Once upon a time was a man who did everything right. He followed the commandments and because he had been taught that if he did this God would reward him, he believed that his wealth was a direct result of his loving righteously. But something was missing. He wanted more. He wanted eternal life. Eternal life is a good life, a meaningful and purposeful life, filled with character and quality that would last a lifetime. So we went to see a Rabbi, the one they called the Messiah, who took one look at this man and loved him and said this to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (Mark 10: 21-22)
The title for this sermon is Give it Up. I won’t be asking you to give up your possessions, (Though John B, the chair of our stewardship campaign might appreciate my asking) but I will ask you what in your life have you made so important that it gets in your way of complete dependence on God? Do you feel entitled to what you have as though you’ve earned it because you did everything right like the man in the first story? Is there a difference between enjoying your wealth and being so attached to it you live in fear of losing it?
I want to show you a clip from the movie Up in the Air, where Clooney gives a motivational speech about the stuff we have in our lives.
George Clooney wants you to set that bag down. And while I’m inclined to listen to just about anything George Clooney would like me to do for him, I’m even more inclined to do that for Jesus. Jesus wants you to set that bag down. That’s what he's asking of the rich man, whom he loves. Don’t miss that part of scripture. He loves this man for asking this question; how can I have eternal life, the good life.
We have to figure out what’s in our bag. What's in your bag that keeps you from being completely dependent on God? For the man who approached Jesus in this morning’s scripture, it was his wealth. Not because he had it, but because he was convinced he had earned it. The common theology was a widely held belief that if you did everything right in the eyes of God, kept the commandments, God would reward you with property, with wealth. Possessions, land, a wife to give you children who could work for you, meant that a person must be doing something right to have that much stuff. How different is our perception today?
When a person believes that what God does for you is dependent on what you do for God, then you understand grace as earned, which is the opposite of our reformed faith. We understand God’s grace and love as coming first, freely and unearned. But do you see how if a person understands salvation as dependent on how you live your life, what a seductive sense of control that gives you. If I do this, I’m ok. If I do that, God will reward me. Which may even work, until it doesn’t. And then we have the book of Job.
Today, in many of those auditoriums packed with thousands we have the prosperity gospel. Same idea. You do A, God gives B. It’s the same with many evangelical churches. You have to get right with God by doing A, B and C. Or by not doing A, B and C, there’s a formula which builds on that sense of control; we are in, others are out. We bring them in, but if they don't come, at least we are still safe. What a wonderful sense of security. Especially in a life when nothing is absolutely nothing, except taxes and death.
Prosperity is defined as the state of being prosperous, which is synonymous with success, profitability, affluence, wealth, opulence, luxury, the good life, milk, and honey, (good) fortune, ease, plenty, comfort, security…None of which has anything to do with how eternal life is understood in the Gospel of Mark.
In Mark’s gospel this morning, eternal life is not an eternal life in heaven as many of us were taught. Eternal life is a sustainable life filled with character and quality in this life. It’s a meaningful life, here and now which will carry you eternally into death and beyond. And I don't have to tell you how often equate the good life with fine things, stuff, possessions, even though we know that at the end of life, it’s not our possessions we wish we had more of.
And as Clooney and even Jesus point out, (joke) even relationships can weigh your backpack down making it hard to walk, difficult to live. So what does Jesus say? Leave even your family behind. St Francis was able to do that as you heard earlier. Not all of us will be able to do that as radically as St Francis, nor would we want to. But can we give up on understanding our relationships as so great that we became dependent on them, instead of being dependent on God?
There’s a wonderful book, Greg Love mentioned when he was here, titled Addiction and Grace. Here’s a synopsis by Rev Jean Kim.
All human beings have an inborn desire for God….Or we may experience it in different ways - as a longing for wholeness, completion, or fulfillment. Regardless of how we describe it, it’s a longing for love. A hunger to love, to be loved, and to move closer to the Source of love. This yearning is the essence of the human spirit; the origin of our highest hopes and most noble dreams. Modern theology describes this desire as God-given. In an outpouring of love, God creates us and plants the seeds of this desire within us. Then, throughout our lives, God nourishes this desire, drawing us toward fulfillment of the two great commandments: "Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself." If we could claim our longing for love as the true treasure of our hearts, we would, with God's grace, be able to live these commandments.
But something gets in the way.
Namely our addictions which are not limited to substances.
The same processes that are responsible for addiction to alcohol and narcotics are also responsible for addictions to ideas, work, relationships, power, moods, fantasies and an endless variety of other things. Addictions are not limited to substance…They can be addictions to work, performance, responsibility, intimacy, being liked, helping others, and an almost endless list of other behaviors. To be alive is to be addicted. (end quote)
Father Tomas Keating, one of our most respected spiritual leaders, once described the 12 step traditions as one of our greatest spiritual practices. Here are the first three steps in case you don’t know them-
1. We admitted we were powerless…
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
The first step, the one that all the other steps rely on as a foundation, is to admit your powerless. So you can understand why the wealthy man in the scripture walks away grieving. If you've built your life on the belief that you have control over the blessings you receive, based on what you do, than to give that up can understandably cause anyone to grieve. And if, like the man in the scripture we believe that our life is good because of the things we own, because let’s face it, who doesn't like nice stuff, how much harder is it to enter the kingdom, where the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Its a completely radical upside-down version of the widely held belief then and today. Power and wealth are not synonymous with the Kingdom of God. Not so for Jesus, and not if you’re following Christ. Not then, and not now.
I bought a new book this week. It’s written by a well-known theologian, Parker Palmer. Its titled On the Brink of Everything. Grace Gravity and Getting Old. Doesn't that sound like fun reading? It is for a pastor.
Palmer writes this-
Most older folks I know fret about unloading material goods they've collected over the years, stuff that was once useful to them but now prevents them from moving freely about their homes. There are precincts in our basement where a small child could get lost for hours.
But the junk I really need to jettison in my old age is psychological junk- such as longtime convictions about what gives my life meaning that no longer serve me well. For example, who will I be when I can no longer do the work that has been a primary source of identity for me for the past half-century?
I won’t know the answer until I get there. But on my way to that day, I’ve found a question that’s already brought me a new sense of meaning. I no longer as ‘What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to hang on to?’ Instead I ask, ‘What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?’
The desire to “hang on” comes from a sense of scarcity and fear. The desire to give myself comes from a sense of abundance and generosity. That's the kind of truth I want to wither into. (end quote)
That kind of truth lives eternally in Christ. It’s always there for us to give ourselves to. We were born to give ourselves over to it. In love and in service. Love God, love others. Once we've given into it, by giving up all that gets in our way of receiving it, we can live into the truth of it. We are not in control of any of it. But we can give ourselves over to it, and live eternally in the presence of love.