In J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings, and in the prequel The Hobbit, there is a character named Smeagol, also known as Gollum. In The Lord of the Rings, the hobbit named Frodo Baggins is on a quest to destroy the One Ring that gives the evil Dark Lord, Sauron, all of his power. For many years, this ring was lost and, unbeknownst to the outside world, in the possession of Smeagol. But, over the many years he had it, this ring exerted its evil influence on Smeagol, so that he became obsessed with it. He neglected everything else in life and focused intently on this ring, so that gradually, the person he once was disappeared, the ring took over his life, and he became the creature known as Gollum. And Gollum called the ring, “My precious” and had conversations with it, as it continued to exert its evil influence, inducing Gollum to steal, murder, lie, and cheat. In his obsession with the ring, his precious, Gollum lost any quality of life that he may have once had.
I think that something similar is going on here in the story of the man who has a lot of wealth and who can’t give it up. I think the man has a truly sincere desire to enter the kingdom of God. He has done everything that is expected of him under the law. And before I get to the main point of this sermon, I want to take a moment to speak of the man’s response to Jesus that he has kept all of these commandments since his youth. I have heard sermons on this story in the past where the preacher has scoffed at the man’s arrogance, to think that he has kept every commandment perfectly, when we all know that we can’t do that. Ask our confirmation kids about our discussion about the commandment to “Honor your father and your mother.” The man in the story, though, is not claiming that he has kept the commandments perfectly. Richard Swanson, a professor at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, writes that what the man is claiming is that he has “fulfilled his responsibilities as a Jewish adult. . . . He has done what he is responsible to do, including making restitution for his failings along the way.” In other words, he has done all of the things that he knows are the right things to do, but he still feels like he’s missing something.
What Jesus says he is missing should shock all of us. How in the world can Jesus tell this man to go and sell all that he owns, and then come and follow him? Jesus can tell him this, because, to this man, his wealth was “his precious,” the one thing in life that he could not do without. In those days, as it sometimes is now, wealth was seen as a blessing from God, and now Jesus is telling this rich man that the very evidence that he was blessed by God is standing in the way of his having a closer relationship with God. Well, no wonder the disciples were perplexed and astounded when they saw this interaction! If even those who are supposed to be enjoying God’s blessings will find it hard to enter the kingdom of God, then indeed, who can be saved?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, what is standing in our way of fully entering the kingdom of God? What is the one precious thing in our lives that Jesus may be asking us to give up in order to enter into a more abundant life here and to enter the kingdom of God? Well, I do think that this is a question that needs to have some deeper reflection in your one-on-one prayer time with God. But here and now, today, let’s think of our life together as a congregation. What may be standing in our way of having that more abundant life and entering the kingdom of God?
Let’s start with the obvious question that gets raised in the text: money. We don’t like to talk about money in our society. We think it’s impolite. But, it’s been said by scholars that Jesus talked more about money in the Gospels, and how we use it, than any other issue. So, I’m going to be brave today and talk a little bit about how we deal with money here at Hope Lutheran. And the first thing I’m going to say is this: Hope Lutheran is a congregation who gives money well. Whether it’s regular offerings or special causes, I have seen no hesitation among any of you to give of your money, whether a small or a large amount. You are to be commended for being, in fact, cheerful givers.
But, as we look at our income and our budgets, could we be giving more to the church? Is money, or the fear of lack of money, standing in the way of us knowing a more abundant life with Christ? Could we as a congregation be doing more in the community to share the love of God in Jesus if we had more money? Are we more willing to give of our money to specific budget line items or specific causes than we are to general operating costs? Again, I think this is something for us as a congregation to reflect upon and to discuss among ourselves, rather than have me make pronouncements on it from the pulpit. But as we are entering the fall season, where stewardship questions become more prominent, this is something for us to be reflecting upon and praying over. What is “our precious”? What is that one thing about how we deal with money as a congregation that Jesus is asking us to give up, so that we may enter the kingdom of God and more truly follow him?
Besides money issues, what else might Jesus be asking us as a congregation to give up? One idea that I would like to put forward for your consideration is this: how we “do” outreach here at Hope. The traditional model of doing outreach was along the lines of the movie, “Field of Dreams,” starring Kevin Costner: “Build it and they will come.” It used to be that everyone came to church every Sunday, and all we had to do was build bigger buildings and larger Sunday school and youth programs, and the people would flock to us. Well, now we live in a world where that is no longer the case. I know that most of you are aware of this, as we look around and see many empty spaces in the pews where once upon a time they were filled. And yet, I think as a congregation we are still stuck in the old ways of doing things. When we think about outreach events, we are still thinking: What thing can we do that will “work,” so that more people come to worship and Sunday school?
I’d like to tell you a story about my missionary days in Taiwan. At some point in our education about Taiwanese society, we learned that only about 5 or 6% of the population, tops, counted themselves as Christian. I was a volunteer missionary for 2 ½ years. There were career missionaries there who counted themselves lucky if, in their entire time there, they saw one person come to faith in Jesus Christ and become baptized. We were told that if we got to see something like that in our short time there, we should count ourselves extremely blessed. Furthermore, if we were able to nurture someone in the Christian faith, and they began attending worship services at a different congregation, we were taught not to be upset but to rejoice that they were hearing the good news, even if it wasn’t at our congregation. But, for the most part, we were to view ourselves as planting seeds, and to expect that the harvest, if it would come, would happen many years from our time there, and that someone else would see the result.
Friends, I would like to suggest that today Jesus is asking us to give up our old ways and our old mindset of reaching out to others around us, and to enter the mindset of being in a missionary field where we are planting seeds without expecting to see the harvest, and being exceedingly thankful if we do see that. I know this is a hard thing to do: our goal, our “precious,” when planning events is to see the people that come to the event also want to come to worship right away. And we have done several events since I have been here that have been good witnesses to the love of Jesus Christ to the community, but have not always brought in more people. I know that’s been discouraging to some, and has resulted in us thinking that “Nothing that we do works.” But friends, we don’t know that what we have done hasn’t “worked”. We have planted seeds, and it is up to the Holy Spirit to continue to work within us and within other Christians to help make those seeds grow. And we are called to continue to reach out in various ways to witness to the love of Jesus Christ to the community, regardless of whether or not more people come to worship on Sunday morning. Giving ourselves away, regardless of the outcome, is the way that Jesus is calling us to follow him and to joyfully enter the kingdom of God.
All of this may seem impossible to us. We may want to hang on tightly to our money and to our old ways of doing outreach because they are comfortable to us. What Jesus is asking of us may seem as difficult as getting a camel through the eye of a needle. We may look around and ask, with the disciples, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus responds to us, as well as to the disciples, “With mortals, this is impossible, but not with God; for with God, all things are possible.” When we believe that all things are possible with God’s help, then nothing will be impossible for us. And let us not forget, too, that Mark tells us that Jesus looked at the rich man and loved him. Jesus loves us, too, and sends his Holy Spirit to encourage us when he asks us to give up something that is precious to us. Let us go forward in the power of that Holy Spirit, resting securely in Jesus’ love, and not fearing what Jesus asks us to give up for the sake of God’s kingdom. Amen.