Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | October 10, 2021
In 1976 when I moved to St. Paul and enrolled in seminary, I rented a room in a house owned by a widower named Al. Al had a peculiar relationship with his possessions. He knew the price of everything.
He might point out, “That lamp cost sixty dollars,” or “I paid $750 for that couch.”
He had three grown daughters and though Al was in his early 70’s, it seemed as though they were hovering around, maybe not so much waiting for him to die, but wanting to make sure that when he did, they got their hands on his sixty-dollar lamp and $750 couch. One day he showed me that they had put stickers on everything he owned, each with the name of the daughter who would get that particular item.
In the time since then, there’s been a shift in attitudes about possessions. For many of us, it’s not a matter of who gets our possessions when we move on, but how can we effectively dispose of our possessions when the generations after us are full up with stuff.
It brings to mind the notion that some people own things and some people are owned by their possessions.
Of all the particular subjects Jesus talked about, he talked about money more than most others. When Jesus talked about money, money was just the presenting issue. He said that a person’s heart and a person’s treasure will always be in the same place. So when you identify what it is you value most in life, you will discover where your loyalty lays.
He once pointed out that a woman who gave a mere penny donated an actual fortune because it was everything she had to live on. To someone with a fortune he said giving it away is just a start.
How we handle our possessions, money included is called stewardship. We are all stewards.
In the community of faith, stewardship is not about raising money for the church budget – stewardship is about raising followers of Jesus for the realm of God. Stewardship is a heart and soul reality. The most important thing we can give is our love – to God, heart, mind, body and soul – and to each other in the same way that we would love ourselves.
Stewardship is based on our relationship with God – our response to God. Jesus talked about this generous, awesome God who was like –
A sower with so much seed to plant he just throws it out hoping it lands on whatever kind of soil there is; A father who loves his children so much he is willing to give so much he looks like a fool; The host of a banquet who invites everyone and anyone to the table.
Jesus revealed the generosity of God through his actions –
He took water and changed it into wine; He took a few fish and some loaves of bread and turned it into a meal for thousands.
Whenever people were touched by his generosity and tried to thank him, he told them that it was because of their own heart and soul, their own faith, that they experienced what God had to give. It was his way of saying, “Everything I have, you have within you.”
Jesus once said, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first,” which implies God has a value system that measures by a different standard. He spoke to the struggles of the world, the ones we all face between the push of “me first” versus “after you.”
Our story today from Mark’s version of the life of Jesus is about an encounter with a man of wealth. He was setting out on a journey – and there that theme comes again – so much in his story happens when he is on the move.
A man came up to him and fell at his feet. “Good teacher,” he said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
In a way the man was asking for directions. But it was the way he asked that tells us something. Why eternal life? It’s a term that isn’t about what happens at death, but what happens here and now. It means the experience of God here and now as God is always here and now.
He could have asked what he must do to obtain, earn or get eternal life. But he wanted to inherit it. That reveals something about his status. Most people in the time and place of Jesus were extremely poor by any measure. They could not expect to inherit anything because they didn’t own anything.
If you are in line for an inheritance, it means that you are wealthy. The inheritance is yours, but not yet. It is secure for the future.
The question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” was a contradiction. It was like he was asking, “How can I have my cake and eat it too?”
Jesus as he often did put the question back to the questioner. He reminded him of the commandments, and he named some of them off, only he slipped one in that isn’t actually part of the Ten Commandments: Do not defraud.
Maybe it was a test. In the time and place of Jesus the rich got richer because the poor got poorer. Poor people had no tax breaks and there were no public benefits. Much wealth was gained through cheating and stealing from the poor.
“I know the commandments,” said the rich man. “I’ve kept them all since I was young.”
So he has done everything possible within the law and still he is not satisfied.
Jesus looked at the man and loved him. That’s an interesting turn of words; he “looked” at the man. Underlying it is the meaning that Jesus could see the man for who he really was. Maybe in terms of breaking barriers in the realm of God, his love for the rich man was on a scale with touching the leper. His love was a sign pointing to how God sees us all as we are and loves us.
“There is one thing you can do,” said Jesus. One thing involving four things – “Get up, liquidate your assets and give to the poor. Then come with me. Be one of my disciples.”
A four-step plan – simple really. Step one, be healed – healed from the vise-grip that money has on your soul. Step two sell your stuff. Step three – give to the poor. Step four – come follow me. The heart and soul of the plan was plain and simple freedom.
The rich man hung his head and said, “I can’t do that.” He received an answer to his question, but it was not an answer he wanted to hear. He recognized the truth of what Jesus said, but it was not a truth he could embrace. He went away sad. He could not let go of his wealth. He was not a resident in the realm of God, but only a tourist with too much extra baggage.
Jesus said that camels pass through the eyes of needles easier than rich people get into God’s way of life.
So who is he talking about? You, me, us? Or does he mean the truly posh, such as the people on the rich list? Does the fact that we are an “Urban Priority Parish” get us off the hook, camel-wise? Perhaps we would bridle at being described as “poor.” But would we consider ourselves rich?
What must we do to inherit eternal life? Is it a question that grows out of a sense of entitlement, meaning we somehow deserve eternal life? And what exactly is eternal life? Does the question come from a need for security? The rich man in the story, even though he had everything money could buy, realized that he could not purchase security; deep down in his soul security.
It’s interesting that Jesus quoted the last five of the Ten Commandments and one that’s not on the list. What is the essence of these laws?
Do not murder: the sanctity of life.
Do not commit adultery: loyalty in relationships.
Do not steal: honesty.
Do not bear false witness: integrity.
Do not defraud: justice.
Honor your parents: humility and obedience.
All of these commandments are about defining relationships. In effect Jesus was asking the man to consider his relationships with other people, his community and family. There is a sense that it is in relationship with each other that we discover the life God has to give.
The rich man understood, and Jesus knew he understood. He invited him to take an important step for his particular journey of faith – to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor and follow him; in effect, to set himself free.
My landlord Al lived well into his nineties and so his daughters had to wait a good long while before they could divvy up his stuff. I visited him once and he was still hosting seminary students. I was the first in a long line of ministers who benefited from his generosity and wisdom.
One of the challenges in the road to following Jesus is to discover our sense of worth. Not in terms of our bank balance, but our heart and soul balance. We are worth far more to God than anything we could ever measure or calculate. Finding that worth is what the journey of faith is all about. We discover it when we give and receive love. The money bit then takes care of itself.
Can it really be that simple? There’s really only one way to find out. Amen.