A Community of Generosity and Joy

Community United Church of Christ (Saint Paul Park, Minnesota)

Scripture: Mark 10:17-31

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Anju is a 19-year-old woman who lives in India. Whereas most women of Anju’s age are thinking about career, wedding, and friends, Anju has decided to take vows and become a Jain nun. Before she does so, she must pass three tests. She must experience the closeness of her family, then renounce them. She must be dressed as a bride in the most beautiful attire, then let all the finery go. She must be adored by thousands, then prove her indifference to pain and beauty. We’ll see her experience as one of four profiles in the Belief video after worship today.[1]

Anju’s story has this in common with the man at the beginning of today’s gospel: their desire for greater faith is tested against other powerful desires. We’ll see how Anju responds, but the man in Mark’s gospel is not able to withstand the test. Even the Son of God himself is not able to persuade this man with many possessions that following Jesus is more important than keeping his stuff. The man has lived a decent life, and Jesus loves him for it. He’s followed the commandments and hasn’t harmed anybody. He’s the picture of good, mainstream, middle-class respectability. He earnestly wants to do the right things to inherit eternal life, and the text is very clear that Jesus loves him for it. But the cost of Jesus’ invitation—selling everything he has in order to bless the poor and follow Jesus—turns out to be more than his desire can bear. This is a deeply-unsettling story for our affluent society, where we say, truthfully, that “money makes the world go round”.

Today as in the time of Jesus, having money is a sign that you’re doing something right. Being able to get by in life, save money for retirement, travel, have a pension—we understand that these are rewards for dutiful work done well over many years. They at least suggest that a person has exercised good judgment, good character or both. Plenty of people will go farther, saying definitively that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and approval. The Bible says so, after all. Disciples listening to Jesus would have known passages like this from the Psalms: “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.” (Psalm 37:25)[2] The common understanding is that prosperity follows those who act with righteousness. No wonder the disciples react with repeated amazement when Jesus says how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter into the kingdom of God. As Raquel Lettsome says, “In their society, wealth grants access rather than prohibits it. Wealth is [a] stepping stone, not a stumbling block.”[3]

Yet I believe Jesus is right in this sense: the more we have, the greater the danger that we will prefer our comfortable possessions to the uncomfortable invitation of Christ. This is true in my own life. When I was a student in college, I spent a semester living in India. Each day I saw hardship and poverty as well as tremendous beauty. In my carefree, anything-is-possible mood of that season, I readily imagined moving to India, going to seminary there, and working for the greater good of a billion people there. With no more stuff than could fill a college dorm room, I could have easily put down roots on the other side of the world. Now though, I’m quite sure it would feel impossible. Even if it didn’t involve leaving family and church behind, there’s the question of what would happen with all our books, our surround-sound TV setup, the car we’re so fond of, our cute little house, and the land that it’s built upon. I’m certain now that I will never live in India like I had once imagined. There are good reasons for this, but one reason is the middle-class comforts I’m now used to. My earlier carefree and anything-is-possible self feels more tied down now, and the geographic parameters of where God might call me have drawn in closer.

“Material possessions tend to fix a [person’s] heart to this world,” says the preacher William Barclay.[4] I have felt the attachments that can accompany greater possessions. And we know the role that desire for “just a little more” plays in our culture. We call it “keeping up with the neighbors”. We want a nicer car, a pool for the backyard, just a little boat, then maybe a larger boat, and before we know it we’re working longer hours worrying about how we will afford all the things we have stretched to buy, feeling more focused on money than ever before. Like the Lilliputian people in Gulliver’s Travels who bound a grown man with more and more tiny thread-like ropes, so it might be for we who have more and more possessions.

I don’t believe there’s necessarily greater virtue in poverty or greater vice in wealth. It’s not as simple as that, and I’ve seen too many examples to the contrary. Many of the world’s richest people are also the most generous. But it is the case that with more wealth comes more responsibility to use it wisely, and to resist money’s spellbinding suggestion that having “just a little more” will make everything perfect at last. That’s what Jesus is testing with the rich man in today’s gospel. Can this man imagine growing in faith and devotion without his wealth, or has he so internalized the idea that money equals divine favor that he can not serve God’s call if it comes at the cost of his stuff? What opportunities for extravagant, joyful generosity does he miss because he can’t let go?

Jesus tells Peter that those who have given up so much to follow him will get those things back a hundred-fold in this life. He wasn’t making a literal promissory note that you could take to the bank. But he was describing the experience of many early Christians. They were kicked out of their families and ancestral property for following Jesus. Yet the book of Acts describes the incredible community that formed among them. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” (Acts 2:44-47) The early Christians did get back a new chosen family, new shared homes, a new esteem in the eyes of others, and a new community suffused with generosity and joy.

That still happens today. Four years ago last month, this congregation launched something remarkable called “Be the Match”. One church member gave a breathtaking extra contribution—$10,000—if we could match it dollar for dollar with other additional gifts. I remember the many people who gave something extra to that effort: a family living on retirement savings who made gifts of amazing sacrifice, crumpled up dollar bills stuffed into special giving envelopes, and children who took up their own collection for the effort. In just a couple months, our church met and surpassed the original challenge. More remarkable still, we experienced the bubbly sense that anything was possible. One generous act of giving sparked dozens more, which then inspired others, in what became a chain reaction of joy and blessing. We delighted in the possibility of giving away what we had for the greater good, building up the community with extravagance. That is the Spirit of Christ at work, and I’ve seen it again and again among us. I think of the woman who came into unexpected wealth, and surprised the church with her gift. I think of the people who mention the church in their wills, including an interim pastor who served our church decades ago. And I think of the many who have accepted our current pledge dare, increasing our 2016 pledges with an extra $5 per week. All of these are examples of giving what we can, and then going above-and-beyond in response to Jesus’ daring call.

Can you picture what was in Jesus’ eyes as he looked at the rich man with love? He had a sense of what was possible in this good man, whom he invited to be great. I see the Savior’s eyes fill with gratitude, hope, encouragement, and daring love. He looks to us with those same eyes now. Will we respond with carefree joy, offering whatever we have to give?

Let us pray: God of abundance, even we who do not have much money have felt our cups of life overflow. Thank you for blessing us again and again, regardless of wealth or status. Help us to hold our possessions gently and be free in sharing them, that we might know the richness of generosity and joy. Amen.

[1] Oprah Winfrey Network, “A Change is Gonna Come”, Belief, episode 4, directed by Oprah Winfrey, October 21, 2015.

[2] William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, revised ed. in The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 246.

[3] Raquel S. Lettsome, “Commentary on Mark 10:17-31” at WorkingPreacher.org. Available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2582.

[4] Barclay, 247.

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