October 14, 2018 – Proper 23 Year B
Amos 5:6-7,10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Have you ever wondered why we stand for the Gospel? On Sundays we typically hear an Old Testament reading, a psalm, and an epistle—and we’re seated for all of that. But why do we stand for the reading of the Gospel?
The thinking of the Church is that the Gospel represents Jesus’ presence among the people. We acknowledge his presence among us and the way he speaks to us when we gather. It’s not unlike standing for a judge or some other public official. We’re showing deference and respect and honor. And for us in the church, we stand as a way to signal that we’re ready for Jesus to address us. You’ll notice that here in the 10:30 service we even process the Gospel book and we all turn towards Jesus who speaks to us from among the people. We stand to signify that we are encountering Jesus and that he is addressing us.
And the thing about standing and having Jesus address us is that there is risk involved—We’re never too sure what he might say to us. And I’ve been thinking about this risk in light of today’s Gospel because everyone in the story who hears Jesus speaking to them is shocked. They are perplexed. They are astounded. And maybe you are, too.
A man comes up to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus directs him to the commandments of living in a covenant relationship with God. The man says that he has done all of these since he was a youth. Jesus doesn’t contest his claim, in fact, Jesus sees something in this man and the Gospel says that Jesus loved him. He’s the only person in the entire Gospel of Mark who is singled out as being loved by Jesus. He can see the potential of this man and invites him to become a disciple and follow him. He tells him to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and to follow him. And the man was shocked and went away grieving because he had a lot of possessions. It’s a heart-breaking scene.
Jesus loves this man and personally invites him to follow him as a disciple, but the man just can’t let go of his possessions. What he owns actually ends up owning him and trapping him. They cut off the possibility of this man experiencing the fullness of life that Jesus offers.
In order to experience the life of the Kingdom that Jesus offers us, we have to be willing to let go of the things that keep us trapped, and what’s shocking is that the things that can trap us are the things we own.
I’ve heard it said that there are certain types of monkeys that are easy to trap. You cut a hole in their favorite type of melon on the vine, just big enough for their hand to fit. The monkey will put their hand in the hole, but when they ball up their fist to pull out the seeds, they get stuck because their fist is larger than the hole. The monkey could let go of the seeds and be free, but they are unwilling to let go and trap themselves and are easily caught.
And it’s the same for us who hold so tightly to our possessions that we can’t experience the fullness of life that Jesus invites us into. We get trapped. The things we think we need so badly for our good turn out to be the things that are killing us, and this can come as a huge shock whenever we realize it.
It’s shocking for the broken-hearted man and the disciples. They believed that those with wealth were blessed by God. Deuteronomy explicitly states that, if Israel is faithful, “The Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground.” Basically faithfulness to God would result in wealth and prosperity. And here Jesus is saying that wealth and prosperity can keep us from being faithful to God because we can love those things more than God and the life God offers us.
And we of all people need to hear this in Jesus’ words to us today. Because one of the foundations of our culture is the quest for more possessions. We are trapped by what we own and the pursuit of more of it. .
I want to share some stats with you about our relationship to possessions.
– The average size of the American home has nearly tripled in size over the past 50 years (NPR).
– And still, 1 out of every 10 Americans rents offsite storage—the fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the past four decades. (New York Times Magazine).
– The United States has upward of 50,000 storage facilities. Currently, there is 7.3 square feet of self storage space for every man, woman and child in the nation. Thus, it is physically possible that every American could stand—all at the same time—under the total canopy of self storage roofing (SSA).
– 3.1% of the world’s children live in America, but they own 40% of the toys consumed globally (UCLA).
I don’t want to bombard you with any more statistics, but it’s clear that we are consumed with possessions and the pursuit of more. Think about how we spend our major holidays. What is the one activity that characterizes our common life as Americans when we celebrate our national holidays? It’s shopping. If it’s Christmas, the day after Thanksgiving, or Memorial day, what is most of the nation doing? We’re buying things. As one person has put it, we buy things we do not want to impress people we do not like. And it’s so easy for our whole lives to become just one large cycle of getting more stuff.
Like the broken-hearted man whom Jesus loves, we are also trapped by our possessions and the never-ceasing drive to attain more, but Jesus offers us a way forward to wholeness.
We are the monkey with our hand trapped by all the things we grasp on to and Jesus offers us a way out. Let go. Give some of it away. Spend less time pursuing more stuff. And open yourself to the life that God offers that’s about loving people and using things, rather than the other way around. A life that is consumed with loving God and loving neighbor–not stuff.
Right now we are in our stewardship season here at St John’s. And I think one of the most spiritually significant things we can do for our own health is to give some of our resources away. It’s one of the most transformative things we can do in a culture obsessed with obtaining more. Because it clarifies our values and the direction of our entire lives to intentionally set apart our resources to be given away. By committing a percentage of our resources to God, we open ourselves to experience the eternal life that Jesus offers us.
In order to experience the life of the Kingdom that Jesus offers us, we have to be willing to let go of the things that keep us trapped. And today Jesus speaks to all of us in his Gospel, all of us whose hands are trapped by the pursuit of more possessions. He offers us freedom in two simple words. Let go.