October 14, 2018
Mark 10:17-31, Job 23:1-9, 16-17
“I Give Up”
We are in a series of difficult readings from Job and Mark. Last week Debbie Downer showed up and it doesn’t feel at all like she has left the building! Scripture is doing its job when it causes us to stop and reflect on ourselves and even more when it changes us somehow. But, I don’t know that it is so helpful when it causes us to run away screaming with our fingers in our ears, because we can’t stand to hear the message. We did that in a much less dramatic way in text study this week. We talked about Job and the very unhelpful things people say in times of crisis and we managed to talk about the reading from Mark without really talking about Jesus’ hard words about selling what you own, giving the money to the poor, and THEN following him.
Laron Hall preached on this text from Mark when he was serving First United Methodist Portland, Oregon. He was disturbed because he said he knew Jesus was talking to him and the only thing that made that bearable for him was that Jesus was talking to everyone else in the church too. In fact, he called them a church full of camels! (No Darkness At All: A Collection of Sermons, p. 273)
I suppose it helps that if the text is going to be devastating to know that it isn’t just for me alone. Jesus is speaking to all of us. Watch the progression of the story:
A man runs up to Jesus and asks what the three-step plan to eternal life is, so he can make it happen. Jesus says, “you know the commandments” and the man replies, “I have those covered.” Here is a huge moment in the story: Jesus looks at the man and loves him. What comes out of his mouth next comes out of love. Ephesians 4:15 talks about “speaking the truth in love” and that is what Jesus does here. He tells him he lacks one thing and says, “go sell all that you own, give the money to the poor, and THEN follow me.” Could anything be harder than that?
What happens next is pretty big too, the man walks away grieving because he couldn’t stand to part with his wealth. This is the ONLY account in scripture of someone walking away from Jesus’ invitation. It is even more stark because the man sought Jesus out to follow him.
That’s when Jesus talks about how hard it is for people with wealth to enter the reign of God and says it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. The disciples recognize an impossible situation when they hear one, so they ask, “then, who can be saved?” and Jesus says another HUGE thing: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
We have complicated relationships with money. It is a great source of stress in many of our lives. It buys things that make us happy and then there are times that we buy things thinking they will make us happy only to discover that isn’t the case at all. We wish we had more. Some of us need more just to make ends meet. Some of us have spent more than we have. Some of us have more than enough. When we focus on money, we miss what is truly lifegiving.
The French have a story about a millionaire in his palace who spent his days counting his gold. Beside the palace was a poor cobbler who spent his days singing as he repaired people's shoes. The joyful singing irritated the rich man. One day he decided to give some gold coins to the cobbler. At first the cobbler was overjoyed, and he took the coins and hid them. But then he would be worried and go back to check if the coins were still there. Then he would be worried in case someone had seen him, and he would move the coins and hide them in another place. During all this, he ceased to sing. Then one day he realized that he had ceased to sing because of the gold coins. He took them back to the rich man and said, "take back your coins and give me back my songs."
Part of what is sad about this story is that the cobbler doesn’t notice he has stopped singing because he is so focused on the coins. What happens when we lose our song? I wonder if that is what Jesus sees when he looks at the rich man. Is he seeing a man who has lost his song? He knows how to help the man sing again and he is full of love for him. He tells him the way to find his song is to give away the wealth that is holding him hostage. But the man cannot unclench his fists to release the wealth and find his song again.
One of the dangers of wealth is it may cause us to think that we are in control. I wonder if the man thinks he can buy his way. His wealth is part of the problem because it makes him believe that he doesn’t need God now. He is looking for insurance that he will be with God later. For now, he wants to enjoy the money he has. He isn’t interested in giving his money away. I get that. I want to be generous AND I want my house and my car and the things that fill my life. How much am I willing to give?
Heidi Haverkamp talks about going to a retreat center where a Catholic nun was assigned to be her spiritual director. She said the nun “listened to my story and then told me two simple things. First, that God is love. Second, “Remember that you are poor.” She explained that Heidi does not have the resources to save herself, fix her problems, or change the world—only God does. (Christian Century September 26, 2018, p. 20)
I honestly don’t believe we can be generous on our own. Generosity comes from knowing that we are in God’s hands. Notice Jesus calls the man to give what he has to others who need it. He is asking the man to trust in God rather than his own wealth. That is a hard one!
Many years ago, there was a cranberry scare just before Thanksgiving. It was alleged that a toxic pesticide had tainted the cranberry crop. The company involved admitted no guilt so there was no recall, but there was panic as people left their sauce unopened. A young woman and her family were the family in one local congregation who always received the Thanksgiving food basket. Her church sent a basket to her house with the usual turkey and other items and 57 cans of cranberry sauce.
People who are generous say that they receive more they give. I am not naturally generous. I hold on tightly and I live in fear of not having enough. My family and I are increasing our gift to the church next year. I would love to say that I do that with total confidence and no fear. What I know is that I don’t want my giving to be determined by fear. I don’t want to give away the cranberry sauce, but I want to give from my heart. I want to give with freedom. I want to give knowing that Jesus is lovingly looking at me and telling me to stop holding on. He is telling me, he is telling all of us to open our hands and our wallets and share what we have. He tells us that the gift is in the giving. If we can free ourselves up to give, we will know that God’s love is more than enough. When we give, we learn that it is not all up to us and we are free to follow Jesus.
“The good news of the Gospel in this week’s passage is that God’s grace, not our own efforts at being ‘good’ is the source of [eternal life]; that ‘Jesus looks at us and loves us’ (Mark 10:21) and so invites us move beyond concerns with our own inheritance and focus instead on sharing our resources with others in need; and that God seeks to transform even and especially our economic lives into beautiful, humane, generative patterns of love and grace.” http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/twenty-first-week-after-pentecost-lectionary-commentary
Sometimes transformation comes when we reach the end of our rope and we finally say, “I give up!” It has something to do with knowing that we aren’t controlling things and we need God to show us the way. Freedom may mean unclenching our fists and releasing whatever we are holding on to for security. In giving up, we discover that God is with us loving us beyond reason. In that place we learn that we simply can’t do it, but God can. We learn that all things are possible with God. Thank God it isn’t up to us!