Here's this morning's homily, which includes a video clip. I've never shown one before, so I hope it works!
The readings are Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Mark 10:17-31.
I didn’t start going to church until I was an adult. I went for many reasons, but among them was the fact that my husband and I had just bought our first house. By Reno standards, our house is small, but I was very conscious of living with one other adult and three cats in a structure, and on a piece of land, that could contain an entire third-world village. I didn’t want to become complacent about that. I thought church would help stave off complacency.
It worked, especially when I heard this morning’s Gospel for the first time. Over dinner that night, I fretted to my husband. “Jesus says we have to sell all we own and give it to the poor,” I told him. “I mean, I don’t know anybody who’s done that, but that is what he says.”
Gary, who doesn’t go to church, looked alarmed. He put down his fork. “Susan,” he said, “we’re not selling the house.”
We didn’t sell our house, and we don’t plan to, but this Gospel passage continues to nag at me. I suspect many of us struggle with it. Are we doing what God wants us to do? Do we give enough to others? Do we really have to sell everything we own, leave everyone we love, to strap on sandals and a robe and follow Jesus?
The discomfort of this morning’s Gospel is only heightened by the lesson from Job. You remember Job: that pious, blameless guy who became the object of a bet between God and Satan.
“Job loves me,” says God.
“Betcha he’ll curse you if he loses all his stuff,” says Satan.
“Betcha he won’t,” says God, and the game is on. In short order, Job loses his house, his land, his flocks, his family, and his health. He winds up on a dungheap, howling in misery, demanding to know why this has happened to him.
I’ve never been satisfied with God’s answer to Job, which is more or less, “I invented whales, and you didn’t. I’m God, and you’re not.” I’m not even satisfied with the fact that after all those torments, God restores Job’s fortunes twice over. I know too many people who’ve suffered tragic losses and have never gotten a winning lottery ticket to make up for it.
What I do take from Job’s story – which I believe we’re meant to read more as parable than as history – is the importance, not of blind faith, but of stubborn faithfulness. Job isn’t blind. He knows his suffering isn’t fair, but he doesn’t stop talking to God, and he doesn’t stop listening to God. He doesn’t abandon God even when he feels God has abandoned him. He stays in relationship even when that relationship is maddeningly difficult.
This is useful. It means that it’s okay for me to get mad at God, which I do regularly. It doesn’t, though, help me figure out what to do about my house. So I head back to the Gospel, where Jesus is telling his disciples that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who’s rich to enter the Kingdom of God. The disciples remind Jesus that, unlike Job, they’ve freely chosen to leave everything they have and everyone they love. They’ve strapped on robes and sandals to follow him. “Jesus,” I can hear them saying, “we’re not rich. Come on: do we look rich to you? These robes are ragged. These sandals have holes in them.”
And Jesus says something that I, at least, usually forget when I’m trying to imagine camels fitting through needles. He tells his disciples that anyone who leaves an old life to follow him holds a winning lottery ticket. His followers will receive a hundredfold “now in this age,” as well as eternal life. If you’ve walked away from one house to follow Jesus, you’ll get a hundred houses. Like Job, you’ll be rewarded for your deprivation in spades.
Jesus exaggerated sometimes – it was how people in his culture pressed home a point – so I don’t think we need to take that “hundredfold” literally. But he’s certainly saying that if his disciples leave stuff behind to follow him, they’ll get a lot more down the road.
They will? The disciples get new, improved houses? Where does that happen, exactly?
And then I remember. It happens after Pentecost, in the idyllic first days of the early church, described in the Book of Acts. “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” In this model, selling your stuff doesn’t mean that you have nothing. It means that everyone has enough. It’s like the feeding of the five thousand, where a few fish and some bits of bread turned into enough food to fill all those stomachs. Many scholars think there was nothing supernatural happening there: it was a simple matter of the people in the crowd, including mothers who’d brought snacks for their children, pooling their resources so everyone would have enough to eat.
Jesus is telling us that to enter the kingdom of God, we have to share. We have to believe that if we give what we have to the poor, even if we become poor as a result, someone will give us what we need in return.
Sharing this way requires radical trust, both in God’s generosity and in the generosity of other people. “It doesn’t work that way,” we think. “I’ll sell all my stuff and I’ll be poor and no one will give me anything. And anyway, I don’t want to sell my stuff. It’s mine. I’ve spent a long time collecting it, and it’s valuable to me.” The young man who questions Jesus at the beginning of this morning’s Gospel has exactly this reaction: “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
As Gary will tell you, I too have many possessions -- too many possessions. I’m not good at giving them away. I can’t even bring myself to have a garage sale. I believe I’m still merely at packrat level, but all of us have heard stories about people who are possessed by their possessions. All of us have heard of hoarders.
Hoarding – the compulsion to keep acquiring things you don’t need and have no room for – is a recognized mental illness. It’s not about greed: it’s about fear. Fear of scarcity, fear that there won’t be enough, fear that you aren’t enough. Hoarders can’t get out from under their stuff. Often they can’t care for themselves. Sometimes they literally can’t get out of their houses. This means that all their gifts remain hidden. They are hoarding, not just magazines or radios or pets, but themselves. They are both the hoarders and the hoarded, imprisoned by what they own, locked away from light and love and joy, from caring neighbors and from God’s good creation.
What might it feel like, to get out of a prison like that? What might it look like? Well, it might look something like this.
The Gospel tells us that Jesus came “that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” The ducks in this clip, released from prison, have overcome their fear of the new and their distrust of the unknown. They’ve discovered abundant life “now in this age,” and so can we. The first step, Jesus tells us, is to walk away from our stuff, even if we have to take baby steps. The first step is to get out of the house.