October 14, 2018
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 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 he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’
Have you ever felt invisible, like no one notices you?
I want to share a story with you about someone who felt that way, and how it changed.
The Invisible Boy
Questions from Back of the book:
Sometimes, folks who are poor feel like they are invisible, just like our friend in this book. But Jesus, well, he is a lot like FRIEND in our book, and sees and is friends with people other people ignore. Do you think there are people who might feel invisible? IF you feel invisible, I hope you know that we love you, and see you here, and we are so glad you are with us.
During World War II the aerial bombardments of the German blitzkrieg and the decimation caused by the Allies carpet bombing orphaned massive numbers of children, whose homes were also destroyed. Refugee camps and orphanages were set up across Europe, and their staffs worked hard to make sure children had plenty of fresh air and space to play, nutritious meals and loving adults. But at night, many of these children, especially those who had been living on the streets and gone hungry, had trouble sleeping. They would be filled with this overwhelming fear that, if they fell asleep, they would end up back on the streets, without food, and alone. And so they would fight falling asleep so they could stay vigilant. Their caretakers couldn’t figure out how to calm their anxieties. These children’s experiences in the past, of deprivation and scarcity, seemed to overwhelm their memories of the care they were receiving during the day, of the meals they ate. Eventually, some caretakers realized that if they gave each child a piece of bread at night, they could drift off to sleep, the bread helping them to remember that they had been fed that day, and could trust that that they would be fed and loved tomorrow. This insight, shared in the book “Sleeping with Bread,” which explores the rich tradition of the Examen prayer practice, reminds us that experiences of extreme scarcity can make it difficult to fully experience abundance, or even to remember it. At night, scarcity can easily overwhelm us.
We all have a deep human need to feel secure, to feel safe, to know that we will be ok tomorrow, that when we wake our needs will be met. And this need, when it isn’t met, can lead to hurt. When we experience not having enough, when we experience scarcity, we change in predictable ways that can, for a short period of time, help protect us, like being motivated to stock up on food, just in case there is another lean time or disaster. But in the long-run, these adaptations can make it difficult for us to live in community and in relationships, like an uncontrollable need to hoard food and belongings, just in case.
In Philadelphia, when I worked at Broad Street Ministry, I worked alongside folks who had spent their careers studying and responding to the effects of poverty, and the triggers of the folks who came to have meals with us. I learned about how important it was to make sure that folks didn’t have to wait too long to begin eating, and so we would place baskets of bread on the table with butter as soon as guests arrived, so that people could relax. The bread reminded them that they had been met with hospitality here before, and they could risk being social with the folks around their tables, instead of having to be vigilant. We made sure that we never ran out of food, no matter what, so that people could trust us. When the dining room was full, and folks had to wait for a table, we made sure that they could see our chef preparing the food on an elevated stage, in our sanctuary turned dining room, so that I could show people “See? Steve is whipping up another batch as we speak. There is enough food for everyone.” And just to make sure folks knew my word was good, I used to hand out Pretzels, because this was Philadelphia after all, as folks were waiting, to remind our guests that we were there was always a place for them. Working in Philadelphia, we spent a lot of time trying to create what is known as a trauma-informed space for people, where they could begin to start to experience belonging again, a place where folks could realize there were folks who cared about them, that there would be food the next day waiting for them, a place where you could let your guard down, just a little bit, to risk feeling connection around their tables. I saw, over my four years there, how people’s entire ways of making sense of the world can be shattered by poverty and the violence we inflict on the poor, and how small reminders can create something beautiful.
What surprised me most in that work, was just how many people I knew had been shaped by scarcity. I met a lot of people who had many of the same responses as our guests who were experiencing homelessness and poverty. I came face-to-face with the enormity of hunger and poverty, but I also met folks who had never slept in a homeless shelter, never been turned away from an Emergency Warming Center during a blizzard, never been told there wasn’t any help available to them by an agency, but who nonetheless exhibited the same anxieties and behaviors, the same defenses and fears, caused by scarcity. I was amazed to see that people experiencing extreme wealth, often times suffered from the same dis-ease as people experiencing extreme poverty. I saw folks who were powerful, and had good jobs, who had inherited wealth, or who made enough to be comfortable, who couldn’t stop working, were always looking for something else, something more, that would mean they were secure, that they were OK, that they were loveable, and that their basic needs would be met tomorrow.
During those years in Philly, Edd, our Buddhist director of Social Services, shared about how common it was for people with wealth to suffer from a scarcity mindset. He told us a story of a family from Italy, fabulously wealthy; there were three brothers, who ran a business with their father, making watches. This wealthy family, they all came to therapy, because they were miserable. Everyone in the family worked long hours, they neglected their friendships and families. They had all the money in the world they could ever need, but no matter how hard they worked, they always felt terrified that disaster was around the corner, and it was wearing them out. After a couple of sessions, their therapist asked to hear the story of the family business; how did they get trapped in this cycle of always working, of never being able to enjoy the fruit of their work? The family all knew the story; it had been told many times. Their Grandfather had a workshop making and repairing watches when he was a young man. It was a comfortable existence, that didn’t allow for many luxuries, but he was content. That is, until his workshop burned down. It was devastating, and took him years to recover. There were many times where he had gone hungry, and been forced to rely on others to get by. But slowly, overtime, he had rebuilt. Except he didn’t stop with just rebuilding what he had lost. Now, he was worried that, if that workshop burned down, he could find himself destitute once again. And so he expanded into the production of watch parts, of getting involved in every aspect of the product, so that, through his factories and multiple stores, if something happened, he would have a business to fall back on. He had a backup plan. The experience of losing everything, and the need to try to acquire more to be safe, it was passed down from generation to generation. This story of how everything could disappear overnight, it set the family on a quest that led to misery. The Father, the Son of the company’s founder, he expanded and grew their holdings, and he figured, while he could never relax, surely he would be able to pass on a sense of security to his children. When they started in the family business, they were making money, and they figured, once they each had a Million Euros stocked away in the bank, that would surely be enough, and they would relax. But there always seemed to be some other risk they could think of. Better diversify more, and find new markets. They’d think, was a million really enough? Maybe 10 million would feel better? No matter how much they socked away, disasters still raced through their minds. They kept hoarding money, making investments, and drawing up backup plans and side businesses and innovations. It was never enough.
There are so many people who do not have enough in our country, in our city, throughout Baltimore County. The rates of poverty are exploding around us. The harm this can do to adults and children, it’s real and lasting. But what might be surprising is that, for those of us experiencing wealth or financial security, we can face the same challenges of never feeling safe, of thinking everyone around us in a competitor, that we are in a zero-sum game where if you win, I lose.
And I think that is what Jesus sees going on within the wealthy man in our story this morning.
Jesus looks at him, loves all of who he is, sees his wounds, how his desire for more has harmed him, and says, ‘You lack one thing.”
I imagine that this man, he’s used to hearing that statement: you lack something that I can give you; for a price. It seems there is always something more, some other new way of honoring God he didn’t know about before, some new possession or powerful connection, something more that will secure his place in Society, and in the Family of God. Because this is a man who wants to secure the blessings of a quality of life that is powerful: the overflowing, joy filled, and transformative power of life Eternal.
He’s used to hearing about adding something more to his life, so imagine his surprise when this Rabbi suggests giving it all away, and coming along with the rag-tag disciples. The disciples and Jesus don’t seem hungry, but they look like they’re just getting enough. But that’s the thing: There is enough abundance among them when they share all they have, and rely on God’s provision, and that seems like a gamble for this man who has had security and power through his wealth. Is he really being asked to give it up?
He’s not interested in giving up control in this kind of way, and relying on other people. He’s all about adding more, acquiring more, and being Holy through addition of something, but giving stuff up? That’s too much. Where will the safety be?
I’m sure too that, mixed up in all of this, in some way he thinks his wealth was a kind of reward for being Holy, for keeping the Commandments, for not doing the things you’re not supposed to do, and taking the actions his faith requires.
It would be easy, on a first reading of this text to think that Jesus is talking about how wealth keeps people out of heaven when they die. But what I found so moving about this text this week was the two powerful invitations that are extended to this man.
First, he’s invited to give away the wealth that has consumed him that he strives for, and yet never finds satisfaction in. But the second invitation is, in place of his wealth, is to come and be with the disciples and followers of Jesus, people who will care for him. He’s invited to come and be among the very people he tried to protect himself from through his wealth, and probably his sense of holiness. Jesus is saying “Come, cross all the boundaries our society has created to keep people separate, and realize that it is possible to radically rely on God and experience a deep sense of enough, just enough. There is a kind of abundance you can discover beyond anything you could create or imagine, if only you will live among us.”
Jesus invitation to this man, it’s not about some heaven he’ll experience when he dies, it’s not about eternal life that we only get to experience when we’ve taken our last breath; the Treasure of the Kingdom, the Eternal life, it’s present now; it’s found in the community where there is always enough, where folks care for one another, where needs are met, and we figure out who God has created us to be with one another. It’s about finding a new identity, not through our purchasing power and individualistic piety, but through the messy, exhilarating, experience of living together in the Beloved Community. This man saw God in the flesh, saw the reality of the reign of God on earth, and he was filled with contempt for the disciples and Messiah, because he missed the abundance in front of him.
The God of Rebecca, Sarah, and Leiah, of Zipporah, Ruth and Naomi, Of the Mary’s and the unnamed women of faith, has a preferential option for the Poor, the Marginalized, the Hungry, those without a place to call home, the Naked, the Thirsty, the refugee, the stranger, the addicted, the recovering, the sick, people of color, disbelieved women, the Queer kids and Gay elders who don’t feel like anywhere is home.
And what does the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ say to the rich, the powerful, the full, those with beautiful homes and fine clothes, with more than enough clean water and delectable wines, the Natural Born Citizens, The well connected, the Straight and Cis Gendered, White Folks and Cis men of this world? We’re extended an invitation to be a part of something that we might not even realize we need.
We are called to be in relationship with the poor and the marginalized, not because there is some treasure among them that we should pillage, some understanding of life that poverty has given them that we want to figure out how to take for ourselves to enrich our inner lives. Instead, we’re extended a powerful invitation, to risk giving away a little of our privilege to sit at Table with Jesus.
Today, as Pope Francis canonizes Oscar Romero, it seems fitting to read this text. There is a call here to cross lines that have kept us separate, that most of us don’t even realize. The mission of the church is not to be charitable benefactors of the poor, not to educate those with less privilege about how to be like us. We are called instead to give away what holds us back from being in relationships that can change our communities, our world. To tear down the barriers of separation that keeps us from one another. Yeah, for the health of our souls, we should probably give away some of our wealth, but really, the invitation of the Good News is to cross all kinds of scary boundaries to be with people who are struggling with the same drive to experience enough, and acceptance, in situations different from our own, and find our mutual belovedness in the eyes of God by sharing where it’s hard, and where we are experiencing new life springing forth in abundance.
And that scares me.
Except, when I am with those in our community who are most vulnerable, when I’m in the hospital with you, when I have conversations with folks who realize that they have nothing to offer but their presence, when I sit with someone who can’t make it to church anymore, but want, more than anything to be reminded that they are a part of the reign of God, those moments are when Eternal Life seems to break in. When I stop trying to buy or work my way into wholeness, there’s another way of life that opens up.
Poverty is horrific, and the experience of being poor, it’s not something to romanticize, something that I know, looking around this room, many of us have known, or know currently, all too well. But there is something radical about Jesus’ ideas of having enough, and of realizing that our money and our power and our privilege, while it might seem like it can protect us, that protection comes at a cost that cuts us off from the Reign on God.
The family in Italy I told you about earlier? After a while, their therapist realized that what they needed to do, to find security and wholeness, was to give some of their wealth away. That was terrifying to them, but they tried it. And when the world didn’t end, when they were able to survive while making massive gifts, supporting their workers, increasing wages, handing over production to new companies created by co-operative employee’s, they realized that there was security and wholeness possible through giving away their access to wealth, through cooperation, that provided them with security. If something happened to their businesses, they had colleagues who would lend them what they needed to get back on their feet, because they had given them the opportunity to get started. They realized that there was a kind of security possible through working together, a kind of wealth that wasn’t about money, but about relationships and social connection, that was the best insurance against disaster.
Beloved, we have the opportunity to be in relationship across boundaries that have been created that seemingly protect us from poverty and violence. We are invited to be a church that takes Jesus up on both of his invitations; to be generous with our financial resources, but to also follow Jesus and his friends, and experience the reign of God on earth, among people very different from us.
We keep receiving these invitations from Jesus. Yesterday folks from MPC went to Alhambra Park in Woodbourne-McCabe, crossing all kinds of racial, economic, and age differences to play kickball and color and make bracelets, and play board games with kids. And the Reign of God was on powerful display in that park. When we accepted that invitation, we were joined by our friends who are worshiping with us today. When we risk saying yes, we find that we are not in this alone. Friends, let’s keep saying yes. We have nothing to lose but the driving sickness of More. And who knows? All Heaven might just break out among us.
May it be so,
In the Name of God our Mother, Brother, and Friend, Ame
 Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives you Life. Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, Matthew Linn