I’m going to begin with a word to our kids. Hi kids! Let’s talk about sharing. In today’s story, Jesus told a man to share everything he had. Everything. Sharing can be hard. But Jesus didn’t say that to make the man feel unhappy. He said it because he loved the man. Let’s think together about an example. . . . I gave out a few toys to people as they came into church today. Who has toys? Hold them up. What have you got? Now those of you with toys could say, this is my toy! No one else can play with it! Or, you could put your toys together and share and say these are our toys. And everyone could take turns playing with all the toys. Which approach do you think would be better, and make people happier? Of course there are problems with sharing. A kid plays with a toy too long and won’t give others a chance. Kids get jealous and fight or say mean words. Overall, though, I think kids would get tired of playing with just one toy, and having more toys to choose from would make playing a lot more fun. So that’s an example of how sharing is worth doing even though it can be a challenge.
Grown-ups: I was listening to MPR. They’re doing their pledge drive right now. One announcer emphasized that supporting public radio financially need not be a burden for anyone. “You don’t have to give a lot,” were his words. And that struck me, as I wrestled with the story of Jesus and the rich man. Jesus certainly didn’t try to make discipleship easy or palatable. He didn’t say to the man: “You don’t have to give a lot.” He said, “You have to give everything.”
Now there are many details in this story that are worth considering. One of them is the line, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” As much as we talk about Jesus and love, this is the only place in the Gospel of Mark where the author explicitly describes Jesus as loving someone. Love motivated Jesus to tell the man the truth. The rich man asked Jesus about eternal life—life that is full, and whole, life that is good, as God intended it. And Jesus told him, if you want that kind of life, you can’t hold a part of yourself back. You must give away everything you have and follow me.
As Greg shared earlier, the church is embarking on our pledge campaign. You’ll get a letter and pledge card in the mail this week asking for your support for our congregation and for our shared commitment to reparations. And of course I hope you will be generous. I hope you will join our family and many others in offering a tithe, a portion of your income, to sustain and strengthen this life-giving community. However, in truth, giving to the church is not the same thing as being a disciple of Jesus. Jesus does not want us to give our whole life and all our possessions to the church. Jesus wants us to give our whole life and all our possessions to making God’s hopes real in the world.
Now, there are clues in this story that Jesus isn’t simply talking to one individual, the rich man. He’s lovingly confronting a whole group of people—the ones with the money, the land, and the power in his society. The vocabulary Mark uses makes it clear that the man’s “many possessions” are properties. He’s a landowner. He owns a lot of land. If you’re a good Bible student, you might have noticed that when Jesus quoted the commandments to the man, he added one: “Do not defraud.” That is not one of the famous ten commandments. Jesus invented a new commandment for this rich man. In doing so, Jesus was saying that extreme wealth of the kind this man holds was gained by fraud, through participation in a system that cheated the poor, that literally stole their lives, their health, and their hope.
Folks who have been around First Church for a few years will remember Louise Huebner. For those who don’t, Louise had her own buttons made. She wore a button everywhere she went. She handed them out to anyone who would take one. These little light blue buttons simply said, “I am outraged.” I believe Louise began making the buttons as a protest against the first Iraq war. By the time I met her, though, Louise’s outrage was more general. It was not limited to any one issue. It was a response to all the intersecting injustices that harm our world.Louise knew, as Valerie Kaur says, that rage is not the opposite of love. Rage is a part of love. We rage because we care.
I think Louise was keenly aware of our human tendency to deal with traumatic experiences and truths by shutting down, going numb, and retreating into indifference. Louise knew that sustaining our collective outrage is necessary for the work of justice. As Kaur says,
There are many ways to confront one’s opponents without anger. But in the case of ongoing social injustices, expressing outrage is often the only way to be heard. . . . There are those who wish to police such rage in the name of civility. But civility is too often used to silence pain that requires people to change their lives. (See No Stranger, p.134)
For those of us who walk through the world with privilege, white privilege, and other kinds of privilege, it is our behavior (and that of our ancestors) that is an object of rage. White settlers stood by and cheered as our government stole this land and kidnapped native children. They did not believe they were doing anything wrong.They did not see this evil for what it was, because they were sure their cultural ways were superior. They thought indigenous children would be better off without their families, their languages, and their traditions. They assumed native people would thank them for erasing their culture and offering them a pathway to assimilation. To a greater and lesser degree, many of us in this room can identify with the rich man who gained wealth by defrauding his neighbor. What happened generations ago is not our fault. And at the same, it is our responsibility to interrupt this ongoing cycle of harm, to stop perpetuating theft and genocide in our own time. Jesus looks at us with love, too.It’s a penetrating look that says, life and happiness is available to you. Getting there means moving through pain, the sort of pain, as Valerie Kaur puts it, that “requires people to change their lives.”
A bill was introduced recently in congress calling for the U.S. to establish a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School policies. Truth-telling has to go hand-in-hand with financial reparations and the return of land. Repudiating the evil done by our well-intentioned, so-called “Christian” ancestors requires that we fundamentally change our view of indigenous people and, more importantly, of ourselves. Creating a commission is critical because there has never been an accounting of the numbers of children forced to attend the schools or the number who were abused, died, or went missing, or of the long-term impact of these schools on the families involved. It’s imperative that we form this commission now because we have a limited amount of time to hear from survivors and record their stories. The racial justice group will be providing more information to us about how to support this bill. And, you will also have the opportunity, as Greg said, to participate in making a financial pledge toward our congregation’s reparations work. The Anishinabe Academy is one of the partners who will receive this money. This school is a direct antidote to the boarding schools; it is dedicated to education through a Native lens, with a Native-centered curriculum. The school teaches Dakota and Ojibwe language in all grades.
When Jesus calls his followers to give it all away, he doesn’t mean that they will all be destitute. He’s envisioning a community that is truly rich because people share, because no one is in need. That’s why, when Peter points out that he and his friends have left everything to follow Jesus, Jesus promises them material abundance and right relationship: “houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields.” And Jesus says that this revolution will not unfold without a cost. The community that attempts to live in this new way will inevitably face persecution.
The rich man went away from Jesus, shocked and grieving, because his attachment to his wealth was stronger than his desire to follow Jesus. I think he and I are kind of alike. I want to be a disciple of Jesus and I’m not sure I’m ready to give it all away. In truth, I prefer the MPR message: “You don’t have to give that much.” How about you? I think Jesus looks at us and loves us, as we are, and as he knows we can become. He continues to love us even when we walk away. He hopes we will come back when we are ready. It is impossible, Jesus said, for humans to release our hearts from the lure of wealth. It is like trying to put a camel through the eye of a needle—a ridiculous venture. And yet, God can do the impossible. So let us pray for God’s impossibility to burst forth in our hearts, our homes, and our world. Amen.