Daniel P. Strandlund
St. John’s Episcopal Church
October 11, 2015
Proper 23B Mark 10:17-31
In Our Shiny City a Great Humbug Lives
- A reading from L. Frank Baum’s, The Wizard of Oz:
When [the Guardian of the Gates of the Emerald City] saw Dorothy and her companions, [he] asked, ˜What do you wish in the Emerald City?’
˜We came here to see the Great Oz,’ said Dorothy.
˜It has been many years since anyone asked me to see Oz,’ he said. [¦] ˜¦few have ever dared ask to see his face, and since you demand to see the Great Oz I must take you to his palace. But first you must put on the spectacles.’
˜Why?’ asked Dorothy.
[The Guardian of the Gates replied,] ˜Because if you did not wear spectacles the brightness and the glory of the Emerald City would blind you. Even those who live in the City must wear spectacles night and day. They are all locked on, for Oz so ordered it when the City was first built, and I have the only key that will unlock them.’
[The Guardian of the Gates] opened the big box, and Dorothy saw that it was filled with spectacles of every size and shape. All of them had green glasses in them. The Guardian of the Gates found a pair that would just fit Dorothy and put them over her eyes. There were two golden bands fastened to them that passed around the back of her head, where they were locked together by a little key that was at the end of a chain the Guardian of the Gates wore around his neck. When they were on, Dorothy could not take them off had she wished, but of course she did not wish to be blinded by the glare of the Emerald City, so she said nothing (Baum 80-81).
I don’t know when exactly it happens, but at some point while we’re growing up, we learn that if we’re going to be successful or happy or get in to see the wizard, we have to put on green, cash-colored spectacles. We learn to see everything through monetary lenses. Spending is one of the big ways we interact with the world. We even spend time together. It’s most apparent to me when I travel. I have this subtle impulse to buy something, even if it’s not something I even particularly want, as though I’m not really in a place until I spend money there. I feel secure and safe and confident when I’m in a store with money to spend. There’s something comforting about it.
I’m not entirely sure where this impulse comes from, but we learn it early. I remember being in middle school and high school, and getting on the bus with the math team or the soccer team or the youth group to go wherever. Anytime the bus stopped anywhere, for any reason, we all wanted to get out and go into the gas station or walk across the street to the Walgreen’s and buy something. It didn’t really matter what it was: Pringles, Gatorade, a roll of camouflage-colored duct tape. It’s as though in order to combat the anxiety of travelling to a new or strange place we’d spend money along the way to reassure ourselves that we were still okay. Buying stuff we didn’t necessarily want was like a sign of good will to this new town we’d driven to: Hey, we’re all friends here. See? We carry the same money you do. We all play by the same rules.
Today, Jesus meets a good man, a man who has a sincere desire to enter into God’s Kingdom. The man refuses because he has many possessions. Jesus says to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Jesus is offering to remove the green spectacles from this man with many possessions. This is a bewildering and scary offer. Maybe this man has lived his whole life inside the Emerald City. Maybe he’s forgotten that not everything is really as green and shiny as he thinks it is. He’s grown up thinking that these green, cash-colored spectacles are for his protection, that he could not possibly function in the Emerald City without them. And here comes Jesus, with a golden key, saying, I can show you a way out of here, if you want. It’s called Church. Surrender control over all that you own, and you’ll have a hundred times more. How, you ask? Because when you become part of the community of my followers, the Church, you will be welcomed into a hundred different houses. [That’s what we do at Heavenly Hosts every month: as Church, we’re welcomed into each other’s houses.] But you’ll never notice until you take off those green spectacles. They’re distorting your vision.
- As the story goes, it turns out that the Emerald City is not so emerald, after all. The green silk dress the Wizard’s servants give to Dorothy is actually just plain white. The emerald green ribbon they tie around Toto’s neck turns out to be white, too. The Emerald City is not entirely real; there’s a lot of flash and glamour to it. In fact, it turns out the Great Oz isn’t a wizard at all! He’s a clever trickster, and he knows how to play on people’s desires. So, you want to get back to Kansas, do you? You want brains? A heart? Courage?
Oz, it seems, is good at advertising. He knows his market and caters his offers to each individual. But there’s a price: they have to go fight the Wicked Witch. Oz lays it out for Dorothy like this: In this country everyone must pay for everything he gets. If you wish me to use my magic power to send you home again you must do something for me first (Baum 91).
We know what this is like, don’t we? When we see an advertisement, we’re being made a promise. It’s like Oz is saying, Oh, I can make you young, hip and popular, just so long as you eat at this restaurant, or buy this kind of tablet instead of that one. Or maybe to you Oz is saying, Your family will be healthy and active and affectionate if only you buy this kind of orange juice and use this kind of laundry detergent. Plus, any time your child spills something in the kitchen, it will be a charming and humorous little accident¦so long as you clean it up with this brand of paper towels! In reality, nobody’s kitchens are ever as clean as TV kitchens. Oz is promising a life in an Emerald City that doesn’t actually exist. Dorothy and her companions are so glitzed and glamoured by the Emerald City in which Oz reigns that they never stop to ask whether Oz is making promises on which he can actually deliver.
Jesus, looking 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.” Jesus is offering this man a relationship, the kind which leads to treasure in heaven. Treasures in heaven are things like courage, hospitality, generosity, kindness, friendship, commitment to a life of faith that doesn’t always pay easy dividends. The only transaction involved is one that does away with a transactional way of life: ˜go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor.’ It’s like Jesus is saying, Go, sell what you own, and renounce the empty promises of Oz. You’ve staked your happiness on what his advertisements have told you. You’re finally starting to realize that your possessions haven’t made you whole or happy or peaceful. Be careful: their emptiness is so familiar to you that it feels safer than the reality I’m offering.
III. But, Dorothy and her companions do as Oz asks”they do the impossible and destroy the Wicked Witch of the West. But when they return to the Emerald City to claim their rewards they are upset to find that Oz is not a powerful wizard at all. He’s just a regular old guy from Omaha. When our heroes discover that he’s a fraud, the frightened Oz says, ¦don’t strike me”I’m just a common man (Baum 135). The Scarecrow puts it best: You’re more than that;¦you’re a humbug. [¦] You ought to be ashamed of yourself for being such a humbug (Baum 135-136).
This is a fantastic moment in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and her companions set out to destroy the Wicked Witch because they assume that Oz is an all-powerful wizard. But along the way, without even realizing it they start to discover within themselves the very things they really desire. The Scarecrow outwits a whole flock of evil crows. The Tin Woodman loves his friends so much that he steps in and fights a whole pack of wolves so they won’t have to. The Cowardly Lion summons his bravery and charges right at the Wicked Witch herself. It’s as though our heroes are starting to realize that their hearts’ desires aren’t as far out of reach as they thought. After all, Dorothy has been wearing those magical shoes this whole time, the very ones that will get her home.
We know what this is like, too, don’t we? We set off in pursuit of money for whatever reasons, because we’ve got those green colored spectacles on and there’s a voice in our head that says money is an all-powerful wizard and will make everything better and send us back to Kansas again. But somewhere along the way, we start to realize that our financial goals are really just symptoms of deeper yearnings. That big vacation we’re so stressed about trying to pay for is really just about our wanting to have a meaningful experience together with our family. All those unnecessary late nights we’re working isn’t really about money, it’s really about our own fear of failure. Renewing our Country Club membership even though we can’t afford it is really about wanting to fit in and feel like we belong. Very slowly, we start to realize that maybe the Beatles were right: maybe I don’t care too much for money; money can’t buy me love.
That is the feeling of Jesus helping us take off those green-colored spectacles. One of the things we learn from this passage about the man with the many possessions is that it’s incredibly hard, almost impossible, to take off those cash-colored spectacles all at once. For the vast majority of us it’s a slow process, one that involves a lot of little prayers and little disciplines of fasting. But that kind of slow, daily work is how we let the waters of baptism erode the stones we carry in our hearts. It’s how Holy Spirit of truth reveals to us that our deepest desire is for treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume and where thieves do not break in and steal and where unpredictable markets never pull the rug out from underneath us (riff on Matt 6:20).
- But it would be a mistake to believe that money is somehow intrinsically bad. There’s a paradox here: once we realize that this glitzy, glimmering Emerald City of money and advertising can’t actually make good on the promises it makes us, then our financial stewardship really can become a conduit for God’s work. It’s funny: it’s only when we realize that money isn’t everything that it can become something. It’s only after Dorothy and her companions discover that Oz is a fraud that Oz becomes able to help them. Dorothy says to Oz, I think you are a very bad man. And Oz replies, Oh, no, my dear; I’m really a very good man, but I’m a very bad Wizard¦. (Baum 140). Money is really a very good means, but it’s a very bad end. When we make wealth bear the terrible burden of our deepest desires, then wealth becomes an idol and a sinful barrier to our following of Christ. Oz says, How can I help being a humbug¦when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done? (146).
When our desires are properly ordered, then wealth becomes just one more engine of God’s grace. Oz doesn’t give our heroes actual brains or a heart or courage; but he does help create an environment in which our heroes are able to discover and practice the virtues of wisdom and love and bravery. That’s all we should expect of Oz. And it’s all we should expect from wealth.
Money can only help to order our environment in such a way that people can practice the treasures in heaven Jesus is offering. It’s like Mary and Martha in the Gospel of John: they don’t sell their house and give the money away; instead, they practice the virtue of hospitality by inviting Jesus and all his followers into it. [It was like the first ever Heavenly Hosts!] It amounts to the same thing: God’s reign in all things, including the use of wealth. Once our heroes discover Oz is a fraud, then he is able to help. But he begs them, There is only one thing I ask in return for my help”such as it is. You must keep my secret and tell no one I am a humbug (141).
We have to keep Oz’s secret for a little while longer. We can’t force the green-lensed spectacles off of our friends. If we did, they might be blinded. We have to trust Jesus to do that. Those of us here today who know that God’s Kingdom isn’t bought with cash also know that God’s Kingdom isn’t fully realized yet. Until it is, we’ve got to keep running this little outpost of God’s Kingdom here at St. John’s. That means paying utility bills and collecting winter coats and writing great big beautiful checks to different outreach programs and non-profits and it means hiring strange, new hyperactive associate rectors who like to ramble on about The Wizard of Oz.
So, wherever you are in the long work of conversion in which we allow Christ to take from us those green-colored spectacles, know this: neither the money you have nor the money you owe loves you. That is not where your worth comes from, and whether you have a lot of wealth or have none of it or if you just look like you have a lot of it”it doesn’t make a bit of difference when you come to this altar. And as long as we have to we’ll keep the secret of that shiny Emerald City where so many of us in the Western World live: that money is a great humbug which can’t make good on the promises it makes, and it’s only when we realize that money is not an all-powerful Wizard that it can actually do some good. We know the truth of that as the body of Christ and are therefore called to a life of dangerous open-handedness. It’s part of our mission in a world which only sees through green spectacles. Our mission is to be a community of hospitality and overflowing grace, whether we’re talking about money or time or whatever. We live out that mission imperfectly because we are an imperfect Church, one that doesn’t always exhibit all the brains or the heart or the courage we could. But like Dorothy, we are also a Church committed to finding our way home to God’s Kingdom again. There’s real power in that, the kind of power that lets us see people as God sees them, which is to say that no one, not even the Wicked Witch of the West, is really all that green.
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking 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 he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. / Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” / Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age–houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”