TO LACK ONE THING // Sara Wolbrecht // October 11, 2015 // Mark 10:17-31
We asked this question together: As a child growing up, did we feel rich or poor? Why? To prepare us for the text we’ll read today from Mark’s gospel.
This text usually has the heading: the rich, young ruler. Though we’ll see that Mark’s version doesn’t say he’s young or a ruler. But this story is in three of the four gospels. Matthew refers to him as young, Luke says he’s a ruler, so we get the composite title. His appearance in three of the four gospels tells us that this is significant, that there is weight to it for how it informs our lives. Whenever scripture repeated, quoted, or simply included multiple times, always always an invitation to stop, dig deeply, listen and pay attention to what God is saying. Because this matters.
And in this one, God is saying something about money and our stuff. For the rich, young ruler, he, like us, has his own personal money autobiography. He, too, has been formed by a story told by his family and culture about what money means to him, what it does for him, how it is connected to God, how much he should value it. …So let’s look at this encounter with Jesus, together.
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With mortals this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
So let’s do what we always do: dig into this text and notice what’s happening, and listen for what God might be saying to us today. This young man runs to Jesus – and notice he falls on his knees – this is significant, in that rich, prestigious folks never ran (they had people to run for them – while they could take their time) and they never would kneel before someone unless that someone was of greater rank and importance. So clearly: there is a certain urgency.
We notice his question: “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Mark 10:17
We know that this conversation’s conclusion is about money and possessions. But where this actually starts is with a question about eternal life.
I want us to get technical for a minute so we can understand what this guy is actually asking about. Shout it out, what is he actually asking about? What is eternal life?… A long Christian tradition has assumed that he wanted to know how he could be sure of going to heaven when he died (Is that what you thought he is asking, too?), but that is not it. The actual phrase “eternal life” actually translates “the life of the Age to Come.” And the Age to Come is synonymous with the phrase “the Kingdom of God.” Which we have become quite familiar with in Mark’s gospel. There is the present age and the age to come. Eternal life= is life in the Age to Come, life in the Kingdom of God.
And we keep coming back to this, remembering the larger context, the larger story of what Jesus is doing. First-century Jews – which this man is – knew that a great event would occur which would bring justice and peace, freedom for Israel, punishment for those doing evil, a time of prosperity when all the prophecies (that we hear throughout the OT) would be fulfilled. The Kingdom of God here and present on this earth. On earth as in heaven.
He’s asking, how can I be a part of this, of the big, beautiful, abundant things that God will do when it happens here?
Can you guess what this guy thinks gets him eternal life? What have we seen in Mark’s gospel? How do the Jews in the first century think they attain eternal life?
They think they earn it! How? By following the rules. Strict adherence to the religious laws – the Ten Commandments, the Dead Sea Scrolls. Different religious sects disagreed on which rules to follow, but it was all about the rules.
We see very quickly that this guy’s score card is stellar – he says so himself – Jesus rattles off six of the ten commandments. And the young man says – check, got it, I’ve been doing that my whole life.
In addition to the importance of rule-following, first-century Jews had a certain perspective about wealth, wealth was sign of God’s favor. The wealthier you are, the closer to God (and eternal life) you are. As a Jew, that’s this man’s story.
And what is Jesus’s response to this young man? Does he give him a high five? Or, does he say with disgust, No, no ,no you’ve got it all wrong! No.
Jesus looked at him and loved him. The Greek here for LOOKED AT HIM is to see him for who he is, to be fully present, to take him in. Jesus saw the rich young ruler and loved him. And from this place of love and understanding Jesus says this:
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” Jesus said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Mark 10:21
I’m sorry, what? Give away all of what? Can you imagine Jesus saying this to you? What does he mean? Does he literally want every one of us to sell everything and give it to the poor? Maybe.
But notice what Jesus says first: one thing you lack. Jesus sees this man’s competency and achievement and wealth – in all the ways he has followed the rules and acquired all the things – Jesus sees all of it, he also sees his heart and Jesus says: you lack one thing. The most pivotal question of this whole text is this: What does he lack? What’s the one thing? Many have said:
Faith in Jesus.
Dependence on God.
Yes, in a way it is all of these things that he lacks. Yet perhaps the one thing the rich young ruler lacks is lack. There is no room in his life, in his heart for God and the life of Jesus.
Jesus is saying that there is a spiritual reality that is only accessible through the emptying of ourselves – the Kingdom of God comes where there is room, where something is lacking. We’ve heard echoes of this already, like in Jesus inviting us to come to him like children, like some of the most vulnerable people in their culture. To lack. We see it in who it is that comes to Jesus, the crowds that gather, those who run and fall at his feet, they are broken, hurting, outcast, dying, hungry, poor, lost. They lack. And as they come, with room to receive, Jesus meets them with compassion, with love, with healing, with bread. And we know where this is headed, that Jesus is headed to a cross, to death, to the ultimate emptying of himself for the sake of all. To lack.
This resonates with what we’ve said about vulnerability. We’ve said a lot about how the gospel is not an invitation to have our act together, but to be authentic and vulnerable people – that’s what Jesus invites us to do. We’ve seen this theme, but this time, Jesus makes it specifically about money and possessions.
Jesus is saying: you must pay attention to this. There is something about our relationship with our possessions that can possess us in such a way that it interferes with the life of God, and the wholeheartedness of the Kingdom of God that is possible for us.
Our possessions can possess us. Our money and stuff can give us a particular form of hardheartedness. Nothing, nothing else in the world can give us a greater sense of false security and power.
Jesus says: pay attention to how your possessions are possessing you – and cut off that dependency. Go so far as to give it all away! If that is what it is going to take.
Jesus invites this man to rewrite the story he is telling himself about money, about true abundance, about generosity, about the vitality of lacking, and ultimately about trust. And so for us, we place ourselves there with him in this text and ask, how is God inviting us into a place of greater freedom from our possessions?
I have tried to do some of this in my own life. To make room by spending less and giving more. But oh my goodness the struggle is real. I want to share a little bit about my own money autobiography and struggle, hoping that God might trigger some inspiration in you, as well as show you some grace in this.
When I was growing up, my dad was a youth minister, then a pastor, and my mom is a piano teacher and church organist.
We always had just enough money growing up. Sometimes it got really close to not being enough. As part of that being my upbringing, I place high value on getting a good deal. I love shopping thrift sores, the clearance rack, when you compliment something I wear, I’ll respond by telling you how little I paid for it.
In my scouring for deals over time I ended up getting lots of emails from all the companies I had purchased from. And I was a sucker for the subject lines in my Inbox. Oh there’s a flash sale today? Oh, 75% off?? I would only buy things occasionally, but I would spend a lot of time looking and considering. And between that and my job and husband and kids – there was little heart space left to pay attention to what God was saying to me. But there was a Kairos moment for me – a moment when God got my attention. I think much like the rich young ruler, I could hear God – He looked at me, saw me and loved me, and said Sara, there is one thing you lack. Money and how I might spend it was taking up part of my life. And also, there was money going to purchase things, that if I stopped looking for them, I would not buy them, and we would have more money available for other things. I chose to then unsubscribe from all those emails.
I’m proud I did that about three years ago, but I will confess that I have been back in this cycle for the past few weeks on searching for deals – it’s almost my birthday which means I have some money to spend. And I also have a wedding I am officiating next weekend – my first gay wedding. And I have been obsessively planning what I am going to wear and pack. Can I just confess that to you?
I confess this to you – because friends, the struggle is real! I have prepared for this sermon, listened to God about money and the attachments we have to stuff as I have also been up to my eyeballs in online shopping. I was literally typing this sermon this weekend, and then checking out the sale at Loft.com. The struggle is real. But the question is: what is your struggle? Where is your attachment? Where are you losing time and money? Where are you lacking lack? Because I know it may not look like mine.
The second example from my life I will share is from my journey with tithing, of giving to the church. When Jason and I got married, I was in seminary in Berkeley CA. We lived in a 420 sq ft apartment. Now that’s love. And I wasn’t working – Jason was my sugar daddy, and he worked full time at a church leading worship and the music program. He didn’t make a lot of money, but we had enough. We gave to the church very little – but we did.
When I finished seminary, I was called to that church to be one of four pastors. And I’ll tell you – we had a lot of school debt. So it was hard to feel like we could give money away. I also felt within me my own family’s history with money – that worry about whether we would have enough if we gave away some of our income – what if we got really sick? Or some other expense came up? But each year we kept upping out tithing, moving closer to ten percent of our income. And finally we got to about 7.5% and as we were filling out our pledge for the next year, praying about it, and we just looked at each other and said – we just need to go for it. Make the jump, give 10% of our income. And we did. With some gnashing of teeth on my part as I thought of the house remodel we could do instead if we kept that money, but we did. The struggle was real, but we did. And I have never regretted that choice. Never. We make even less now than we did then, but in our willingness to try and change our own story with money, to let God into our struggle with money – man, there have been such gifts for us. We’ve been able to support ministry that matters to us, that is making a difference in the world, we’ve also given additionally to other places that matter to us, and we have always had enough. My journey is not over – the struggle continues – but God has been so faithful.
What Jesus does with the rich young ruler I have found to be true for me, too. Jesus, doesn’t just say – hey, go give away your stuff and then you’ll be good. It is intentionally letting go of something, so that something else can grab hold of us – and it is God. Jesus says it this way in our text: Then come, follow me. Leave behind the cycles of money and proving ourselves. And step into the life of God. Let God grab hold of us and draw us close. Be met by the generosity of God – in the very places where we are willing to lack.
And it starts with an invitation to action. To take action. Jesus is not just asking the rich young ruler or us to change our mindset. To think differently, but to actually do the hard work of taking action in practical ways. Maybe not selling off everything, but changing our habits, the things we pay for, the very things that effect what we do with our money. Like unsubscribing from emails – if you’re me.
What might God be inviting you to let go of, to release the hold that money has on you? Your struggle will be different than mine. Maybe you are pack rat and that gives you security. Maybe you don’t watch your spending because it scares you to know how much or little you have. Maybe you are convinced that you need to keep saving more and more – just in case. Maybe your family placed a high value on having nice things and having it all together – so having nice things is a priority. What action can you take into greater generosity, freedom, to lack as Jesus invites us to lack.
Is it easy to make these choices that deepen our lack? That may mean some financial risk and trust? Nope – it is not easy. Is it worth it? Absolutely. For in those ways where I have stumbled and gotten back up again in my own journey with money, I have found in those places where I have chosen to lack, that I have grown in deeper love for God, for myself, for others. That there is a freedom in giving away, in not trying to acquire more.
We are finishing the Salt House JOY! Campaign today. Yes, this is an opportunity for us all to consider what it means to be generous here in this place. To consider what it takes for this community to last. As you listen for God today, you may want to commit to supporting Salt House, maybe for the first time, maybe to do it consistently with online giving, maybe increasing what you already give. And yes, I absolutely encourage you to pay attention to whether God is inviting you to do that.
But the bigger piece for us as a community is that today, as we wrap up the JOY! Campaign, we are also beginning a journey that will take us into January. In January we will have our official, Charter Sunday – a chance for everyone who wants to “join” Salt House to be the official charter members. Someone recommended that we write a bunch of stuff out on parchment and sign it with the flourish of a quilled pen. Or that we have a kegger. The possibilities are endless, but we know it will be a party – as we commit to being a community together. But between now and then, we’ll be working together to define what characteristics we hold as central to who we are as a community at Salt House. What are our core values that define us as we follow Jesus? Like living generous lives and giving to those in need. Like making meals with others a priority because good and sacred things happen when we eat together. I am very excited to figure this out with you in these months to come – and listening to Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler will be a part of shaping who we are.
So friends – we talked about money, and we survived. And I didn’t even say all the things I wanted to say. And as the band comes up to lead us in a song of response I’m going to pray for us, as we ask what we always ask – God, what are you saying to me? And God what am I going to do about it?
God, we breathe deeply of your grace now. This young man that ran to Jesus and fell to his knees – this is just like so many scenes we’ve read in Mark’s gospel, all of them have been someone begging for healing. And in this rich young ruler, we can see in his story that he too, came looking for healing. God, we pray for that same kind of encounter with you. That you would heal us in all the ways we are hurting – that you would meet us with the power of your love and presence. And that you’d also heal us from the habits of our hearts that pull us into our stuff and money and away from you.
And as Jesus told his disciples – money makes it hard to enter the Kingdom of God – but with you, God, all things, all things are possible. Even that. Thank you God, that we are yours, that in this moment you look at us, you see us for who we are, and you love us. And thank you God, that everything you say to us is never to “should” us or shame us, but you always offer grace and invitation, to step into a more authentic, abundant life. The life of being loved and loving this world fiercely with you. Amen