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Sunday, October 14, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Our Need to Give
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
You are asked in the time that you have to use wisely what you have been given for the kingdom of God. The gifts that you have . . . are not yours to possess, but rather they are yours to improve. . . . If you give serious consideration to this use of your talent, your time, and your treasure, then neither your church nor the whole church of Jesus Christ need ever fear, and for that let the whole church say Amen.
Peter J. Gomes
Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living
I am sure that to the disciples he looked like all the others. Another person seeking to find Jesus. Coming up to him and kneeling, hoping to be healed. The disciples saw this kind of thing on a daily basis—the man with the withered hand, the one with the unclean spirit, Jairus and his daughter, the bleeding woman, the blind man, etc. Every day the disciples saw people seek out Jesus, come up to him, kneel and receive healing. So the disciples did not even blink when they saw that particular man come up to Jesus on that day. He looked like all the others—at least to them. But apparently, based on what Mark tells us, he did not look like all the others to Jesus. Jesus knew that something was different, and the difference was obvious as soon as the man opened his mouth.
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Already we can hear a few unique nuances in the question. First of all, right before this particular passage, we hear Jesus tell the disciples and the crowd about the necessity of receiving the kingdom of God as a little child. But this man now kneeling wants to know what he needs to do to get it. His use of that action verb do indicates this particular man was someone used to working hard to get what he needed and wanted.
I imagine some of us can relate to that—do, do, do, go, go, go, earn, earn, earn, get, get, get. To add to his pressure, in those days he would have been the patriarch, the head of the household, the one in charge, the one on whom everyone in the entire household depended. That is why every morning when that alarm rang at 4:30 a.m., he got up, put on his suit and tie, and grabbed both the Journal and the Economist on his harried way out the door. “Don’t wait up for me,” he would yell over his shoulder, off to another busy day.
He worked very hard to get what he wanted, what he knew his household needed. That is why his question to Jesus just rolled easily off of his lips: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” That brings us to the other interesting nuance. You usually do not have to do anything in order to receive an inheritance other than open your hands in gratitude for someone else’s generosity that continued after death. But again, this man was not a receiver. He was a doer. Therefore he was going to do whatever it took to inherit that eternal life. Jesus might have laughed had the man not been so earnest about it.
But he was earnest, and so Jesus responded with a little verbal play of his own: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone [hint, hint—not even really hard-working breadwinners].” Jesus then listed some of the commandments as illustrations of what faithfulness looked like. And immediately after Jesus spoke, the man quickly responded, “Teacher, I have done all these things since my youth.” Check, check, check, check, check. In reflecting on this man’s high level of self-confidence, scholar Kenneth Bailey writes that “in the Talmud, only Abraham, Moses, and Aaron are reported to have kept the whole law. This guy seemed to calmly put himself in rather exalted company” (as quoted by Ched Myers in Binding the Strong Man, p. 273). But even though Jesus knew that, he did not feel frustrated with the man and his lack of self-awareness. Rather, Mark writes “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”
Now this is where Jesus once again surprises us with his willingness to be God-with-Us, for in order to really look at him, as Mark reports, Jesus must have gotten down on his level. He must have also knelt down, so he could look directly into this man’s eyes, and as he did so, Jesus decided to speak the truth about what he saw. He loved that man so much that he simply could not let him stay the same. So there, in that moment, face-to-face, Jesus confronted him out of that love.
“You lack one thing,” Jesus said. That must have thrown this guy off-guard. He did not lack for anything. No one in his household lacked a single thing. He worked hard to be sure of that. But then Jesus delivered what ended up being a death blow to the guy: “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Jesus looked in that man’s eyes, and he saw that though the man was earnest in his desire to earn his way into the kingdom and possess eternal life, the man was also earnestly captured by his desire to earn his way into the kingdom and possess all that he could.
As Chuck Campbell writes, this man’s weakness was his captivity to the power and principality of possessions (Charles Campbell, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4, p. 169). A captivity that prevented him from living into the full life of God’s reign—a life defined not by what one owned, but by with whom one was in relationship; a life defined not by earning, but by receiving; a life defined not by what you got, but by what you gave. Jesus looked at this man, and he saw the shackles of the noneconomic power of money (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, p. 59)—the power that money exerts over the definition of who we are. Jesus knew that unless this man was willing to turn from that power and its lordship over him, in order to turn to Jesus’ power and Lordship over him, then that man would never be able to open his hands and receive the whole life given to him by God. It would simply be impossible. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Here at Fourth Presbyterian Church, we are in the middle of our Annual Appeal for 2019. That means that those of us in leadership hope to secure your promises of what you will financially give to the church in 2019—gifts that will enable us all to keep engaging in both mission and ministry. These promises that we receive from you, also known as pledges, are a big input into the budget that your Session and Trustees will soon design. Because this is so important for the health of this congregation, I could tell you all of the reasons why your financial giving matters. I could tell you stories about how lives are changed as a result of what God does through Fourth Church and Chicago Lights. I know those stories, and you will hear some of them in a variety of ways over the next few weeks.
For the truth is that without the financial support of members and friends of Fourth Church, none of this happens. Our endowment basically pays for the buildings to stay open and the lights to stay on, but everything else happens because of your investment of both money and energy in this work. So I could easily stand up here and make a case for your support of this community of faith. I have done it before, and I will do it again. But not today. After wrestling with this passage from Mark, the church’s need is not why I want you to think carefully about what you might give.
Rather, I want all of us to seriously and prayerfully consider what we need to give for the sake of our own soul, our own spirit. To me, one thing this passage illuminates is the truth that, at its core, our financial giving to God’s work is not primarily about fundraising for a church budget. Rather, the act of making a pledge, the act of giving away our money, is primarily about what we need to give so we can remember who we are. Another way to put that might be that our challenge is to honestly grapple with how much of our money do we need to give away in order to actively resist the power of money that always tries to control our own sense of self-worth and identity.
Money’s power is codified on that old bumper sticker “The one with the most toys wins.” Yet we know that’s wrong. The one with the most toys just has the most toys, and she typically has had to expend an enormous amount of effort to both acquire them and then keep up with them. Next thing she knows, she can only feel truly safe if she keeps getting more and more of them, for we live in a culture where, as Walter Brueggemann states, we are surrounded by a dominant narrative of mine, mine, mine; a culture that is based on acquisitiveness and propelled by an insatiable desire that it will never be enough—we will never have enough money or enough of the possessions that money makes possible (Walter Brueggemann, Money and Possessions, p. 10).
As Jesus points out to the disciples after the man leaves, that is a false narrative. How much stuff you have, how much money you do or do not earn, is not what defines you. As we proclaimed just a few moments ago at the baptismal font, the only One who defines you is God. God is the only one who gets to tell you who you are and who you are capable of being. But remembering that truth as we sit surrounded by our culture of acquisition and greed takes intentional effort. It takes being grounded again and again in the promise that we are beloved simply because God decided it was so and nothing is impossible for God.
Today I suggest that one way we can keep that truth, that promise, in the forefront of our minds is by consciously being generous. By consciously trying to unclench our hands each day in order to give rather than only to take. That is why this year, as each of us looks at our pledge card or our checkbook, I hope we think deeply not only about the amount our church needs us to give in order to be a light in this city, but primarily about the amount we need to give in order for our own light to shine more brightly, in order to be more fully liberated from money’s power over us.
For make no mistake about it, it has power. We give it power. And it is this battle over who and what tells us who we are and what we are worth that Jesus was addressing with this man in this passage from Mark. Jesus clearly thought that this particular man might just need to give it all away, or at least seriously consider what it would mean to give it all away, so that he could gain clarity about who he was and what actually defined him, so that he could be able to follow Jesus as a wholehearted disciple. But from the man’s reaction of grief and decision to walk away, we see he decided that to do as Jesus said would have created much too big of a loss for him.
Apparently, sometime in the arc of his life, he had decided that all of that stuff was what made him who he was, all of that stuff was what gave his life worth. He was the guy with the house. He was the guy with the high-powered job. He was the guy all the charities called for the big checks. People wanted to be around him because of all that he had and all that he could do for them. He couldn’t give any of that up. His wealth and his status had become the core of his identity.
As Susan Andrews once preached, “The man was being asked to move out of his carefully constructed world of security. He was being asked to strip his soul naked of all that he had achieved and to trust not in things but in the mystery of God. He was being asked to redefine his whole sense of identity—from that of a self-sufficient, self-made man to a God-dependent, God-made man. But he couldn’t do it. The familiarity of all that stuff and all that status was too dear to his heart” (Susan Andrews, quoted in William Carter Speaking of Stewardship, p. 79). So he walked away from Jesus’ invitation to freedom and walked back into the solitary confinement of do, do, do, go, go, go, earn, earn, earn, get, get, get. He decided that would feel like a safer way to live, even if it was a very lonely way to live. He made the active choice to turn his back, and it broke his heart even as he did it.
We, too, have a decision to make, friends. It is a decision we make every year when we fill out our pledge card or choose not to fill it out. It is a decision we make every time the offering plate comes by or we try to determine what percentage of our income we feel called to give back to God over the course of a new year. Frankly, it is a decision we make every single day as we try our best to remember that God is the one who tells us who we are and what we are worth, not anything else.
It is the decision to do what we can to regularly turn from the power of possessions in order to turn to the power of God. So again I ask all of us: How much money do we need to give in order to be able to live fully the life of faith we have received? For Jesus looks at us with that same kind of love and offers us that same kind of call: “Follow me,” he says. “Let me tell you who you are and who you are capable of becoming.” What will we choose?