224th Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — July 6, 2010
Preacher: Nancy Fitzgerald, pastor of Arlington (Va.) Church of the Brethren
Text: Mark 10:17-22
Nancy Fitzgerald, pastor of Arlington (Va.) Church of the Brethren, preached for the evening service on the theme, “All That We Can Be.” Photo by Justin Hollenberg
Isn’t it wonderful when scripture is more than an auditory experience? I love to see how others ‘see’ scripture because too often I’m left to my own mental pictures and I just never know where my mind might take me.
In most gospel stories, I see the typical scene of people in dusty robes and sandaled feet. But for this particular text, I see something different. Tonight (with a little help from my friends) you get a peak into my mind as I see the image of an experience I had during one Christmas shopping season. Here’s what I visualize for the story of Jesus’ and the man.
My arms are often that full, are yours?
This mental picture is my reality of a life that is full to over-flowing. Perhaps I’m typical. I have plenty of possessions and even fuller than my arms is my calendar. It’s full of my lists of things TO DO.
There’s my list of books to read, movies to see, meetings to-set up, people to-visit, phone calls to-make…. Those are just my short-term list of things “TO DO.”
I also have long-term TO DO lists, and the “some time in this life” TO DO lists, and the future retirement to plan list.
You SEE the picture don’t you?
If I could, I’d let you see another mental image that I have of my life; a full bucket sitting under a water spigot turned on full. . . .There’s as much pouring out of the bucket as is rushing in.
I see people all around me who live ‘full-to-overflowing’ lives every day.
Many of us are so full that we don’t even stop to ask the life and death question the man in Mark’s story rushes up to ask Jesus, “What must I do…?”
Because our TO DO lists are already too full.
We are like this man in Mark’s gospel. When we recognize our over-fullness and try to take Jesus seriously, we attempt to FIX the situation in a typically modern way.
Here’s my attempt at a SIMPLE fix, my i-touch.
You see, this little gadget has truly SIMPLIFIED my life. It’s a real treasure; I am no longer tied to an appointment book because my calendar is here on this small pad.
I don’t have to carry around a study Bible, or my laptop to work, because I have a Bible reader application and WIFI internet for access to resources.
The church directory is right here, no need to carry it. All lists are on one application. (Gone are those endless sticky notes.)
I don’t need to check the answering machine, because my messages are emailed to me in a voice file. Which tells you my ALL IMPORTANT e-mail is available here also, all three of my email accounts.
I have no need of newspapers. I listen to the weather AND view the Doppler radar map, right here.
I’m connected to people around the world through TWITTER and Facebook.
I don’t keep maps stored under the car seat because right here I have Google Maps for specific directions to any place I must be.
Oh, and all my music is here, almost a week of continuous play AND a full-length movie should I end up on a plane with no in-flight movie service.
There’s even a game or two if I were to have time to play.
All this on one, ONE device. See how much simpler my life is? . . .
OBVIOUSLY, I’M FOOLING ONLY MYSELF to call this SIMPLE LIVING.
Actually, the weight of this SINGLE device can be oppressive. I’m still burdened with packages, now electronic, and I’m loaded up with my ever-ready lists of things TO DO.
For many of us, a look at our calendars or our ‘To Do Lists’ tells more about our FULL lives as an inventory of our possessions.
I may take a peek into your purse or pocket and see your smart phone, your pda, or I may see your heavy appointment book and guess that your life is as full as mine.
But Jesus had a way of looking into someone’s eyes and seeing how full their life was and what kind of things weighed them down.
Our lists, our packages and even our words show others what we are serious about. Jesus saw into this (un-named) man’s life when he heard his language of inheritance (1) and immediately saw a man who was trying to insure he got all he was entitled to.
Jesus heard him trying to fix a life weighed down with fullness by asking what he could DO–next. Jesus saw a good man, trying to keep God’s holy law and he also saw a man (who was) trying to be all that he could be.
Jesus cut all the TO DO lists down to the ONE THING that was lacking. “Go, sell what you own, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Even I can see the images in the man’s head. Can you?
“Give it ALL away? Everything?
Clear the lists, empty the accounts?
And have nothing left? How do you DO that?”
We can easily agree with Bethany Seminary professor Dawn Wilhelm, that this is the hardest text in the Bible (2), at least for most of us who live in the United States.
You’ve surely heard the statistics on our accumulation of stuff before. The high numbers of storage unit rentals prove it is hard for the U.S. population to find enough space to keep up with our annual growth in personal consumption of goods.
The Great Recession is slowly changing our rate of consumption, but we all know that we have “many possessions,” as Mark’s text says of this man.
Jesus addresses the issue of all that WE HAVE vs. what so much of the world HAS NOT, when he commands this man to sell and give to the poor.
In Jesus day, wealth was a zero-sum game. If one person had wealth, someone else did not. You got wealth by taking money or property away from others. We call this defrauding. One person’s unlimited potential came at the cost of another’s ability to survive. They did not have the sense of unlimited growth and boundless opportunity that under girds American life.
Over a decade ago, Timothy Weiskel wrote that we were living by an life-threatening “sacred creed” which he called deceptively “pure and simple; more is better and growth is good.” “Anyone who expresses misgivings about this credo is soon taught through public rebuke and personal ridicule that it is blasphemy to question this golden rule of growthism.” (3)
When the first dips of recession began, do you remember what we were told? “Go, buy, and CONSUME, good citizens and your treasure will help us all.” Most of us have accumulated far more than our parents and immensely more than our grandparents. Part of the American Dream has been to earn more and HAVE MORE and BE MORE than the last generation. And our indicators of accomplishment are piling up.
We not only accumulate things but have accepted the ideal of endless human accomplishment. We are wedded to the individual feeling of fulfillment that comes with achievement and getting things done. And we don’t usually look to see if realizing our goals leaves out anyone else along the way. As we add worry about global crises to our lists, maybe its time to see things through Jesus’ eyes.
For us, achievement is equated with identity. “Be All You Can Be” is more than a military recruitment logo. We’ve made it the actualization of the American dream. Maybe it’s our American inheritance; eternal life that is found in endless accomplishments. It is our entitlement, “to pursue happiness” and happiness is defined as achieving position, acquiring quality things, and reaching our full potential.
We need to see what Jesus sees in order to take him seriously. We need to understand how good stewardship of our gifts is related to letting go. Especially when we are so vulnerable to the desire to get everything we can out of life and certainly out of every dollar. Perhaps it’s why Brethren are so susceptible to all-you-can-eat buffets. —- It’s why I try not to finish a worship service early, I want to give everyone their money’s worth….
At times we look at our Mission and Ministry Board and our District Staffs with the same eyes that try to get all we can from each dollar. Are they being all they should be? We ask.
We have even seen parents maximizing the lives of children, packing their weeks with opportunities encouraging them to ‘get everything they can’ from the summer. Our children’s calendars match those of adults; over-full with opportunities to be and to do.
Our pursuit of happiness IS the pursuit of more. We seek to find ourselves by adding and our overflowing lives show what WE still lack. To take Jesus seriously maybe we should subtract. (not add) There was a time when serious discipleship mean stripping the burdens of life away.
There was a day, many centuries ago when Christians turned away from their ‘do more and get more’ world to the sparsity of the desert in order to find themselves in God’s hands.
Richard Foster writes,
“modern society is uncomfortably like the world that the [Desert Fathers] attacked [and left behind]
“Their world asked, ‘How can I get more?’
“The Desert Fathers asked, ‘What can I do without?’
“Their world asked, ‘How can I find myself?’
“The Desert Fathers asked, ‘How can I lose myself?’
“Their world asked, ‘How can I win friends and influence people?’
“The Desert Fathers asked, ‘How can I love God?’ “ (4)
The monastics renounced THINGS and all the POTENTIAL of their lives in order to know the “single eye of simplicity toward God.”
We’d say they became LESS than all they could be…in order to have their arms open for the inheritance of God.
The simplicity of the desert was as hard to embrace then as an empty appointment book is today. We’ve worked hard to accumulate our packages, positions and accomplishments. It is not easy to empty our lists so we can take Jesus seriously. Yet the One we follow emptied himself of everything, even letting go of life itself. . .
Can we look into our minds and hearts the way Jesus looks into eyes and see the one thing we lack?
My single electronic ‘treasure’ reduces the weight of my purse but it adds to the heaviness of my life. We need empty arms to receive the full treasure of Jesus’ gift.
When we ask, how can we be MORE?
Jesus says, “Let go, and come, follow me.”
1 Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm Preaching the Gospel of Mark (Louisville: WJK, 2008) p. 176-182
3 Timothy C. Weiskel “Some Notes From Belshazzar’s Feast” in Simple Living, Compassionate Life (Denver: Morehouse: 2008) p. 168 original publisher, Living the Good News (Denver: 1999)
4 Richard J. Foster, “Simplicity Among the Saints” in Simple Living, Compassionate Life (Denver: Morehouse: 2008) p. 168 original publisher, Living the Good News (Denver: 1999)
The News Team for the 2010 Annual Conference includes writers Karen Garrett, Frank Ramirez, Frances Townsend; photographers Kay Guyer, Justin Hollenberg, Keith Hollenberg, Glenn Riegel; website staff Amy Heckert and Jan Fischer Bachman; and news director and editor Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org .
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