Deep Gladness

October 14, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert


Mark 10:17-31 New Revised Standard Version    The Rich Man

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?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You 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.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, 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.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It 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.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus 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, 30 who 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. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Deep Gladness

“Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days,” we hear in Psalm 90 today.  Our scripture readings present us with both the benefits of a life connected to God and the consequences of living disconnected from God. Psalm 90 helps us to be mindful of God’s constant love that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.  Many people long for happiness in their lives, or at least for a deeper sense of contentment, of meaning, and a connection to the most important values we hold dear.  Some people seem to live fortunate lives and others seem to have a disproportionate amount of struggle.  We do not know why, but we can ask the questions that may lead us to discover some answers, at least to some of the deeper questions we carry in our hearts. Let us pray, God of all our joys and sorrows, we pray that your words will not fall on deaf ears, on closed minds, on hardened hearts.  May the truth that is spoken transform our minds and our hearts, help us to better realize the richness of your love, the depth of your grace. Amen.

In Psalm 90, we hear a plea to God from those who have suffered, asking God to teach us to number our days so that we may gain a heart of wisdom.  The Psalmist is asking God to bring the people a deeper understanding of God’s ways, asking for as many days of gladness as they have had of affliction.  Who among us hasn’t wished to live a life of joy, or at least to know more happiness than sorrow in our lives?  In recent years, there have been a number of articles written on the secrets to happiness, the keys to happiness.  I understand that there is a very popular course at Yale University which is on happiness, called “Psychology and the Good Life.”  Each of us may have some sense of what things bring us happiness, and I’m speaking not of the surface happiness but of something deeper and more lasting, a sense of true contentment that we may experience not just for a moment but over periods of our lives.

In the reading from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus offers an important warning to all about the ways in which our love for money and possessions, our attachment to them, may too easily lead us away from that important relationship with God…and essentially blind us to the needs of those whom God asks us to care for.  It’s not a feel-good passage, as we all know.  It’s meant to be challenging and provocative and to get us to think.  This man comes up and kneels before Jesus, asking for guidance about how he may inherit eternal life.  And so Jesus asks him if he has kept all the commandments and the man assures him that he has, and then we hear that Jesus, 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.”  When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

Several years ago, I read an inspiring and provocative piece in the New York Times entitled, “What Could You Live Without?”  (Nicholas Kristof JAN. 23, 2010). I’d like to share a little of that article with you this morning…

“It all began with a stop at a red light. Kevin Salwen, a writer and entrepreneur in Atlanta, was driving his 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, back from a sleepover in 2006. While waiting at a traffic light, they saw a black Mercedes coupe on one side and a homeless man begging for food on the other.

“Dad, if that man had a less nice car, that man there could have a meal,” Hannah protested. The light changed and they drove on, but Hannah was too young to be reasonable. She pestered her parents about inequity, insisting that she wanted to do something.

“What do you want to do?” her mom responded. “Sell our house?”

Warning! Never suggest a grand gesture to an idealistic teenager. Hannah seized upon the idea of selling the luxurious family home and donating half the proceeds to charity, while using the other half to buy a more modest replacement home.

Eventually, that’s what the family did. The project — crazy, impetuous and utterly inspiring — is chronicled in a book by father and daughter scheduled to be published next month: “The Power of Half.” It’s a book that, frankly, I’d be nervous about leaving around where my own teenage kids might find it. An impressionable child reads this, and the next thing you know your whole family is out on the street.

Mr. Salwen and his wife, Joan, had always assumed that their kids would be better off in a bigger house. But after they downsized, there was much less space to retreat to, so the family members spent more time around each other. A smaller house unexpectedly turned out to be a more family-friendly house.

“We essentially traded stuff for togetherness and connectedness,” Mr. Salwen said, adding, “I can’t figure out why everybody wouldn’t want that deal.”

One reason for that togetherness was the complex process of deciding how to spend the money. The Salwens researched causes and charities, finally settling on the Hunger Project, a New York City-based international development organization that has a good record of tackling global poverty.

The Salwens’ initiative hasn’t gone entirely smoothly. Hannah promptly won over her parents, but her younger brother, Joe, was (reassuringly) a red-blooded American boy to whom it wasn’t intuitively obvious that life would improve by moving into a smaller house and giving money to poor people. Outvoted and outmaneuvered, Joe gamely went along.

The Gospel from Mark provides us with a very clear challenge about the responsibilities we have if we take seriously our faith.  Jesus’ story of the rich man is a cautionary tale.    This passage from Mark is one of several stories where we hear Jesus speak to his followers and attempt to remind them, to teach them about what is expected of those who would choose to live in God.  It’s not the first time he speaks about a rich man who will not share, but it’s certainly a clear story about right and wrong.

There is a familiar (and often-misquoted) line from 1 Timothy about the love of money being the root of all sorts of evil that echoes the stories on money from the Gospels. It’s not money itself, which is neutral, but the love of it that leads us into all kinds of trouble, because “riches are seductive,” scholar Carl R. Holladay writes: “riches ensnare through suffocation. What begins as the innocent desire to make a fair profit becomes an obsession to own.  Before long, we no longer own but are owned” (Preaching through the Christian Year C).

In some countries I have visited, where people live in extreme poverty next door to wealthy homes, this story is very clear to the listeners.  In our country, in our community, poverty and hunger are often more well-hidden, but we know it is there, and the challenge for us is to take this passage as seriously as those who listened to it the first time from the mouth of Jesus.  We can’t say we haven’t been warned; we can’t say we didn’t hear it in time…

The family in the article I shared, the Salwens, received both praise and criticism for their decision to move ahead with their project.   In writing the book, the Salwens say, the aim wasn’t actually to get people to sell their houses. They realize that few people are quite that nutty. Rather, the aim was to encourage people to step off the treadmill of accumulation, to define themselves by what they give as well as by what they possess.  “No one expects anyone to sell a house,” said Hannah, a high school junior who hopes to become a nurse. “That’s kind of a ridiculous thing to do. For us, the house was just something we could live without. It was too big for us. Everyone has too much of something, whether it’s time, talent or treasure. Everyone does have their own half, you just have to find it.”

As for Kevin Salwen, he’s delighted by what has unfolded since that encounter at the red light.  “This is the most self-interested thing we have ever done,” he said. “I’m thrilled that we can help others. I’m blown away by how much it has helped us.”

It’s interesting to note that research has shown that there actually are common experiences that may bring deeper happiness to one’s life.  These include relationships, acts of kindness, meaningful work or activity, exercise and physical well-being, spiritual engagement, cultivating a positive mindset, and discovering one’s personal strengths and virtues and using them in service to the greater good.   We’ve all heard the saying, ‘money can’t buy happiness’ but it is certainly true that if one does not have money to pay for food and healthcare, a roof over one’s head or heat in the winter time, lack of money can surely bring great suffering.

Every so often, it is helpful to reflect on our priorities and how we live our lives, how we share our time, our talents, and treasure in service to the greater good.  We live in a nation and a world where there is increasing disparity between those who have much and those who have very little.  This is true even in our local communities.  We might consider what we need less of or what no longer serves to bring about the deeper spiritual sense of well being that we may seek and imagine if there are ways that we may better allot our resources in keeping with the teachings of Jesus.

The great paradox, of course, is that sharing with others, generosity, kindness, all of these things end up bringing about a deeper sense of joy in our lives when who we are more closely aligns with who we wish to be.  I’ve also heard that spending money on special experiences, a vacation with family or friends brings much deeper and lasting joy than money spent on physical possessions.  When I think about the Salwen family who crafted a plan to put into action what they felt compelled to do and who were willing to change some of their personal circumstances in downsizing to a smaller home, I certainly feel challenged.  What’s the half that any of us might share?  What can we live without in order that others may simply live?  Often we find, that in giving, we certainly receive much, but the deep contentment it may bring to our lives is one of the riches we receive.  Do we have more time or talents or treasure that we might  share that might be used in service to something bigger, some action that might make a difference in someone else’s life?   I will close with a quote from Friedrich Buechner, who is an American writer, theologian and minister. He once wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”