As we wrap up our Lenten sermon series on Letting Go, we find ourselves, in a sense, back where we started.
We began with talk of spring cleaning, with texts that invited our attention to the physical clutter in our lives: what is mine to keep, Lord, and where are you inviting me to let go?
We then spent the next few weeks talking about letting go in ways which were less concrete, but certainly no less important. Letting go of our illusions of control, in order truly to trust God with our lives and our plans. Letting go of hurt, in order to move toward healing and forgiveness. Letting go of guilt, to embrace more fully the gift of God’s amazing grace.
But lest we think God is only concerned about the more spiritual side of things, the state of our souls rather than the physical details of our lives, today’s texts bring us back to those overstuffed closets and drawers again.
Because ours is an incarnational God who is intimately involved with our physical lives. Jesus was all about feeding and healing bodies, as well as forgiving souls. He also spent a fair amount of time talking with people about their stuff. Their real estate, their possessions, their money.
As he does in both of this morning’s Scripture texts.
First, the story of the rich ruler in Luke 18. A fine upstanding citizen from the sound of it. Jesus doesn’t call him out for being a bad guy. But this man is seeking something he hasn’t yet found, by carefully following the commandments. So he comes to Jesus to ask what more he can do. What is the key? Where is the path to eternal life? And Jesus answers him - “There is one thing still lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, and follow me.” It doesn’t surprise us a bit that the man went away sad. How many of us would want to be issued those directions? Sell everything you have, and give the money away? 100% of your assets, out the door, and you’ll find peace?
It’s only a chapter later in Luke’s gospel that we meet Zaccheus the tax collector. Here the story unfolds rather differently, with Zaccheus climbing a tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus on his way by, Jesus asking him to come down and inviting himself to Zaccheus’ house, and Zaccheus volunteering to give away half of his possessions to the poor, as an expression of his gratitude that Jesus has befriended him, in spite of his dishonest past. But the punchline is almost as dramatic as the story of the rich young ruler. 50% of all he possessed, out the door, to those who needed it far more than he did. Oh, and in Zaccheus’ case also a 400% return paid back to those he’d defrauded. Following Zaccheus’ generous declaration, Jesus says “salvation has come to this house.”
It’s hard to know what to make of stories like these. What’s the takeaway lesson?
It’s easy enough to get all caught up in whether Jesus is asking us to give away all that we own, or half of it. We hear challenges like this and all we can think about is the numbers – which is it, Jesus? 50% or 100%? But are we asking that question because we really have any intention of doing either? Or because worrying about percentages helps us inch us away from the real challenge of these stories? After all, the Old Testament benchmark involves giving away a mere 10% of all we own and earn, a tithe. And that can already sound daunting to those who haven’t tried it. (Though I can assure that those of us who do this, and more, find that it truly can bring joy.)
How much does Jesus want us to give away? Certainly enough that we notice. Enough that we feel it. Enough that the before and after shots of our lives look significantly different.
So these can be hard words to hear. There’s no point pretending otherwise. What interests me is that Jesus presents the idea of dramatically lightening our load of money and possessions as a path to freedom, rather than as an awful burden. As we read through these chapters in Luke, giving away some incredible percentage of what we own is seen as a life-giving opportunity. In gospel economics, this isn’t bad news. It’s good news!
Maybe what really makes us squirm about gospel texts like these is not so much that they sound too farfetched to be real, but that we know – at least for many of us in this room – that increasing what we give away, perhaps even significantly, is entirely possible. We just don’t want to go there, because we like the comfort level we have now.
In fact, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we might very well want to shoot a bit higher in our standard of living. Compared to a friend or neighbor, or to ads on TV, or to Facebook or Pinterest posts, it’s all too easy to feel we’re missing something. I’m no more immune to this danger than you are. But there’s an incredibly simple remedy for that particular problem. Just glance down the socioeconomic spectrum, rather than looking around at your peers or focusing on those who have more than you do. And things fall back into perspective very quickly. Right here in our own country, for instance, I read just this week about parents turning down food stamps and avoiding food banks that could help them provide meals for their children, for fear they’ll be deported. And how many times here in Seattle have you seen people camped out with just a sleeping bag under a freeway off-ramp? Compared to folks in these kinds of situations, most of us are unbelievably wealthy.
Looking around the world can be quite a wake-up call too. Have any of you seen the movie “Queen of Katwe?” It focuses on a girl named Fiona, living with her family in a slum known as Katwe, in Kampala, Uganda. Based on a true story, we learn how quickly this illiterate – but brilliant – young woman picks up the game of chess, ultimately representing her country in international competitions. It’s a wonderful film, and the visuals alone make it well worth watching. There is no romanticizing of poverty here, and plenty of times there is no need for words - much of the family’s hardship is simply shown on screen. I highly recommend it as a simple way to wake yourself up to what many of our fellow children of God are facing every single day of their lives, around the globe.
Of course it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of problems in our world, including the extent of global poverty on this level. It’s easy to feel like anything we could possibly do ourselves can’t possibly make a difference. But Rich Stearns, president of World Vision, offers a really helpful take on this. Here’s what he has to say:
“[Yes] global poverty statistics can be overwhelming, even to those of us at World Vision who dedicate our lives to helping. More than two billion people live on less than $2 a day. More than 1 billion don’t even have clean water to drink; hundreds of millions are chronically hungry and malnourished. And children suffer the most… In light of these staggering statistics, I am often asked ‘Isn’t my small contribution just a tiny drop in a very large bucket?’ The answer depends on how you see the world…” He then tells the story of a little boy, once considered a throwaway, whose life was completely turned around at a World Vision home for street children, to the point where they found him regularly singing for joy. “So is helping one child just a small drop in a very large bucket? It’s all a matter of perspective. Those who helped him were not just putting their very small drop in the very large bucket of human suffering. No, they were filling [that one little boy’s] very small bucket to overflowing. If we see the world’s needy children as millions of tiny buckets just waiting to be filled, the question changes to “how many buckets, Lord, do you want me to fill?” (Rich Stearns, He Walks Among Us, pp. 62-64)
I love that way of framing the question. How many buckets, Lord, do you want me to fill? And just how many buckets can be filled through the coins our church kids are collecting in their fish banks this Lent? How many buckets can be filled through the ministries we support as a church? How many buckets can you or I fill ourselves?
I think it’s really important as we read biblical stories like those about Zacchaeus, and the rich young ruler - that we keep in mind last week’s lesson too, about letting go of perfection, and not allowing ourselves to wallow in guilt. I can’t imagine that beating ourselves up is really the purpose of hearing these gospel texts today.
What if instead we simply heard an invitation to take a good long look at what we have, and consider where we might let go. What if we challenged ourselves to think through what we purchase and what we own, on the front end as well as the back end. Not simply asking “do I still need this, or can I give it away?” But “do I need to buy this new item in the first place, or could that money be used for something even more valuable?” A larger gift this year to the One Great Hour of Sharing offering, for instance, for hungry and hurting people around the world. A donation to the church to help with our mission work right here in Seattle. A microloan for a third world mom trying to start a business to support her family. A bag of groceries for the local food bank, or a hot, delicious meal for Tent City.
We don’t have to get a spiritual discipline right all the time, for it to be worth practicing. As Martin Luther put it: “This life… is not godliness, but the process of becoming godly …We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way...”
And when it comes to our possessions, the invitation to travel lightly is somehow tied to the promise of living in the light of Christ. Without quite so much money and stuff weighing us down, we are freed for greater trust, and more joyful obedience.
So the choice is ours. With the rich young ruler we can go away grieving at the invitation to give our money and our things away, because we have so much. Or, with Zaccheus, we can find a percentage that is freeing, and then claim with joy and gratitude the invitation to let it go.
While traveling lightly might seem challenging, remember that in gospel economics, it’s also very good news.
And there are plenty of little buckets out there in the world, waiting to be filled, to help us practice. Amen.