Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
October 18, 2015
“Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Even though our nation’s next presidential election is still over a year away, I’m already weary of this question and others like it. And we all know it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Our Scripture readings today provide a kind of antidote to that variety of poison. They echo and build on last week’s readings from Genesis and Mark that include God’s assessment of creation: “It is not good for the human being to be alone.” Jesus reminded his hearers (and us) what he reiterates today: that humans are made to be in relationship with with God, with one another, and with all of creation. Whatever the pollsters and politicians say, the Bible asks over and over not whether or not WE as individuals are better off now than we were four years ago, but whether or not our NEIGHBORS, our COMMUNITY, our WORLD, are better off now than they used to be.
When a rich young man comes to Jesus asking what he can do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to sell all he has and give the proceeds to the poor. Jesus is reiterating what Amos and many other Biblical prophets proclaimed repeatedly—that how we spend our money is important. Amos protests against income inequality, judicial malpractice, mistreatment and neglect of the poor, and opulent lifestyles, insisting that no one benefits from such misaligned values. Jesus and Amos both know that how we handle our money is not only a practical question, but a spiritual one as well, impacting our welfare and the welfare of others.
Extreme wealth can give people a false sense of security—the illusion that they don’t need anyone else in order to live a meaningful life. Consider the expression “a self-made man” or woman. It usually refers to someone who acquired status and wealth without inheriting it; it also conjures up an image—intentionally or not—of an individual who is not like the rest of us, not a mere mortal created from clay by God and in need of connection in order to be whole. Jesus says that such a life presents difficulties for a person’s faith journey, as complicated as trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle. How can that be?
We live in a culture that bombards us with the seductive and false message that money is the answer to our problems, and that there’s not enough of it to go around. Because that is our daily environment, we may be as stunned as the disciples were to hear that having more and more stuff is not the solution to the emptiness we sometimes feel. But even if we know intellectually that retail therapy doesn’t really work (at least not in the long run), we’ve been so conditioned to rely on it that when the new laptop or game or even (gasp!) shoes don’t give us the satisfaction we crave, we quickly begin to look for something else to buy that will.
That brings us to this rich man in Mark’s story. He knows there’s something wrong. He’s kept all the commandments since he was little, he says, and yet he still experiences a certain dis-ease. I’m convinced that the way Mark describes his approach to Jesus is deliberate. In Mark’s Gospel, everyone who kneels to Jesus is requesting healing. And so when we see this man fall to his knees, the storyteller wants us to grasp that this man, though he may not understand what ails him, is quite literally heart-sick and in need of restoration.
The question he asks—“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”— is a funny one. He must guess what the poor disciples and others in the crowd think when they look at him: “He’s got everything—fancy clothes, cool car, big house AND he is nice church-going guy.” But he’s aware that, whatever his outward appearance, whatever his faithful and pious life, he’s still missing something important, something that matters, something that’s a matter of life and death, and he wants to acquire it.
And what does Jesus do? Does he give him a penance to do that will make him right with God? Does he tell him his faith has made him well? No. He does what Amos and the other prophets did before him: he calls the rich man into relationship with his poorer neighbors. Jesus sees that all this guy has—his knowledge of the law, his perfect piety, his abundant wealth—has distorted his sense of himself, and of God, and of his neighbor. Jesus tells him to divest so that he can really live by faith in God and in solidarity with his neighbors for the first time in his life. Jesus knows that it is not good for this person to be alone, to feel like he is removed from others. What will bring him renewal and reconnection—and yes, healing—is sharing his abundance.
When Jesus commands this rich young man to give away what he has, Jesus wasn’t doing it in order to cause him grief or to test him; Jesus was doing it out of love. He knew that the “one thing” the young man lacked was an opportunity to be in solidarity with other human beings. And, whether you hear this as good news or bad, Jesus loves us just as much.
Jesus is looking at us with love and, perceiving the deep heart sickness in each of us, actually asking something of us, giving us something to do, something to give up or away, somewhere to go. The rich young man wanted to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life, and the truth of the matter is no one has to do ANYTHING to inherit. What has to happen in order for us to inherit is that someone else has to name us heirs. And we are heirs–heirs of God’s abundance, through no effort of our own. We are saved by grace through faith for Christ’s sake alone.
But that’s not the end of the story–it’s the beginning. God isn’t only concerned about our eternal destiny but also about the life we enjoy here and now, with each other in God’s creation. A life shared is a rich life. For example, a couple of weeks ago, Shel shared how much he enjoyed taking holy communion to our homebound members. Many of you have stories about how good you feel after helping with the Road Home or giving money to the Needy Fund or volunteering at the hospital, the library, or in one place or another. You can relate from experience how each time you share what you have with others, you are blessed as much or more as the recipient of your care.
That’s why I’d like to propose an experiment. [USHERS DISTRIBUTE DOLLARS] In a twist on our usual collection of money, our ushers are distributing money to you right now. Everyone of every age and race and social status and gender identity and political persuasion will receive a dollar bill this morning. None of you have done anything to earn this dollar bill, nor are there any strings attached to it. It is utterly and completely yours—a free gift. It has a little value on its own, but symbolically, let’s say it is a little gift that represents everything you have and everything you are, all gifts from our Creator.
When you get your bill, you look carefully at it. Notice that it is imprinted with the phrase “In God we trust.” How do we spend our money if we trust in God? What might we buy? What might we refrain by buying? What would we save, and for what purpose? What would we give —and how much and to whom? It’s totally up to you. I invite you this week to use that dollar bill in whatever way you see fit to express your trust in God. I’m hoping that a few of you will be brave enough to come back next week willing to share how your dollar bill from God informed your choices this week.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider