What Must I Do?
Topic: What Must I Do Scripture: Micah 6:1–6:8, Mark 10:17–10:31
Please pray with me: Empty us, Great God, of all that prevents us from hearing what you want us to hear. Empty us of our preconceptions, our preoccupations, and our prejudices. Empty us that we might be filled for ministry and mission. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.
The French have a story about a millionaire in his palace who spent his days counting his gold. Beside the palace was a poor cobbler who spent his days singing as he repaired people's shoes. The joyful singing irritated the rich man. One day he decided to give some gold coins to the cobbler. At first, the cobbler was overjoyed, and he took the coins and hid them. But then he would be worried and go back to check if the coins were still there. Then he would be worried in case someone had seen him, and he would move the coins and hide them in another place. During all this, he stopped singing. Then one day he realized that he had stopped singing because of the gold coins. He took them back to the rich man and said, "take back your coins and give me back my songs."
We turn to our gospel lesson - the man Mark describes in this scripture at an impasse. He wants to “save” his life, but he just doesn’t know how. He has done all he has been taught by the law and yet feels that something is missing. Knowing the commandments is not enough. Being a good person is not enough. The man is looking for something more.
I heard of a t-shirt that would be perfect for this rich young man. On the front of the shirt was the following: “FOMO made me do it!” Any idea what FOMO is about? I know, only because my daughter-in-law good-naturedly says that she has it - it actually means “Fear of Missing Out.” I think this man has FOMO – he has material wealth but seems to feel that he is lacking something. I am struck by the sadness of verse 23, “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
Jesus is not advocating poverty. Jesus’ words give a prescription that would free this man from what was holding him back. Mark’s story is not about money. It is about lacking the ability to surrender. The man lacked the ability to surrender everything to follow Christ. That is often what is missing in our lives. We lack the ability to surrender our whole self, all that we have, all that we are - to something greater than ourselves.
Tony Compolo tells a story about a friend of his who had to take a bus trip across central India. He was in an old model bus that was packed with people, packages, furniture, and even animals. Sitting across from Tony’s friend was a tired man whose neatly wrapped package was sitting on the luggage rack over his head. The man kept dozing off and each time he would wake up in a panic fearing that his package had been stolen. This went on for hours. But then eventually he fell asleep. When he awoke his package was gone. Momentarily he panicked as he realized he had been robbed. But, being relieved that the thing that caused him constant worry was now gone, he settled back in his seat, totally relaxed, and with a sense of joy he fell into a prolonged, wonderful sleep.
The man was now free of the one thing he was holding on to. I believe that is what Jesus is attempting to illustrate in this story. By letting go of the things that worry us, the things that obsess us, or the things that consume us, we discover we are free. So it isn’t about what we do or what we have – as this young man seems to believe – it is about who we are – God’s children.
I think this scripture is also about what we lack. Certainly, this story is about how what we have can keep us from being the disciples we want to be and are called to be. It asks the question, “Where does our abundance come from?” The rich ruler, in spite of believing that he follows all the commandments and in spite of the fact that he has an abundance of money and possessions, indicates by his question that there is still something lacking in his faith life. Is Jesus saying, as he often does, that in order to gain our lives we have to give away our lives? In order for this man to become a faithful disciple, he has to give up what he clings to in his life.
It seems that the rich young ruler lacks something that makes him feel whole – that feeds his spirit and his faith. What is it that he is lacking? What is it that we lack? Because God’s grace is a gift and is not dependent upon what we do. The scripture we read this morning from Deuteronomy tells us, “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? This feeling of lack is what separates us from God – not what we do or do not do. Look at how the young man walks away in sadness.
It is so easy for us to view the concept of lack in only material things, material categories as if lack is only determined by an absence of wealth. This is not to say that this text is not about money, about wealth, and what you do with it. There is a clear message that wealth does something to us and that something is usually not viewed as having a positive effect. Riches can cause us to focus inward, to overvalue our individuality, to set our sights on our own abundance without a thought about securing someone else’s.
It is a rare thing in life to feel so cared for, to sense the gift of attention and abundance by even those with whom you are the closest, let alone people you met just days before. I have been deeply touched by the ways in which a community of believers so clearly and demonstratively knew God’s abundant grace. It was a feeling that has stayed with me for quite some time - and it made me ask, what is it that I lack that an experience like this could provide so much meaning?
I am talking about a small congregation that I visited while I was in seminary. This congregation, like so many others in small towns, had been experiencing loss of membership which led to financial hardship. At one point they estimated that they had 4-5 years before their money would run out and they would have to close their doors. They shared with us that they spent a year or so bemoaning their situation and wondering how they could return their congregation to “the good old days”. Their total focus was on how unfair the situation was and how good things had been.
At some point, the session began to take inventory about what they lacked and, more importantly, about what they had. They began to meet weekly and shared Bible Study and prayer, including the scripture we are looking at this morning. Slowly, their mindset changed.
They realized that while they did indeed lack financial resources, they also were lacking the sense of who they were in Christ. They lacked their sense of identity as the children of God. They began to recognize the gifts God had given them and found that their focus changed from fear of not measuring up and failing as a congregation – to claiming the gift of their identity and looking at how they could serve God.
They admitted that they were 4-5 years from closing and agreed that they would “go out with a bang”. The average age of their members was 72 so they decided that instead of worrying about how to make their money last as long as possible while doing what they had always done, they would use their money to meet the needs of their members and people in the community around them.
They used their empty classrooms and hired a part-time teacher to offer classes on issues that affected senior citizens – things like retirement income, wills, and health issues. The success of these classes led their parish nurse to offer wellness check clinics for seniors that were held quarterly. They began to have intergenerational activities one Saturday each month and invited the children in the community. That gave parents in the community a day without children to do things they needed to do – free babysitting! It also renewed the spirits of the older members.
These are just a couple of examples of things that this congregation did – more importantly, they began to experience a renewal of their spirits and their sense of who they were. By the time I visited them - several years later - they had grown from 20 members to almost 100. One of the members who talked to my seminary class shared that when their focus shifted from what little money they had and how to make it last, they began to pay attention to the abundance they enjoyed through God. I think this is what Jesus is telling the rich young ruler. Jesus is asking, “Where do you locate your abundance? Where does your abundance come from? Do you trust only yourself to make it possible?”
Just as does abundance, lack takes on many forms in our life. This story in Mark asks us to ponder how we might complete the sentence, “I lack – “fill in the blank”. For each of us, the answer is that there is one thing we lack. And it is amazing what can happen when we figure that out.
The issue of lack takes on a particular meaning in this story - it is that which prevents us from a full expression of faith. What is the one thing that is at the core of who you are; what keeps you from being the follower, the disciple, the believer, the witness God wants and needs you to be? What are the gold coins that keep you from singing – the package above your heads that keeps you awake? This is a terribly hard question to answer, I know.
And so we ask it among the community of the faithful, hearing the truth from another so that perhaps we can then tell the truth to ourselves, with the sure hope that the places and spaces of lack might be filled once again.
I want to share a story written by an unknown author. “A wise woman traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry. The wise woman opened her bag and shared her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left rejoicing in his good fortune because he knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. A few days later, the hungry traveler came to the wise woman and returned the stone. He said, “I’ve been thinking. I know how valuable the stone is. I give it back to you in the hope that you can give me something even more precious - give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”
The rich young ruler knew he was lacking something. Jesus asked more of him than simply giving up his wealth. He asked him to give up what he was lacking, what held him back from loving God completely. What he lacked we may also lack. What holds us back from loving God completely?
Please pray with me: Thank you, God of abundance, for the voice of your love that keeps singing of the power in weakness, the wealth in simplicity, and the freedom and safety that is found in walking your humble, serving way. Amen.