Matthew 19:16-22; Proverbs 3:13-19
In 1878, a Bishop in the Church of the United Brethern, the same denomination that will become the United part of the United Methodist Church a hundred years later, gave his sons a flying paper toy, one of the first concepts of a helicopter. They were amazed at this simple, small, flying paper machine, and after they broke it from so much play, they created their own. What their father couldn’t have known, is that Orville and Wilbur Wright, known for being the first men in flight with an airplane, gave credit to that small toy as being the start of their curiosity about flight.
Ever since Newton named gravity as the force that is keeping our feet on the ground, people have been dreaming about defying gravity through all kinds of flight— whether it be the dreams of children who want to fly with a cape, young adults parachuting out of airplanes, or astronauts launching themselves into space— there is something about the vastness of the sky that draws our daydreams and our inventions to explore it. To be airborne, to fly like a bird, to be weightless— seems like a magical thing. Even our cathedrals and churches have been constructed to bring our thoughts and eyes up while our feet are firmly planted on the ground.
Tom Berlin, in his book “Defying Gravity,” says that just as there is this force of gravity on the earth, there is a financial gravity that exists in the economic world where we live each day, and it is this force that compels us to pursue basic necessities like food, shelter, and clothing for ourselves and those we love. This is a useful financial gravity, for it pulls us to be good stewards of all that we have and to learn how to manage what we have so that we can be generous and use our resources wisely.
But this financial gravity can also become terribly burdensome. Like real gravity, there is a magnetic pull that happens when we amass a lot of wealth or a lot of debt or just a lot of worry and focus on money. And this financial gravity can cause us to change the way we live our lives so that we end up saying “no,” when we want to say “yes.”
In our Gospel this morning a man comes to Jesus longing to be wise and courageous and faithful. He has learned the Scriptures; he has studied the interpretations; he has been listening to this man named Jesus and is so excited to come and talk with him and ask his questions. So he asks Jesus what he will need to do to have eternal life and Jesus tells him, like any good Jewish man would, to follow the commandments. Now, if the man was wise, he would’ve stopped there. But he is not content with that. He’s been following the commandments. He knows he’s missing something. He knows there must be more. So he asks, “What am I missing?”— Jesus responds honestly, “Go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Then follow me.” And the man goes away sad, we are told, because he has many possessions.
It is at that moment that the rich man realizes the pull of his own financial gravity. Like the weight of the earth, keeping the moon orbiting around itself, this man’s money and possessions are creating a force that keeps him in orbit around them. And before you write yourself out of this story because you don’t think you’re that rich, let’s just take a moment and sit in the awkwardness of it all. Because it’s not really about the man’s wealth— it’s about how he has prioritized his possessions above what he feels in his heart he needs— which is to follow Jesus.
Why else would the man come and ask Jesus what he needs to really have life? Why else would this man, after Jesus has told him to follow the commandments and the man realizes he’s home free because he has been following the commandments— why at that moment would he stop and ask Jesus “what else am I missing?” This man knows he’s missing something. He feels that ache of having everything he thought he wanted and finding out it’s not enough. But when Jesus tells him what will truly give him life— to give it all up and follow— the man can’t seem to do it. The pull of his own financial gravity is too strong. It is true that the more you have, the stronger that pull can be, but this isn’t a lesson reserved for wealthy people. I have known people will very little who have chosen to cling to what they have instead of following Jesus and I have known people with a lot of wealth who have chosen to give most of it away because they found joy in generosity and realized that clinging to it didn’t help them follow Jesus.
And most of us, of course, are somewhere in between. But acknowledging the way that your outlook on your finances affects your own ability to be faithful to God, is the first step. We have to discover and confess, what part financial gravity plays in our lives in order to be freed from it.
Financial gravity’s pull is to own us— collect more things, collect more experiences, collect more wealth, collect more stuff from amazon that comes in two days, collect more __.... you fill in the blank for you. But what are we really doing? Collecting discontent. And as children of God who are called to be stewards, God desires for us not to be controlled by financial gravity, but rather to be freed from it so that we can live our best selves by following Jesus. To be freed from discontentment; to be freed from our constant wants which never seem to end; to focus our lives not on what we want, but instead to focus our lives on God’s Kingdom. It means learning how to give up our idols, to let go of the things that ultimately cannot make us happy, and to serve the One who created us and loves us.
The rich man comes to Jesus asking the question of what else is he missing, and you might want to ask Jesus back, why Jesus? Why must he sell everything he has? But the answer is in those last words— follow me. This man had a chance to be a disciple of Jesus. He had a chance to be part of the transformation of the world. So why did he have to give up all of his possessions in order to do that? Because he couldn’t take them with him. What would it look like to be following Jesus with a caravan of possessions 15 trailers long? It would be ridiculous. Is it any less ridiculous for us today? This tells us a lot about what it means to follow Jesus— that we already have everything that we need; that we don’t need a lot of fancy tools or equipment to be a disciple; that we need to be adaptable enough to go where God calls us; and that our focus needs to be solely on God’s Kingdom and who God is, not on building our own kingdoms.
There’s a picture book called The Quiltmaker’s Gift that was written quite a few years ago now. It’s about a King who becomes obsessed with owning every good thing in the world. He becomes obsessed by this idea because he feels so empty— he just keeps trying to find the one thing that he is missing and sends out armies to find beautiful things in the world. One day one of his men finds the quilt maker, living alone and piecing together beautiful handmade quilts. The King knows he must have one, so he goes to see her and asks her how much her quilts are. She laughs at his question and explains that she only makes the quilts for those with nothing. The King threatens her on several occasions, trying to make her make him a quilt, but instead of wearing her down, her integrity and joy wears him down until he realizes he wants what she has and she tells him that he must begin to give away the things he has and when he has given them all away, she will give him his quilt. The king finds this impossibly difficult at first, but he begins slowly, giving away a marble here and a toy there. And somewhere along the way, he begins to find the deep and abiding joy in finding the right people to give each thing to. He travels around the world and many many years go by as he gives away everything he has. When you get to the end of the book and the King has come full circle, happening upon the Quiltmaker as he is at the end of his journeys, he tells her that he has left one more present just for her— his throne— so that she can quilt in the most comfortable chair in the world. By this time the King seems to almost have forgotten his original hope— to receive the quilt— for when the Quiltmaker gives him his quilt, telling him that he can have it now that he has nothing, he laughs and tells her he is not empty at all— he has everything he had ever hoped for, everything he had always dreamed.
How are you being pulled by financial gravity in your life? And do you want to be set free? Next week we’ll look at what it takes to truly break free and to find the life that Jesus desires for us. But I want to leave you with the good news that Jesus is still offering us life as he did to the man that day. May we have the courage to say yes.
Resources Cited/Consulted: Defying Gravity by Tom Berlin The Quiltmaker’s Gift by Jeff Brumbau