“Giving and Getting”

                                                              September 21, 2014


Ecclesiastes 5:10-20

Matthew 19:16-30


“Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor.”

Now were getting somewhere!

Oh, relax a little bit! This is not a stewardship sermon. And it is not true that at the beginning of each meeting of the Stewardship Board we read this story in unison—regardless of what you might suspect. But it is a good story, isn’t it?

Maybe you’ve been around churches long enough that as soon as you hear “Someone came up to Jesus and said, ‘What good deed must I do to have eternal life,” your defenses go up. You know where this is heading. You tell yourself that, after all, you are a liberal member of the United Church of Christ. We don’t take the Bible literally. We don’t need to accept every word. And besides, what did Jesus know about our contemporary situation with families and responsibilities and mortgage payments, and blah, blah, blah.

Or maybe you’ve never heard this story before and so it hit you right between the eyes. You’re still reeling because if Jesus said “Sell your possessions . . . then come, follow me,” to one person, well maybe he’ll say it to you as well.

Can we let down our defenses for a few minutes?

Can we listen to this story with fresh ears?

Yes, the story is shocking. The rich man is shocked. The disciples are amazed. If we walk through this story with open eyes, open ears, and open hearts, we too will be surprised.

Look. A man comes running up to Jesus. He is desperate.

He is, we find out, also very rich.

This story is told in the three synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. You might remember that these three are called “synoptic” because they draw on some common sources and tend to see Jesus through a similar lens. Matthew’s Gospel adds the detail that this rich man is young. The Gospel of Luke says that he is a ruler. So these various profiles are often combined and we often talk about this as the story of the “rich young ruler.”

Different gospels provide different details. But whether he is young or old, powerful or powerless, all three gospels are clear that this man who comes running up to Jesus is rich.

And even more, he is desperate. We can hear it in his voice.

His question is one that people have asked for centuries: “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?”

His question is our question too.

He’s not just asking about how he can live a happy, well-adjusted life. T.V. talk shows, self-help books, newspaper advice columns, friends and relatives could all give him—and us—those answers.

He’s not asking about how to “get” anything, really. He knows—and we know—how to amass stuff: work hard, work smart, save, plan, get a better job, make some wise investments. And there's nothing wrong with any of these, as far as they go.

The problem is, they don’t go real far.

You know it.

It works like this: as improvements in our standard of living come along, we adapt to them. In other words, increased wealth, more possessions, and extra leisure time give pleasure to us only at first. Soon our satisfaction fades, replaced by a desire for more. At each level of income, Americans seem to want about 25% more than they have.[i]

Psychologists call it the “adaptation-level” phenomenon. It’s nice that they have caught up with what the author of Ecclesiastes wrote thousands of years earlier: “No one who loves money can ever have enough, and no one who loves wealth enjoys any return from it.” (Ecc. 5:10) Or as the philosopher Seneca put it, “It is not the one who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more. You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.”

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to be paid well for your work, wanting to enjoy the fruits of your labor. It's just that wanting itself has a way of grabbing hold and taking over.

At some point many people start to feel less like an achieving human being and more like a rat on a treadmill. You have to run faster and faster to reach an ever-elusive goal.

The time arrives when, like the rich man before Jesus, we have to come to terms with the fact that money alone does not give the happiness or the freedom or the life that we seek.

And so with this man we ask: “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?”

Of course we might not put it in exactly those terms.

Most of us don’t think a lot about “eternal life,” but if we think of it at all, we think of it as what happens when life ends. We would do better to think of it as what happens when life begins. The concern here is real life in the presence of God.

Frederick Buechner described it this way: “When you are with somebody you love, you have little if any sense of the passage of time, and you also have—in the fullest sense of the word—a good time.

“When you are with God,” he adds, “you have something like the same experience. The biblical term for the experience is ‘Eternal Life.’”[ii]

So how do we get that?

It is a desperate question. Look at the man running up and kneeling before Jesus. He is desperate. And he seems to look a lot like us.

Now listen.

Unlike that rich man—unlike us—Jesus seems downright casual.

He reminds this man about the commandments of God. And as Jesus speaks these words they don’t come across as judgments or regulations. Jesus lists them in a random, carefree manner, as though he was recalling the words of an old friend. “Don’t murder; don’t commit adultery; don’t steal; don’t give false evidence; honor your father and mother.”

“But you know all this,” Jesus says. “I’m not telling you anything new.” The rich man knows, we all know, that life is to be found along this path. And from time to time we give it our best shot.

Jesus looks at this man and sees. He sees—not all that the rich man has—but what he still lacks. And so Jesus extends an offer.

Instead of religious obligations, Jesus offers discipleship.

Instead of asking for spiritual heroics, Jesus extends an invitation to follow.

Did you hear the invitation? “Go, sell everything you have, and give to the poor . . . then come and follow me.”

That’s where the trouble starts, isn’t it. We get caught up on the first words and miss the whole point.

It happened to me.

Years ago, decades, really, I was home for spring vacation during college and had pulled together enough money to buy a new turntable. (This was back in the stone-age when music came on records played on turntables.) But this was no ordinary turntable. It was state of the art—a Dual 1229. Top of the line.

I brought it home where my brother was visiting. I proudly showed it to him.

Now, some of you might remember that my brother is a United Methodist minister. Oh, he didn’t have the strength and stamina to last as a pastor, but at the time, he was serving a church and he was busy writing a sermon.

“About what,” I asked?

He replied: “Jesus says, ‘Sell what you have and give the money to the poor.’”

Zing. That’s the problem with having a minister in the family. Avoid it if you possibly can. I know it’s too late for some in our congregation—but don’t say I didn’t warn the rest of you.

Well, I kept the turntable—and tried not to feel too guilty.

Of course, both my brother and I missed the point. So did the rich man. So do many others.

Jesus isn’t all that concerned with what we have or don’t have. The invitation to follow isn’t a demand for some additional achievement. And there are no universal rules, as if following Christ were a one-size-fits-all proposition.

For some, selling and giving were needed. Others left their fishing boats or their tax collector’s desk behind. But giving up possessions is not a requirement for discipleship.

What shocks the rich man—and what really shocks most people—is the sense that God actually meets us in Jesus and calls us to follow completely. The call to follow includes an invitation to put aside whatever it is that is holding you back.

            Instead of being given rules, we encounter God.

            Instead of a demand for sacrifice, we receive the grace of God.

Instead of needing to rely on our achievements, we are given the forgiveness of God.

Listen. If they aren't getting in the way, you can hold onto your turntables—if you still have them, or your CD players—if you still use those, your bank CD's—if they are of any use, your cars, your houses, your tools and furniture.

You be the judge. Is there anything coming between you and the life you want? Is there anything coming between you and God? Is it material? Or is it guilt or bitter resentment or smug self-satisfaction or something else?

In some sense, I think, Jesus is joking. And his sense of humor is always better than our own grim or pious way of looking at life.  If you want to do something to get “eternal life,” try doing the one thing that is impossible for you.

Don’t you get it? It’s a gift.

Listen. Before anything else, God invites you to walk on the way that leads to life.

The difficulty of entering the realm of God is just this—we depend upon ourselves: our wealth, our status, our education. Or we can depend on our lack of money, our low social standing, our lack of education to find favor with God.

Well, good luck. It is so hard, when we depend on ourselves, that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for us to find the life that we're striving after. It’s not going to happen.

The disciples are amazed when they hear this.

You mean the rich man with all his wealth can’t enter the realm of heaven?

You mean the religious person with all their devotion can’t enter the realm of heaven?

Or the good person, the well-educated person, the poor person?

Not on their own, Jesus is telling us. Not on our own.

If we’re not as astonished as they are then we’re probably not seeing all the ways in which we depend on our own goodness, our own status instead of the forgiving love of God.

A more honest appraisal might come from the character in Douglas Coupland’s short story who says: “My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”[iii]

For all that we know about how to “get” things, we are still needy beggars.

And we stand in the presence of One whose hands are extended to offer all that we desire.

Jesus looks at Peter, who is so proud about all that he has left, and says: “There is no one who has given up all sorts of things for my sake who will not receive in this age a hundred times as much. . . and persecutions besides.”

What we receive as we follow is far more than we could ask or imagine. Yes, maybe we could do without the added bonus of persecutions. But often in life we find joy and sorrow, good and evil mixed together.

This story is not a call to poverty; it is not a teaching on the evils of money or possessions. It is a call to discipleship, which means giving up what enslaves or impoverishes for true freedom and true wealth—for a life in which God is so real that by comparison, trifles are seen as trifles.

Eternal life—life before God—is a gift. It comes at no cost to us. Which is good because, really, who has that kind of cash?

Instead of getting a lesson about money, we hear a story about discipleship. Jesus speaks to us about living a life that matters.

Instead of trying to take something away, Jesus offers each one of us something of great value.

Maybe this is a stewardship sermon after all. Because we really can’t begin to give until we have received. And once we have received, we discover the abundance that we have to offer out of God’s abundant gifts to us.

[i].Sheila Gustafson in a commentary about this text in "Celebrate the Journey" stewardship resource--PC(USA).

[ii] Frederick Buechener, Wishful Thinking, pg. 21.

[iii].Douglas Coupland, Life after God, pg.  359.