Sermon for Sunday, October 14, 2018 || Proper 23B || Mark 10:17-31
Until I moved into my first apartment after seminary, I could fit everything I owned inside my 1993 Mazda Protege. I was twenty-five years old, and I owned clothes, some books and DVDs, a collection of movie posters, a laptop computer, a printer, and a TV. My first apartment was an 1,100 square foot two-bedroom townhouse that I filled with furniture from IKEA: a bed and couch, a desk and bookcases, a kitchen table and chairs, a TV stand and end tables, and a piano. Dishes and pots and pans and kitchen utensils filled the kitchen cabinets. I bought an XBOX 360 and video games and more DVDs, and I built another case to store them. Eighteen months after moving into the townhouse, I moved again. And this time, my stuff no longer fit in my tiny car. My dad drove the 12-foot U-Haul from West Virginia to Massachusetts, and we crammed it full.
Leah and I got married and combined our stuff. We started our now extensive board game collection. We bought more bookcases and the futon for the upstairs loft. Our DVDs continued to multiple like rabbits. Let’s just say that when we moved here to Connecticut, we needed the 20-foot U-Haul. And you all know what happened next. Our family doubled in size, and with the twins came an explosion in the amount of stuff in our house – much of it necessary and given by you all, but still a lot more stuff: cribs, changing tables, rockers, swings, pack-and-plays, feeding seats, strollers, books, toys, games, and more clothes than I could ever count.
Recently, Leah and I have begun feeling suffocated by all the stuff in our house. Or perhaps buried is a better image. There are so many toys in our playroom that it’s hard to play in it. There are so many DVDs on the shelves above our TV, and we hardly ever watch any of them. There are five strollers in my garage right now, and we only use the big red one.
When did we accumulate so much stuff? Ten years ago, everything I owned could fit into a tiny car. But it happens. You buy something today, a piece of furniture tomorrow, a wedding shower, a baby showers, Christmas presents, birthday presents, runs to Target, the insidious ease of Amazon.com. And one day you wake up completely smothered in stuff you don’t really need.
Here I am: I’m the man who comes to Jesus in today’s gospel reading. I’ve kept the commandments since my youth. I’ve never murdered or committed adultery or stolen, though you’ll have to ask my parents how well I honored them. “You lack one thing,” Jesus says to me, and perhaps he says it to you too if the description of my house rings any bells. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.”
The man in this story has often been named the “rich young ruler.”* But such a labeling is patently unhelpful for us who are reading the story because this name allows us to distance ourselves from the man. Mark’s version of the story doesn’t say the man is young, nor a ruler of any kind. In our society, he might not even be rich. He’s just a guy with a lot of stuff…like me. Perhaps like you too, since we’re all Americans who swim everyday in the cultural waters of thoughtless mass accumulation.
The man in the story goes away shocked that Jesus would dare invite him to change his lifestyle. But what he misses is the sincere motivation behind Jesus’ words, a motivation that includes but also goes beyond concern for those in poverty. Before Jesus tells him to go and sell what he owns, the gospel writer Mark injects one tiny yet momentous description of Jesus’ own heart. Mark tells us, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said…”
Jesus loved him. Jesus loved this man who came to him with an important question. Jesus loved him enough to diagnose his spiritual sickness and offer him a path to healing. And I believe Jesus loved him as he walked away.
I suffer from this same spiritual sickness. And I’ve walked away from Jesus many times when he has offered me this same path to healing. And yet Jesus has loved me back to himself every time. The spiritual sickness is right there in Jesus’ words, “Go, sell what you own…” if we rearrange them a bit. The truth of the matter is that all too often we don’t own our stuff. Our stuff owns us. And so Jesus looks at me, loves me, and says, “Go, sell what owns you.”
The things that own me are the things I’ve carted around from place to place, from U-Haul to U-Haul that I don’t need, that I don’t use, that take up space in my house and in my mind and in my heart – cluttering my heart and leaving little room for the things that should be there.
And so Jesus has placed on my heart a couple of projects so that this time I don’t walk away from my own healing. Perhaps they might nestle into your hearts as well if yours are as cluttered as mine. First up is the purge. More than half of my clothes gone from my closet and my drawers. I’m keeping the stuff I actually wear, the stuff I like wearing, and donating the rest. These suits in particular I’m donating to the WARM Center for their “Attire for Hire” program. Next up is the DVDs and books, and I’ll go from there. In each case, I ask myself two questions: “Do I need this? And does this bring me joy?”** If the honest answer to either question is “yes,” I keep it. But more often than not the answer to both questions is “no” simply because I have so much stuff that it can’t possibly all bring me joy. Just the opposite in fact.
Second is mine and Leah’s commitment to tithing. In the budgeting app we use to track our expenses, “Giving” is the default first category. Our tithe of 10% of our income to God’s mission here at St. Mark’s is in part a spiritual discipline that reminds us we can survive, and even thrive, on less than we make. Now I know not everyone is in that position because of individual financial realities, and I respect that. At the same time, some form of giving back to God helps all of us keep at bay that spiritual sickness of thoughtless accumulation. I hope you will contemplate this as you pray about your pledge for next year.
Third and finally, Leah and I are trying something new in our gift giving. We are trying to give gifts that fall into one of three categories: consumables like homemade jam and pickles, experiences like plays and concerts, and donations to charitable organizations in honor of the recipient. Following these guidelines will help us not contribute to the mass accumulation of our friends and family.
Right now, my XBOX sits in the basement gathering dust, along with an extra television. The futon is deconstructed in the attic, and a full-sized mattress and box spring are standing upright in the garage. All of these things own me. They weigh me down physically and spiritually. But Jesus loves me enough to continue inviting me to let that stuff go. The more we pare down our possessions to what we need and what brings us joy, the better able will we be to respond when Jesus says to us, “Then come, follow me.”
* Luke’s version of the story names the man a “ruler,” but Mark doesn’t.
**I didn’t realize this when I wrote the sermon, but I borrowed this from Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which Leah read and then talked to me about a while ago.
*** For more information on paring down your stuff, meet “The Minimalists” here.