in “cheating [the people of Lincoln] of a pastor’s office and ministry,” an offense that would “bring death and damnation…to souls that should be given life and salvation by the office and ministry of the pastoral care.” Note the high view of ordained ministry. For Grosseteste, the notion of enriching the pope’s nephew with the financial resources of his own diocese, to the deprivation of his people, would be a cardinal sin — “opposed and contrary to the teaching of the apostles and of the gospel; to the Lord Jesus Christ himself hateful, detestable, and abominable; and to the human race destructive” (all from Sophie Ambler, “On Kingship and Tyranny: Grosseteste’s Memorandum and its Place in the Baronial Reform Movement” in Thirteenth Century England XIV [Boydell & Brewer, 2013], p. 120).

Obviously Grosseteste showed great courage in all of this. What became of his efforts? Scholars debate the extent to which he anticipated, and otherwise influenced, subsequent reform movements. That he wished to defend ecclesial hierarchy is clear, but he also believed that Christ invests certain offices in the Church with power “only to construct, not to destroy.” In this view, loyal subjects are obligated to disobey destructive orders precisely so as “to uphold the integrity of the apostolic see itself.” By doing so, on a case-by-case basis, disobedience may actually serve to affirm the legitimacy of authoritative offices and signal a deep affection for them (Ambler, pp. 120-1). This marks a fascinating working out of how to be the loyal opposition in an orderly way.

And on this count Grosseteste did prove influential, if not immediately successful. “Suffused with [his] spirit,” a series of limited reforms were pursued in England in the years immediately following his death: “to control and limit royal spending…; to introduce greater efficiency into the administration, cutting waste and corruption; and to ensure that the collection of revenue at the local level was fair, putting an end to oppression and extortion” (Ambler, pp. 123-4). And a wider baronial reform program was permeated by the influence of Grosseteste, as well.

Are there particular lessons here for us? I think there are several, and they cycle back to the texts with which we began.

1. In case we wondered, it has never been easy to lead old institutions, the more when they have been fitted out with, or otherwise appropriated, power and prestige. A major presenting problem in England that the baronial reform movement had in view was the real and frightening diminution of the monarch’s net worth — by some two-thirds compared to the previous century. We sometimes hear talk of decline today as if the first one thousand nine hundred and fifty years of Christendom amounted to the steady amassing of great wealth, the sources of which have just now suddenly disappeared. In fact, financial deprivation has been closer to the norm.

2. More theologically, if and as the beloved institutions that we serve meet material and financial success, our common wealth will need careful stewarding by wise leaders of a disciplined, ascetical sort — replete with theological training and spiritual wisdom. These last are not negotiable. In the case of Grosseteste’s Lincoln, the largest geographical diocese in the Church of England with considerable resources at its disposal, it was precisely the obligation of stewardship that led the bishop to take painful and risky action, the outcome of which he could not have known in advance. He died, we are told, “with a deep sense of failure and foreboding for the future” (ODCC). And yet his work did bear fruit, in so many ways.

3. Therefore, the word from Paul in Acts to the Ephesian elders — the “overseers” or “shepherds [of] the church of God,” the bishops (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:7-9) — is both fitting and sobering. Listen again: “I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” — and who, recalling the history of the Church, her wounds and blood spilled, could say this prophecy has not been fulfilled? We ourselves are often ravenous, doing not what we want, but the very thing we hate (Rom. 7:15), and so we must repent. Happily, the good word of Holy Scripture is outfitted for just this purpose. As Paul says in Acts 20: “Therefore be alert.” And he commends the Ephesians to God, “to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.” Paul is saying that the message itself is effective, as grace is a power of God, capable of enacting change. This message is inevitably, necessarily fruitful, as an inheritance associated with sanctity. How amazing.

God has an inheritance for us. And surely our institutions and their wealth — beautiful buildings, amazing teachers, holy priests — are part of this, as they are placed in service of sanctification, holiness, by God’s grace.

It’s interesting that, in the very next verse of Acts 20, Paul elaborates on the materiality of the foregoing teaching: “I coveted no one’s silver or gold,” remembering the words of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Here is a deep truth, and an encouraging one, for all Christians working in development and fundraising: generous persons will give, and in such a fashion as not to covet their own wealth, but give it away joyfully for the fruitfulness of the kingdom. This, in fact, is what it means for all of us to be faithful: having ordered our affairs first of all spiritually, centered on God, and given up everything to follow him, he gives back to us in our poverty, and multiplies his own gifts for a vast fruitfulness. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much.”

Friends, this is good news. As we labor in service of the Church and her Lord, let us focus on this necessarily evangelical foundation of renewal. Here is the truth: God’s initiating action is primary; everything else follows. Because this is so, daily conversion is our task, in the confidence that he will do the rest.

This sermon was preached at Nashotah House Theological Seminary on the Feast of Robert Grosseteste (Oct. 9). The image above is an untitled picture (2009) by the Flickr user giveawayboy. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and editor of the Living Church Foundation. He oversees the publishing, budget, fundraising, marketing, and staff of TLC, and with his colleagues articulates the evolving mission and program of the foundation in collaboration with elected leadership. Christopher completed doctoral studies in historical theology at the University of Notre Dame and served as a lay leader in the Diocese of Northern Indiana, both of which conspired to lead him to TLC. He earned a B.A. at St. Olaf College and M.A.R. at Yale Divinity School.

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A few hours before reading this post yesterday, I was working on materials for a presentation on stewardship and financial management that my wife and I will give at the the Church of the Incarnation’s Pre-marriage Weekend next Saturday. In particular, I was focusing on the point that stewardship is a matter of the heart — recognizing the Church’s need for funds, asking for them, and donors responding is part of being a good and faithful servants/stewards. But as always and in everything, temptation lurks here. In was in this context, that I read some writings of Evagrios the Solitary,… Read more »
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