Texts: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Some brief background. I’m a Lutheran pastor with Minnesota roots. After graduating from Concordia College Moorhead, and Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN I served two congregations in Washington over the span of 14 years – in Mount Vernon and in Redmond. During that time, I became particularly interested in stewardship and how we make the connection between faith and response in our lives, including how we use our financial resources. Since then, for the past 18 years, I have worked full time on stewardship and capital campaigns – mostly with churches and Synods as a consultant or program director, but also for 7 years in the Advancement Office at Pacific Lutheran University My wife have our home in Steilacoom and are members of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church by the Narrows in Tacoma.
The campaign is in partnership with our ELCA family across the country, supporting the projects and initiatives that we can do better together – such as addressing world hunger and supporting mission work around the world.
In our Synod there are two main initiatives: 1) Funding theological education for new and future church leaders, and 2) providing support for renewing and new congregations and ministries as together, we find ways to draw on our deep roots as we minister to an ever changing culture.
DRNL supports new church leaders – those who are attending seminary – and recently graduated pastors and deacons who have incurred seminary tuition debt. Overall, we now have a shortage of church leaders across the church. Over 80% of recent seminary graduates have debt from their educations – and the average of those that do is $54,000.
The financial model for theological education has changed. A few generations ago, when my father was in seminary, theological education was provided with no tuition costs to students. They still worked hard for their room and board and other living expenses, but they were able to graduate, free of debt, and could serve churches, wherever they were called, across the country.
Today much of the burden for tuition rests on the students. Deep Roots, New Life is addressing this by providing scholarships on the front end, and raising funds for debt forgiveness as church leaders begin serving in our Synod.
DRNL is also supporting congregational renewal. In a sense, all of our ministries need to be in a continual renewal process as we seek new ways of sharing the Good News of God’s love. When you think of it, this is something that church has always done – adapting to the language and changing culture of the day.
The Imagine Project, is an opportunity for churches to come together to figure out how they will best serve a changing demographic and neighborhood. In doing so, we support one another as churches, knowing we are in this together. And, at the same time, new ministries are being formed to speak to specific ethnic groups and nontraditional approaches to church.
For these reasons, I’m grateful to be working with our Synod on these initiatives. I have benefited from the deep roots of the faithfulness of so many, and I want to make sure that future generations, including our children and grandchildren, know and experience the Good News of God’s love through Jesus Christ.
Of course, since I talk about stewardship and giving almost daily I had to smile when I realized today’s Gospel has to do with wealth and possessions. It’s the scripture assigned for this day, not something I chose. Although it’s really not surprising that this happened to be the topic. Scripture is filled with references to money. Over 2000 references to wealth and possessions, and over 800 of them speaking directly of money.
We often try to separate faith and money: one as spiritual, the other as worldly. And it’s been claimed that the church talks too much about money. And yet, I believe we actually deal with the topic less often than Jesus did. There is no subject he brings up more often, except for the Kingdom of God. In his encounters, in his parables, in his teachings, he is constantly making the connection between faith and finance.
In today’s Gospel, a young man kneels before Jesus. This, by itself, is hard to understand, when we learn that he is wealthy. Others who knelt before Jesus were a leper with that terrible disease, someone possessed by a demon, and a grief-stricken centurion, whose daughter has just died, and in desperation turns to Jesus.
Desperate people. People who had nowhere or no one else to turn to. But here is someone with wealth – who one would think had control of his life and influence in his community. And yet, the wealthy man kneels at Jesus feet, and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s more than a question about life after death. It’s a search for meaning and purpose, a longing for fulfillment.
Jesus begins by answering the man on his own terms. He tells him what he must do. Obey God’s law. Keep the commandments. Apparently the man not only knows them, but has tried to keep them. Yet he knows something is missing. He yearns for more. There’s a void in his soul, an emptiness in his life that he wants to fill, and nothing he can purchase will satisfy it.
Jesus looks at the young man and, the text says, he loves him. He loves him. He cares about him. The fact that he’s rich is not a put-off to him. He really wants to help him. Wealth is not a barrier for Jesus’s love for him. Wealth IS a barrier for the man’s ability to follow. And so Jesus provides the antidote: “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.”
But he can’t do it, and leaves grieving. He had come running with hope. He walks away with sadness on his face and in his heart. He can’t part with his possessions. It’s the only time in the Gospel of Mark, where that direct invitation of Jesus is not heeded: “Come, follow me.” And as he walks away, Jesus turns remarks to his disciples, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of heaven – especially someone who is rich. He connects faith and finance.
How about us? What gets in our way of following Jesus and experiencing the New Life he offers? Even if we have known or experienced the Deep Roots of Faith. Even if we try and follow the commandments and live a decent life. I know for me, it’s often not seeing the inconsistencies of my life, including my financial resources.
My first tendency, when I hear reference to someone who is rich is to think of them – OTHER people of course! It’s easy: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos. But even not counting those outliers, I can still make comparisons. I see friends and former classmates my age who are already retiring, or at least taking more vacations and trips than I am. They’re wealthier than I am. It’s easy to make comparisons, and notice what others have that I don’t. And yet, if I am honest, I have no reason not to identify myself as someone who is wealthy.
A real eye opener is to go to the website www.globalrichlist.com. You can type in your annual income – whether you’re working or retired – or you can estimate the value of your savings and investments and see how you compare to the rest of the world. I took the median income for Steilacoom – and Gig Harbor is similar. Do you know that the median income for our area puts us in the top 1% of the world’s population? In fact, we are in the top .15 of 1%. Roughly calculated, I think that means if you put 700 people in a room, representing the world’s population economically, only 1 of them would most likely be wealthier than we are.
Do we realize how much wealthier we are than the rest of the world? Do we realize how much wealthier we are than the rich young man in the story?
And yet, confess, I consistently blur the line between needs and wants. And, truth be told, the older I get, the more time I spend focusing on our savings and retirement accounts. Honestly, I’m not sure I’m much different from that rich young ruler (okay, maybe the YOUNG part!).
The Good News of the Gospel is that that life and meaning come through Christ himself. It’s impossible to be fulfilled only through material possessions. You can’t buy grace. It’s free – and yet you are so valuable to God – that the cross became the means and the symbol – for his love for you.
Jesus loved the man. And Jesus loves you – and knows that you are created to give – for we are created in God’s image, and God is the greatest giver of all – from the very breath we breathe to the life of his Son. He has an antidote to an unfulfilled life – it’s letting go, and discovering the joy that comes in giving.
These days, Barb and I have been talking about decluttering. We keep our home fairly neat, but the closets and the drawers and the garage and the shed contain more than we will ever use again. We are trying to figure out what we can give away, rather than just toss so it doesn’t just end up in a landfill if it can be recycled or used by someone else. We are making progress, but we have a long way to go.
Some of you may have made more progress. I’ve read Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. And The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson but I can’t quite get there to those extremes – at least not yet.
And nationally, we are actually losing ground in the decluttering department. A recent article in the Atlantic Magazine stated that according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which adjusted the numbers for inflation, last year we Americans spent $240 billion—twice as much as we’d spent 20 years ago —on goods like jewelry, watches, books, luggage, and telephones and related communication equipment,. Over that time, the population grew just 13 percent.
And to hold all our stuff, in the last two decades, our homes have increased on average 23% in size and the number of storage units has doubled to 52,000 facilities.
The article suggests that much of this accumulation is due to low costs and the ease of one click shopping and delivery from fulfillment centers. So there’s our stuff . . . and then there’s our money. How can we discover the joy of giving?
But we do learn how to give from others. The past few days, we had the joy of taking care of our first grandchild. Nora is 19 months old, and it’s fun to watch as she has already learned from her parents . . . to share at least a few crumbs from her cookie with us, even as she grasps it tightly in her fist!
It’s true that our first tendencies in life are to take. Me and mine come before learning to share. But think about it. As a child, you couldn’t wait to unwrap a Christmas present that had your name on it. But then, there came a time when you were a bit older, when you discovered even more joy watching a loved one open a present that you had made or maybe picked out with the guidance of a parent. Discovering the joy that comes in giving.
We learn our giving habits – good or bad habits – from others. Someone writes: “I remember getting my first job as a teenager - 1968 it was. I remember how proud I was, bringing home my first paycheck, $20. Mom sat me down at the kitchen table with my cash in front of us. She took out two dollar bills and passed them across toward me. ‘That’s what you give to the church,’ she said. It was a lesson I never forgot. I still give $2 to church every week!” Somehow the message of proportionate giving and tithing got lost in the message!
We are created in God’s image, and God is the greatest giver of all. When we learn how to give, we joy and contentment as we live out the way God intended.
We can’t give away the same amount – but we can give proportionally and generously as we are able. The widow, whom Jesus noticed, put in her last two coins in the temple treasury. That was a significant gift – it was everything she had.
As I have worked with donors through the years, there are some that can make very large major gifts. And some do – but others don’t. The largest gifts don’t always come from those that have the most to give. By taking an honest assessment of what we have – our wealth in relation to the rest of the world, our stuff we have accumulated, our money and other financial resources, we can intentionally and purposely, set aside a portion to share. If you’re not there yet, 10% would be a good goal. It’s a way Barb and I have tried to be faithful in our call to follow, and we have found great joy in doing so.
When you think of it, perhaps that rich young man reflects not only the inconsistencies of our lives, but also the lives of so many we are trying to reach – through Agnus Dei – and through Deep Roots, New Life. There are those we minister to, even in our communities, who are literally hungry and homeless. And, at the same time, there are others with affluence, yet who remain unfulfilled, who still haven’t found what they are looking for – and desperately need to hear a word of God’s grace and forgiveness.
Christ calls us to let go – from clenched fists to open hands. Someday each of us will let go. We don’t take anything with us in death except the very best treasure – the promise that nothing can separate us from God’s love. In the meantime, before that day comes, may you experience the joy of giving. Be generous. Be generous in your support of your congregation. Be generous for Deep Roots, New Life. Be generous for your alma mater or for other causes and ministries close to your heart. Remember the true center of fulfillment.