This week's texts:
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
"The Ghost of Tom Joad," by Bruce Springsteen
So! Last week we talked about marriage and divorce. This week? Money! This is a nice series of the lectionary where we squirm in our seats.
A group of us here at Holy Trinity are in the middle of a course called Financial Peace University. Financial Peace is not a common phrase in our world today. In fact it’s usually quite the opposite. Every other Saturday, though, we’re trying to alleviate some of that squirming.
In Financial Peace University last week, we talked about how money can buy fun, but it can’t buy happiness. You can take your hard-earned cash and go on a Caribbean cruise! That’s fun! You can buy a new car, or a speedboat, or a snowboard, or an iPhone…those are all fun! But if in anticipation of that fun, you are under the impression that it will finally make you ultimately happy, that’s where it gets dangerous.
Dave Ramsey, the Financial Peace guy, likens the purchase of happiness to a bully drawing a line in the sandbox. You can step across it with your fun thing #1, but the bully will just draw another line. How far will you go before you have a basement full of what was once fun, but is now just stuff? In this world of marketing and competition, we are being bullied into too much stuff.
We are not being asked, this morning, to sell all of our possessions and follow an itinerant preacher around the Palestinian countryside. I mean, you could do that if you wanted. There’s probably one out there, frankly. But it’s more likely that Jesus is asking us to get rid of our dependence on our material possessions. We’re being asked to switch our allegiances – from stuff to substance.
The rich young man struggles with this—and so do we. He struggles and we struggle because in our society, everything we have must be earned. There are so few gifts freely given to us that we hardly know how to accept them. Even things like Christmas gifts are exchanged, and we feel guilty if we receive a gift from someone we haven’t procured a gift for in return. If we can possibly make this fundamental switch, we can move beyond a life devoted to things and rather devote ourselves to the service of others.
The rich young man is shocked by Jesus’ proclamation that he ought to get rid of his stuff and give his money to the poor. He expected to be congratulated for his adherence to the law and the text tells us that he goes away grieving, because he cannot comprehend this turn of events. How often do we come to Jesus with words of pride for all that we have, only to be told to go in peace and remember the poor? Theologian Verna Dozier says that we “strive to impress God on our own terms.” If anything, we should strive to impress God on God’s terms—with our worship of God and our love and service of one another.
Sometimes we hear Jesus’ words and squirm for just a second, but then we tell ourselves that it doesn’t apply to us because we’re not rich enough. We’re not the 1%! “Everyone needs to pitch in more, like I do. I give a lot.” And you do give a lot. Here at Holy Trinity there is much service being done. You support the ministry of New Beginnings church at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. Last week, you fed and hosted families overnight all week with Family Promise Shelter. You tutor children with Whiz Kids. The Social Ministry team selects worthy organizations each month to which to designate our offering. You have relationships with congregations and people in El Salvador, Haiti, and Madagascar.
The giving of yourselves and your time to our wider community is alive and well, here. And there’s always more we can do. Churches have always been deeply committed to works of charity. The next step in this equation is justice. Dr. Cornel West, an activist and professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York has famously said that, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
The text tells us that Jesus looked at the rich man and loved him. Jesus looks at us in all our faults and loves us. When we jump up and down like Peter and say, “But Jesus! Look at all that I have already done! Look at what I have already given!” Jesus loves us when, even though he’s said it about two hundred times, we’re still not getting that the “last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
Some of you may be familiar with one of my favorite contemporary American theologians, Bruce Springsteen. You heard right, I’m talking about The Boss. Bruce’s lyrics have, for the last few decades, centered around what it is to be an American day in and day out. He has crafted hard-hitting messages about wars, poverty, workers’ rights, and most recently, our responsibility to care for one another in this great nation we call home.
In his 1995 single “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Springsteen laments the still ubiquitous population of hungry and homeless Americans. This song was written half a century after John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, where the character of Tom Joad first appeared. And yet the themes continue to be true. Economic crisis continues to plague our nation and our world. Springsteen sings,
He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bagThere are so many among us who have been waiting since 1939, when Tom Joad first spoke, who were waiting in 1995 when Springsteen sang these words, who are still waiting now, in 2012. Jesus has been telling us for far longer than that that it’s time to make a change. For how many centuries of human existence have we been hearing these words of Jesus, “Go, sell, come, follow”? Clearly we have not really heard what Jesus is talking about.
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin' for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box 'neath the underpass
Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
Last week, Pastor Julie talked to us about God’s desire for us to live in community and to not be alone. Jesus is saying the same thing in this text—aloneness with our riches is not nearly as impressive to God as oneness with our community, spreading our collective wealth to the vulnerable in the far corners of our society.
In capitalist America, we hear words like “spreading our collective wealth” and recoil at an assumed socialist political agenda. Are we so wrapped up in ourselves that the mere suggestion of letting go of some of what we have for those who have less is threatening? In Jesus’ society, debts were forgiven every seven years, and everyone was given a clean slate. Those of you with student loans and mortgages and car payments and credit card debts are probably thinking we should go back to that system, huh? Our banks would say otherwise, unfortunately.
These debt-erasing years were called Jubilee years, and the ELCA is one of 75 denominations around the world that are part of an organization aptly named the Jubilee Network, which advocates for the cancelling of debts for developing nations who are trapped in cycles of crushing interest on impossibly large sums of money. In many cases, the money was loaned as aid money to corrupt governments who kept it from ever reaching their impoverished citizens. The Jubilee Network works with organizations like the International Monetary Fund, who just recently forked over more than 4 billion dollars to alleviate the debt of struggling nations. Now that’s what love looks like in public.
The text tells us that Jesus looked at this rich young man and loved him. Loved him enough to free him of his dependency on his possessions. God loves us enough to free us from whatever it is that we depend on for our fulfillment, instead of God. God frees us from our stuff and allows us to stand in a state of grace. The grace of God ensures that whatever material possessions we have or do not have hold no bearing on our salvation or on the love God has for us. And whatever stuff—material or mental or emotional or physical—that we are anchored to, that holds us back from really digging into that freedom, that’s what we’re getting rid of. That’s what we leave behind when we follow Jesus.
The rich young man and so many people in this nation and world believe that faith is quantifiable and expressible in the receipt of things in response to the following of rules. There’s a prosperity gospel being preached very loudly out there—if you have great material possessions, you have been blessed by God, and the lack of wealth is directly related to a lack of faith. This is a very harmful way to view the world and the Gospel.
In Bible study on Tuesday, someone said it great. We were talking about those who are stockpiling riches in hopes of inheriting the kingdom through stuff, and he said, “you’re not getting what you think you’re getting.” And that’s so right. We’re not “in” because of our wealth and our obedience to the law. For mortals, it is impossible, Jesus says. We will enter the kingdom of heaven because of the grace of God, alone. Jesus only said that about a hundred times.
And for that reason, you sort of have to love the disciples in Mark’s Gospel. It seems like they just say whatever comes into their heads, without thinking it through. Here, Peter complains to Jesus that he’s already given up all of his stuff and walked like a zillion miles around Palestine with this guy. He’s already done the things Jesus instructed the rich man to do! He already follows! Where’s his treasure? Can’t you just see Jesus sighing and shaking his head in response? Oh, Peter. Don’t you see? You give up your faith in your stuff and put your faith in Jesus, and then you spread the word to the rest of the world about the grace you have been so freely given. If you’re just here in order to be rewarded, you’re not getting what you think you’re getting.
It’s not just “get rid of your stuff and then return to the same cycle you’ve always been in,” it’s “give it up so that you can follow Jesus.” We can’t forget the follow Jesus part. This rich young man is anchored to his stuff so he can’t follow. What are you anchored to? What keeps you from following Jesus?