“Lacking One Thing”
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On November 10th, 2013
Stewardship Dedication Sunday
Our scripture text for today is a portion of the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Luke. The centerpiece of the reading is a story told in three of the four gospels about a conversation between Jesus and a man who has come to be known as the rich, young ruler (although only Luke* calls him a ruler, and only Matthew* says that he’s young). To set the story in context, I’m going to read the short passage just before the story of the rich, young ruler as well. Listen with fresh ears for what God might be saying to us today.
People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’
A certain ruler 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 commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.” ’ He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.’ When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the moneyto the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, 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.’
Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ He replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’
Then Peter said, ‘Look, we have left our homes and followed you.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’
I hope by now you’ve watched the YouTube video, narrated by our own Jeff Panitt, in his resonant baritone, (I’m always jealous of Jeff’s voice) which in five short minutes develops our stewardship theme for the year—the theme of Giving that Changes Lives. It’s a well done piece.
As various images come up on the screen of Brian and the choirs, of Dan working with our children in IIQ, of Lee leading the kids in singing, and people joining in worship at our Evening Service through the leadership of Chris Chatelaine-Samsen and our other musicians., you get a sense of what the money we give goes to make possible.
You see youth helping frame houses in Chambersburg on their trip and it calls to mind the various things that Chris and our youth committee make happen, including Youth Sunday (one of the best Sundays of the year, and not just because I’m not preaching!) and various other events including the work with LRSS that Kat Pardo talked about so powerfully last week. If you didn’t hear Kat talk about her work and our work with LRSS, you missed something, and you can read her talk on our website.
You see prayer shawls hanging from the balcony, as they are today, and you’re reminded that this is just a piece of how Immanuel, spearheaded by the Congregational Care committee, helps wrap people in love within and beyond this congregation. And you get the same sense when you see a picture of the Fellowship Committee in their aprons.
You see certain faces and you remember concerns and celebrations shared and responded to in worship and beyond, and the life changing nature of that interaction. You see images from Real World Real Faith talks, and classes and study groups and our Theologian in Residence Brian McLaren and you can’t help but think of the ways this place and this people challenge us to think and grow, through Spirituality and Learning. (By the way, don’t miss the Veteran’s Day forum after this service).
Of course, you see photos from the Auction and other Immanuelites Working with our Dreamers. You see Chesterbrook Residences and pictures from mission trips to Peru and Guatemala. And you know how this place and people through the leadership of Community Service and Action, and International Mission, and Changing Lives, and other groups gives us opportunities to go beyond ourselves and to find our own lives changed as we help to change others for the better. It’s a great video, and Dick Curry and Russ Carlton worked together to find the pictures to go with Jeff’s great voice.
But I have to tell you that something about it, and the whole process of stewardship season, at least as it is typically conceived in mainline settings, leaves me just the tiniest bit unsettled.
Because, no matter how much we say stewardship is ultimately about how we respond to God in joy and gratitude and about how the God whose love is embodied in Jesus can work through you and me, we can get confused into thinking that it is all about us. What we do with our time. What we get for our money. It’s not that what we do is unimportant, or that what we get is insignificant. They are valuable. We are called to take care of what we have been given by God, to use our resources wisely and for the benefit of others, not just ourselves. We have responsibility. We have choices. But the biggest choice is always to decide, day in and day out, on Stewardship Dedication Sunday and on every other day, to whom you ultimately owe allegiance, what ultimately controls the choices you make— Divine Love or something else. Gratitude or something else. The God whose presence is embodied in Jesus or something else. We can forget that stewardship is not about what we get, it’s about what we give in gratitude. We can forget that faith is not about being in control, it’s about letting go and letting God work in you.
Which brings us to that rich young ruler in Luke’s Gospel. If he looks somewhat familiar to you, it’s because he is us. Only Luke calls this man a ruler, but Luke doesn’t say exactly what he rules— A synagogue, perhaps? A town council? His own household? I don’t know. Whatever he is a ruler of, he is in charge. He is a take charge guy. Type A. A guy who likes to be in control. Do you know anybody like that? This guy, I daresay, would be very be comfortable living in Northern Virginia.
He’s actually the type of guy you want in your church. Which is one of the great things about being a pastor here. There are so many leaders, so many rulers, people who get things done. It’s not like somebody says, “Well, Pastor, I think we ought to do this, and then they look at you like, ‘Why isn’t this thing happening?” You kind of have to run to catch up!
He’s a take charge guy, the rich young ruler. And you see that in the way he approaches Jesus. Right after Jesus takes children in his arms and blesses them saying, “Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child shall never enter it” The ruler says, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke may not mean for us to take it this way, I understand that, but I can’t help but hear the ruler saying, “Yes, yes, I heard what you said about being like a child. But I’m kind of a special case here. You see, unlike a child, I’m in charge of a lot of things. I’ve got a lot of things to worry about. A lot of things that I need to control, and to manage ever so carefully. And I want to manage how I get eternal life, too. Can you tell me what I need to do, so that I can add it to the list of things I have attained.”
But here’s something to remember: You can’t fully experience and live into the kingdom of God if you’re still trying to be king. You can’t have the joy that living life with open hands brings if you’re still clutching what you have. You can’t know the freedom of faith, until you know what it is to let go.
Just last night I heard the joke again. I’ve heard it a million times. You’ve probably heard it, too. It’s about the guy who is on the edge of a cliff and he falls and on his way down he grabs a branch. He’s an atheist but he’s praying, and he hears a voice that says, “This is God. You’ll be okay. I’ve got this.” And the man says, “Wonderful, Lord! What do I do now?” And the voice comes back, “Just let go of the branch!” And the man looks up and says, “Is there anybody else up there?”
You can’t fully experience and live into the kingdom of God if you’re still trying to be king. You can’t. I can’t. No one can. The rich young ruler needs to understand this, so Jesus decides to play his game. After Jesus clears up that it’s about God and not about even Jesus’ own glory. (Why do you call me good? no one is good but God alone) Jesus lists five of the last six of the Ten Commandments… leaving off only Thou shalt not covet. “Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t bear false witness, honor your father and mother.”
And the ruler jumps in immediately to say. “All of these I have kept from my youth!” Which, I suppose, narrowly interpreted, he may indeed have. But doesn’t that seem like a mighty quick and self-confident response? Just the kind you might expect from a ruler. Perhaps he was quick because he didn’t want Jesus to bring up the commandment about coveting. (Like the joke about Moses coming back from the mountain after the first tablets of the commandments were broken and telling the people, “The good news is that I talked him down to ten. The bad news is that coveting is still on there.”)
Or maybe he responded so fast because Jesus left off the first four, which involve putting God first and not creating idols. Whatever the reason, Jesus responds by telling the man that he still lacks one thing, and then providing him a way to attain that thing. To sell all that he has, to give it to the poor, and then to come and follow Jesus.
Now when we hear that, we immediately think, “If everybody did that, what would happen to wealth creation? And isn’t it better to keep generating wealth and to give a portion of it away?” Of course, if everybody sold all that they had and gave it to the poor; there would be no wealth creation.
So maybe scholars are right that this is Jesus’ specific prescription for a specific person and not a general request of all of us. Whew!
But I wonder, what’s the one thing that the man lacks? “One thing is still lacking,” Jesus says. What’s the one thing? Do you wonder about that, too? Maybe the one thing is trust in something beyond his own righteousness and goodness. Maybe the one thing is an ability to really and truly and fully let go. Maybe the one thing that this guy needed was a sense of real compassion for the poor and needy, and he couldn’t get that any other way than by giving everything up. Maybe the one thing that this man needed was the knowledge, down deep in his soul that you make a living by what you get, and you make a life by what you give.
Whatever the one thing is, when the rich young ruler hears Jesus prescription for attaining it, Luke says he’s sad.
Here is what is amazing to me about studying scripture. You can read scripture for 47 years, or I guess I didn’t start reading and hearing until I was about 5, so 42 years. And still something new. Here’s what I saw for the first time in Luke’s gospel just this past Thursday. In Matthew and Mark’s version of this story, when Jesus says, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything and follow me,” the man goes away grieving.
In Luke, in Luke, the man is still there. He’s sad, but he’s still there. He hasn’t gone anywhere. And neither have we.
Day in and day out we have a choice to make about who is in control, is it me, or the Divine Love working in me? Is it you, or the Divine Love working in you, calling you out of yourself? Day in and day out, we have a choice. And we have a choice on Stewardship Sunday, too.
Sure, sometimes it seems like it is harder than a camel going through the eye of a needle. But with God nothing is impossible. Not even grateful, joyful, self-sacrificial stewardship.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.