Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘possessions’

Basic Rules Don’t Apply: Love Is Wealth

Mark 10:17-22

What possesses you?

Okay, weird question?
What I mean to ask is: what consumes you, what drives you?

What possesses you?

Is it your career? Are you one of those people who is completely driven by your job and all the things related to it? Do you find yourself thinking and talking about your profession more than anything else?

Or is it your family, if you have kids? Are you mostly driven by what your kids are doing, how they feel, behave, learn?

Or is it something else? What possesses you, drives you, consumes you?

Now bear with me here, because I realize this can be a nuanced conversation. I am aware that for some of you, this question may lead you down a difficult path. Perhaps you have struggled for years with addictions and so, this can drive you. Or for any of you who suffer from depression or anxiety, this can consume you, no doubt. So please know that I am not downplaying that and I absolutely acknowledge addiction, illness, disease, and chemical imbalances as real issues that people deal with every day.

What I’d like for us to do is to focus on the things that drive us overall, apart from those things we cannot control or are part of our chemical makeup or a result of great trauma we suffered. I’d like for us to focus on the driving force for each of us, the thing or things that get us out of bed in the morning and keep us alive.

And I acknowledge the amazingly courageous people I know who fight addiction or mental illness every day and keep on living. Because this is at the core of the question. How do they keep on going?

And I’d like to address this by looking at this Mark Gospel story about a person who clearly was driven by questions about salvation, eternal life, legacy, etc. The man [called a ruler and a young person by Matthew’s and Luke’s versions] was also rich. He owned things—most likely a lot of land. He possessed property. He went to Jesus of Nazareth, because he respected Jesus as a religious teacher. Jesus would know the answer to a question he had. The rich man wanted to inherit eternal life. He was used to getting what he wanted, you see. He thought of salvation as something to buy or sell or to obtain. It was a possession. Religion, for this person, was about keeping the commandments that Moses shared with the Israelites. Don’t do this, don’t do that, etc., etc. Following these rules allowed him to maintain his upper hand in society, to fit in, to be respected, to maintain control. Follow the rules, get the reward.

Wrong.

Jesus tells him that he still lacks something. Ironically, what he lacks is because of what he owns. He has a lot of possessions. Material things. On the surface he has a lot. But he lacks the most important thing. What was that important thing? Well, it seems like Jesus didn’t say. What Jesus does do is tell him to do the most logical thing: sell your things, give money to those who need it most, and then you’re good. Follow this way of love.

Sounds good, right? Happy ending to this story?

Nope.

The rich guy doesn’t jump up and down with joy, now knowing what he has to do. I mean, it would have been fairly simple for him to give things away. And Jesus wasn’t even asking him to give it all away! But instead, the man gets sad about it. He expected Jesus to perhaps tell him about some other commandment or rule that he didn’t know about. Maybe there was just one more thing he had to check off his list and then he’d be okay. But no—he was told to do the very thing that he felt that he couldn’t do. He couldn’t give up material possessions. He could not follow such a way. For him, wealth was having things; wealth was not expressing love, not giving to others. Following the religious rules made more sense to him, even comforted him. But now that salvation fell outside the rules, his world turned upside down. He grieved, because he lost something—his ability to control things, to buy and sell life.

As Jesus often does, though, he invites this rich man to be healed. Get up, go, change, be healed. Follow this way. And I suspect that the story doesn’t really give us an ending so that we are aware that it’s not so easy to just change in the moment. The rich man was grieving because he felt that he could not give up his possessions, he could not see a way to be possessed by love. But that was in the moment. He left the scene—probably went home, probably thought more about it. And maybe, must maybe he started small. Perhaps he gave away some of his material wealth. And it probably felt great. And then maybe he gave away some more. And eventually, maybe this person was no longer possessed by what he owned. After a while, maybe he discovered what true riches were.

Friends, we can be possessed or consumed by things that are our “ultimate concern” like ambition, religion, money, power, politics or whatever. We can be owned by a number of things. And so we are offered a healing choice, I think, to instead be driven by love. To let go of the things that possess us and drag us down or hold us back. To walk forward and not backwards. To give more than we try to obtain. To make love our reason for existing—not pleasing people, not “making a name for ourselves,” not obsessing over legacy or retirement or status or religious rules or sexual norms or gender binaries or nationalities or affiliations or ethnicity.

What if we are driven by love?

What if love is in front of us, behind us, around us, and in us?

*To all of you who beautiful and courageous humans out there who wrestle with addiction and mental illness, I love you. It is your life: your courage and honesty and the way you show love to others in spite of all you go through–that inspires me.

Be driven by love, because you are loved.

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The Wealth of Relationship

Luke 12:13-21

There are two paintings we will look at so as to deepen our understanding of this Jesus parable. The first one is a modern painting by Jim Janknegt called The Rich Fool.

 Image

Do you notice the household items? A vacuum cleaner. A lawn mower. A computer. A blender. A camera. A refrigerator. A television. And a few times: a phone. Janknegt’s technique was to cut and paste items from Wal-Mart advertisements [you know, the wonderful junk mail we get]. He chose items and also words. You cannot make out all the words because they are covered partially by the items, but Janknegt offers a video diary of his painting process and so you can see the layers as the painted them. The words are:

Essentials for Every Home.

50% off SALE.

Big 3-DAY SPECIALS.

Buy One, Get One Free.

Of course, the artist is attempting to show the layers of consumerism that we as human beings buy into—thinking that we have to fill our houses with such things. We are convinced, coerced, sold the idea that our houses must be filled with things.

You will also notice two houses. The house on the right is small and contains a group of people sitting around a table. The scene is intimate, cozy. The people are oversized—they barely fit in the house, much less the room! But this house is dwarfed by the McMansion on the left. It is huge. One man lives in that house. He sits at a large table alone. Upstairs is his bedroom. The only “company” he has is the personification of death. Around the frame of the painting you may also notice pictures of houses. One house gets bulldozed. The big house has a for sale sign posted.

In a video interview, the artist Jim Janknegt shared that he was trying to show that this parable is not saying that material things are evil or necessarily what we shouldn’t do, but that the parable’s point is to show us what we can lose if we obsess over material things.

We can lose relationships.

We can end up alone at a big table in a big house with all of our things, but with no one to share life with.

The second painting is a well-known work by Rembrandt Van Rijn [1606–1669], also entitled The Rich Fool.

 Image

In the year 1627 material wealth looked quite a bit different than it does today. There was no Wal-Mart, no cell phones, no computers or televisions.

In Rembrandt’s time, books were a sign of great wealth.

 The rich fool, in Rembrandt’s painting, is happily surrounded by his treasures, totally unaware of the darkness surrounding him. His candle is about to be snuffed out and he doesn’t know it.

What draws me to Rembrandt’s nearly 400-year-old Rich Fool is what also draws me to Janknegt’s modern work: the sickness of isolation contrasted with the health of relationship and community. The rich fool is a fool because he is not really rich. His books mean nothing. They don’t love him, care for him, or provide life. His books are not evil at all, but because he has chosen to surround himself only with books—to obsess over them—he is isolated from people. And he doesn’t even recognize it.

Eventually, he will die in a heap of books in the dark; alone.   

This Jesus parable in Luke 12 is unique. It is only found elsewhere in the 5th Gospel [the one that didn’t make it into the standard Biblical canon], the Gospel of Thomas. This parable is quite straightforward. Whether your material possessions are a big house with electronics or whether your wealth is books—pick your own contextual wealth. Then, obsess over obtaining more of that material wealth. Stake your life on it. Make all your decisions based on that wealth. Pursue that wealth above all else. Hoard it. Gather as much as you can, willing to sacrifice relationships in order to have more.

And then, find death facing you before you can even realize how you’ve wasted a life that could have been a gift full of community, love, care, and relationships.

Jesus, in Luke, defines life by stating what life is NOT. Jesus says that life is not about possessions. Even when one has abundance, Jesus says, a person’s life still does not consist of possessions. But just as I pointed out with the house or with the books–the use of possessions for normal, everyday stuff, is not the problem. The problem is when possessions become our lives; when we can’t let them go; when they become more important than people.

The danger is in choosing possessions over relationships.

Of course, in a consumer-based society, we are actually taught that possessions enrich our life. The more things we have, the better we live. We are sold this idea.

We are bombarded with a health and wealth gospel: get more, live better.

But Jesus says the opposite. More possessions cause extreme anxiety. The more we have and hoard, the more we worry about those things. People drop their cell phones all the time. I do too. But many freak out about it as if it were the end of the world. They pick it up, rub off the dirt, polish it with their shirt, inspect it to make sure it’s okay, [some even talk to it as if it were alive], and then they rush off to buy a protective covering for it. They must protect that thing at all costs. On the other hand, the same people will have little or no reaction to a child’s poor health due to bad eating habits and lack of exercise; they are unmoved by a depressed, love-seeking friend or family member; they are unaware of their own deteriorating mental, spiritual, and physical health.

Will they buy a protective cover for themselves so as to prevent further injury when life drops them?

Will they pay into a monthly plan of healthy practices so they live well?

Will they check on their relationships as much as they check their phone?

Listen friends, don’t get me wrong.

Cell phones themselves are not evil.

Many material things are necessary to live in this world.

That’s not the problem.

In Jesus’ time and now in ours, people work to make money so they can eat, have a place to rest, and care for others, and this of course is not evil.

It is when that money becomes our life that we lose everything that matters.

It is when material things surround us that we lose the essence of ourselves.

And we find ourselves alone and in the dark.

So in the end, Jesus says to the guy with the big barns:

Your life is at an end. All this stuff won’t be going with you. Now what?

So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.

Rich toward God.

Listen, this phrase has been misused a lot by preachers. I covenant with you that I won’t use this parable or any Bible story to convince you to give more of your money to a church. That’s manipulation. Besides, I don’t think this parable has anything to do with you giving more money to your church. Again, it is about relationships.   

In 1967 in Chicago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way:

…this man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others. Now if you read that parable in the book of Luke, you will discover that this man utters about sixty words. And do you know in sixty words he said “I” and “my” more than fifteen times? This man was a fool because he said “I” and “my” so much until he lost the capacity to say “we” and “our.” He failed to realize that he couldn’t do anything by himself. This man talked like he could build the barns by himself, like he could till the soil by himself. And he failed to realize that wealth is always a result of the commonwealth.[1]

Right!

This focus on the material stuff only distracts us from the eternal stuff of relationships.

People don’t get involved with a church because of the building or the stuff a church owns.

People are part of faith communities because of the relationships they form.

They meet God; they meet people; they are accepted and loved;

God becomes real to them because others really love them;

they get inspired to serve and help people;

they choose community over isolation;

they see the Spirit at work in their relationships;

they follow Christ, walking with others;

they are not alone; they are rich in relationship.

In any faith community and in any life for that matter, relationships are our treasure.

So I encourage all of you as individuals to choose relationships over things.

I challenge you as a whole church to choose community over things.

Focus on this. Put your energy into this. Pursue this. Care for your relationships.

Do this, and you will truly live.

Amen.


[1] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool,” preached at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, on 27 August 1967.

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