Rev. Jessica Palys
Have you ever been told about episode, say a conversation between two people you know, and your first question is - “wait, how did so and so say that? I mean, was it like, HOW HARD WILL IT BE FOR THOSE WHO HAVE WEALTH TO ENTER THE KINGDOM OF GOD!?!?
How hard it will be …. for those who have wealth… to enter the kingdom of God?
I can imagine the disciple who wasn’t there asking the others, ‘wait, wait - he said what? When? To whom? But *how* did he say it? … like an ultimatum? or, did he say it with sympathy, cuz he knows how hard it will be for us who have earthly possessions?
We only require the tone of the voice in conversations like these when the subject matter is particularly personally indicting and uncomfortable. Man, how I wish I had a recording of 1st Century Jesus saying this aloud so I could get a sense of how he meant it.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do to soften this verse, and there’s no way to escape it’s point.
The American way, the way of most of the world these days, is accumulation. From a very young age, we are taught to aspire to and glorify wealth; to work hard in school so we can get a good job; to choose a career based on what will pay well; to invest our money early and often, and perhaps on that sexy new stock, so that we may see the Return on Investment that will guarantee our salvation in retirement - the salvation of being comfortable, and secure, and not having to struggle for money. And of course, in our country, money means so much more than simply wealth. Money is the key to mobility - you can’t expect your children to do better than you unless you’ve saved thousands upon thousands for their education. Money is the key to health - not only is your life expectancy predictable by income bracket, but we know in our health care system that there is no guarantee for treatment unless you can pay for it - and if you are able to get treatment, what happens then? Approximately 530,000 Americans declare bankruptcy every year due to medical costs - and many of those have insurance. And Money is the key to security - whether that means physical security with gated homes and security systems and theft insurance, the security of being able to work from home, the security of having the police on your side and having the resources to utilize the legal system, even the security to survive climate change as floods, fire, blizzards and hurricanes increase, water sources diminish, and farming becomes more challenging.
And so money becomes something we revere, and the pursuit of it becomes nearly sacred. Nearly. And this is not new. While we might think the Prosperity Gospel as merely a 21st Century mutation of religion where the divine has warped into some magic genie God to fit Capitalistic ends, still our tendency to associate wealth with godliness has deep roots. In 1905, German sociologist coined the ‘protestant work ethic’ - the idea that qualities of diligence, discipline and frugality espoused by Calvinists underscored godliness, and this was evidenced by your success in the world. And there’s plenty of Hebrew scriptural references where wealth and security are seen as a sign of God’s favor; that’s why the book of Job is such a challenging book of scripture to make sense of. Job was blameless and righteous before the Lord, and successful. When he loses everything, everyone around him tells him to renounce God, who obviously no longer blesses Job with good health and prosperous wealth. Of course, Job never does betray his commitment to God, and God never explains but rather scolds Job for expecting an explanation - and for expecting good favor simply for his belief.
And so, this passage with Jesus is hard to take, and there’s no way to slice it otherwise. We have been taught, from an early age, in all our schooling and socialization and consumer culture, and in our ancestral holy books, to conquer the world around us by gaining the keys to the car, the keys to the corner office, and the keys to the new house - rather than the keys to the kingdom.
The man who approached Jesus is not named as a rich man, but a man with many possessions. He has accumulated much, and he’s also been a good person. He attests that, indeed, he has kept all the commandments since his youth, and Jesus seems to believe this. He has endeavored to do everything expected of him, both by God and for comfort on earth. He’s checked all the boxes, taken all the precautions, performed every action within his power to secure a good outcome. There’s just one more thing to acquire - one more thing he’d like to lock down for his own security.
Note the language he used. The man said ‘inherit’ - what must I *do* to *inherit* the kingdom of God - a paradox in itself, since inheritances are gifts, unearned. The man makes the mistake of thinking everything, even God, is within his power to acquire. This man wanted to control the situation, bank his actions towards the ROI in heaven, create his own security by guaranteeing eternal life. And Jesus sees him, clearly and with love. Jesus sees a well-intentioned person who has taken refuge within his attachment to things, to that which he owns, that which he can acquire, that which he can control. And Jesus knows that rather than his security, his possessions are his weakness, there is a different challenge in front of him.
Jesus says, it doesn’t work that way. Jesus says, your next step is to step into the unknown. Give up your security. sell all you own. give your security to those who could never dream of that kind of security. take a chance on the uncertainty of faith in God, because God’s reward is not something you can lock down.
What do you look to for security? Where do you find your value? Does your income determine our identity? What things are you tied to, possibly more than you are tied to God? Are you willing to give these things up for the things that Jesus wants us to value?
The stumbling block for the man in this scripture, and indeed for all of us, is not wealth, per se. Rather, it is our attachment to wealth and towards what we can control. As we gain in treasure, our inclination is to trust in that and our powers of acquiring it, rather than in God the the experiences God might bring our way. It becomes hard to let go of the things that give us immediate reassurance of security - and the more we have, the harder it gets.
But God is not within our control, and encountering the kingdom of God is not something we can demand or direct. It happens in the most unexpected ways, and shows up in the most unexpected places. It bumps into us when we have offered ourselves to God to use for the benefit of God’s kingdom. It happens when we surrender to the in-breaking of God into our earthly lives. The key is to give it away; to give of our time, our money, our possessions, our sense of control and be open to the new possibilities that brings into our lives. Jesus is saying to the man who asked about eternal life; you can't buy it, you can't determine it, you have to surrender to it. The earthly lens sees scarcity and competition, but God’s focus is on abundance and mutual benefit. The powers of the world tell you that you must scrape, scramble and hoard; but Jesus here tells us that all our efforts to lock down our security are a hindrance to true riches. The illusion of our power and our privilege to manipulate and manage all things will keep us from living life to its fullest. This is a loving invitation to be liberated from our belongings, in order to find new belonging within the family of God. And belonging to the kingdom of God means a new belonging with a new family with a new purpose in life. The kingdom of God is about caring and sharing. The kingdom of God is about putting the last first and the first last; it is about risking your security for greater abundance, it is about stepping into the uncertainty and trusting yourself to God and God alone. It is about valuing those around you more than you value your belongings. It is about taking that risk to be open to new experiences beyond your vision and out of your control.
Leaning into the kingdom of God, surrendering our security and our control for kingdom building requires dreaming beyond ourselves. It requires working side by side for something greater than our security and comfort, something that reaches beyond what we can see with our earthly lenses. It requires trusting that our risks will be rewarded, one hundredfold, but not in coin or in stocks. Rather, our Return on Investment may show up in ways we may never see or understand. But if we trust in building God’s kingdom, then we trust that every additional stone or contribution makes a difference in someone’s life.
When the man approaches Jesus with a question, Jesus offers him an invitation. Release yourself from the burden and the illusion of control. Cut your ties to false security. Sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and Come, follow me. Join us in the kingdom building. Become part of this new family that truly values you more than what you own.
Next week we will be launching our stewardship campaign after service, and in that campaign we will be doing something a little differently. After service, we will have several short proposals inviting you to become kingdom builders - yes, to separate yourself from some of your possessions, some of your money, some of your time, and use some of your talent to build this family into something greater. We will be inviting you to imagine what might be, what kind of values we can demonstrate to our congregation, our neighbors, and our community. We will invite you to join with us in taking a risk, to brainstorm together, and to add to the ideas we already have, so that we may work, side by side, bringing new branches into this church family tree, building additions onto this small satellite of the kingdom. We hope you will make a point of joining us after service - and RSVP for your box lunch - and if you also want to propose something you value to the congregation, just get in touch with me by Wednesday so that we can coordinate the details of the presentation.
And so with that, and for that day, I pray, May the imaginations of our hearts and the visions in our eyes be beneficial to the kingdom for the divine who is our rock and our redeemer. May our dreams match God’s dreams for a living in sharing, caring abundance; a church family of belonging that offers the fullest life to all who seek it. Because for man, all things are impossible, but nothing is impossible with God. May it be so. Amen.