October 11, 2015 - Practice Giving Generously - The 20th Sunday after Pentecost

Our Gospel reading today is the story of the Rich Young Ruler. Now, you may have noticed that the Gospel we read didn't say all of those things about him. We call him young, because Matthew said he was young. We call him a ruler, because Luke said he was a ruler. And we call him rich because all three - Matthew, Luke, and Mark - say that he had a lot of possessions. Whether young or old, whether a ruler or a normal everyday person, this man who came up to Jesus that day was deeply devout and sincere in his faith. He truly wanted to do what God wanted him to do. He asked Jesus and Jesus responded with the commandments: no murder, no adultery, no stealing, and so on. You know, the basics. But that is not enough for this man. He did those already and now he wanted to take his faith to the next level. And so Jesus, looking upon him in love, which is one of the most interesting details, tells the man to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. That is the next step he needs to take.

Now, there are two common reactions to this story. One is to think that Jesus is asking you, personally, to sell everything you have... and you do it. This is the less popular reaction to hearing this passage. But there have been, throughout history, people who have done exactly that. St. Francis heard Jesus speaking to him directly and literally in this passage. His own life had been similar to what we might imagine for a rich young ruler, and he gave it all up, in the middle of the street, literally took all of his clothes off, and renounced all of his possessions. 

The problem with this interpretation is that this passage isn’t really a universal injunction. Jesus does not tell anyone else to do this in Scripture. He hangs out with a lot of other people with significant resources and he does not tell them to do the same. Jesus relies on the kindly support of wealthy people, especially some wealthy women, to fund his ministry. And he never tells any of them to do this. When Zacchaeus was converted, Zacchaeus offered to give half of his money to the poor. Jesus did not respond by saying “No, no, it really needs to be everything.” Jesus said “Today, salvation has come to this house," affirming this response that is only half as much as he tells this man. In fact, when Jesus makes universal injunctions, it tends to be the big picture, harder to quantify stuff, like love God, love your neighbor, proclaim the Gospel, follow him. 

The other common response to this passage - and the one that I suspect is much more popular - is to say that that Jesus can't possibly be talking to me. It’s too crazy; it’s too big; it’s too hard. And so we ignore it; our eyes glaze over as we read it; our ears tune out the words; it doesn't have any bearing on our lives. Jesus was only talking to that one particular man; end of story. Can we please talk about that feel-good love thing again?

The problem with this response is that we can't ignore it. This story wouldn't have been remembered and out in the Gospels if it didn't have something to say to us. This story keeps coming up. It's re-told in three of the Gospels. It's in the lectionary. Showing up again and again and again to challenge us. And so, what are we do do with this passage?

We start by listening. We have to hear how this particular story affects us, speaks to us, in our own particular lives and situations. And we have to listen to this passage in the larger context of everything Jesus says. While Jesus may not tell anyone else to do this exact thing, he does go around and challenge a lot of people here and elsewhere in the Gospels about their unhealthy relationship to possessions. 

As we talked about a few weeks ago, we are in a section of the Gospel in which Jesus is trying to open the eyes of his followers, Jesus is trying to heal their spiritual blindness. In this passage, Jesus is trying to open their eyes to their unhealthy relationship to possessions and how that gets in the way of living their life in the kingdom of God. And I think if we are honest with ourselves, many of us here, maybe most of us, certainly myself, and certainly our culture at large, have an unhealthy relationship to our possessions. It is so unhealthy, that I wonder if we could even do what Jesus asks this man, not because it is too hard, but because we don't own possessions anymore. They own us. We have imbued our possessions with a mystical quality, an almost salvific quality. And so Jesus says that if we want to truly find salvation, we have to correct our relationship to our possessions by rejecting the idea that our possessions bring us salvation, and realize that our salvation is in God alone. We have to reject the idea that our possessions bring us security, and realize that our true security is in God alone. We have to reject the idea that our possessions bring us life, and realize that our true life is in God alone. 

Jesus told this particular man to give up all of his possessions because he knew that that was the only thing for this man that will work. Jesus looked on the man in love. And Jesus saw a person suffering. A man defined by his possessions, and Jesus knew that for him, the only way that he would find joy, peace, wholeness, healing, life, was going to be to give it all up. 

You may be like this rich man and find Jesus calling you to this. You may be like Francis and find that that is the right answer for you. But that will not be the exact answer for each one of us. It was not the answer for Zacchaeus who found his healing in giving up only half. It was not the answer for Mary, who took perfume worth just a year's wages, and used it to anoint Jesus. It was not the answer for Peter who gave up his career and ultimately his life, but did not sell his house so that his family would be on the street. It was not the answer for Joseph of Arimathea who risked his life by giving Jesus his own tomb. But notice that the answer for each one of them does involve giving - and giving quite generously. Not in the exact same way, but in the particular way in which each is called. 

And if we want to redirect our lives back to God, if we want to take our faith to the next level, if we want to heal our spiritual blindness, we have to work on healing our relationship with our possessions. And one of the ways we do that is to engage in the practice of giving away. 

We are entering our annual pledge campaign. And we are going to be talking about the good we do at St. Mary's and why we need your generous financial pledge to support our ministry. And it is true. All of it. We do good work and we need your support. But, for me personally, that is not the main reason I give. It's a bonus. It's the cherry on top of the sundae. But the reason I give is to right my relationship to my possessions and to right my relationship with God. As we enter this season of talking about giving, I encourage you to think about it not only in terms of what St. Mary's needs, but in terms of what you need to continue to heal whatever unhealthiness is in your life. I know from my own experience that my relationship to my possessions, while not perfect, is a lot better than it was a decade ago before I really started embracing stewardship and generous giving as a way of life. I am less anxious about money, I am more joyful in my giving, and I trust more in God. Not as much as I would like, I am still working on it, but I am making good progress. And the way I have made progress is by pushing myself more and more each year to let go of my possessions. 

And so as we enter this campaign, I encourage you to join me in giving generously as much for your own sake as for St. Mary's. If you are not a part of the St. Mary's community, either you are just visiting this week, or are too new to consider yourself a part of the community, I encourage you to find some place to give. So whether giving here or elsewhere, you can work on deepening your faith, you can work on growing in faith, you can work on finding healing, peace, joy, and life in Jesus Christ. Amen.