Proper 23B Sermon (2000)

Proper 23 (October 9-15)
Texts: Mark 10:17-31;
Heb. 4:12-16; Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

MAYBE THIS IS GOOD NEWS, AFTER ALL

I’ve had a few adjustments to make with Zion’s liturgy. I’m used to, for example, always ending my reading of the Gospel Lesson with “The Gospel of the Lord.” And the congregation responds, “Praise to you, O Christ!”

But do you know what? Today I think I’m glad. This is one of those weeks when I’m not sure I could have said “The Gospel of the Lord” and really meant it. Does it strike you as Good News when you hear it?

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 the young man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Does this sound like Good News to you?

I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest with myself and you, I have to count myself in the category of a person with many possessions. Oh, I can play the comparison game with the best of them. I can notice that, compared with many people in our consumption rich nation, I have relatively few possessions. I can look around at others and notice all the things I don’t have. But when I’m honest with myself, I also know down-deep that I’m awfully lucky to live in this nation at this time in history, because we are all truly rich people by any standard of other places and times in history. My father, for goodness sakes, was born in rural, upper Wisconsin, near Antigo, in a home with no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing, and no central heating! I look at what my boys have, and I marvel at how quickly things have changed in just two generations. No, if I’m honest with myself, I’m a person with many possessions.

So how can this gospel lesson be Good News?

I’d like to read you part of a biography of Millard and Linda Fuller. You might recognize their names. Even if you don’t, you’ll recognize who they are by the time I finish:

While Linda Fuller was earning her Bachelor of Science degree at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, her husband and a fellow attorney began a marketing firm. Their business expertise and drive made them millionaires while still in their twenties. But as the business prospered, the Fullers’ marriage suffered.

This crisis prompted the Fullers to reevaluate their values and direction. Their”soul-searching” led to reconciliation with each other and to a renewal of their Christian commitment.

Fuller and her husband then took a drastic step: they decided to sell all of their possessions, give the money to the poor and begin searching for a new focus for their lives. This search led them to Koinonia Farm, a Christian community located near Americus, Georgia, where people looked for practical ways to apply Christ’s teachings.

With Koinonia founder Clarence Jordan and a few others, the Fullers initiated several partnership enterprises, including a ministry in housing. This housing ministry was based on several unique features, such as issuing no-profit, no-interest mortgages and requiring homeowners to invest their own labor (“sweat equity”) into building their homes and the homes of others….

In 1973, the Fullers moved to Zaire, Africa, with their four young children to test their housing ministry model internationally. The housing project was a solid success and became a working reality in that developing nation.

The Fullers became convinced that this model could be expanded and applied all over the world. Upon their return to the United States in 1976, they met with several interested individuals and decided to create a new, independent organization: Habitat for Humanity International. Since then, the Fullers have devoted their energies to the expansion of HFHI throughout the world. (1)

Millionaires who actually followed Jesus’ teaching: they sold everything and gave it to the poor. Amazing! They were living what most of us consider to be the American dream, realized they were very unhappy in it and that their marriage was almost falling apart, and they actually took Jesus’ words to the rich young man to heart. What the Fullers are doing now with Habitat for Humanity, helping poor people, is truly a success story. Maybe there is some Good News involved with this, after all.

In order to see this as Good News, though, I think we first need to more clearly see the bad news. Something that has helped to change my life the last couple years is to finally put a name on what the Fullers seem to have experienced: the unhappiness that goes with accumulating so many possessions. Several years ago there was a Public Television special, which is now out on video, by the name of “Affluenza.” They dared to put a name on the unhappiness that goes with our current lifestyle in this country: Affluenza. I brought a handout with me this morning. Here’s their definition of Affluenza:

1. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream. 3. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth. (2)

And look at several of the quiz questions. First of all, if you have any doubt about whether or not you and I have many possessions, look at number 8:

8. Since 1950, Americans alone have used more resources than:

a. everyone who ever lived before them
b. the combined Third World populations
c. the Romans at the height of the Roman Empire
d. all of the above

Answer: All of the above. Since 1950, Americans alone have used more resources than everyone who ever lived before them. Each American individual uses up 20 tons of basic raw materials annually. Americans throw away 7 million cars a year, 2 million plastic bottles an hour and enough aluminum cans annually to make six thousand DC-10 airplanes.

We have to face up to the fact that we are wealthy people! People with a tremendous amount of stuff, many possessions. And does that make us happy or unhappy? Look at the first two questions in the quiz:

1. Which of the following is comparable to the size of a typical three-car garage?

a. a basketball court
b. a McDonald’s restaurant
c. an “RV” (recreational vehicle)
d. the average home in the 1950s.

Answer: d. Many of today’s three-car garages occupy 900 square feet, just about the average size of an entire home in the 1950s.

2. The percentage of Americans calling themselves “very happy” reached its highest point in what year?

a. 1957
b. 1967
c. 1977
d. 1987

Answer: a. The number of “very happy” people peaked in 1957, and has remained fairly stable or declined ever since. Even though we consume twice as much as we did in the 1950s, people were just as happy when they had less.

What do you think: is this accurate? For all our stuff, are we more happy or less? If we are more happy, than why are there so many divorces? Why is there so much anger and random violence everywhere? Why are so many people seeing therapists and taking medication for depression?

Our gospel lesson tells us the man’s reaction: “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Why was the man sad? Because Jesus told him to sell everything? Or maybe he was beginning to realize that he was already a sad person. He came to Jesus as a wealthy man who followed the law of Moses — in other words, an upstanding citizen, a good man — but he came to Jesus still desperate for something more. He still needed to somehow justify his life. He still needed to know how he could have ultimate happiness, how he could have eternal life. Perhaps Jesus’ words were the beginning of the realization that he not only lacked ultimate happiness, but that he lacked happiness period. He went away sad. Perhaps he was beginning to realize that he had also came to Jesus sad.

The notion of Affluenza has made a big deal to me the last several years. It has helped me put a name on the sadness that I think I see all around me in this society of ours. Maybe Jesus’ words are Good News, after all.

Why, we might ask, would all these many possessions make us unhappy? Well, it’s not the possessions themselves, of course, but our use of them to feel justified in our lives. It’s that whole drive to be first that Jesus keeps trying to deflate all through this portion of Mark’s gospel. No, Jesus tells us, the first will actually end up last, and the last first. Why? Because of the high cost of the rivalries that our drive to be first — or at least ahead of the guy next door — costs us. It costs us being able to live together in peace. Millard and Linda Fuller felt their marriage falling apart. They accepted Jesus’ words as Good News. The Fullers sold what they had to the poor and adopted a simpler lifestyle — what I’ve come to consider as the “daily bread” lifestyle. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that our heavenly Father gives us what we need for each day — no more than that — just our daily bread. And we align ourselves daily with doing God’s will, serving others.

Note the last question in the Affluenza quiz:

12. Of the Americans who voluntarily cut back their consumption, what percent said (in 1995) that they are happier as a result?

a. 29 percent
b. 42 percent
c. 67 percent
d. 86 percent

Answer: d. Eighty-six percent of Americans who voluntarily cut back their consumption feel happier as a result. Only 9 percent said they were less happy. In 1996, 5 percent of the “baby boom” generation reported practicing a strong form of voluntary simplicity. By the year 2000, some predict this number will rise to 15 percent.

Perhaps Jesus’ words to the rich young man, to us, truly are words of liberation. Maybe this is Good News, after all.

What about you and I? How much are we still caught up in these games of Affluenza, these games of letting our possessions rank us among our peers, our keeping up with the Joneses? When our political candidates, for example, keep prodding us with promises of giving us tax money back so that we can be in control of our money, does that sound good to us because we’re going to give our money to the poor? Or because we feel we need more money to keep playing these games of Affluenza? Would you say that our political candidates are prodding us with positive thoughts of happiness, or hooking into our unhappiness? We might think it’s the former, but I think that this morning’s gospel lesson is trying to get us understand that perhaps it more of the latter: they are hooking into our unhappiness, our being unsatisfied with our lives, and our thinking that just a bit more money will get us over the hump. Isn’t that it?

In any case, I listen to the political rhetoric of recent campaigns and I’m struck by the utter contrast to Jesus’ words to this man of many possessions. Is another tax break really the Good News of today? Or is Jesus’ words to us this morning really the Good News, after all. Oh, they’re hard words, that’s for sure. Jesus says so himself: It’s hard to enter into the Kingdom of God. But with God — through the kind of love that Jesus showed this rich man, through the kind of love he showed us by going through the complete and utter poverty of the Cross — with God, anything is possible. Maybe this is Good News, after all. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Zion Lutheran,
Racine, WI, October 15, 2000

Notes

1. From the Habitat for Humanity International website, http://www.habitat.org/, the bio page of Linda Fuller.

2. All the Affluenza info is taken from the Affluenza website: http://www.pbs.org/kcts/affluenza/

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