First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Kent H. Little
October 14, 2018
Scripture: Mark 10:17-31
Bill was a good and faithful man. He was a man of simple means, a simple home, a simple car, simple clothes. He worked for a good and honest employer who treated him right and paid him a fair wage… but Bill longed for more. He yearned to help others far beyond what his meager earnings would allow. So every evening he would kneel beside his bed and pray to God, “God, may this be the week. If you could just one time let me win the lottery, I would give to my church’s budget far over and above ten percent, I could help the poor and the homeless so much more than I do now. Just this once, may this be my week.”
But alas, the week would pass by and Bill would not win again. Week after week he would kneel beside his bed, pleading, begging, that God would intervene and then he would wait and nothing. Then it finally happened, mid-sentence, mid prayer, as Bill was repeating his weekly prayer a still small voice seemed to be whispering in his ear. “Bill,” it said, “My devoted friend, please, I need your help. I can’t do this alone, please do your part and go buy a ticket!”
Wealth is a precarious topic to navigate. Partly because, I believe, in general there is nothing wrong with wealth in and of itself. Of course, we could wax philosophical and talk about what is wealth… what really makes us happy, fulfilled, complete, content… but admittedly we are talking about money this morning. A topic that I generally don’t care to preach about. I suspect that is at least in part because I like wealth, well, for me I like the thought of it. And I suppose not unlike Bill there is that fantasy of the get rich quick notion.
Wealth, however we describe it is a necessary thing in the world. We need money to journey this world. Wealth is something many of us accumulate for a variety of reasons. Some so we can waste it on frivolous living, some accumulate it to make sure when we retire we can still survive and put food on our table. I think there we can begin to get ourselves in trouble.
I have been pondering what Jesus might say about wealth. Wealth… according to the authors of the four gospels in the Bible, Jesus had some pretty interesting things to say about money and wealth. Things like “give unto Caesar the things of Caesar and to God the things of God.” One might interpret that to say Jesus said we should pay our taxes and not complain about it. As well as support the work of the Kindom of God, however we might be a part of participating in that Kindom, via the church, work with the poor, feeding the hungry, housing the unhoused, etc.
In addition to that the Matthew 5:42 passage, “Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.” I thought about that one this week as I pondered this passage and all those who come through the doors of our church “asking” for assistance… sometimes I don’t like the fact that Jesus was supposed to have said that. I like Luke 6:34-35 if I am on the borrowing end, “And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return. Lend without expecting to be repaid.” Though I have never been able to convince a banker, much less a banker who is a follower of Jesus, they ought to practice this more readily.
And then there is that passage we read from Mark…a rather stinging one…“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? “Tend to the commandments” Jesus says… Done… the man replies…“Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” OUCH… “Dear children, it is very hard to enter the Kindom of God. In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kindom of God!” Just a side note here, I have heard many a sermon and commentary on this passage about the rich man and how he went away very sad… often times very stinging and condemnatory sermons and commentaries regarding this rich man in the story. Note that the story does not say the rich man did not do what Jesus asked him to do… it just said he was very sad because he was very rich. Even in context of Jesus later teaching of the Disciples… it doesn’t say the rich man was not able to accomplish getting the camel through the needle… it just said it would be very difficult. I liked a bit of what Frederick Buechner had to say about money in his book, Whistling in the Dark, a Doubter’s Dictionary when he writes, “There are people who use up their entire lives making money so they can enjoy the lives they have entirely used up. Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kindom of God. Maybe the reason is not that the rich are so wicked they’re kept out of the place, but that they’re so out of touch with reality they can’t see it’s a place worth getting into.” 1
Which leads into that famous statement Paul wrote in one of his letters, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Of course, we hear all the time and are reminded that it is not money in and of itself that is the root, but rather, it is the LOVE of money that is the root of evil. It is where accumulation turns into an obsession rather than a future that becomes the problem. When accumulation at all cost, at the expense of others, therein is the root of evil.
We have a problem here in the U.S. … when the top 10% wealthiest own 80% of all assets. And the income gap continues to widen as wealthy corporations reduce employees and cut benefits while giving huge bonuses to executives. There continues to be cuts and tax advantages given to large corporations and businesses at the expense of small business and individuals… raising rates on the small in order to give the large conglomerates more discount. Or large corporations cutting salaries, hours, and benefits for their employees rather than passing minimal and perceived increases in costs on to the consumer. We have a greed problem, infection, virus in our country. What is the old saying, “Follow the money,” if there is a problem or something one does not understand… follow the money… money talks, corrupts, buys, sells, ruins, and crushes hopes and dreams.
Brian McLaren writes in his book, Everything Must Change; When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide, “When we reflect on desire, we quickly find ourselves asking the ultimate metaphysical and spiritual question – namely, what is of true value? What is worth desiring? No wonder Catholic theologian Tom Beaudoin offers the term theocapitalism to describe the contemporary prosperity system. Theocapitalism is a system of seeking prosperity that functions like a religion, or perhaps a religious cult. …the problem is not the corporations themselves: the problem is this spiritual ideology of theocapitalism that drives many corporations to live for a single bottom line: profit for shareholders, without concern for three other essential bottom lines: the common ecological good, the common social good, and the ultimate good under the gaze of our Creator. Sadly, theocapitalism is running the show, driving the prosperity system to pursue progress through rapid growth, serenity through possession and consumption, salvation through competition, and freedom to prosper through unaccountable corporations.” 2
And not even mention the idea of a more equitable distribution of wealth sends our country into a tailspin of conspiracy and hateful rhetoric. Just look at what happens when a politician makes an off the cuff comment about spreading the wealth around… It kicks off a firestorm of “Socialism” hype that never lets up!
Robin Meyers, in his book The Underground Church; Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus, speaks of this when he writes, “…we want peace, of course, but we think that peace means tranquility. We want security, but we think this means that there is some amount of money that represents economic tenure. We want to be ‘saved,’ but continue to understand this as a personal, individual transaction [rather than a community/communal experience]. So it is that we find ourselves lost at home, seeking after something whose essential character we have completely forgotten –namely what a Christian ‘does,’ not what a Christian ‘believes.’ We have embraced orthodoxy and forgotten orthopraxy. Our collective sickness is not unlike a form of ecclesiastical Alzheimer’s. When someone says the word ‘justice,’ today we think of a criminal proceeding followed by appropriate punishment. (Will justice be done?) But if the call of Jesus is to worship a God of distributive justice, then there is no getting around the fact that this means that everyone in the world must have enough. Calling this ‘socialism’ is a scare tactic because it harkens back to totalitarian movements of the twentieth century. Making sure that everyone in the world has enough should be called ‘church.’ Justice means that everyone is welcome at the table.”
Comic commentator Stephen Cobert made a profound statement sometime back when he said, “If this is going to be a Christian nation [which is a whole other sermon] that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus is just as selfish as we are or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition. And then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
It isn’t the money, the wealth, the accumulation that is evil… it is what we do with it, or maybe more appropriately what we do not do with it that becomes the problem… Jesus was pretty clear… Throughout our Judeo-Christian texts there is a clear preference for the poor and the outcast. God, we are told, does not look kindly on inhospitality, greed, ignoring the poor and oppressed and we are called as followers to be about the work of the Kindom where all have enough…
So…how much is enough? A friend shared with me this week that someone once told him… “Enough is abundance.” Enough… a roof over our head, food for our table, healthcare for our mind, body, and soul… But I will say… when corporate heads and corporations make millions and billions of dollars and pay their workers 7.25 an hour and hire them just short of full time to keep from paying them benefits… is not economic wisdom and savoy… it is injustice, oppression, and greed.
This story about the rich man…. This story about the Twelve disciples who are still struggling to get it… is not just about money… it is about greed and humility… it is about pride and arrogance. It is difficult to enter the kindom… participate in the kindom if one thinks the world revolved around money… around themselves. The rich man very well could have gone and sold all he had and given it to the poor… but it was not the easy way… it would have been like shoving a camel through a needle.
And then the Disciples… ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Look at us… it may even be difficult to remember the point if one does leave everything and follow… it is a narrow path… it is a difficult journey… and I think especially today in such a consumer driven world. Even for the twelve… the growing community of generosity… those of us who know the story… Who know The Way… So I have been pondering the words Jesus said to the twelve… to the church… the community… and I wondered what he would say today… if I were to encounter him early this morning as I retrieved my cup of coffee from the copy room down the hall from my office…
And here is what I imagined walking in and pouring a cup of coffee… Jesus, sitting on the counter with feet dangling off the edge… I filled my cup and leaned on the sink across from him and said, “You know friend, I am really trying to find some good news in this message for our folks, and this money thing. Loaning without expecting to be paid back, giving to anyone who asks, selling all one has and giving it to the poor… camels and needles, Really? Did you really say all that?” He didn’t look at me, he just looked at the floor, twirling a pencil between his fingers… And finally spoke,
“Yeah Kent, I did.” he said, “I did say those things, and you know I said more than once following me was not the easy way. But you know, out there, in that rain, there are people sleeping, cold and wet, and the really fortunate ones have a soggy cardboard box to sleep under. There are those out there who have a house and are going to have to decide whether to fix the leaky roof or save enough money up to pay the increase in their electric bill if that new rate increase takes effect. There are some out there trying to decide whether to buy groceries for this afternoon or get that heart medicine refilled, and there are some out there wondering what that lump is but can’t afford to go to the doctor. And there are some out there Kent, who either don’t know there are folks like that out there, don’t want to know, or worse, don’t care. I agree, it’s hard to find the good news.”
“What do we do?” I asked. He said, “You have the good news,” but he turned and looked at me straight in the eye pointing at me with the pencil in his hand, “No,” he said, “You are the good news. You are rich Kent, comparatively speaking, but I am not just talking money here, I am talking presence and compassion, your whole church is. What so many hurting people out there need is not more money, which of course would help, but relationship, a little time out of your busy day… at the food pantry, soup kitchen, clothes closet, or just there in the grocery store. Take some more time to actually get to know them, listen to their story. Be an advocate, write letters to the paper, to your government representatives, attend the city council meetings, the OPPD meetings… be an advocate and a voice of justice for all. Be a pest perhaps… just think… yes maybe you only have 30 minutes a week you can give, but if everyone in your church gave 30 minutes a week… that could be as much as 150 hours and that is a conservative estimate (I know, I know… conservative is not your deal… but in this context it is a good thing)… funny I thought…”
“There are big and small ways you can help others, including yourself to more fully experience life! That is what Wealth is all about… that we all can experience life fully… no matter how much money we may or may not have…” and he smiled, stood up and walked past me as he stepped into the doorway, turned back and said, “That is what you tell them, they, you are the good news… go preach it and if necessary use words…“ he laughed and said, “Wish I had said that.” He went out the door and disappeared.
It’s not just about the money… it is about giving ourselves. So, let us be Good News for the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the outcast, the captive… let us be.
And… it IS so.
1 Buechner, Frederick, 1988 Whistling in the Dark, A Doubters Dictionary. HarperCollins, New York.
2 McLaren, Brian D., 2007 Everything Must Change, When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide.Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN