Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., on October 11, 2009
Mark 10: 17-31
Major Leaguer Joe Garagiola tells of the time Stan Musial came to the plate late in a critical game back in the 1950’s. Musial was at the height of this powers and a fearsome hitter who got hits off even the toughest pitchers. Garagiola called for a fastball and the pitcher shook his head; Joe signaled next for a curve ball and again the pitcher shook him off. Then he called for the pitcher’s best pitch, a slider, and again the pitcher refused the call. So Joe went to the mound for a conference. “I’ve called for every pitch in the book, what do you want to throw?” “Nothing,” was the pitcher’s shaky reply. “I just want to hold on to the ball as long as I can.”
We’ve often gotten the good news wrong, as we’ve tried to answer the rich young ruler’s question with an answer as if there really is something he should do in order to be saved. Why? … Because we don’t understand the grace of God. Frederick Buechner describes grace this way: “Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.” For those of you needing a more blunt definition, he adds: “You can’t do a damned thing or a blessed thing” to get your grace from God.
The truth is, we’re an awful lot like the rich young ruler who ran up to Jesus interrupting the journey he was about to take. He asked a question most of us have asked before: “What’s that one extra thing we have to do to earn God’s love?” We relive the story anytime we add anything to God’s love. The grace we get is beyond our capacity to understand because it’s grounded in the unending generosity of God.
Generosity may be the final frontier in our formation as Christ’s followers because in our hearts we’re all miserly little bookkeepers clutching to what we’ve earned by our efforts of doing, hoping God won’t demand we open our clinched fists. The spirit of generosity is more than money because it’s about a whole way of being. It’s about our love, our attention, and our willingness to go the second mile. It’s a spirit of giving that is extraordinary and free. Instead, we cling tightly to our money. We hold tightly with our love and we hold tightly with our very beings … holding onto the little we have hoping it won’t be stripped from us and given to someone else not realizing that when we share that which we have is mysteriously multiplied.
Wrapped up in those three descriptors (rich – young – ruler) is the making of a 21st century young man or woman we can easily visualize … one toting a backpack over the shoulder containing a laptop; wearing casual, slightly slouchy, clothes in earth tone colors; one wearing smart-looking glasses or shades, driving a hybrid, and twittering away on a Blackberry … get the picture? This story could and maybe should be told in the most modern terms.
The man’s question is straight-forward and Jesus responds in kind treating him with respect; he shoots straight with an observation based on a deep insight into the man’s conflict of the inner soul rather than some empty religious piety: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me” (Mark 10:21, NRSV). “One thing you lack … go, sell, give, come, follow. Five verbs: Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. “Go do something,” Jesus seems to say. Don’t just stand there over-thinking your problem. Sell all you have and give it to the poor.
It’s a prescriptive answer that leaves no middle ground; it’s a radical treatment for Jesus’ radical diagnosis of something deep within the man’s heart. It’s radical and the story is painful in its conclusion because the man left burdened because Jesus put his finger on the man’s crisis of faith.
Georgia Pastor Stacey Simpson remembers the first time she read this story as a little girl, age seven. She was in bed reading Mark’s gospel and when she got to this story, she was so alarmed she slammed her Bible shut and ran down the hall to her mother’s bedroom where she jolted her mother awake: “Mom!” she whispered furiously, “Jesus says that rich people don’t go to heaven.” Her mother shot back, “We’re not rich … go back to bed!” Most of us can see the loophole already … rich or poor are relative terms … as the rich are any who have more money than we have!
But the heart of the story is not about poverty or wealth – in fact it’s larger than mere money or possessions – it’s about whether we’ll outgrow our stingy need to hold back and learn to live generosity. What would happen if we discovered the secret of this story and learned how to unravel our hearts’ control over everything of value in our lives? What would happen if we learned to live out of our abundance and were freed of the toxic stinginess that kills our souls? What would happen if we became people of generosity, not people who are so hardened with things we die daily from our stingy bitter lives?
Maybe our need to withhold is a form of insanity that keeps us from becoming all we could become if we were kinder and more generous. Huston Smith, world-renowned expert on the religions of the world, told of when he was teaching at M.I.T. and learned Aldous Huxley was there as distinguished professor in the humanities for the semester. Smith knew he would be speaking all over New England and volunteered to be his personal social secretary, which meant he would drive Huxley to and from his speaking engagements. It was a marvelous opportunity for the young scholar to spend a bit of time with the famed Huxley. On the way to one of his engagements, Huxley said, “Huston, it’s rather embarrassing to have spent one’s entire lifetime pondering the human condition and to come toward its close and find that I really don’t have anything more profound to pass on by way of advice than, “Try to be a little kinder.”
The spirit of kindness is ultimately behind generosity. It’s a deeper form of existence. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein says, “Kindness has fallen on bad times with a bad rap. We’re told to be tough, cold. Manipulation has emerged as a positive value. Oddly enough, it’s kindness that seems far more memorable and remarkable … to be kind isn’t to be soft, but rather humane. Cold is simple … Kindness takes far more courage.”
Where’s the balance between our need to withhold and our heart’s need to be generous? Which will it be? Maybe a story will help …
A very wise teacher once warned humankind that all the water in the world, except that which was saved in a special way, would one day disappear and be replaced by different water. And this new, different water would drive people insane.
Everyone ignored the warning except one man, who collected the good water and stored it in a secure place. Then, alas, the forewarned day arrived and all the streams and wells went dry. All the good water disappeared, except for that which this one man had saved for himself. From that water, he drank but he did not share his water with anyone else.
When he visited around among other people, he found they had, as prophesied by the wise teacher, all gone insane. They thought and talked differently, and they did not remember they had been warned. Worst of all, though, when the man tried to talk to these people, they thought he was crazy. For some time, he continued to drink his own private supply of pure water, but finally, he could not bear the loneliness. After a while, he gave it up and drank the new water himself. Eventually he became like all the rest and forgot all about what had happened or where the water of sanity was and everyone welcomed him back to the community as the madman who had become sane again.
Our only hope for the fruit of generosity is whenever the seeds of gratitude are planted in the hard soil of our hearts and new life is nurtured until it breaks through the hard crust of our souls. When that happens, we are more surely bearing the love Christ meant us to bear in the world. When that happens, we are more surely little Christs.
A Prayer of Gratitude to the God of Generosity:
O extravagant God
In this ripening, red-tinged autumn, waken in me a sense of joy in just being alive
Joy for nothing in general except everything in particular
Joy in sun and rain mating with earth to birth a harvest
Joy in soft light through shyly disrobing trees
Joy in the acolyte moon setting halos around processing clouds
Joy in the beating of a thousand wings mysteriously knowing which way is warm
Joy in wagging tails and kids’ smiles and in this spunky old city
Joy in the taste of bread and wine, the smell of dawn, a touch, a song, a presence
Joy in having what I cannot live without – other people to hold and cry and laugh with
Joy in love, in you and that all at first and last is grace