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Sermon: Possessed

October 9, 2009

Mark 10:17-31

The two most joyful times in a boat owner’s life are the day he buys his boat and the day he sells it.  “In between…he pours money into a hole in the water.”  (Kennon Callahan.  Twelve Keys for Living: Possibilities for a Whole, Healthy Life [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998], 88.)

“You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy.”  (Eric Hoffer quoted in Wisdom Quotes.)

“Someone once said a house is a roof under which we store our junk [to] try to keep it dry.”  (Callahan, 88.)

A man “had a workbench stacked high with piles and piles of this and that.  He thought, ‘If I get another workbench, my workshop will be better organized.’  Now he has two workbenches stacked high with piles and piles of this and that.”  (Callahan, 88.)

My cousin wrote an essay in college about all the people who receive the National Geographic magazine, and then, because the photos are so beautiful and the articles so interesting, that they keep all the back issues.  She theorized that there were so many boxes of National Geographics in our garages that the weight would cause California to break off from the continent and slide into the ocean.

We chuckle at these because we all suffer from the disease of our time and culture—junk and the resulting clutter.  It is a suffocating disease, because every time we acquire something new, we have given ourselves a number of new problems, such as:

How and where to store it

How to protect it

Whether to insure it and for how much

How to organize it

How to maintain it

(Callahan, 87-88.)

Yet even so, we have a hard time getting rid of useless possessions.  Part of the reason may be that we still remember the lessons of the Great Depression.  Sometimes we are simply overly sentimental.  Other times, getting rid of a possession may feel like admitting to a mistake, that I never should have bought that piece of junk in the first place.  Who knows why it is difficult for us to get rid of stuff we don’t need?  But I’ve heard the question posed, “if you can’t let go of a possession, who is really possessing whom?”

*     *     *     *     *

A good, faithful man came to Jesus to ask him a question.  “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?”  That’s a great question.  What could be more valuable than to possess eternal life?

So Jesus said to him, “Tell me about the commandments—you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.  How have you done with those?”

“Teacher, I’ve kept all those commandments since I was a little boy.”

Jesus loved this man.  He was well on his way to a good and godly life.  “You lack one thing,” Jesus told him.  “Sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me.”

Those of us who have more than a few possessions ourselves know that this wasn’t just one little thing.  It was a big thing.  The man had many possessions, and this was just something he could not do.  He was shocked.  He turned away, grieving and upset.

Jesus then said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”  He might have added, “If you can’t let go of a possession, who is really possessing whom?”

Jesus can be a hard master.  He was forever telling his followers that they would have to make sacrifices.  He ordered his disciples to travel light, not even to take an extra pair of shoes or a change of clothes.  As Jesus and his crowd traveled along the way, they were a lean operation with no excess baggage whatsoever.  If that man wanted to follow them, he had to cut all the ties that kept him tethered.  It makes a modern day disciple wonder just what Jesus would ask of us.

It is certainly possible that we are meant to read this story as one particular incident and a proclamation to an individual that the specific teaching isn’t necessarily meant for all of us.  Maybe Jesus knew that man needed to sell everything he owned, and that you don’t.  (Or maybe you do.)  Not everybody struggles with the same issues.  I have a hard time believing that Jesus would have given the same advice to Gandhi or to some monk living in a cave in the wilderness.  Rather than forsaking all my possessions, Jesus just might tell me that I should get rid of my Xbox, or that you should give up coffee…or your cat.

This text is certainly about possessions and wealth to some degree.  We all know from experience that they can tangle us up and prevent us from living whole, healthy lives in the grace of God.  “Things” and money have that kind of power.

But this text is also not about possessions.  It is about the surpassing value of a true relationship with God, and the necessity of clearing out the underbrush of our lives that blocks that relationship.  It may be that the crush of things prevents you and me from being truly free in our relationships with God and others.  It may be that we are possessed by something else entirely.  In that sense, this text is not about things, but about simplifying our lives so that the most important things take their rightful place.

I think most of you would agree with me that simplifying our lives would be a good thing.  We have so many activities and meetings, so many people to see and places to go, a car that needs an oil change, a suit that needs cleaned, a granddaughter that needs lots of hugs, that the complexity of our lives seems to overwhelm us.  And, in fact, it does overwhelm us.

In one study, participants were assigned to one of two groups.  Members of one group had a series of detailed and complex choices to make, from comparing consumer products to selecting a college.  Members of the other group did not have to make any decisions.  It turns out—to no one’s surprise—that the act of making complex decisions makes the human brain tired.  The people who had to choose made more errors on math problems and had more difficulty completing simple tasks.  (Kelli Miller Stacey, “Too Many Choices Exhaust the Brain, WebMD.)  Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, says, “There’s a point where all of this choice starts to be not only unproductive, but counterproductive—a source of pain, regret, worry about missed opportunities and unrealistically high expectations.”  (Tori DeAngelis, “Too many choices?” Monitor on Psychology (American Psychological Association).)

That’s not news to us.  We ache for more simple, uncomplicated lives.  Jesus saw the human need to clear out the barriers to true life and true relationship with God.  When the unimportant overwhelms us, the truly important is lost to us.

What may be news to us is that each of us has a lot of control over making life more simple.  Yes, there will always be demands that others put on us—employers, friends and family, the IRS—but we get to choose how we respond to those demands.  Not every request requires that we comply.  (Unless your pastor is asking you to do something, and then you have to say “yes.”)  Sometimes I want to be a nice guy, and so I say yes to everyone and everything.  That’s not helpful.

Yet a lot of the complexity in our lives is of our own making.  Think of all the junk in the garage.  Think about your desire to be so helpful to your kids that you enroll them in soccer, baseball, ballet, the Boy Scouts and the Girls Scouts, trumpet lessons and to top it all off, you buy them a puppy.  Sure, they’re your kids, but who gets to drive them to all those places, buy all the equipment necessary to participate, attend the mandatory parent meetings and walk the dog?  Sometimes we set unrealistic expectations about what we can accomplish, and so get wrapped up in a web that ensnares your life.  It feels like you can’t move.  It feels like you don’t even have two extra seconds to utter a prayer: “Dear God, please help me!”  It is no wonder that some people feel relief when they get sick and have to stay home or even go to the hospital.  They can finally rest and relax.

We have the choice, we have the power to simplify.  But it would be a mistake to try to fix the problem of complexity in our lives using the same method that got us into trouble in the first place, namely, trying to do it all at once.  Instead, start with one simple change.  Eliminate something.  Get rid of one thing that is contributing to the overwhelming complexity in your life.  It might be a possession.  It might be an activity.  It might be an attitude.

Get rid of it, and replace it with…nothing!  Use the time and energy it formerly sucked out of your life to do nothing.  Just be.  If you have to do something, hug somebody.  Look at the moon.  Close your eyes.

Now, because today’s text is about the immense value of relationship with God and the kingdom, I want you to get rid of one more complexity.  You get to choose.  This time, replace that time and energy with something that will build your relationship to God.  It could be a few moments of prayer or Bible reading.  You could reach out and serve some of God’s people.  The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

The whole idea here is to travel lightly through the journey of life, just like Jesus and his disciples.  Because they weren’t weighed down with an enormous number of ties and things, they could be truly free.  When they emptied their lives, they could be possessed, possessed by the grace of God, possessed by love for others, possessed by a free Spirit.

It is a beautiful thing, this idea of a simple life.  Take one step toward that life.  Try it.  You might decide you’d like to take a second step.

Ask the question, “Who is it that really possesses whom around here?”

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