Give Up What?!?
(Proper 23B, Mark 10.17-30)
October 15, 2006
A man ran up and knelt before Jesus, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk 10.17)
Millard Fuller was the American dream come true.
He was born in midst of the Great Depression - 1935, in a cotton mill town in rural Alabama, and his mother died when he was three. So he was raised by his father, who taught him early on about the value of money. Millard started raising pigs at the age of six and was an entrepreneur of sorts before he was 10 years old. After high school, he went to Auburn University, then got his law degree and married his college sweetheart, Linda.
After Law school, he and his best friend started their own firm, and Millard literally threw himself into making it a success. Millard recalls that was a time when, “I wanted to make money, buy big cars, have a big house. My business was first. Everything else was second, my wife and our kids. I worked all day, came home had supper, and went back to work.”
And at the age of 29, it all finally paid off. He was officially a millionaire – and this was the mid-60’s when a million dollars was still worth a million dollars!
Needless, to say, while his business may have thrived beyond his wildest expectations, his home life was literally non-existent.
Fuller felt guilty about not being around much for Linda and their two children, but he was driven to work. So he did what a lot of fathers in his situation do, he spent money on them. Hired an architect to design the mansion that they always wanted.
But Linda knew that a bigger house was not what she and her children needed. So she left. Upped and went to New York to visit friends and to think about her future.
And Millard was left to ponder what the cost of his success might really be.
And that brings us to our Gospel reading. In which we will look at another young man that was also faced with measuring the cost of his success.
The rich man that approaches Jesus was undoubtedly similarly well off. I am sure that he had a nice house; he probably could afford a couple of servants to do most of the household work.
But while he was well off by the day’s standards, and probably envied by most, he knew something was missing. He tried to do the right things – gave money to the poor - went to the synagogue - tried hard to keep the commandments, and so forth.
But he could not shake this unsettled feeling that his life was not really complete. So when the new prophet named Jesus of Nazareth came to town, the young man sought him out and asked THE question for the ages:
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Exactly the question that you all came to church today to get the answer to, also, right?
Well, you are in luck, because Jesus does not beat around the bush on this one.
He answers straight from the law – what we call the Old Testament. Keep the commandments, he says, that simple.
Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t cheat on your wife, don’t envy your neighbor.
The young mean seems relieved to hear that. Piece of cake, he says. I have kept all of the commandments since I was a child.
Maybe there was something in his voice or his eyes that betrayed him. But Jesus suddenly knows that there is more to it.
He looks into the man’s soul and sees that something is not authentic. Everything looks fine on the outside, but the young man is just going through the motions - doing the right things for the wrong reasons.
So Jesus looks deeply into the man’s heart and loved him.
Loved him because he could feel the man’s emptiness.
Loved him because he could see that he was good hearted.
And loved him, I think, because he already knew that the man would not be willing to give up trying to be in control of his life.
I think that Jesus knew that when it got down to decision time, that the man would not agree to turn his life over to God.
So loving him, wanting only the best for him, Jesus says, ah, but you lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.
And the young man is stunned. Stunned and heart broken. He knew that he could not do what Jesus asked him to do. The sacrifice was too great. He had worked too hard. He was too important. He deserved to be above the crowd. How could Jesus ask him to give up the very things that kept him separated from the rabble of life? How could Jesus ask him to become one of them?
Sure, he was willing to live by the law – BUT only if the inconvenience was not too great. Only as long as it brought him status in his community. Only if it conformed to what he wanted to hear and believe. And so He walked away – turned his back on God and walked away.
And who can blame him? After all, we live in a culture in this country in which money is everything. It is how we judge success. It is what we all want more of. Just look at the lottery business now in this country. The odds are so bad, that buying a lottery ticket is really just a way of paying voluntary taxes. But in spite of the fact that the State is the only winner, every time I go into a convenience store, I seem to be the only one in line that is not buying one of those shiny scratch-off cards.
I guess that my question is: why is the line longer for lottery tickets than it is at the Communion rail? Why are we so fixated on the here and now – instead trying to secure our eternal place in the here after?
Millard Fuller decided to follow his wife to New York and try to talk her out of leaving him. But she was firm in her decision. While she very much wanted to keep their family together, she just did not believe that Millard would really change. So he stayed a few more days to try to convince her. One night in New York, they ended up sitting on the steps of St. Patrick’s cathedral in Manhattan, where they cried and talked together. And that is where Millard heard a call from God and decided to make a drastic change in his life.
Nothing is worth losing you, he said to Linda. I will sell it all and do something else that we can do together.
Linda still wasn’t convinced that he would really walk away from the job he had been a slave to, but she agreed to follow him back to Alabama.
But Millard followed through, beginning to systematically sell everything they owned. The business, their house, their cars, most of their clothes. And they did not keep any of the money; donating all of it to Christian organizations. Then they took their children and looked for where they might best utilize their talents for God.
After a year of fund-raising for various Christian organizations, they ended up in Zaire, Africa, building small huts for people who did not have roofs over their heads.
They stayed in Africa for three years. And when they returned to the United States, the Fullers were convinced that they could do something similar for poor areas here. So in 1976, they founded Habitat for Humanity. And starting with one house, built by volunteers and the sweat equity of the owner, and financed by a no-interest loan, they began to provide home ownership to a segment of our population that otherwise had no chance of owning their home.
And now, thirty years later, their non-profit organization has affiliates all over the world and has provided good quality, low cost housing for over a million people.
Millard Fuller responded very differently to the Lord’s call on his life than did the man in our Gospel reading. And yet, while the Fullers have lived very modestly for the last thirty plus years, I am sure that they would say that they are richer now than ever. Richer than ever.
How do you measure your riches?
You know, it is not by accident that we read this lesson as we begin our stewardship season. But not so I can stand up here and tell you to give it all to the church. We read this lesson to help us understand how important stewardship is in our relationship with God. Stewardship is about understanding what really makes us rich – and folks it is not money. It is not wealth.
There is a very astute piece of wisdom that says, Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. And to be happy, you must be rich in those things that have lasting value.
Rich in love. Rich in faith. Rich in friends and family. That is richly blessed.
Jesus looks at us.
And he loves us.
And he tells us to give up whatever it is in our lives that separates us from God. Whatever keeps us from trusting in God’s infinite power and wisdom for our lives.
The rich man was too proud to give up the things that separated him, kept him above those who had less stature than he had. But that is exactly what also separated him from God.
Our pride, our desire to be in control, our fondness for material things and our fear of having to do without them – can also separate us from God.
You know that I often quote Barbara Brown Taylor, that wonderful Episcopal preacher.
She said this: “You cannot accept God’s gift if you have no spare hands to take it with. You cannot make room for it if your rooms are already full. You cannot follow if you are not free to go.”
You cannot follow if you are not free to go. I tell you:
Be rich in the things that really matter. Let go of the things that seem so important now – but have no lasting value.
Free yourselves. Free yourselves to pick up the gift from God that is everlasting. Let go, and follow Christ to everlasting life. Amen.