Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Possessions and Possibilities

Rev. Kathy Donley

10/25/15

 

Scripture Lesson:  Mark 10:17-30

 

You have heard the announcements.  Consecration Sunday is coming.  It’s only a week away now.  You know what time it is on the church calendar.  It is that time of year when we talk about stewardship.  So you probably weren’t surprised when the scripture was read and it was a story about money.  Yes, I won’t try to hide it.  This is a sermon about money.  But the story is really a healing story. 

 

The story begins by telling us that the man ran up and knelt before Jesus.  He ran, which indicates urgency, and the only people who kneel before Jesus in Mark’s gospel are those who need healing.  The man with leprosy in chapter one, the Gerasene demoniac, Jairus and the Syrophoneician woman who both had daughters who were ill – all of them knelt before Jesus like the rich man does here.  The only exception to this is the soldiers who kneel in mockery.  The fact that this man kneels is a clue that he lacks something, that he needs to be made whole, in other words, he needs healing just the others. 

 

He asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  I wonder what he expected Jesus to say? Jesus’ first answer is “keep the commandments.”  And the man says, “I’ve been doing that.  Since I was young.”  What if Jesus had said, “Well done.  You’re on the right track.  Keep on keeping on.”  Would the man have been satisfied?  Or would he have wanted something more?

 

In that way that Jesus had, he knew that something more was needed.  And so he said, “One thing you lack, go sell what you have and give to the poor and come and follow me.”  Whatever the man had been expecting to hear, that wasn’t it.  That was more than he was prepared to do and he went away sorrowfully.

 

One time a group of college students was studying this story.  One of the students asked, “Had Jesus ever met this man before?” 

The campus minister said, “Why do you ask?”

The student said, “Because Jesus seems to have lots of faith in him.  He demands something risky, radical of him.  I wonder if Jesus knew this man had a gift for risky, radical response.  In my experience, a professor only demands the best from students that the professor thinks are the smartest, best students.  I wonder what there was about this man that made Jesus have so much faith in him?” 

 

Another student said, “I wish Jesus would ask something like this of me. My parents totally control my life just because they are paying all my bills.  And I complain about them calling the shots, but I am so tied to all this stuff I don’t think I could ever break free.  But maybe Jesus thinks otherwise.”[1]

 

This is the only time in Mark’s gospel where someone is directly invited to come with Jesus and refuses the invitation.  This man is also the only person in the gospel whom Jesus is said to love.  I think those college students were very insightful.  Jesus loved this man.  He understood what this man needed.  He understood the control that the man’s possessions had over him.  He sensed that if the man could break free from that control, it would be healing for him.  It would change his life.

 

A few weeks ago, I was in the Bible study that meets in our parlor on Wednesdays.  We were discussing this very passage.  When I attend that Bible study, I always try to listen before I speak.  I know from past experience that if I do so, I will learn something.  So I try to listen and not speak, but you know me.  You know that sooner or later, and usually sooner, I have to say something.  The people in that Bible study probably have no idea that I’ve ever been attempting to be quiet, based on how quickly and how often they hear me speak. 

 

Anyway, I was able to stay quiet during the first part of that session.  And as I listened, what I thought I was hearing was an assumption that Jesus asks of every Christian what he asked of this man.  What I thought I was hearing was that this instruction to sell everything and give the money to the poor is just basic discipleship for every person who would follow Jesus then and now.  And so, when I could not be quiet any longer, I asked if that was what people believed.  And they said Yes.  So then I asked if anyone personally knew anyone who had literally done this.  And no one did, although we did all know people who had chosen to make personal sacrifices or to give large chunks of their income away.   

 

So this is the question I bring today – does Jesus require this of all disciples?  Is this the word of the Lord for me and for you – go sell all you have, give to the poor and follow me?

 

That is a huge question. To answer it, we would need to start with context.  The scriptural context is that a man with many possessions came to Jesus in need of healing. 

 

Our context is life in twenty-first century United States which as one commentator describes it “requires a high level of consumption of consumer goods:  housing, energy, transportation, clothes food, medical care and insurance.  . . . Beyond those things that we might regard as necessities, the media reinforce our desire for more and better things.  As a result most Americans live beyond their means and carry a heavy load of credit debt that cripples them financially, inflicts a heavy toll in stress and marital conflict, and limits their ability to be generous. . .”[2]

 

If that describes us, -- especially that last part about a heavy load which cripples us financially, inflicts a heavy toll in stress and conflict and limits our ability to be generous -- if that describes us, then perhaps we are as much in need of healing as that man was.  And perhaps Jesus’ instructions to us would be the same or similar. 

 

For many of us, the primary messages that we have been taught about money are about how to spend it or how to save it.  Some of us have been taught to save for a rainy day, to be frugal.  Some of us have been taught about being good shoppers, about using coupons and buying what’s on sale.  Some of us have been taught that it’s OK to spend more for higher quality.  And of course we have been bombarded with ads trying to convince us that buying certain things will make us happier, sexier or more successful.  Most of the messages we have heard about money are probably about how to save it or how to spend it, but Jesus’ primary messages are about how to give it.

 

So if I think about our culture, with its obsession on buying and spending, on acquiring more and more,

if I think about the stress that we put ourselves through in order to earn more, to have all the possessions we think we need, that we think our children need,

if I think about the gap between rich and poor and the heavy burden that places on poor people,

if I just think about those things, then it seems that our Bible study folks were right.  It seems that surely these instructions of Jesus are meant to apply to all Christians.  

 

But I am not yet convinced.  This man is the only person in the Bible to whom Jesus gave these instructions.  Jesus called James and John from their family fishing business.  They gave up their vocation to become his disciples.  Maybe that is the closest anyone came to getting the same command. But on occasion, it seems they went back to fishing, so maybe it was still a source of income for their families at least.   Then there was Zacchaeus, the tax collector, whose story is in Luke.  He volunteered to give half of his wealth to the poor and Jesus said “today salvation has come to this house.”  Jesus didn’t tell him “half isn’t good enough, Zach.”    Luke also tells us about women among the disciples who supported his ministry out of their own pockets.  One of them was Mary Magdalene.  One was Joanna who was married to someone in Herod’s court.  These wealthy women were Jesus’ benefactors.  He accepted their money and didn’t tell them to divest themselves of their wealth. 

 

I could be wrong, but what I believe is that Jesus calls  individuals to discipleship in ways that are specific for each one of us.   Zacchaeus needed something different from the Samaritan woman at the well.  The fisherman had their own call and so did the wealthy women.  The man in today’s story needed to be liberated from the bondage of his possessions. 

 

And if we are honest, many of us need that same liberation, that same kind of healing.   At least 20% of American Christians give nothing to church or charity.   In 1998, the median annual giving for an American Christian was about $200, which was a little more than half a percent of the after-tax median income for an American Christian at that time.[3]   So, on the one hand we have the instructions of Jesus to sell everything and give it away, and on the other hand, we have contemporary practice which is holding onto almost everything and giving very little away.  Is there another option?   

 

Yes, there are other options.  The most common Biblical practice is a tithe.  Tithing means giving 10% of your income back to God.  The idea of giving away $1 for every $10 you earn may sound crazy or impossible, but surely it is not as hard as giving everything away.

 

If you were here last Sunday, you saw the step chart which showed our own congregation’s giving patterns.  If you weren’t here and you want a copy, just ask me.  The intent of the step chart is to help us look at what we are giving and to challenge ourselves to take a step up in our giving.  For some of us that might be a step towards giving 4 or 5% of our income.  For some of us, it might be moving closer to 10%.  For some of us, it might be well beyond 10%.  I believe that Jesus calls us to discipleship in ways specific to each of us, but Jesus calls us all to give.

 

I said that this is a healing story and it is.  Jesus did not ask the man to give money to him; he told the man what he needed to do for his own soul.  The primary purpose of our giving is not to support the church.  The primary purpose is our own spiritual growth. 

 

It says that Jesus looked at the man and loved him.    The college students thought that Jesus had faith in him, faith to ask more of him, faith to help him break free of the bondage of his wealth. 

 

We might ask ourselves, “Will God still love me if I don’t tithe?”  But the better question is “Will I love God less if I don’t tithe?” 

 

Jacques Ellul is a theologian who wrote much about how faith relates to violence and technology and justice.  He acknowledged that money has a spiritual power. He wrote, “How to overcome the spiritual power of money?  Not by accumulating more money; not by using money for good purposes, not by being just and fair in our dealings.  The law of money is that law of accumulation, of buying and selling.  That is why the only way to overcome the spiritual “power” of money it to give our money away, thus desacrilizing it and freeing ourselves from its control. . . .To give away money is to win a victory over the spiritual power that oppresses us.”[4] 

 

I don’t believe that Jesus calls us each of us to sell all that we have and give it away.  I could be wrong about that, but that’s where I stand. However, I do believe that Jesus calls us each to deep trust, to trust God with our lives, with our money, with our security.  That kind of deep trust can set us free from the control, the burden, the anxiety we have around money, and enable us to enter ever more fully into the gift of joyful, deep, purposeful, abundant life.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.    

 

 


[1] William Willimon in his sermon The Peril (and the Promise) of Being Met by Jesus

http://day1.org/1473-the_peril_and_the_promise_of_being_met_by_jesus

[2] Alan Culpepper, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Mark, (Macon, GA:  Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2007), p. 359

[3] Christian Smith, Michael O. Emerson, Passing the Plate:  Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 26

[4] Jacques Ellul, Violence:  Reflections from a Christian Perspective, trans. Cecelia Gaul Kings (New York:  Seabury Press, 1969), p. 166.

 

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