“Rooted and Grounded”
17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know 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.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.”
26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
This is the Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, O Christ.
On Monday, Facebook and its family of apps were shut down for a period of almost six hours. And while for some this was an inconvenience, for others the consequences were severe.
Samir Munir owns a food-delivery service and runs his business through his Facebook page and apps. He lost almost a full day’s income during the shutdown. Mark Donnelly runs a fashion brand that markets their products on social media. In a New York Times interview he shared that during the outage his company lost thousands of dollars in sales.
“It may not sound like a lot to others,” said Donnelly. “but missing out on four or five hours of sales could be the difference between paying the electricity bill or rent for the month.”
As Cornell communications professor Brooke Duffy observed the day on a larger scale: that the “outage brought our reliance on Facebook… into sharp relief. The abruptness of (the) outage highlights the staggering level of precarity that structures our increasingly digitally mediated work economy.”
For many of us, myself included, the involuntary giving up of social media for half a day was surprisingly jarring. I don’t consider myself a heavy user of facebook, yet when I couldn’t access it I found myself checking, clicking, checking, refreshing much more so than I normally would — and realizing how many things in my daily life I really do keep tabs on through these apps: friends, birthdays, alumni groups, PTO.
Eventually the issue resolved, sales resumed and posts returned. But what this experience highlighted is how often something can take up (or take over) space in our lives without us even realizing it.
I think this may be what the man in today’s gospel text is experiencing when it comes to his relationship with his possessions. This guy often gets a bad rep but to me his struggle is so relatable. He’s trying. When he asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus names out all the commandments for him the man doesn’t hesitate when he says “Teacher, I have kept all of these since my youth.” And I think he’s being sincere.
I imagine he’s not the sort who has murdered or stolen anything, that we can believe him when he said he hasn’t committed adultery or lied. He’s honored his parents. He’s followed the rules. But clearly something is off because he’s troubled. Troubled enough to turn to Jesus and ask “There’s gotta be something more I’m supposed to do. The kingdom just feels too far away.”
We are told Jesus looks at the man, and loves him. I’m guessing in a bit of a “Well bless his heart” sort of way. Because the man is trying — but he’s got it all wrong. And it’s the phrasing of his question that says it all.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks.
What Jesus sees that the man doesn’t is that by its very definition, there is literally nothing you do to earn an inheritance. An inheritance is a gift. The inheritance of eternal life is a gift of God’s grace — and it's something that must simply be received with open hands.
But it seems this man’s hands are already full, because he’s asking — “What more can I do?” What else can I add on to this list of commandments or put on my plate? What else can I do to prove I am worthy?
But instead of giving him one more thing to do, Jesus explains that to receive his inheritance, the man must first let go of the thing that is holding him captive. That “thing” is different for all of us, but for this man it was his possessions.
When Jesus’ words fall upon the man’s ears we are told: “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Many possessions taking up (or taking over) space in his life where God’s kingdom was trying to break in.
It’s always interesting to me — every year in the season of Lent I have at least a few friends who give up Facebook or social media in general. Their reasons are different but for each of them there is an acknowledgement that social media is taking up too much space, detracting from the good, amplifying the bad.
Perhaps at some level they have imagined an exchange with Jesus in which they come to him asking, “Teacher, I am doing everything right - I go to church, I pray and read my Bible, I give to charity, I honor my family. I haven’t killed anyone. Yet I’m still so far from you.” and Jesus replies:
“You lack one thing. Go delete your Instagram account.”
And while for some of us it’s social media, for others, like the man, it’s possessions, or money, or alcohol, or busyness, or power and status. We all have something we cling to for comfort, something that has more control over us than it should. And it’s likely that if we were the ones having this exchange with Jesus, it would be that very thing he would urge us to relinquish so that new life might begin to take hold.
When our Generosity Committee was going about the work of choosing this year’s campaign theme, the phrase from Ephesians “Rooted and Grounded in Love” jumped out at us all. After over a year and a half of doing church in a COVID-19 world, I think we are all feeling the same sense of disjointedness that the man in this story is experiencing:
We’re worshipping and studying and holding meetings and praying and supporting mission ministries and caring for the sick and grieving… But why does it still feel a bit off? At some level, I think we all feel as though the pandemic has uprooted us from our regular routines as a faith community and we’ve only recently begun the process of tending to things that have been left to languish for the last year or so.
I’m not a gardener at the level that many of you in this congregation are — but I’ve learned a lot through trial and error over the years and one thing is that you can do everything right:
Buy the right plant, give it water and sunlight, feed it, protect it.
But in order for your garden to truly thrive, each plant has to have a proper amount of space for the roots to take hold. Otherwise, nothing is going to flourish. So it becomes an act of stewardship to look at what you’ve got going in your plot and assess - what’s taking over? Is there a weed choking the things I’m trying to plant or simply a species taking over and sucking the nutrients away from everything else?
If I really want this garden to grow, no amount of extra watering or fertilizing is going to help. I’m just going to have to thin some of this out so that what’s left can receive the light, the water, the love that it needs. So the roots can take hold. So that what I want to thrive can become grounded and strong.
For the man in our story today, it was his possessions Jesus perceived to be taking over, rendering his efforts to live a faithful life useless.
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Jesus says to his disciples. Not because the wealthy are bad people, but because they have so many things to distract their hearts and minds from God. So many things they are holding that when it comes time to receive the gifts of God their hands are full.
That’s why Jesus wants this man to let go — so that he can be free to receive.
So that what this man clearly wants to become rooted and grounded in his life, has enough space to grow.
It would be very easy as stewardship season rolls around once again to lump this campaign in with others that we hear about this time of year: the NPR pledge drive, the mailings we receive from our alma maters, the non-profits we all support and love. But what our gospel lesson today nudges us to consider is to understand Christian stewardship as much more than just writing a number on a pledge card.
Instead, Jesus calls his followers to reflect upon all that we have in our lives: everything growing in the garden plot, and acknowledge that for each of us there is probably something taking up more space that is healthy. And that by giving whatever that is up or giving it away to someone who needs it more, we are creating more room in our own lives to receive the good gifts of our benevolent God. By taking what we have and using it to bless others there comes increased freedom to receive.
The story goes that when the man heard Jesus’ instructions: “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” I think sometimes we hear that line and take it to mean that the man did not follow Jesus’ instructions — but what if he did? What if he went away grieving because he knew the task before him was going to be really difficult: sorting through the closets and trunks filled with things that held meaning and value but ultimately following Christ’s call to free himself of them so that others might have more. It would be a sacrifice, and a difficult sacrifice at that.
In order for a garden to thrive, it must constantly be tended. Pruned, watered, weeded - even when it’s 98 degrees and 100% humidity. Even when we have a thousand other things we’d rather be doing. Even when we’d love to just hire someone to come do the dirty work for us.
But when we do commit to the work — assessing the stewardship of our lives: our time, our energy, our talents, and our wealth. When we do the difficult work of giving up and giving away and creating space so that what we want to thrive has room for the roots to deepen and grow strong - what grows from that place has the chance to flourish as a testament to the hope for new life we inherit through Jesus Christ our Lord. May it be so for each and all of us. Amen.