In the Name of the God of abundance and radical generosity: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
There is a familiar song from the musical Mary Poppins that suggests that “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down in the most delightful way.” Well, you’ll have to look very hard to find any sweetness in the Gospel today. When it comes to the subject of money and possessions, Jesus just did not sugar coat the story.
We may hear this text and think it’s about someone else—just not us. That’s understandable. It’s always tempting to look away when Jesus speaks to us about wealth, convincing ourselves that the rich man in this story is someone who has much more money than we do. The reality is that if we had half of what we own and earned half of what we make, we would still be among the richest 10% of the world’s people.
Even clergy get a little squeamish when we talk about the “M” word but the fact is that Jesus talked more about money, wealth, and possessions than any other topic—even faith and prayer. There must have been a good reason for this. Clearly, Jesus knew what a powerful and addictive force it is. We print the words “In God We Trust” on our American currency but the truth is that some people trust money rather than the God who has given us everything we have.
Let’s take a closer look at the man in the story. He thinks that he can “inherit” eternal life because the Jewish tradition taught that eternal life was often seen as a given, as something one inherited by being born right. For the Jews, belonging to the people of God was a matter of race. For Jesus, belonging to the people of God was a matter of grace.
Here is someone who had money and success and yet his life was still empty and even obedience to the law leaves life meaningless. He has kept all the commandments from his youth, but he still has not found eternal life. He is still searching, so he comes to Jesus looking for answers and for real meaning in life—not unlike any of us probably do. That’s when Mark gives us a touching picture of Jesus who really understood this man and loves him because he can tell he is serious about his search. He has come to the end of what he can do for himself, to the end of what money can do for him, and to the end of what the law can do for him. While Jesus states that the man lacks “one thing,” he actually gives him two commands: to go, sell what he has and give it all to the poor and to come and follow Jesus – a path that will lead him to the eternal life he seeks.
In Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermon on this text, she says: “It is a rich prescription for a rich man, designed to melt the lump in his throat and the knot in his stomach by dissolving the burden on his back, the hump that keeps banging into the lintel on the doorway to God. “It is an invitation to become smaller and more agile by closing his accounts on earth and opening one in heaven so that his treasure is drawing interest inside that tiny gate instead of keeping him outside of it. It is a dare to him to become a new creature, defined in a new way, to trade in all the words that have described him up to now – wealthy, committed, cultured, responsible, educated, powerful, obedient – to trade them all in on one radically different word, which is free”
Could it be that the opposite of rich is not poor—but free? Yet, this young man was not free to take the hand of Jesus because his hand was too full of stuff and his love of his many possessions. Being “rich” may have less to do with how much money we have and more to do with our attitude about the money we have. I wonder if it doesn’t have to do with all the ways God has enriched our lives.
During this month of October, our focus in preaching is on the way we experience God’s grace and bounty as a community. We will also hear this theme articulated by the brief witness offered by members of our congregation. It is a time to reflect on our gratitude for our life together here and what it means to us.
I have been asked to serve as mentor for a former Roman Catholic priest who is in the process of being received as an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. His story is fascinating and thought provoking. He grew up in Sierra Leone, the African country that made the news because of the ebola epidemic. His family was very strict Muslim and he had eight sibblings. Children were not typically educated but he begged to attend the local Catholic school where he became enthralled with Christianity. He began attending the major holy day celebrations – all “under cover,” because of his fear of reprisal, and at age 16 asked to be baptized, a ceremony that was done privately with neither family nor friends present.
For a few years he remained a “closet Christian” until his father found out about this and began to punish him aggressively and harshly. Eventually, he was able to extricate himself from the prevailing culture and taken under the protection of the church. He asked to be admitted to the seminary and was sent to Guinea where he was later ordained. Some years later, when he honestly expressed to the his bishop his discomfort over what he perceived as great hypocrisy in the clergy, he was cut off and asked to resign from the ministry, left with no means of support.
As he told me his story, I could not help but think of the young man in this Gospel—of what he was not willing to give up, of what Charles did and has given up to follow a path. It also made me very grateful for our approach to Christianity and faith and for this community and all that it stands for and offers those who come like the rich man seeking new life.
We can choose to be here or not. Be rich or poor, straight or gay. Believe or not. Respond generously to the offering plate past, or withhold our money. We can come and go as we please. Offer ourselves in service or not. All freedoms unknown in parts of the world.
Jesus doesn’t call everyone to give away all they have. He simply wants us to understand the danger of being too attached to what we have. All of his followers walked away from something, not because it was a prerequisite but a consequence. They followed and left stuff behind, not because it was bad, but because it was in the way.
No, when it comes to money, Jesus does not sugar coat the story but maybe we can still find a little sweetness here after all. At the heart of it is the truth that there is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life or earn our way to heaven. Rich or not, it’s only through God’s grace and mercy that we get there.
And maybe, just maybe the fact that Jesus is looking at our wallets is good news. It says that God actually cares about our life, cares about what we do, that what we do with money does matter—to God and to the world.
Remember that the next time you use a credit card or write a check or pull out some bills. God isn’t looking on you as a judge, but as the Creator who loves you—not necessarily hoping you have a hefty bank account. But a whole heart…and a full life.