What Do You Get For Someone Who Has Everything?

This week’s sermon.

The text is Mark 10:17-31.

What kind of gift do you get for the person who has everything?

I did some Google research on that very question this week, and here are a few of the ideas I came across:

  • A wine rack made out of snow skis.
  • A corkscrew that looks like a fish.
  • Cufflinks that look like glasses.
  • A beer holder for your bike.
  • A snowball slingshot.
  • A pillow that functions as a working remote control.
  • A robotic exoskeleton.
  • A hovercraft.
  • Contact lenses that project TV directly onto your eyeballs.
  • A belly button brush (I don’t want to know).
  • Anonymous business cards you can leave on people’s windshields to complain about their parking.

You and I live in a highly consumeristic society. We want everything to be “Bigger! Better! Faster! More!” We are constantly inundated with messages trying to sell us stuff. One study declared that the average American is exposed to 247 advertisements a day. We are told that our spouses will love us more if we buy them diamonds; we will become better basketball players with the right kind of shoes; we will appear sophisticated if we drive the right kind of car; and (my personal favorite) we will become “the most interesting man in the world” if we drink the right kind of beer. We are locked into the ridiculous habit of “spending money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.”

It’s a ridiculous cycle that all of us are caught up in. We need to be reminded of its ridiculousness from time to time, for the sole reason that no one has ever seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul. You can’t take it with you. There has to be more to the meaning of life than the acquisition of “stuff.”

Unfortunately, we’ve been so shaped by our consumer society that we’ve forgotten how to think outside the box of “getting more stuff.” We’ve even applied the principle to our religious life.

We’ve been trained to think that spirituality, salvation, or enlightenment are all about gaining something for ourselves: knowledge, wisdom, inner peace, mystical experiences, etc. And we think we can earn the rights to this consumer product through religious observance, correct theology, or moral fortitude.

We have been trained to interact with God in the same way that we might interact with a clerk at 7-11: approach the counter, exchange payment, receive desired product. The problem with this is that the kind of relationship that God wants to have with us goes far deeper than the kind of momentary interaction we have with clerks at the store, where neither party is likely to remember the other person’s name by the end of the day. God wants more than that (from us and for us). But in order to get us into that kind of relationship, God has to shake us out of our consumer-capitalist mindset.

That is exactly what Jesus is trying to do with the rich man in today’s gospel.

The story begins with the rich man approaching Jesus with a question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And that’s our first indicator, right there: the little word do. He assumes that there is an exchange that needs to take place. He intends to do something for God, and then receive something else (i.e. eternal life) from God in return for his payment of doing. We soon learn that this particular person is already quite wealthy (he is “the man who has everything”), and as such has learned to interpret his entire life in terms of economic exchange (even his relationship with God). He is approaching God with a proposal for a business transaction and nothing more.

But Jesus responds, not by imparting some new knowledge to this man, but by appealing to what he already knows: “You know the commandments,” he says, and then proceeds to recite several of the Big Ten from the book of Exodus.

The rich man is clearly unimpressed. “Yeah, yeah,” he says, “I know all that stuff already. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. But else needs to happen? I feel like there’s something more to life, something I’m missing, so I want to make a deal with you, Jesus, and obtain whatever it is that I am lacking.”

So there it is. Jesus is now faced with the question: What do you get for the man who has everything?

And this is Jesus’ answer: Nothing. Jesus gives him Nothing.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t give him anything; it’s that Jesus gives this man the gift of Nothing.

Jesus says to the man, “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.”

In other words, he says, “Take all your possessions and the mindset that comes with them, take all your merit badges and accomplishments, take your experiences, take your trophies and diplomas down from the wall, take your preconceived notions about God, take your politics, your religion, your economics, take it all, and let it all go.” And he says that same thing to us today.

The best those things can do is feed our ego, which is a false conception of who we are. Our true self, the deepest part of us that is made “in the image and likeness of God” lies far deeper than those things. And we can only discover that true self by letting go of these other things in our lives that tempt us to identify with them.

Many of us, including the rich man in this story, are too frightened to embark on this journey of discovery. We are afraid that, if we let go of all these other identifiers, we might discover that there is no true self underneath the piles of “stuff” we have accumulated over the course of a lifetime. We think those “things” are us. We say, “I am the person who does this; I am the person who owns that; I am the person who is this.” We hold onto these false idols and identify with them because we are scared that, deep down, there is no Great “I Am” holding it all together. So we think it’s up to us. And too many of us go to our graves, kicking and screaming, and defending our little patch of earth until our hearts stop beating.

But here’s the thing: We’re wrong about all that. In spite of our deepest fears, there is a Great I Am who is deeper still (“Closer to us than our own hearts,” as St. Augustine says).

The rich man in today’s gospel, for whatever reason, was unable to let go and join Jesus on this journey of discovery. He wasn’t able to accept the gift of Nothing from Jesus. He walked away sad, still identifying himself with the “stuff” that he thought was his. But there have been others along the way who have accepted Jesus’ gift of Nothing.

Most notably, there is St. Paul the Apostle, who wrote much of the New Testament. He, like the rich man, had amassed a great treasury of accomplishments in the name of patriotism and religion. He lists them in his letter to the Philippians:

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

These are things that Paul used to identify himself and uphold his little false ego-self. But then something happened to him: he had a blinding encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. And this was the result, after his conversion:

“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him”

St. Paul received Jesus’ gift of Nothing and was transformed by it. He discovered the truth: that there is a Great I Am at the heart of all things. The true self that Paul discovered was not another ego like the one he had constructed, but the Spirit of Christ himself. He writes in his letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

This is the goal of all Christian spirituality: not a list of religious accomplishments, but a letting go of all these things so that we can receive Jesus’ gift of Nothing and so discover our true identity in Christ.

One of my favorite authors, Fr. Richard Rohr, calls this “the Spirituality of Subtraction.” It’s not about gaining more experiences or accomplishments. It’s about letting go of those objects, experiences, and accomplishments we think we own.

What does this look like when we live it out? How do we measure Nothing? How do we chart our success in the art of letting go?

The only answer I can even begin to imagine for that question is this:

We achieve success by accepting failure. That’s the only way to make spiritual progress in the Christian life. We learn to accept ourselves (maybe even love ourselves) with all of our faults and limitations. When we fail or fall, we laugh at ourselves, rather than beat ourselves up.

The theologian Paul Tillich said it like this:

“You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

This is what we call “grace.” This is what it means to receive Jesus’ gift of Nothing. And when we can do this (i.e. achieve success by accepting failure), a most amazing thing happens: our acceptance of ourselves and our failures starts to spill over toward acceptance of other people and their failures. Grace is contagious.

And here’s the really neat thing: in the end, it changes the way we understand God. As we open our hearts to grace, we gradually stop imagining God as the angry judge in the sky who makes impossible demands on us for the sake of religious observance, moral fortitude, or theological accuracy. We begin to see God as Jesus saw God: the Giver of Grace, the Giver of Nothing, the Great I Am beneath and beyond our false little ego.

And with that in mind, we can step back out into this world with full assurance of that which we affirm every Sunday:

That God loves us and there’s nothing we can do about it.

The Art of Letting Go

Over in Africa, they have a very interesting way of catching monkeys.  First, they secure a hollowed-out coconut to the end of a line and make a small hole in one end.  Next, they put something small and tasty (e.g. some nuts) inside the coconut.  Eventually, a monkey comes along and realizes that there’s a treat inside the coconut.  It reaches inside to get the treat.  Here’s the catch: the hole in the coconut is only big enough for the monkey’s hand to get through if it is empty.  As long as the monkey is holding onto the treat, it can’t get out.  If the monkey wanted to, it could let go and get away any time.  However, they almost never do that.  Instead, they hang on for dear life, even though it means their death.

Letting go is a hard thing to do.  Just ask parents who have ever dropped a sons or daughters off at college.  You hope that everything you’ve said and done over the past 18 years will be enough to guide them on their way, you draw out the goodbyes for as long as you can, but there’s no stopping that inevitable moment when you just let go, get back into the car, and drive away without them.

Our Buddhist neighbors have a lot to teach us Christians about the art of letting go.  Their entire spiritual path is built around that idea.  They start with the observation that life is full of suffering.  We never suffer, so they say, for the reasons we think we do.  We think we suffer because we lack something we want.  We say things like this: I wish I had a better job.  Why?  So I can make more money.  Why?  So I can buy more expensive things.  Why?  So I can impress this other person.  Why?  So she or he will like me.  And so on and so forth.  Happiness, we think, is always just one step outside of our reach.  We think it lies in some other job, object, or person.  If I could just have that, then I would be happy.

“No,” the Buddha says, “you won’t be.”  Real suffering doesn’t come from your lack of something, but from your desire for it.  If you can learn to let go of that inner urge to always be reaching and grabbing for the next big thing, you’ll find real happiness.  Along the way, you’ll also begin to find out who you really are inside.  We tend to lose sight of that in our endless pursuit of the next big thing.  We get lost in the rat race.  As we learn to let go, we find ourselves again.  The end result of this process is what Buddhists have always called Enlightenment.  All of their rituals and meditation exercises are oriented toward this one goal.  It’s all about letting go.

The art of letting go factors rather highly in this morning’s reading from the gospel according to Mark.  Our story is part of a series of stories that we started talking about two weeks ago on Transfiguration Sunday.  It began with the story of a blind man who Jesus had to heal twice.  After the first time Jesus touched him, he was beginning to see, but everything was still blurry.  After the second time, he could see clearly.  We took this as a kind of metaphor for Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, who was in the process of learning how to see (in a spiritual sense), but wasn’t quite seeing things clearly yet.

In the section just before today’s passage, Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter boldly replies, “You are the Messiah.”

Then Jesus begins to explain what it means to be the Messiah.  He tells his disciples that the Messiah “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

At this point, Peter steps in and pulls Jesus aside with some friendly advice.  One might say that Peter saw Jesus as the hot new presidential candidate and himself as Jesus’ campaign manager.  Peter’s idea of Jesus as the Messiah (or “Christ”) was very different from Jesus’ idea of himself.  Peter thought the Messiah was supposed to be part political leader, part military revolutionary, and part spiritual guru: Che Guevara meets Barack Obama meets Dr. Phil.  With God on their side, they were supposed to have a meteoric rise to fame and power.

But Jesus, it seemed, had a very different idea of what his life is supposed to be all about.  Instead of fame and fortune, he talked about suffering and rejection.  This really got under Peter’s skin, so he got up in Jesus’ face about it, but Jesus let him have it right back.

“Get behind me, Satan!”  He said, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  In other words, there’s a bigger story going on than the one you see right in front of your face.  Jesus knew how he fit into that bigger story because he knew who he was as God’s beloved Son.  He would conquer the world, not through violence, but through the power of self-giving love.  This was not an insight he could have had if he had been busy selling out to his culture’s idea of what a Messiah should be.  But Peter, as it turns out, was having a hard time letting go of that idea.  He was holding onto it so tight because he was absolutely convinced that the future security and prosperity of his country depended on it.

Don’t people still do that all the time?  If you flip through the various noise news channels on any given day, you’ll find no shortage of people angrily shouting at each other because everyone is convinced that their idea holds the key to peace and plenty in the future.  Whenever they stop to take a breather, the audience is instantly swamped with commercials for products that also claim to hold the secret to happiness.

We human beings have this crazy tendency to get so caught up in our own egos, ideas, products, and relationships that we forget who we really are inside.  We are God’s beloved children.  Our lives are part of a bigger story that has been going on since the beginning of time and will continue until its end.  Jesus never forgot that truth.  His faith in his identity as God’s beloved Son gave him the strength to resist the temptation to sell out to the popular ideology of his day.  Suffering and rejection didn’t scare him one bit because he knew the great Love at the center of the universe that transcends fear and death.

Today, God is inviting you to enter into a greater awareness of that Love by letting go of your attachment to those things, people, or ideas that compete for your trust.  Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

You are invited to participate in the art of letting go and trust in the Love that is stronger than death.  Maybe the thing for you to let go of is an idea, thing, or person.  Maybe it’s an old grudge or crush.  Maybe it’s an unhealthy attachment to work or a cause you believe in.  It can be good things too:  like your attachment to your family, church, or system of beliefs.  Many of these are wonderful things, but they can’t tell you who you are or give you lasting happiness.  Whatever your attachment is, Jesus is inviting you to let it go and rediscover your true identity as God’s beloved child.

It’s not an easy path.  Christians call it “the Way of the Cross” for a reason.  You will have to face your own fear of mortality.  You will have to sacrifice your sense of security.  But the promise, as Jesus gives it, is that you can ultimately save your life by letting go of it.  That’s what faith in the Resurrection is all about.

None of us does this perfectly.  We’re all refusing to let go of something inside that keeps us from embracing who we really are and living the kind of full life that God intends for us.  The good news is that our refusal to let go doesn’t change who we are as God’s beloved children; it only keeps us from recognizing the truth about ourselves.

As I was writing this sermon, I got a message about an old college buddy who passed away quite suddenly this weekend.  Like all such announcements, it reminded me of the fragility of our biological existence.  It also reminded me that the call to let go extends even to letting go of life itself.  God asks a lot from us (everything, in fact).  I compare it to doing a trust fall off the edge of the Grand Canyon, believing that we are held, as the apostle Paul says, by a reality that is higher, deeper, longer, and broader than we can possible imagine.  It is the Love that passes knowledge and the peace surpassing understanding.  When we are called upon to trust and let go, whether it’s letting go of some person, thing, or idea that we’re clinging to for happiness and security or letting go of life itself in our final moments, we journey forward in faith, trusting that we are not wandering into the darkness, but are being welcomed into the light.  We are not enveloped by oblivion; we are embraced by eternity.