Let Go and Let God
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon
October 14, 2018
What would Jesus do? This is the question we have been asking ourselves this past month--our bracelets have reminded us at home. And I have reminded you in sermons I’ve preached.
What would Jesus do about racism? Jesus was open to sharing God’s mercy and love with all of God’s children, and calls us to do the same.
What would Jesus do about fake news? Jesus told the truth and calls us to do the same.
What would Jesus do about immigration and the separation of children from their parents? Jesus welcomed people who were foreigners and outcasts and calls us to do the same.
What would Jesus do about reports of sexual abuse of children--in the church, govt, & culture? Jesus said anyone who hurts a child should cut off their hand if it causes them to sin, that is, we should remove them from positions of power and hold them accountable; and believe the stories of survivors.
These are all hard questions and hard conversations to have. Some of you may think--why have them in church? It’s because we can’t separate public news from our private religion. Our faith should inform all other parts of our lives. Because the illusion of being nonpolitical is a luxury of privilege that only leaves the vulnerable exposed. We Christians have to learn how to re-frame current issues in a manner that makes clear that the politics of Jesus is different, and calls us to live differently.
So, in church, we ask: what would Jesus do? What did Jesus do? A:He addressed hard questions.
Today may the hardest question of all--because it hits so close to home. Too close and so we avoid it.
A study found that Americans are uncomfortable talking about “the birds and the bees” with our children, and asking our adult children to get a job or move out, and discussing death with our loved ones. But by far, the most uncomfortable and therefore avoided topic of all: money!
I can honestly say that I have had more conversations with church members over the years about their colonoscopies than their contributions!
We don’t like to talk about money, and we don’t like to hear sermons about it. And to be perfectly honest, pastors don’t like to preach about it. But, Jesus was not afraid to talk about it. As he does in today’s Gospel reading, when a rich man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says “Keep the commandments.” The man says, “I have done all of that.”
Jesus looked at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Jesus continued speaking to his disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Then who can be saved? For mortals it is impossible; but not for God, for God all things are possible.”
The question is: How do we interpret this? Definitely not literally. And so how do we read this?
The rich young man didn’t actually keep the law, so that business about giving up his possessions was just a way of calling his bluff--and calling our bluff, too. Given the two options--keeping the law or giving up all our possessions--we are motivated to try harder with the law.
Giving up everything was a command to this particular rich young man, or to only rich people. All of us can think of someone richer, so by contrast we don’t qualify. And we’re off the hook.
This command is for everyone, because everyone is rich (even the poor can think of someone poorer). Luckily, Jesus gives us the ultimate divine out: we can’t do it, but God can. Whew. Off to the mall.
How do we interpret this? Jesus doesn’t really mean that we should sell everything and give the money to the poor. And so how do we read this? What would Jesus do about wealth?
According to some Christians who interpret the Bible through the lens of a Prosperity Gospel, material wealth and possessions are a blessing from God. If humans have faith, then God will grant prosperity. We tend to criticize this belief that is common among televangelists, especially those who say, “if you will but send your money to me, then God will bless you with more wealth in return.” But if we are honest, who among us has not thanked God for our blessings--chief among them are our disposable income, savings account and 401K?
I have often heard people say “We in America are so blessed--we have so many material resources that other poorer nations do not have. We are richly blessed.”
Is wealth a blessing? Of course, it allows us to buy what we need, what we want, and much more....
In the article “Self-Storage Nation,” Tom Vanderbilt says the United States “now possesses some 1.875 billion square feet of personal storage. All this space is contained in nearly 40,000 facilities owned and operated by more than 2,000 entrepreneurs. What this translates into, apart from a lot of stationary bikes kept behind padlocked metal doors, is an industry that now exceeds the revenues of Hollywood. One in 11 American households, according to a recent survey, owns self-storage space—an increase of some 75 percent from 1995. An obvious suspect, is American consumerism. No other country in the world spends as much on consumer goods.
And yet, a recent United Nations Report found that despite the economic growth in the United States, people are not particularly happy; in fact, the U.S. is in 18th place, and our happiness levels seem to be falling.
We in this room, in this country are considered among the richest in the world. We have everything we need. And we can buy most anything we want. But, if we are honest, we would admit that despite all that we have, it still feels as if something is missing. We who are rich, still suffer from a kind of spiritual poverty. We go in search of something to fill the empty place inside of us. This search too often leads to addictions and accumulations in attics, basements, garages, and storage spaces.
Is wealth a blessing?
In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape liked to remind his protege’ Wormwood that, in the business of leading souls to hell, “the sense of ownership is always to be encouraged.”
In contrast, in the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says that in leading souls to heaven, it begins by selling possessions and giving them away. Out of his love for him, Jesus says asks that he stop acquiring--wealth, status, affirmation, stuff--and start relinquishing--power, money, privilege, stuff--in order to follow the One who pours himself out. Jesus turns our way of operating upside down. We see that for the rich man, wealth is not a blessing. It is actually a burden, an obstacle, the only thing that separates him from being able to follow Jesus and find the promise of eternal life. Jesus confronts the rich man with his only weakness--his captivity to possessions that prevent him from living into the full life of the kingdom. Jesus names the power that holds the man captive and invites him to step out in faith, into freedom. The only way to live free from the captivity of money is to give it away--free himself from its control.
What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus looked at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
How do we interpret this? Jesus doesn’t really mean that we should sell everything and give the money to the poor. I think that is exactly what Jesus means. After all, we can’t take it with us when we die.
But, how do we do that? I think the key is found in the first line of the passage: Jesus set out on a journey. That is, letting go of our attachment to stuff is a process. It isn’t done all at once. And it’s hard to take the first step. First steps are hard. It’s hard to call the marriage counselor and schedule that first appointment. It’s hard to attend that first AA meeting. It’s hard to walk away from a shoe sale or a car sale. It’s hard to cancel a business meeting to attend your child’s game. It’s hard to wake up early to go to the gym. It’s hard to take 10 minutes out of your day to read the Bible and pray. It’s hard to give away something that you earned or bought or saved. It’s hard to take the first step. But the hard way is often the right way.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. - Lao Tzu (Chinese philosopher)
So, what did the rich man do? The man walked away grieving because he had much stuff. But, that doesn’t mean he didn’t go back home and start cleaning out. He may have gone home and found 1 thing he didn’t need anymore and threw it away. Maybe the second day, he found 2 things he could give away. And maybe the third day he found 3 things that he liked, but knew that someone else needed them more than he did, and so he gave them away. Maybe, he continued giving away, just a little each day, until he began to feel a new sense of freedom, a new level of faith. That his possessions did not control him. And maybe, through a daily practice of letting go, he began to let God direct his life. And so, maybe step by step, he was able to say yes to Jesus, and he found the life he was searching for--a life of peace, now and eternally.
May it be so for you and for me and for all who believe.
Step by step, day by day, may we follow in the way of Jesus, poorer in possessions, maybe; but richer in peace, definitely.
Thanks be to God. Amen.