Be Generous: Jesus’ prescription to the rich man

I didn’t get a good picture from outside First Evangelical Lutheran this week, because it decided to snow on October 14th. It was a beautiful, heavy, white snow. But oh dear, the drive home wasn’t great. I wonder what this might mean for winter this year?

I had the privilege of being with the good people of First Evangelical Lutheran Church in York, Nebraska yesterday (Sunday October 14, 2018). I was invited by my friend and their Pastor Megan Clausen as well as the congregation’s stewardship team, to come and preach and help them kick off their stewardship campaign theme, “Be Generous.” Hence the sermon title. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from based on Mark 10:17-31, the appointed gospel passage for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 28B. 

Grace and peace from God in Christ who loves you, is with you, and is for you. Amen.

Good morning First Lutheran! It’s great to be with you. Thank you so much Pastor Megan and to the stewardship team for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome and for the wonderful brunch and conversation to come. I bring greetings again from Bishop Maas, who I know was just with you last week; and from your Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Megan Morrow, as well as from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod.

I’m excited to be with you today, not so much to follow up on Bishop’s visit, because his preaching is up here, and well, thanks be to God I’m not the Bishop; but I am excited to be with you and to think together a bit about what God in Christ might be telling us in this story today, to think some about how we are grateful and joyful stewards of God’s love, and how we might be being called by God to grow deeper as stewards and disciples together.

A Go-To Story for Stewardship
I’m excited to be preaching today because this week’s gospel story is one of my favorite “go-to” stories for thinking about stewardship. It starts off with a rather straight forward question, at least it seemed like it might have been a straight forward question. As Jesus was getting ready to go on another journey, a man came running and knelt by him. He wanted some deep insight about a question he was wrestling with. The man asked Jesus, perhaps out of breath from his run, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”[1]

The Kingdom of God might be like a kingdom where we all are a part of it, with our hands like pictured here, as different and beautiful as they each are. (As found on the walls in the fellowship hall)

I would imagine that this is about as serious a question as one might ask. It’s one that’s been weighing heavily on the man.[2] But, if anyone expected an easy and straight forward answer from Jesus, they just haven’t been paying attention. Jesus doesn’t always offer a straight forward answer, except perhaps when seeing people hinder the children, then he’s about as direct as he ever gets, telling them to come and indignantly rebuking the ones keeping the kids away.

When Jesus today doesn’t offer a straight forward reply, I think he is painting a picture that the Kingdom of God is something mysterious, complex at times, yet simple and beautiful that children can understand and accept. It’s kind of a tension, and it speaks to a life that we are all called to. A life of stewardship and discipleship, which is deeply meaningful as we follow God in Christ, walk together as God’s people, and grow.

Perhaps we’re more like the man in this story than we might like?
In response to the man’s question, Jesus asks about the commandments… “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother…”[3] [4] To Jesus’ summation of the commandments, the man says he has kept all of these since his youth.[5] He must be a more perfect person than I know I am, and I suspect most of us are as saints and sinners.

Whether he was or not, Jesus then sized up the well-meaning man and took a long loving look at him. And then he said this, “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.”[6] The man was shocked. He was hurt. He was grieving, because he was a “rich man,” who “had many possessions.”[7] It would take great effort for this man to be able to do what Jesus just commanded him to do.

I suspect this might be true for us too. I suspect we all have more possessions than the man in this story even. If you look at average “wealth” figures in the world, the majority of the people living in the United States fall in the top 1-5% of the world’s wealthiest people.

We live in a world where 85% of the world’s assets are owned by 10% of people, and less than 1% of the world’s assets are owned by the poorest 50% of people.[8] So, like it or not, though this was hard news for the man to hear, it too is a very real message for all of us. 

A helpful reminder with a text like this, found on the walls in the back of the sanctuary, with some accompanying pictures of creation that we are called to steward.

Jesus isn’t done though saying to the disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”[9] The disciples were confused. They are probably stammering, “but… but…but,” with blank or exasperated stares on their faces, with their hands in the air, confused and upset. We’d all probably fit right in if we were hearing this news for the first time too. Perhaps some of you are feeling this way now, knowing I am here to preach on stewardship?

Sorry! Jesus isn’t going to let any of us off the hook today. He says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples astounded asked, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus answered, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”[10]

The Good News for Us- Pure Gift and Grace, and Our Response
Believe it or not, this is good news. We can’t save ourselves. We never could. We could never earn God’s love, grace, or promise and gift of life. That’s just it. It’s a pure gift.

It’s impossible for us. But for God, of course, it’s possible. And it’s God’s work for us. And it’s the work that makes Jesus’ promise and proclamation of the great reversal we hear again today possible, that, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”[11] The man did not hear this as good news. So he did not respond with joy and gratitude, but with fear, shock, grief, and sadness.

At the heart of the matter of stewardship is an understanding that our stewardship is our joyful and grateful response to God’s gifts, promises, and work for us. All of which God has done, continues to do, and promises to do. If we can’t respond joyfully and gratefully to what God is doing, that says something about us, doesn’t it?

Pastor Megan presiding over communion, and saying the words, “This is the Body of Christ, Given for You.” “For You…” these two words are at the heart of our relationship with God, God’s promises for us, and our stewardship and response to them.

Unlike the man in the story, we know the whole and on-going story of God at work and active in our world, in our lives. The story of God coming near to us as one of us in the incarnation and birth of Jesus; the story of God living as our friend and walking with us as one of us; the story of God in Christ offering himself up for us to the point of the cross and death; and then the gift, grace, love, and promise of the resurrection and ascension that only God could ever do- beating death and the grave at its own game. All of this, God does for us.

Our response is to “Be Generous”
And that’s why I love your stewardship campaign theme for this year, “Be Generous.” We are generous, because of our God who is first generous for us. We’re so caught up in joy and gratitude, that all we really can do is say thank you to God, and then live generously and gratefully serving our neighbor as generous stewards. We are generous because God loves us, knows us, claims us in these baptismal waters, and calls us into relationship. God entrusts us with an abundant life of meaning and purpose in our vocations, and a life of welcome, discipleship, and stewardship- where we all as Children of God, have an equal place around this table together.

When we are generous, we aren’t just generous financially. But we are called to be generous in all facets of our life, because stewardship starts with a reminder that what we have is really not ours to begin with, but rather that all that we have and all that we are, is God’s.[12] All means all. We are called to be generous with all that we have been entrusted: our selves, lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, and relationships; our time, ideas, dreams, questions, and stories; our talents, gifts, strengths, passions, and vocations; our treasures, money, finances, and assets of all kinds; and all of creation that surrounds us and we are a part of.

Two of the beautiful stained glass windows in the sanctuary, offering reminders of the cross and resurrection.

All of this we have been entrusted with by God to use, manage, and steward. In doing so, it with the hope and promise to live a generous, abundant life. Which is a deeply meaningful and purposeful one, which will not always be easy, because it is a life of stewardship and discipleship with a cross at its center. A tool of death, through which life has been given and is offered. All of this is not just for us though. It’s also for our neighbors near and far. Regardless of human created or understood differences, we share a commonality and relationship which God calls us into, as Children of God all of whom God has created and whom God loves.

Inside the beautiful sanctuary before worship.

Stewardship is part of our identity as a Child of God whom has been called, created, and is loved by God. We grow in this life by telling stories of faith, of recounting the promises of God like in today’s gospel story and the good news that is God’s love and saving work for us. This is work we could never do ourselves, nor ever earn. It’s good news. Despite the man running in the opposite direction when Jesus said to sell everything, he was trying to free the man from his bondage to his stuff and his misunderstanding that it was “his stuff” in the first place, when in fact it was God’s. Knowing what I have heard about you First Lutheran, I believe you understand this.

My Thanks and Gratitude
If you hear nothing else from me today, please hear this, thank you! Thank you for being the generous stewards that you are here in York. One of the many ways I know this to be true, is through the way you serve together as stewards in helping do God’s work through the larger church, the Nebraska Synod, and the whole ELCA through your continued participation in mission share. Through it, you all do ministry that spans the globe changing lives.

Some of the many larger ministries that First Lutheran is a part of.

Through mission share, you proclaim the Good News of God in Christ through helping raise up and develop young adults, through our church serving arms like Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry and Lutheran Campus Ministries, as well as develop and grow new leaders, pastors, and deacons of our church; and you support missionaries spreading the Good News as well as new ministries here in Nebraska and around the globe. Through mission share, you care for the poor and welcome the stranger, outcast, and refugee, by supporting the work of ELCA World Hunger, our companion synods, and church serving arms like Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Family Services, and Mosaic. There’s so much more that you are a part of. Thank you for all that you do. And thank you for continuing to grow as the generous stewards and disciples that you are called and created to be.

Back to the Story
The point of today’s gospel story is not about selling or giving, or how much or little a person has. Money, wealth, and possessions are just tools or means to an end. The problems come when they become ends to themselves. The problems come when we, as sinful humans start thinking and believing that the goal is to have “more, more, more.” When we hoard things and forget that they aren’t ours, but what God has entrusted to our care, these things or possessions become a god. They get in the way of our relationship with God and our neighbors, and they aren’t being stewarded to do God’s work. When this happens, we forget that it’s not our wealth anyway, it’s God’s. We start thinking it’s “mine, mine, mine.” But of course, it’s not!

Images of ministry in action from the congregation, signs of many children of God gathered together.

What this might mean for us today
Jesus shares this truth with us in this story because he knows how hard it is to live life with these things, and stay in relationship with God. They can easily become a means by which we find meaning and purpose, and not God. They can easily become the way we measure our success in life. And suddenly then, they are no longer just things entrusted by God to us to live abundantly and to care for our neighbor. Suddenly we have anxiety about not having enough.

I’m as guilty of falling into this trap as anyone. Just last week my wife and I got one more bill to pay for when our darling now 6-month old daughter Caroline came into the world back in the beginning of April. Of course she’s worth every cent, but for a moment, the thought did cross my mind, like can we really afford this? Do we have enough? But then I saw her smile. And I remembered what really matters. I saw in her face, a sign of God’s abundant love, a sign that God is most certainly with us and for us. And in her laugh, I heard a reminder of just what is important in this life. And I woke up from my moment of giving into the fears of scarcity, fears that probably plagued this man in today’s story who by asking the question about eternal life was thinking he had to do something to earn eternal life.

As the snow came down harder and harder, I still had a smile reading the church’s sign, “God is better than finest chocolate.” Amen!

We all fall into this trap sometimes. Whether it be the trap of scarcity where over time we start to think we don’t have enough to help somebody out in their time of need, and we lose the ability to be grateful and generous. We think we don’t have anything to share, when in reality, we each are entrusted with so much that makes us each who we are as the beautiful, loved, and claimed child of God that we are. We forget again that we could never “earn” this gift of life. But that God gives it, with hands and arms outstretched for each us because of God’s deep and abiding love, a love that is true for each us, as we are each just exactly who God wants us to be, and whom God uses to do some of God’s kingdom building work in the world, right here in York or wherever you call home, work, serve, or go to school.

This story and these words from Jesus are indeed good news. God entrusts us with all that we need to do God’s work. And I see how you are all a part of that work as the generous and grateful stewards that you are. I’m so excited to hear more of your stories of stewardship over brunch after worship. Until then, thanks be to God for God’s abundant and abiding love, and thanks be God for all of you- the generous, grateful, and joyful stewards and disciples that you are. Amen.

Citations, References, Notes, and Observations that didn’t quite make it into the sermon:
[1] Mark 10:17, NRSV.
[2] And as far as we can tell, Jesus and this man have never met before. So that might be why Jesus starts off his reply with his own question, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”[2] In replying this way, it could be that Jesus is just trying to actually have a little bit of fun, while also offering important truths.
[3] Mark 10:19, NRSV; based on Exodus 20:12-16.
[4] Jesus interestingly adds “you shall not defraud” to the list, suggesting that perhaps he knows something about this man who is talking to him, or even about all of us as people. Perhaps we take advantage of our neighbors and hinder the poor, which as “legal” as that might be, it’s against the spirit of the covenant and commandments that God has made with us.
[5] Mark 10:20, NRSV.
[6] Mark 10:21, NRSV.
[7] Mark 10:22, NRSV.
[8] According to Davies, Sandstrom, Shorrocks, Wolf in The World Distribution of Household Wealth, as cited by Rev. Dr. Phil Ruge-Jones on Facebook (7 October 2018) in his #earlysermonseeds.
[9] Mark 10:23, NRSV.
[10] Mark 10:25-27, NRSV.
[11] Mark 10:31, NRSV.
[12] As based on Psalm 24:1-3.

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