Our Father, we thank you for your Word and for the eternal truths that guide us day by day. We thank you most of all for the living Word, Jesus Christ, and the sureness of his presence. Teach us how to turn unto you so that your thoughts may be our thoughts, and your ways our ways. Amen.
We hear in the gospel that a rich young man asked Jesus how he could be assured that he would go to Heaven. He was a very successful young man, having been very fortunate in his business dealings, and was probably a paragon of virtue in the society. In fact, the equivalent scripture in Luke 18:18-23 tells us
“he was a man of great wealth, having an abundance of earthly possessions that exceeds normal experience, and a ruler”
He was a very observant Jew, living according to the commandments of the Torah, remarking to Jesus that
“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” (Mark 10:20)
So, one has to wonder why he wanted an assurance from Jesus that he would go to Heaven. He seemed to be sitting on top of the world. What did he feel he was missing?
Then came the shocker! Jesus lovingly told him
“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
Was Jesus really asking him to go from a very wealthy, respectable member of the community to what amounts to a beggar – bereft of all his wealth and stature. Did he have to give up everything – all those possession and ‘good’ things he had worked so hard to accumulate? Well, this was just too much for him; he went away disconsolate and dejected.
You may recall Saint Francis of Assisi did exactly that. Born the first son of a wealthy and privileged textile merchant and landowner, he was destined to inherit the business, the wealth, all the power. As a youth, he was a rowdy drunkard and wanted to become a knight, a man of war. Through several sobering experiences, including a year’s imprisonment after being captured in a war against neighboring Perugia, Francis began to change. He kept hearing the call of God telling him to “rebuild my church”. Finally, in 1203, in a dramatic confrontation with his father in the town square of Assisi, Francis took off all his fine clothing, gave them to his father, and walked away to serve the poor and win people to a new vision of the church. Clothed only in a wool tunic and sandals, he traveled by foot to villages and towns, caring for lepers, and winning followers for Christ. He chose to remain a deacon to better bring the message of God to the people. He had twelve disciple-like followers and by his death he was already considered a saint. His love of nature and animals earned him the title “God’s Fool” by many. He was the first person ever to show signs of ‘the stigmata’, and after his death in 1224, immediately was canonized!
The Franciscan Order developed from his ministry, and his burial site at the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi is one of the most inspiring places I have ever had the privilege to visit.
So, today, should we sell everything that we own and give it to the poor just to assure our place in Heaven? Perhaps we should look at this teaching in light of the culture of today. We have all accumulated things in our lives that make it comfortable for us and our families and friends. We want to assure that those within our circle have every need that they require, so that their lives will be secure and comfortable, and they can achieve those things they want in their lives. But, if we sell everything and give aid the poor, wouldn’t we be abandoning our families and friends, shirking our responsibility as parents and citizens?
So, what does Jesus mean by ‘everything’ in this scripture? We automatically think He means all of our worldly possessions in exchange for our heavenly reward. Should we become like Saint Francis? But let’s look at this in a different manner. Maybe Jesus is really saying that we should rid ourselves of those things that do not bring ‘goodness’ and positive attachments in our lives. We all have habits, behaviors that we know are not good for us; frivolous, unnecessary; let us consider that these are the ‘things’ we should rid ourselves of.
Martha Bolton and Phil Callaway, in their book It’s Always Darkest Before the Fridge Door Opens, tell about strolling through a mall one day laughing at all the things in the mall they didn’t need. They found, for instance, that they could do without:
- A water fountain for their cat.
- A cell phone that works underwater.
- Alarm clocks that project the time on your ceiling in the middle of the night (when you should be sleeping) but can’t be read during the daylight (when you should be getting up).
- Gas-powered blenders for the backyard.
- And, perhaps most interesting of all, pants that talk. These talking pants say “Zip me!”
Each of us can probably think of other things less stupid, but also unnecessary:
- A TV in every room.
- 3 or 4 automobiles
- A wide array of PCs, laptops, tablets, cell phones.
- 10 magazine subscriptions, NetFlix, HBO, Amazon Prime, Showcase and STARZ.
- A toaster, air fryer, InstaPot, Cuisinart, hand blender and Bullet. (The latter is my personal ‘sin of commission’.)
There are many people who have basically given up all or most of their “riches” and gone to live in simplicity to serve others and follow Jesus. At once comes to mind Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and Oscar Romero (who will be canonized today by Pope Francis) – and countless people who are not famous, but beloved in their cities and countries. And we admire, applaud, and are grateful for them all. Our earth is a better place because they lived.
But in reality, let’s face it – most of us are not going to do that and I don’t think Jesus really meant for us to do that. I think the story of the Rich Ruler in today’s Gospel is another teaching tool to help us learn what it truly means to follow the way of Jesus. For me, it means to be willing to put the teachings of Jesus first – to put into practice every day, putting the love, compassion and service to everyone – not just friends and family and colleagues – but everyone: all races, all economic levels, strangers, people I do not understand or think I don’t like – EVERYONE!
We must examine our priorities when considering our neighbors or church community, our civic communities and the wider world. There is poverty and injustice and violence that we can do something about. There are children without homes, people living on the streets, mentally ill citizens who have been neglected by society, elders who either have no one who cares for them or are in facilities that abuse them all around us. Hunger and want are rampant, not only in the United States, but places like Yemen where there is no food in the entire country. Climate change has created vast deserts that used to be the bread basket of African countries and many are now surviving on starvation rations or leaves and berries.
These are things that we can do something about by re-evaluating our priorities. There is a distinct difference between what we actually ‘need’ and what we ‘want’. Addressing our ‘needs’ and using our time, treasures and talents from those resources which were our ‘wants’ to contribute to the welfare of others will go a long way toward fulfilling Jesus’ admonition in this scripture.
But let me remind you of something else, the Good News is not about money: Salvation is not determined by what we’ve given up for God, but what God has given up for us. We are not saved by our tithes, but by our ties to the Man from Nazareth. That is good news, isn’t it? It’s called grace, amazing grace. We have not given all we should, but God has given enough for everyone. The disciples were startled when they heard Jesus say that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25), and they asked,
“Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said (Probably very lovingly, because, once again they just didn’t get it), “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)
In other words, salvation doesn’t depend on what we do, but on what God has done through Jesus Christ. God has accepted us as we are, and loves us as we are – and assures us a place in Heaven!
A young woman named Sharon was waiting to board a bus to New Jersey. She noticed a tall disheveled man trying to get on the same bus. He and the bus driver were arguing, because the man didn’t have the right amount of money. Finally, the man got out of line and stumbled against all the other people. Then he spied Sharon. He asked her, “Would you please give me some money so that I can get on the bus?”
What would you do in that situation? Sharon hesitated and said, “When I get on the bus I will see.” In the next 30 seconds as she walked up the steps to the bus and dropped in her $1.25 fare, she quickly thought through what she should do. She said the sort of things we say to ourselves. “Why should I help him? Why should he get a free ride? There are so many other people who have greater needs.” Sharon had noticed he was carrying some mail with a check on top. “He just needs to go cash that check. It’s probably a welfare check. He’ll just spend it on something ridiculous.”
On the other hand, Sharon reasoned, with a mind of faith: “Don’t you have any compassion? Where is your Christ-likeness? Okay, Lord,” she asked, “what should I do?” And before she knew it, she said to the bus driver, “Wait, don’t close the doors. Leave them open and let him in. I will pay for him.” The bus driver opened the doors, the man ran up the steps, looked at her and smiled and just said, “Thanks.”
God seemed to have spoken to Sharon and this is what God said, “Sharon, do you see? That’s what I did for you. No, that man didn’t deserve your $1.25. He didn’t do anything to earn it, but you gave it to him as a gift. And you did nothing to deserve my love either. I sent my Son for you. My Son died on the cross saying, “open the door, Father, let her in, I will pay for her; today she will be with me in Heaven.” And in that sobering moment Sharon realized again the grace of God in her life.
You and I are rich in many ways. Christ isn’t calling us to give up everything to follow him, only to give sacrificially. What matters most of all is not what we do for God, but what God has done for us. God has given God’s own Son to throw wide the gates of Heaven . . . for all of us.
So, what can we do with our resources? In this time of stewardship focus at Saint John’s?
What can we do together – here – how can we combine our resources – not only financial, but time, energy and talents – to further the love and service of our Savior?
We have a beautiful and life-saving message for the world – for our friends and neighbors in Worthington and Columbus, for those in need either physically or emotionally. As an old agnostic once commented: “If I believed what you Christians believed, I would be willing to crawl through broken glass to tell the world about it”.
Together we can do so much – as a Beloved Community of people following Jesus, loving one another and serving others because Jesus opened the doors of Heaven to all of us.
Let’s all commit to give the extra dollar, go the extra mile with our time and abilities – to come together in generosity of all of our resources. So that together we can say ‘thank you’ to our God, for this amazing life we are given, say ‘thank you’ to our Savior Jesus Christ for showing us ‘the Way’, ‘the Truth’, ‘the Life’, and say ‘thank you’ by spreading that love individually and together at Saint John’s.
I leave you with some of the words attributed to Saint Francis:
O Divine Master –
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Let us pray:
Dear Lord, we are assured of our place in Heaven by the grace of the death and resurrection of Jesus. But help us remember those who are less fortunate, who suffer, who are neglected by others. You have given us what seems like an impossible task with this Gospel passage. You have asked us to deny ourselves; even when our spirits are willing, the flesh is weak. You know our hearts- help us, with Your Holy Spirit, to examine our hearts and listen to your words. We desire to become more and more like You, less selfish and more selfless, willing to deny ourselves in order to follow Jesus’ teachings. This we pray. Amen.
 Martha Bolton, Phil Callaway, It’s Always Darkest Before the Fridge Door Opens, Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2006, p. 139
Delivered at Saint John ‘s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 14 October 2018