What You Own Won’t Save You – Sermon for October 14, 2012

Mark 10:17-31
10:17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

10:18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

10:19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'”

10:20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”

10:21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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.”

10:22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

10:24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!

10:25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

10:26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”

10:27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

10:28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”

10:29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,

10:30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age–houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life.

Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler – Armenian icon, public domain

10:31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

I’ve talked before about being a lectionary preacher. That is, someone who follows the common calendar of readings to which most Catholic and Protestant churches subscribe. I like the idea that on any given Sunday we are reading the same texts as churches down the road or in other places. I also like the fact that it means clergy can’t just preach on what they want to preach on. We have to tackle the tougher texts, and the ones that aren’t as well known.

As I looked ahead at the texts for the next month, I noticed that they all had a certain theme in common. Giving. All of the texts talk about what it means to give something. Belongings, service, love, money…it’s all there. And when you see a theme like that coming up again and again, it’s hard to not wonder whether Jesus might be trying to tell us something.

So, for the next month, I’m going to be preaching about what it means to give. You may have noticed we are also coming up on stewardship season, and the time of the year when we make pledges for how we will support the church in the next year. You may wonder if that is deliberate. I can only say this. No, the texts and the timing of stewardship were a coincidence discovered after we had set the date for the fall congregational meeting on stewardship. This is not a month-long fund-drive worthy of NPR.

But it is my hope that what we talk about in the next month might indeed cause us all to think about the ways that we give in our own lives. Not just to the church, and not just when it comes to money, but in all areas of our lives. Giving is a spiritual practice. It is a response to God’s love for us. It is a challenge, but it is also a blessing. And at its best, giving can be a gift.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not hard. Jesus knew that.

In today’s text, a young man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks the question that all of us have asked in some form or another before: What must I do to have eternal life? Jesus tells him, keep the commandments. The young man replies that he has his whole life. Scripture tells us that Jesus “looked at him, and loved him”. And that’s dangerous, because if Jesus loves you, it means he loves you enough to ask you to do the hard things.

Jesus tells him, there’s one thing you haven’t done. Go, sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me. He was a rich young man, with many things, and when he heard this he went away consumed with grief. He knew he couldn’t do it.

Jesus tells the disciples, it’s hard for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God. He tells them that it’s going to be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for them to be saved.

It’s a hard word. One made harder when you realize that by global standards, all of us here today are rich. We don’t always feel that way, though. But for comparison, consider this. I went to a website called www.givingwhatwecan.org. They are committed to addressing poverty world wide. And they have a calculator where you can input how much you make in a year, and how many live in your house, and it will tell you exactly how wealthy you are compared to the rest of the world.

I put in my pastor’s salary, combined with the little income a seminarian makes from part time work, and ran the figures for a household of two people. It turns out our household is in the top 4% of the richest in the world, and that we make 21 times the average of the typical person. Let’s say your household makes a combined $85,000 a year. You are in the top 1% worldwide, and you make 33% that of an average person. You might say, well, true, but a dollar here doesn’t stretch as far as it does in some other country. True. I said the same thing. But then I read that the calculator had already been adjusted to take that into account.

We don’t know what we have. We don’t know how fortunate we truly are. And we don’t know, when we read this text, that the rich people Jesus is talking about are us. We don’t feel rich. We probably feel somedays like we are barely keeping our head above water. But the cold, hard numbers tell us that we are a lot like that young man with many possessions who came to Jesus asking how he could inherit eternal life.

Could you do it? Could you sell all you own, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus? Or, could you at least sell some of what you own, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus? Even that is hard.

When I was in Atlanta, I was on a committee that evaluated possible candidates for the ministry. We would interview them before they entered seminary, and then work with them on their way towards ordination. And one man came to our committee asking to become a candidate for the ministry. He wanted to serve Jesus, he said, but he didn’t want to go to the traditional three year, full-time, seminary in town that we required everyone to attend. Instead, he wanted to keep working full-time and go to school online at another school. The reason was that he had a house he loved, and he needed to keep working a high-paying job to pay the mortgage or else he would lose it.

It reminded me of this passage. And what we asked him was how he expected to lead others as they tried to follow Jesus if he himself was unwilling to sell what he owned and follow Christ to seminary?

I’m not telling you this story to judge him. I’m telling you this story because when the rubber meets the road, most of us would have the same struggle. I went to seminary straight from college. There were no jobs to quit or houses to sell. But there was a time, about five years ago, when the reality of what it meant to make a pastor’s salary, and repay student loans, and save for retirement came crashing in on me.

I had been pre-law in college before being called away to the seminary. But now I found myself in the admissions office of a law school in Boston, talking to the dean about getting my law degree, and crunching the numbers about how much I could make when I graduated. I went home and bought an LSAT test prep book, and started planning my law school admission.

In the end, I remembered my call, and I remembered why I loved the ministry, and I stayed. Thank goodness I did, because I never would have gotten the chance to take this call, which I love. But I can’t say it wasn’t tempting, and I can’t say I don’t understand.

That experience taught me a lot about my faults. And it made me ask the question to myself of what was keeping me from truly being a disciple of Christ. What was I unwilling to give away in order to walk with Jesus? What “baggage” was holding me back.

We talk about “baggage” sometimes. We might say that someone is carrying around a lot of baggage when they have a lot of things that are holding them back emotionally. But what about spiritual baggage? What about the things that are holding us back spiritually? What baggage are we unable to drop and follow Jesus? What are we hanging onto so tightly, and what is so heavy that we can’t even drag it behind us on our path?

When Jesus was talking about the camel passing through the eye of the needle, I think he was talking about us trying to pass through that eye with all of our baggage. When are arms are full, and there’s a pack on our backs, and we maybe have a U-Haul full of more spiritual baggage behind us, how do we get through that eye of a needle and find eternal life?

But what if we drop the stuff, both literal and metaphorical, that’s holding us back, and we try to move forward? You’ve heard the phrase, “you can’t take it with you”, right?  We use it to mean that you can’t take what you own here on earth with you to the life after this one. But I don’t think that’s true just with death. I think it’s also true with choosing to live the spiritual life. If we truly want to follow Christ in this life, what is it that is holding you back. What is it that you can’t take with you? And what is it that you are trying to fill your life with instead of Christ?

That’s the question I have to ask myself again and again. How am I trying to define myself? Am I trying to define myself by my car? My clothing? My house? My possessions? Or am I trying to define myself by what I am willing to give up, or give away, in order to be a follower of Christ?

It’s a question to ask not just in stewardship season, but everyday of my life. Some days I feel like maybe I’m on the right track. But others I feel a lot like the rich young man who goes away grieving because he knows he cannot let go of what doesn’t matter.

Jesus knows that we will struggle with this. He tells the disciples that “for mortals, it is impossible. But for God, all things are possible”. We can’t save ourselves, but God can. That’s good news. But that also means that we have even more of a reason to gratefully respond to God’s love and try to give up what is holding us back follow Christ.

I’ll close with this. Heidi was telling me about hearing this text preached on once at Old South Church in Boston. The preacher closed by asking those in the sanctuary to give up one thing that they had come into church with that day. Not everything. Just one thing. Some gave the money in their wallets. Others gave away objects. She gave up her sweater. Others gave away a prayer, or maybe even just prayed for the strength to one day be able to do the same.

I’m not going to ask you to do the same. Don’t worry. But if you were asked, could you? What would you give? What would I give?

My challenge to you this week is this: Reflect on, pray on, the things that are holding you back from following Christ. And then, challenge yourself to see if you are ready to give some of those things away. See if you will give them to help others. You don’t even have to give them away yet. Or ever. But imagine how you would feel if you did.

Lighter? Happier? More clear about who you are, and whose you are?

I have rarely regretted the things I have given away to follow Jesus. And that regret has never been permanent. And that’s the gift of giving. What we give away may bring joy to the one who gets it, but it transforms the giver even more. Christ has offered us a gift. Christ is the gift. One that can change our lives. May Christ give us the courage to empty our hands of that which will not save us, so that we can free our hands to claim our true gift. Amen.

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