Are Your Treasures Bigger than God?
October 14, 2012
Job 23:1-9,16-17; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-20
Pastor Mary B. Blessing,
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Scotts Valley, CA
Do you ever feel “POSSESSED” by your possessions? Does the “stuff” you own “rule your life”? What about the stuff you don’t own, but wish you did, is it occupying your mind so much you can’t find God? Are your treasures BIGGER THAN GOD?
Last week Terry Parsons died. Terry was the Stewardship Officer for the Episcopal Church from 1996-2008. I had the joy of attending a few Conferences in which she was the key-note speaker. She was phenomenal the way she embodied a completely Christ-centered understanding of human nature and our, what I call, “obsession with possessions”. Terry’s faith in Jesus Christ was so strong, and her grace and humor so complete, she did what Jesus did like no other: she cut us to the core with the truth about how our “treasure on earth” keeps us from fully investing in “treasure in heaven.”
Terry reminded us that Jesus spoke about money more than any other singular topic. When giving a talk or sermon as Stewardship Officer she would say, “Don’t worry, I promise I won’t talk about money any more than Jesus did,” and then throughout the entire time she would put you on the edge of your seat in anticipation of the next funny moment she would challenge us to give even more. Terry understood, as Jesus did, that you had to get people’s attention with humor and hyperbole to wake them up to the faith block they have which created by our worry over money and stuff.
Terry could look at a person in the eyes with deep love, as Jesus did with the Rich Man, and say:
“…go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me [Jesus].” (Mark 10:17) Now, Terry understood that most of us would scoff at this, and so she lightened the mood with zingers like: “Yes, Jesus abolished the Old Testament laws, including the 10% tithe. Jesus suggested that we sell everything we own and give the money to the poor. I think I’ll stick with the 10%.”
What Terry Parsons knew and what our Gospel story tells us, is that our souls are seriously compromised by the human need to have stuff. For some of us, it could be a matter of life or death. Like the “rich man” in Jesus’ story, it could mean the difference between eternal life or eternal death.
Now, I wonder if some of you think Terry and I are taking this all too seriously. But, you see, we have to take it seriously, because Jesus did.
Something struck me to the core of my being when I read the Old Testament scriptures selected for today: an Ecumenical group in the 1960’s and ‘70’s who chose our current lectionary readings, understood that this command of Jesus “to sell what you own and give the money to the poor” was a profound struggle of the human soul. The Rich Man in Mark’s gospel suffers from a severe FAITH-STRUGGLE, a struggle echoed in Job & Psalm 22, scriptures used today to help us grasp the gospel.
Remember that Job was an especially wealthy man with many possessions. Like the Rich Man talking to Jesus, Job probably inherited most of his wealth. In his time and in Jesus’ time, wealthy people didn’t just move from rags to riches, like our American Dream ability to do better than our parents. People inherited wealth, and if they were righteous—good stewards—they could increase that wealth.
In what seems like a cruel gamble for his soul, Satan declares Job IS a righteous man. But Satan is allowed to remove all his possessions, kill all his family, and leave him in a heap of grief, despair and confusion. The part of the conversation we hear in today’s reading reveals Job’s extreme level of bitterness and frustration. Job believes in a God who punishes people for doing something unrighteous. Even as Job affirms God’s justice and mercy, he proclaims his own innocence. Job has faith that God is present, but God is so silent, as if God is hiding in the darkness. Job is a man tormented – he wants to disappear into the darkness, to be put out of his misery. He lost everything, and now he can’t even find God.
Psalm 22 is also a profound source of insight into the human soul in anguish over faith. One of the challenges for many of us, including me, is that we cannot read Psalm 22 without first hearing Jesus, hanging from a cross, crying out to his beloved Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Of course the scholars who chose this psalm to complement our Gospel story would know that we would see Jesus on that cross, hollering to God, screaming to the universe in an agony of despair in his darkest moment. Why did they choose THIS psalm, and only this portion of the psalm, which ends “ You lay me in the dust of death”?
Perhaps it was because our scholars understood the decision the Rich Man would take, to hold on to his possessions rather than sell them, was that man’s “dark night of the soul.” That man’s treasurers were bigger than God. It was his possessions which put him in darkness. His possessions possessed him.
I used to think it absurd to imagine a person who professed great faith in God could actually walk away from the love of Jesus simply because they had great wealth, like this Rich Man did. I can remember when I was a young child my father had a lawsuit that involved a relatively well off, upper middle class family of 4 adult brothers and sisters. They were in an estate dispute over who would get possession of their parents’ cabin and land at a lake-side resort. Our family was vacationing near this site, and my dad took my brother and me on a drive over to the cabin with the man whose sister had come to possess the property. Sitting in the back seat I could hear a conversation I didn’t understand: how could a brother be suing his sister for their parent’s property? I was all of about 6 years old…but my 8 year old brother explained to me that sometimes when people grow up they fight over stuff, just like we fought with our brothers and sister over stuff. I was absolutely dumbfounded and said: “But we wouldn’t sue them for it. We wouldn’t take our own brother or sister to court and put them in jail just because we wanted something that mom and dad bought in the first place. Don’t grown-ups know how to share?!”
Now that I am the grown up, I have sadly seen just how much adults can hurt one another over the stuff they treasure. I have watched families tear apart over fighting for material wealth. I now see my own siblings struggling this way. And it isn’t even because the “stuff” left by our parents has great monetary value; often it is simply “sentimental value”. Somehow, like the Rich Man who asked how he could “inherit eternal life” we care more about hanging on to our “inheritance” of our parents’ stuff—which holds more significance because it belonged to our deceased loved one—as if having this stuff keeps them alive. We don’t want to face the truth of their mortality. We don’t want to face the truth of our own mortality.
These material “treasures” can hold power over us—our “treasurers become bigger than God”. Like the camel unable to go through the eye of a needle, our souls are laden down, unable to reach “eternal life”.
At the core of this struggle, Jesus reveals humanity’s struggle as he opens the soul of the Rich Man. Jesus sees this struggle of the soul to be in right relationship with God and his brothers and sisters. The wealth this man “owned” was no doubt mostly inherited wealth—as it was with Job. The Rich Man was no doubt an excellent “steward” of this wealth, as he had followed all the law of Moses—including the 10% tithe—since his youth. However, when Jesus looks deep within the man’s heart, with LOVE, he sees that the man’s faith in God is not as great as his dependence upon his stuff. I believe that broke Jesus’ heart as much as it broke the heart of the man as he walked away “grieving.”
I also believe that as Jesus hung upon the cross, crying out to God in despair, his heart was breaking for the world which still values its stuff over the love of God and each other. Perhaps Jesus remembered those who fought over his purple velvet robe as they condemned him to death.
It was not for lack of faith on Jesus’ part that he wept in despair upon the cross. It was for all of us who place our highest hopes upon these so called “treasures” of our lives. Jesus cried in despair because Jesus saw our souls lost in the darkness overshadowed by our stuff. Can we answer Jesus differently? When asked to sell our stuff to give to the poor, will we do so? Can we then come out of darkness, and follow Jesus?
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