Imagine that we are the ones kneeling at Jesus’ feet and asking, “What must we do to inherit eternal life?”
Freeze that frame for a moment. Before we get to Jesus’ answer, let’s consider what it is we’re even asking.
“What must we do to inherit eternal life?”
I don’t know about you, but I’m not even sure what that question means. Three parts leap out at me: do, inherit, and eternal life.
What must we do to inherit eternal life? Well, nothing. It’s not about what we do or don’t do; God just loves us, redeems us from all our mistakes, and gives us life abundant. Jesus’ explanation of this to the disciples afterward is shocking to them. They have been taught in Hebrew scriptures that if you follow God’s rules—all 600-some of them—eat these kinds of foods but not those kinds, purify yourself after doing anything unclean, eat with these people but not with those people, offer sacrifices at the Temple, and so on—if you follow God’s rules, then God will bless you with fertile land, plenty of rain to make the crops grow, a happy marriage, healthy children, and on and on. Prosperity. Abundance. Wealth. You will live in the land of milk and honey—remember that promise? Every person will live neath their own vine and fig tree, have enough to eat, live in peace and unafraid. That was supposed to be the deal. Obey God’s rules and God will bless you with lots of good things.
But here’s Jesus saying that this man, who has been blessed with lots of good things, needs to get rid of these things in order to follow Jesus and serve God. Jesus says this man will not enter God’s realm because he’s too weighed down by his stuff. The disciples are shocked and confused. If being blessed with abundance is more of a burden and impediment than a sign of God’s favor, then what are we talking about? “Then who can be saved?” they ask. Because isn’t salvation about following God’s rules? And Jesus says no. He says it’s not up to us to save ourselves. And in fact, there isn’t anything we can do to convince God we are worthy. God just does it.
Then there’s the word inherit. Inheriting is what happens after someone dies. But in this case we’re talking about God, and God isn’t going to die. So it’s an odd term to use.
The question ends with the words eternal life. What do we even mean by that? The Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t have the same concept of life after death as has become popular in our time. So if we’re thinking about what we must do to gain life through eternity, we’re going to be struggling with Jesus’ message, because I think he’s answering a different question.
“Good Teacher, what must we do to inherit eternal life?” Here are some rephrasings we might consider for this question.
“Good Teacher, how can we connect with what is eternal—that is, with God? Right here, right now, during our lifetime?”
“Good Teacher, our lives are full of stuff and abundance. What must we do to live lives that have profound meaning and value? How can we make the best use of the gift of life and the time before us?”
Perhaps what Jesus senses in this man is an emptiness in his soul. Here is someone who supposedly has it all, and yet he has come and humbled himself before Jesus to ask this profound question. “How can we live meaningful lives connected to our eternal God?”
Jesus isn’t mocking the man, and neither do I. Jesus looks at him, loves him, and tells him a hard truth to a deep question: all of your possessions are coming between you and God, and between you and community. Get them out of the way, and then see what happens.
How does our stuff cut us off from God and from others? Here are a few possibilities.
In the book Affluenza, the writers cite a study that says up to a certain point, more money does make people happier. You can afford a decent house, enough food, health care, a car that actually runs, a night out for dinner once in a while. When the car does break down, you’re not forced to jerry-rig something with duct tape; you can actually take the car to the mechanic. But after a certain level, more money does not equal more happiness. You can’t buy happiness; you can’t buy love; you can’t buy meaning for your life. [John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor, Affluenza: How Overconsumption Is Killing Us—And How to Fight Back, (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014).]
Maybe this is what the man in today’s scripture has discovered, and he’s asking Jesus, “What do I do? Why do I feel so empty?”
It’s not about the money. It’s not about the stuff. This is why church can be so countercultural.
So am I telling us all to give it all away, as my sermon title implies? Are we all supposed to give away all of our money, all of our possessions?
No. Well, you could try it. St. Francis of Assisi apparently took this scripture passage literally and renounced his wealth, his social status, all his possessions. Everything that his life was about followed from that moment. His ministry began when he walked away from the security of social status and possessions.
DeRay Mckesson has been giving it all away since 2015. He traveled to St. Louis after Michael Brown was killed. DeRay participated in the protests there and was active in beginning the Black Lives Matter movement. As a gay man of color, he found a calling. He stopped worrying about whether he had enough money to pay back his student loans. It wasn’t about the money. It wasn’t about him. He found something that gave his life profound meaning, that connected him to community in a whole new way. This calling empowered him to help build the realm of God where young black men are not being gunned down in our streets but are valued authentically for who they are. That’s the vision. That’s what gives DeRay’s life shape and meaning. [Interview by Joshua Johnson on “The 1A,” https://the1a.org/shows/2018-10-11/catching-up-with-deray-mckesson]
This week we saw all over the news stories about Hurricane Michael wiping out whole areas, flattening houses, destroying lots and lots of possessions as well as some human lives. We saw photos of people surveying the wreckage of their homes. And often after such disasters we hear people say, “It’s just stuff. We survived, and that’s more important.” Moments such as those really bring one’s priorities into focus. Life is not about the stuff. Granted, a certain amount of that stuff helps—the important documents, the dishes, a bed to sleep on.
We used to have an annual rummage sale, and that was an opportunity for all of us to clean out our closets, get rid of the clothes and toys and books and kitchenware and fabric and furniture that we really didn’t want anymore. Move it on to people who could use it. And doesn’t it feel as if your house can breathe better when it’s that much lighter?
(Of course, it has been known to happen that you get rid of things and others buy them and give them back to you. My friend John donated a bunch of books one year, and my mother donated some clothes. I saw the books and thought, “Oh, John would love these!” I saw a blouse and thought, “Mom has one just like this!” And then, fortunately, I thought, “Oh, that’s right—they donated these things….”)
A study found that if people were given a small amount of money—$5, $10, $20—and told to spend it on themselves, it just went in their wallet. But if they were told to spend it on someone else, their happiness level rose. They got to think about how to spend it, and for whom. It became a point of positive connection between people. Giving it away fostered connection.
I don’t think Jesus is telling all of us to get rid of all our possessions. I think he’s inviting us to contemplate which master we serve: God or wealth.
If we serve God, we will not use our wealth to accumulate stuff just for the sake of stuff. We will consider where our stuff comes from and what justice issues are connected with it. Was this tee shirt sewn in a sweatshop in Bangladesh where the women are not given bathroom breaks, the fire escapes are blocked, and pay can be withheld capriciously? Was this food grown in such a way that the ecosystem is sustainable and the laborers are paid a fair wage? Walter Brueggeman says the work of justice is to find out who it has been taken from and give it back to them. When we vote with our dollars for a just society—by the things that we buy and the things that we refuse to buy—we are helping to build the realm of God.
If we serve God, we will use our money to build the realm of God. Our money will not control us; we will control it. And we will take great joy in sharing it with those in need. Imagine if someone gave us, not $5, not $20, but $1000, or $100,000, or $1,000,000, and said, “Here’s all this money. Use it to help build the realm of God.” Wow! What are the possibilities? And how do we get to do that with the gifts and resources we have on hand right now? How exciting is that?
If we serve God, we will focus on building authentic relationships with people from all walks of life, building community that is life-affirming and just. On Tuesday I got to go serve salad and bread to people at Community Lunch at Central Lutheran. Most of you know that this is a free lunch served twice a week for whoever shows up. A number of you are steady volunteers there. I had this vat of salad, and I just said, “Would you like salad?” Some people didn’t engage, just took their plate and walked away. Other people lingered, told jokes, thanked us for the good food. We got to connect, person to person, over salad. And hungry people got to come back for seconds, thirds, and fourths. That has meaning—thank God for that program.
If we serve God, we will find time to foster a good relationship with God. We will create regular time to worship, pray, meditate. We will listen for who and how God is calling us to be in this world. That goes a long way to filling the emptiness.
If we serve God, we will indeed give it all away—not our stuff or our money necessarily, but our very lives. We will find meaning in service. We will find joy in connection. We will spread love wherever we go. We will give it all away.
We are blessed with this building, which is a huge resource. We give space to the preschool. We give it—we don’t charge them rent or utilities. We give it to them, and that is part of our ministry. And as a result, generations of preschoolers have started kindergarten on an even footing with children who come from families that could afford to give them more opportunities than our preschoolers get. We will hear more about our preschoolers next week.
We are also approached by groups wanting to use space in this building. There are those among us who know how much it costs to run this building, how much extra toilet paper and paper towels and custodial services we need in order to host more people in this space. So we have conversations about how much we can just give this space away to groups doing powerful good work who have no money, and how much we need to ask them to pay to help keep this building resource in good shape. When we give our offering, part of that money goes to keeping this building running so that it can be a community-builder for many good works emanating from it.
So let us kneel before Jesus and ask, “Good Teacher, how can we live meaningful lives connected to God and each other? How can we give it all away with great joy?”
And then listen. The answer is different for each of us. But in that answer lies the key to the realm. Amen.