October 14, 2012 – Too Much Stuff
For the recorded version of this sermon, click here: Too Much Stuff
Everyone who came to help us with our loading and unloading these past few days has learned something shameful about the Boswells – we own way, way too much stuff. It’s embarrassing. We rented a huge UHaul truck on Wednesday morning, and when it pulled into our driveway in Potsdam I thought to myself that our whole household would fit into that truck with plenty of room to spare. Fast forward a few hours, and the empty space in that truck got less and less, while the house just seemed to stubbornly remain full. In the end, we filled up that enormous truck, and then we filled up several more vehicles as well, before we got all of our worldly possessions – most of which seem to be books, though there’s a lot of other stuff as well – packed off to Norwood, with lots of helping hands.
So it seems very appropriate this week to consider the story of the Rich Young Ruler. You know those days when you hear the reading and you feel like God has his eye on you particularly – “Listen up! This is for you!” That’s the feeling I had this week. When we hear the word “rich” most of us probably don’t think of ourselves – the rich are those people out there who live in mansions and fly in private jets and have tax loopholes the size of Montana. But if we compare ourselves with the other 99.9 percent of people in the world we are very rich indeed. We don’t go to bed hungry every night, we don’t have to be afraid of freezing to death when the cold weather sets in, we can read and write, we have shoes on our feet and most of us have so many clothes that we have to bring bags full of them in to the rummage sale to make room in our closets. We can easily put ourselves in the place of the rich young ruler.
And since we can put ourselves in his place, we can understand that what Jesus told him to do was hard. All that stuff that we have accumulated in our lives, and it really piles up year after year, becomes part of us. We say that our stuff belongs to us, but in many ways we belong to it because we have to clean it and polish it and repair it and when we move we have to pack it carefully and lug it along with us. We remember who gave it to us, or where we found it, and we have reasons for keeping each and every thing, and it’s hard to let it go. It’s hard to let go of even part of our belongings, but Jesus didn’t ask the young man to sort through his things and set some of it aside for the poor. He asked him to give it all away, every last thing, just like St. Francis, who gave every thing he owned away to the poor, and walked away naked, not a thread left. Very few of us are St. Francis, and this young man was more like us, I think. He looked at Jesus, and he wanted do it. He wanted to follow Jesus, he wanted to do everything God asked of him, but this one last thing just seemed too hard, too much to ask of him. And he went away, sad. He couldn’t do it.
In order to understand what is going on in this story, I think it is very important to remember what the passage says before Jesus made this awful demand. It says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” No matter what Jesus was doing when he asked this young man to give up everything, he was doing it out of love. And so, when we read that the young man went away sad, it isn’t because Jesus had set the bar too high for him, and he just couldn’t cut it, like someone who goes to enlist in the military and is rated 4F, and he goes home ashamed because he wasn’t good enough. Jesus wasn’t in the business of putting people to shame; he wasn’t like a Marine sergeant saying “Shape up or ship out.” He was a healer, he was a teacher, and what he wanted for this young man that he loved was for him to understand the gospel.
And it was going to take something big for him to understand what the gospel was all about. The rich young ruler had been raised to respect and obey the Law. He thought of himself as a good person, just like we often think of ourselves. He knew the commandments, and he lived by them. The Law, he had been taught, was the way of life that was pleasing to God. The interesting thing is that from the moment we see him in the story he seems to understand that all that obedience and righteous living was not enough. He came to Jesus because he knew in his heart that he needed more; he knew he had not yet earned the right to eternal life. And up until then he was on the right track. The problem was that little word “yet”. He came to Jesus because he was sure there must be more commandments that he needed to obey, there must be something more he could do so that at last he would finally feel that he had earned the right to enter the kingdom of heaven. And Jesus stopped him in his tracks. “You lack one thing,” Jesus told him. The young man must have been listening with every ounce of concentration he had. Just one thing; he had worked hard all his life to be a good person, to feel like he was good enough. And now, there was just one thing more. But when he heard the one thing more, he suddenly began to understand that all his obedience, all his goodness, had been worthless. Faced with the command to sell everything he owned, he was crushed, because he couldn’t do it. His heart was laid bare, and he saw that all the years of his life he had not been a faithful Israelite serving the One God. He had, bit by bit, day by day, become an idolater.
The God that he thought he had always served so well had been cast down from the throne of his heart and replaced by false gods of silver and gold, clothing and jewels, power and prestige. He had come to Jesus, honestly, and confidently, because he wanted to learn how to complete the measure of his own righteousness, but he went away sad and empty, his confidence shaken and all his good deeds ringing hollow. And that is the end of his story in Mark, but I believe – and I am reading into the gospel a little bit – I believe that it was only the beginning of the story of his life. In love, Jesus revealed to the rich young ruler that everything he had always counted on to save him was useless. Then, and only then, he was ready to know the good news of the gospel that tells us, “With man it is impossible to enter the kingdom of Heaven. But with God, all things are possible.” Rich or poor, no one is beyond the grace and mercy of God. And that is the gospel.
We don’t know, and it isn’t our business to know what happened to the rich young ruler, whether he came back later and chose to sell everything and follow Jesus or not. His story wasn’t written into Mark’s gospel so we can judge him. His story was written down so that we can learn from it ourselves, and so that by listening in on what Jesus told him we can understand better how much we also need the grace of God. Because like the rich young ruler, we are tempted every day to let the false gods of the things we possess and desire take the place of the One true God on the throne of our own hearts. The things we own are dangerous, not because they are not good, but because the good things that God gives us are so very good that we can fall in the trap of loving them with a love that can only belong to God. It is perilously easy for us to forget that our riches are gifts from God, and to begin to take pride in our wealth, as if we had earned it by our own virtue. It is easy to begin to look down on those who have less, to seek the company of people of our own class as if we were not all equally beloved children of the Father. It is easy, having some riches, to keep wanting more; it is not hard to let greed and selfishness make us enemies of the cross of Christ, which alone can bring us life.
I am very thankful for our new house. I like that it has a big beautiful back yard, I like the fireplace and the big front porch. I am thankful – or I will be when they all get unpacked – for our boxes and boxes of books and all our other stuff, all of which are good gifts from our loving Father. But I pray that I will remember the story of the rich young ruler and hold all these things loosely, ready to share or to give away whatever God calls me to give. The preacher Charles Simeon, who wrote about this story a very long time ago, asked some challenging questions that I want you to consider. How many times, when we receive something good, when our wealth increases – how many times do we think to ask our friends to pray for us that we will be protected from the temptation to put our trust in them rather than in God? Do we ever think to ask for ourselves that God will guard our hearts from becoming too attached to our stuff, and keep us faithful to him only? Do we ever think to rejoice when we lose the things we value, because we are freed from that temptation to love our riches more than the God who gave his life for us? Simeon asked, “Who refuses riches for fear of losing the kingdom? Who receives riches with fear and trembling?” It comes naturally for us to rejoice with one another for new jobs and for pay increases, for new homes and nice things. And those are all excellent things that we should be thankful for. But if we love the gift more than the Giver we become idol worshippers, We turn our backs on Jesus, who loves us, without whom it would be impossible for us to find our way to the Father, and to share his abundant and imperishable life.
The purpose of the gospel is not to make us feel guilty or fearful or condemned. When the disciples saw the rich young ruler turn and walk away sadly, they came clamoring to Jesus in a panic. “If good, upstanding people like that can’t enter the kingdom of heaven, what hope do we have?” And Jesus answered, “You’re absolutely right, it’s impossible – for people. But for God, nothing is impossible.” In the end, whether we are rich or poor, respectable or not, no matter how many times we fail, no matter how far we are from living up even to our own standards of being good people, let alone God’s standards, there is one thing we need to know, and only one thing. And that is that our lives are in the hands of the Father who loves us, and who has the grace and the power to bring us all safely into his kingdom. Today, like the rich young ruler, our own story begins afresh. Today Jesus calls us to do just one thing: to keep our hearts fixed on him in hope, loving and serving him alone, and to follow him into the days to come.