Giving It All Up


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

April 7, 2019

Texts: Psalm 130, Luke 18:18-34

       Several weeks ago The New York Times carried an article about corporate money makers being dissatisfied with their lives. They needed more than just an exorbitantly high income and a luxury apartment on the 40th floor. That article was much like the one in the ABA Journal wherein lawyers lamented the lack of meaning in their lives. Here, too, money was not enough.

       This past week in the woefully misnamed “pro bono” room next to the waiting room at Immigration Court, I listened to several immigration lawyers lamenting their feelings of meaninglessness. “Well,” said one, “I just have to make sure that [name withheld] gets through school and college and then maybe I can do some pro bono work.” The child he was talking about was only twelve, still in middle school. So I figured at least ten years, if not more.

       As I had my nose buried in a book, I heard one of them say to me, “Joyce, how do you do it?” Looking up, I just made some off-hand comment about being a frugal Finn and went back to the book, not wanting to engage them because I knew my comments would possibly not be the most – well, we’ll say – polite. I knew what some of them charged immi-grants who could barely scrape their rent, not to mention sending some money back home to feed their families.

       The story of the “certain ruler,” usually termed the rich young ruler, in the Gospel reading this morning is repeated in both Mark and Matthew. Although the question is framed as “What should I do to gain eternal life?” some commentators focus on the fact that the questioner is more concerned with how he should live in this world, not just how to buy his way into heaven, so to speak.

        Jesus replies reciting some of the commandments but that does not satisfy the ruler for he has followed the com-mandments from his youth. What more, he wants to know, what more. “Sell what you have and give to the poor,” was not the response he expected. Luke’s text says he was very sad for he had many possessions; the text in Matthew and Mark states that “he went away grieving for he was very rich.”  

        How do we address this text? Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in the world in 1901, decided that he would give it all away establishing hundreds of libraries, funding pensions for teachers, and creating the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. His version of the gospel of wealth meant that the wealthy had a moral obligation to share that wealth with society, quite different than the gospel of wealth preached by the television charlatans of today.

       Fast forward to today’s rulers of wealth. Last year Jeff Bezos – we all know who he is, right?  -- announced a $2 billion gift to the Day One Fund, creating a funding stream for existing nonprofits to house the homeless and establishing preschools in low income communities. That was before he had to settle with his wife MacKenzie for $36 billion, that’s billion with a “b,” in their highly publicized divorce. All smiles now, the ex-couple said they had a great life together. I’ll bet they did. Maybe some of that wealth should be shared with overworked Amazon employees.

        As you can imagine this passage in Luke and the similar ones in Matthew and Mark have been the subject of much debate. Matthew and Mark have the man leaving in a state of grief; Luke simply says he was sad but does not say that he left. The man’s fate here is left open, wide open.

        Looking at Jesus’ comment that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle this hyperbole sug-gests not difficulty but impossibility. Trying to make it more palatable some early commentators claimed that the eye of the needle referred to a gate opened after other gates of the city walls in Jerusalem were closed for the night. Although this story about the gate which would force the camel to bend over and have its load removed has been around since the ninth century, there is no real evidence that such a gate existed.

        In another attempt to make this aphorism more acceptable, some early Greek manuscripts used the word kamilon, or rope, rather than kamelon, camel. Wealth does not make it impossible but only more difficult in this version. The text then turns Jesus’ admonition on its head by Peter’s statement, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you,” almost a “look at us” statement. But Jesus is not impressed, promising a greater reward “in this age, and in the age to come.”

        Well, to be sure, over the centuries, the admonition to give it all up has been softened. Honestly now, how long do you think that kind of talk will get new followers apart from the true believer? There always is a true believer, the person who is willing to give it all up, go off to some remote place or even just the city streets to share the gospel.

        When we think of sharing the gospel, we need to remember the words of Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times, with words if necessary.” Living as if the kingdom was already here is the real test of giving it all up. But what does that mean for us in today’s world?  

        I doubt there’s not one of us here who would sell all that we have and give to the poor. And it’s more than simply a different place and a different time. The Gospels indicate that Jesus had different expectations of what would happen in his time, of what ushering in the kingdom meant for him.

Jesus was a man not bound by what we would call family responsibilities. I must say I do wonder what Peter’s wife and children, assuming he had any, might have thought about Peter giving it all up and heading off to leave his family to fend for itself. But Jesus’ demand is clear: faithfulness to the demands of the kingdom is more important than any family ties.

       There are, of course, people who do give it all up. Based on his own father, John Hersey wrote in his novel The 

Call, how young men and women left good lives in the United States to become missionaries to God knows where. They did not see the demands of Jesus to give it all up as ambiguous at all.

       And who after seeing that wonderful film Chariots of Fire could forget Eric Liddell who refused to run on Sunday? After the 1924 Olympics he returned to China where his parents had been as missionaries and served there. He sent his wife Maureen and the children to Canada in 1941 but stayed on to be captured by the Japanese. Interned at Welhsien, he organized all kinds of activities to keep spirits up. He died there in February 1945. He had given it all up.

         What are we asked to give up? We are asked to give up a lot such as our narrow vision of who we are. Jesus asks us to look beyond our boundaries, the ones we create for ourselves. And we all really do set boundaries for ourselves. We all think there are certain things we cannot do. We are simply being told to use our imagination. But there’s nothing simple about expanding the boundaries of our imagination to expand our boundaries. In fact, it’s often difficult to do.

         Two years ago I met an extraordinary woman. A doctor, she works for MSF – Doctors Without Borders. She had been in Sierra Leone during the civil war and had worked with children whose arms had been amputated by the rebel forces. Held at gunpoint, she operated on a rebel leader wounded by the government forces. Back in a lab, she developed a protein bar now widely used for children suffering from malnutrition. I learned all this from her aunt.

        I was humbled to even be in her presence. She didn’t boast as did Peter, but just quietly said that she was now back in Denmark working on MSF projects. She answered my questions as if she had only done what any human being would have done under similar circumstances.

        Her two brothers are also doctors who work with MSF, one with amputees and the other with victims of a world gone mad. All three of them could have had very comfortable lives in Denmark, but each, driven by some calling, com-mitted their lives to medical care for those who need it the most.

         The riches the man had who questioned Jesus about his empty life were material ones but the riches that count are those of the soul. The man was sad because he wanted an easy answer and there was none. Our desire for easy answers is our stumbling block.

          I know I sometimes want easy answers; we all do. The words of Jesus in this reading cut into us like a knife. We want to be faithful disciples but at times do not know what that means. We may not hear a call to give it all up, to aban-don what we have, but we should hear a call to do something in our place and time.

          Our response to the call differs as each one of us is different from one another. Stretching the boundaries of our imagination in response to the call helps us to understand better what we can do as individuals and as a church. This process is called discernment. As a church and as individuals we strive to be faithful witnesses to Jesus’ call to participate in ushering in the kingdom.

          There are many ways to do that. Through our worship and work together with God’s help we will figure out how best to do work toward the kingdom of justice and peace. At least that’s our hope.

           Let us pray: God of our imagination, expand our boundaries, help us to find the best way in today’s world to participate in establishing your realm of peace and justice. In the name of him who spoke for a just society, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.