Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Treasure Hunting: Our Hearts and Grief

As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.

Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.”

Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.”

Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life. But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.” Mark 10:17-31 (CEB)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

I’ve been thinking a lot this past week about the experience we had here last Sunday morning. In case you missed it, would any of you like to share what happened? That’s right. We had a Spanish-speaking family visit us last Sunday—a husband and his wife and their two children, a boy and a little girl. They were a lovely family. As we communicated with them, difficult as that was, we learned that they were traveling from the East Coast to Texas. That they had gone to the East Coast for work, that this hadn’t worked out, and that they were returning to Texas, which is where they had originally travelled from. They were seeking help from us—help to ensure they had money for gas and, perhaps, a place to stop to rest. This was their story.

What if, though...what if the story they told was untrue? What if they were telling us a lie?

I returned late last night from Seattle. I was there for a conference of congregational developers and re-developers. These are pastors who are called to a place to either start new churches or to help lead with the revitalization of existing congregations. While I was there, I heard a lot of stories about some of these existing congregations around the ELCA—congregations stuck in the past or isolated within their church’s walls. Congregations who refused to look outward, to go out into the neighborhood. Unwilling to look for where the Holy Spirit might already be at work in their community. Congregations unwilling to be open-hearted.

As I sat there and listened to these difficult stories, all I could do was to reflect upon our experience here last Sunday. I felt this incredible sense of joy. More like pride, really, at how warmly you, the members of this congregation, welcomed this family. In fact, at times I felt overwhelmed by your response—at how you gave of yourselves and your own wealth so abundantly—with even a couple of you going to get cash to give. Or how you helped them pack up food from our pantry so generously and graciously. But, mostly, how you opened your hearts so openly. Without worry, which was the very thing we talked about last week. 

This was the first thing that remained with me from last week and, to be quite honest with you, this is what matters most--that you responded with such generosity and open-heartedness, trusting that God was calling you at that very moment to a deep place of generosity.

There was a second thing that stuck with me...something that left me wondering a little bit. As we packed them into their van, knowing that they had so little and that it was very likely that everything they owned was in this van, I began to wonder about whether I could survive with so little. Whether I could survive without all of my possessions. Without my stuff.

It’s that question of possessions that is central to our story this morning. Here we have a man—a rich man—who approaches Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He asks. What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Do you notice Jesus’ response? He recalls for the man several of the Ten Commandments—commandments that, if you recall from earlier this summer, come from what is often called the “second table” of commandments. The “first table” teaches us how we are to live in relationship to God. The second table—those Jesus reminds him of here—are the ones that teach us how we are to live in relationship with each other. Jesus tells him that he must keep these commandments.

“I’ve kept all of them—every one of them!” The man replies. Now, my initial thought is “What arrogance this man has!” Yet, if we read the text carefully, one notices that it seems that he is completely sincere. The opening verse says he came to Jesus and kneeled down before him. It would appear that he truly wanted to know. Jesus recognizes this sincerity. Our text reads that Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. Loved him. 

And, then, Jesus told him to sell everything—all that he had. All of his riches, his great wealth. And to give the money to the poor. 

We must be careful here about what this text says to us. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that being rich is sinful. Or that having wealth will keep us from being in God’s kingdom. After all, doesn’t Jesus go on just a few verses later that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom? But, that’s not the message of this story. When Jesus asks him to dispose of all of his stuff, then man turns and walks away, grieving. Grieving, our story says, because he had many possessions.

You see, Jesus knew that the big roadblock to his man being in relationship with both God and with his neighbor was his stuff. It was the emotional investment he had in his stuff—an emotional attachment so deep that, to even consider giving it all away, left him grieving. 

We live in a consumeristic culture. A culture that teaches us that there is a value in things, in our possessions. That we should strive for these things. Our status is so often connected to how much stuff we have. And we, very easily, can become emotionally attached to our stuff. If you’ve ever had to take a cell phone or a Game Boy or some other electronic device away from a teenager or a child, and then witnessed the accompanying grief, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  

We, adults, aren’t much better. We all wrestle with this—with the emotional attachment we have to our stuff and the investment we have in wealth and getting more and more of it. At the core of this is grief. Just like the rich man, who grieved over the idea of giving up all his wealth and turning his entire life over to God, we also grieve over the thought that we have to give it all up to be in relationship with God.

I wonder, though, if this is really the message here. Think about it. God doesn’t hate stuff. In fact, matter matters to God. Because God is all about creating stuff. About making new things out of the old. About making more stuff.

I wonder if the invitation for us is to think differently. Instead of feeling guilty and ashamed about our stuff, what if we were to rethink our relationship to it and wonder how, through our connection to things, we might better connect to our neighbors. To wonder how we might pick something up and consider how we might use it for our neighbor. To clean out that closet and give our clothes to a neighbor or to Goodwill for someone else to use—someone who, perhaps, doesn’t have the abundance we do. 

Or, perhaps, it’s an invitation to pick something up and reflect upon what the cost was to get it to our houses. About the wages paid to the person who made it. About the cost to the environment to create it or to dispose of it.  And then to consider an alternative that isn’t as costly to our created world.

Or maybe it’s even a way for us to deepen our relationship with others by sharing the richness of the emotional attachment we might have to something—the expensive grand piano that has been passed down in your family and the memories we have of those who played it. Or the Bible that, in my family, for example, was given to me by my grandmother who painstakingly tracked all of the births, marriages, and deaths in our family over the past several generations.

Perhaps, in his challenge to the rich man, Jesus isn’t trying to guilt or shame him, or us, but to inspire generosity and to give us a sense of freedom. To lift the weight off of us from all our stuff and to help us see that true life doesn’t come from that stuff, but from our relationships. Our relationships with others. And, particularly, our relationship with God.

Because God is the agent of our saving. We aren’t. And our stuff certainly isn’t. God is. Giver of the greatest gift to us—the gift of life in Jesus. Not a life of grief over losing our possessions. But a life of joy in gaining God’s kingdom. And a life that is reoriented away from our possessions to one of free and generous stewardship, serving God. Where our money and wealth are agents of that service.

We give thanks for God’s gifts. May God give us such clean hearts and right spirits in which to use them. Amen. 

Preached August 26, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 14
Readings: Mark 10:17-31 (Psalm 51:10-12)

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