Preached on February 12, 2017
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at The First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are supposed to be heard, not read. You can listen to this sermon here.
When I think of home, I think of a place where there is love overflowin’. This sanctuary is a home of overflowing love for so many. Welcome home.
Please won’t you pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts together find their way into the heart of God this morning. Amen.
My friend Chuck gave all of his money away.
Chuck Collins was 16 when his dad sat him down and told him that he was about to inherit so much money, he’d never have to work a day in his life if he didn’t want to. Chuck was the heir to the Oscar Mayer wiener fortune, and at sixteen, a trust fund was to be set up in his name. The trust would grow to be several million dollars by the time Chuck was middle aged. His father encouraged Chuck to work anyway, as he had, and to not give up who he was or what he wanted to do.
Chuck refers to this experience as “being born on third base.” The money weighed heavily in his pocket, and on his young soul. It felt like both a responsibility and a curse. He knew he didn’t earn it, didn’t deserve it, and that others needed it far more than he did.
And so at age 26, he took his father’s advice of not giving up on who he was, and gave every penny of his inheritance away. He gave away every last cent to foundations and groups that he knew needed funding—organizations working for the environment, peace, racial equality, and indigenous people and gay rights.
(That’s the crazy kind of thing we do when we are idealistic and 26, right? His father asked him if he was becoming a Communist. Chuck answered, “No, a Christian.”)
“Wealth that just creates more wealth seemed wrong,” said my friend Chuck. “The decision to give away my wealth felt like the first real decision I’d ever made,” he wrote in We Gave Away a Fortune. “Life presents only a few crystal-clear opportunities to take risks for what you believe, and this was one.”
Since that day in 1985, Chuck has had a child who is now a beautiful young adult, bought a home in Jamaica Plain in Boston, worked tirelessly at the organization he founded in Boston called “United for a Fair Economy” to create economic justice in the world, served as one of those indispensable pillars at two churches, (one of which I was the intern of), and written several books, including one he co-authored with Bill Gates, Sr. about preserving the estate tax. He has worked with communities on creating financial sustainability for his entire career, promoting the religious value of “Commonwealth.” He has never once regretted his decision to give away his inheritance.
Chuck took the abundance of what was given to him, and has spent his whole life sharing it. He has spent his whole life teaching others how to share it, too.
I’d like to think I’d make the same choice as Chuck, but if I’m being honest, I think I’d keep some of that money. Maybe, just like half a million of it. I’d buy an expensive bag, and some shoes (maybe Fluevogs), and maybe you know, a vacation home in Bali, and college for my kids, of course. Then, maybe, I hope, I’d give the rest away. He was 26 when he gave his money away, so maybe he hadn’t thought about what it would be like to have kids and a mortgage. And maybe he never dreamed of a vacation home in Bali. I know he doesn’t really care about shoes.
What would you do? It’s an interesting thought experiment, anyway. But its one that we can easily remove ourselves from, or distance ourselves from. I think most of us don’t associate ourselves with wealth, or think of ourselves as particularly wealthy. Most of us aren’t in the 1%. Maybe none of us are. And if we are like most Americans, we have a complex relationship to wealth.
Chuck says, in his book “Born on Third Base”,
The relationship status between US people and our super-wealthy is complicated.
At one talk I gave, I asked the audience: “How many of you feel rage toward the wealthiest 1 percent?”
Almost everyone in a room of 350 people raised a hand. There was nervous laughter.
“How many of you have admiration for some of the things wealthy people have done to make our society better?”
About two-thirds of the people in the room raised their hands.
“How many of you wish you were in the wealthiest 1 percent?”
Again almost everyone raised a hand, laughing.
“So you feel enraged, admiring, and wish to be the object of your own anger?” I observed. See, I told you it was complicated.
Most of us are not rich. And many of us approach those we associate with wealth with a mix of rage, admiration, and a covetous desire to be in their shoes. In their Fluevogs.
And so perhaps we approach today’s scripture about the rich young man feeling like we can’t relate to the man in the story, or wishing we could.
Here’s how the story goes.
A rich, very pious and earnest young man says to to Jesus, “what deed do I have to do to receive eternal life?”
And Jesus says, essentially, “why are you asking me this?!” (Jesus is sometimes so cranky). Basically, only God is good, he says. And then Jesus says, but if you wish to enter into life, you should keep the commandments. And the young man said to him, ‘Which ones?’
And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’
(Which just seems to me like asking for trouble. But this young man is maybe idealistic in that 26 year old kind of way.)
And Jesus says this thing that is so demoralizing because it feels so totally impossible. He says “IF YOU WISH TO BE PERFECT, sell all of your possessions, give it all to the poor and follow me.”
And the young rich man walks away completely dejected and grieving because he has so much. He has a mortgage, and children to feed and send to college, and a time share in the Barbados that he quite likes, and a season pass to Davis Farmland. (Those things are expensive! And totally worth it!) He’s going to Disney in April because his 8-year-old has been begging for it for years. And he has a boat out on Lake Winnipesaukee and a Prius. He doesn’t feel like he can give any of that up, much less all of it.
Jesus doesn’t just tell him to sell all his possessions, he also tells him to redistribute his wealth among the poor, to identify with a segment of the population he has probably worked very hard to separate himself from. Perhaps this contributes to the man’s grief. The social costs are just too great.
“It is hard,” Jesus says, “for a rich man to get to heaven.” Like squeezing a camel through the eye of a needle.
The disciples are notably and perhaps rightfully upset by this interaction.
“Then who is saved?” they demand.
Here’s a guy who is doing everything he can to be good. He’s showing up to church every Sunday, he’s volunteering to help in the kitchen at the Caribbean dinner AND the turkey supper, he’s reading his Bible, he’s going to the Dominican Republic to build a hospital with the medical mission team, he is kind to all even before he’s had his coffee in the morning, he’s good to his wife and kids, he takes care of his aging parents and he works hard at his job, and he tithes ten percent of his salary to his church, he gives to NPR or the Goodwill or the Salvation Army or whatever causes he supports, to boot. He’s forgoing buying that home in Bali so he can do all of these things.
And Jesus says “sorry, that’s not enough. You have to give it all away.”
Let’s be honest, Jesus, none of us are going to sell our houses and live in a tent with our kids. And I think we’ve earned that vacation. I know I have. And man, what are we going to do with our toddlers in the summer if we can’t go to Davis Farmland every weekend?
And so we are saying with the disciples, exasperated, “WHO CAN BE SAVED, Jesus?”
“For mortals it is impossible,” Jesus says, infuriatingly. “But with God all things are possible.”
Here’s the point. We cannot save ourselves…that’s impossible. You and I are rich by Jesus standards, regardless of the size of our bank accounts. We live in the wealthiest country in the world. Our disconnect with real poverty is staggering. And on top of that, some of us have quite a lot. And yet, we are not going to sell all of our possessions and redistribute them to the poor.
Most of us wouldn’t, in other words, make the choice that Chuck Collins did, much less go 100% with Jesus.
Jesus, in his hyperbole, just wants us to acknowledge that. He wants to show us that we are rich. He wants to show us that we cannot be perfect; that goodness is reserved for God. He wants us to feel the disconnect between our values of building heaven on earth, and where and what we spend our money on. Perhaps Jesus simply wants us to recognize that we are loved despite the fact that we are miserly, despite the fact that perfection is not a possibility. Perhaps Jesus simply wants us to recognize the hold our possessions have on us, and respond.
Perhaps our response to this disconnect is to loosen our white knuckled grip on our wallets a little bit. Or perhaps it is to loosen our white knuckled grip on our Love.
“Stop being stingy,” Jesus is saying. “With God, everything is possible. With God, the last are first. With God, you are rich in abundance. Give it away. Share the Love.”
Beloved, you and I don’t have to be perfect. Only God is perfect. You and I don’t have to even be Good. Only God is good. You and I are loved anyway. You and I are cherished anyway. Every hair on our heads is counted. You and I do not have to do anything or be anything to earn that love because with God, all things are possible.
But a natural response to this unearned abundance is to give it away. SHARE THE LOVE.
My friend Chuck felt like his unearned wealth was burning a hole in his pocket, so he gave it all away. Not begrudgingly, but to express his gratitude. It set him free. God’s Love is similarly unearned. God’s Love is similarly wasteful: it is extravagant; it is abundant; it is ours’ to keep, no strings attached. Our response should be to love wastefully and extravagantly in return; wherever and whenever we see the need—with our wallets, and with our bodies, and with every bit of our hearts, in every broken and forgotten part of this empire. That love will set us free.
SO GIVE IT AWAY. Share the Love.
If you want to give your love away effectively, pledge a portion of your money to this church—here your money goes directly toward the things you most deeply value. Practice giving your love away without strings or expectations, especially with people you find most unlovable. Come to Eat, Pray, Learn on Wednesday night to learn skills for how to love your neighbor, and especially your enemies. Be part of the Love revolution. Go all in.
Life only creates a few opportunities to take risks for what you believe. So take every opportunity you have. This home is a place where there is love overflowin’. Give it away. Share the Love.
 UU World Magazine, March, 2003
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.