Defying Gravity Week 1
Passage: Matthew 19:16–19:26
This happens to me a few times a month and I want to see if this happens to you too. Twice a month I will go out to get the mail, well I go get the mail almost daily but there are two very special times a month, and I will discover this magical booklet of BJ’s coupons. I will take them inside, put the other mail on the kitchen table, and then open the magical booklet. And inside it I will discover a whole host of things that I never knew I wanted. I will discover a number of things that up until that moment of discovery would never have bought. Because very soon I will go to BJ’s, coupons in hand, and a strange dance will take place where I look at a box of 48 Pillsbury frozen mini cinnamon rolls and think “I would never have bought this under normal circumstances, but the opportunity to save $1.50 makes them look even more delicious.”
Or how about on Sunday mornings when the weekly sale ads come to the door? Has anyone ever looked through the Target ad only to discover that yes indeed there are some things I need and wouldn’t you know it, they’re on sale!
Please tell me I’m not alone on this island.
The last three hundred years of scientific discovery have opened our eyes to the myriad of invisible forces that are all around us. Perhaps the first discovery of these unseen forces was gravity, a force we rely on for all of life’s functions and yet cannot see and really don’t understand. But gravity truly was only the beginning. Not only did we discover other invisible forces at work, like radiation and microwaves, but we learned how to harness these forces. Because of that our daily lives have come to revolve around human harnessing of invisible forces. My phone always knows where I am, can help me get to where I need to get to, and can tell me any information I would ever need to know, and sometimes take phone calls, because of invisible waves. My lunch will be heated up very quickly because of invisible forces. Medical science continues to make incredible advances because of harnessing invisible forces.
But, as fans of Back to the Future are all too keenly aware, we have yet to harness the force of gravity. #wheresmyhoverboard
This morning I want to talk about another type of invisible force that is constantly pulling on us. Another sort of gravity if you will. This morning I want to talk about the financial gravity that we all experience in our daily lives. This financial gravity works on us in ways that can be difficult to notice, but have a profound impact on the choices we make, the lives we lead, and if we take Jesus at his word, our discipleship and salvation.
Financial gravity is at work on me when I get the BJ’s coupon book. Financial gravity is at work on me when the Sunday ads come. Financial gravity is at work on me when I’m watching television and watch commercials, when Kirk Cousins is using a Microsoft Surface, when the cool character in the show is using an Apple laptop. Recently my son has began paying attention to the commercials during his kids tv shows. He used to stop watching and play during the shows, but now he sees the toy commercials and watches intently. And afterwards he will look at me and say “Daddy, I think I would like to play with that.” Translation: buy that for me.
We are pulled more and more towards consumption. We are pulled more and more towards buying more things, having more things, having better things, and doing more things. And it is happening to us all the time. Imagine trying to go for a whole day without feeling the pull of financial gravity. How could you escape? You couldn’t leave your house, that’s for sure, as you’d most assuredly encounter a billboard ad or an ad in the widow of a fast food restaurant, gas station, or store. You couldn’t turn on the tv or listen to the radio. Even watching Netflix of Amazon Prime or Hulu offers you more shows to watch, more reasons to extend your subscription, more reasons to get faster internet speed or a better smart tv. While it would be possible to escape financial gravity for a day, perhaps a day spent on the deck reading a book which sounds wonderful, we certainly couldn’t do it for very long. Because soon enough we would need to re-enter the world of financial gravity in order to have our needs of food, water, clothing, and shelter met even as that gravity leads us out of meeting our needs to fulfilling our wants.
Financial gravity pulls us towards more and more consumption. Financial gravity pulls us from meeting our needs as creatures to satisfying our wants and then satisfying more and more of our wants. This force is working on us constantly. But this force has always been there, for centuries. This is not a 21st Century problem, although the 21st Century presents unique ways of dealing with this. This was a problem even in Jesus’ day and we have a story in the Gospels, a couple stories really, but one in particular of a person dealing with the force of financial gravity.
Matthew 19:16-26 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he inquired. Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
This young man comes up to Jesus and asks a question: What good thing must I do to get eternal life? Now this is a young man after my own heart. He just seems lovingly obnoxious. Jesus gives the kind of stock answer to his question, keep the commandments. The lovingly obnoxious young man then asks which ones. This could be an honest question, given there were over 600 laws in Torah, which ones were the big ones. We ask this all the time. Frankly Jesus would have been justified to say all of them, not unlike when a child asks how many bites of vegetables do I have to eat before I can be done, but Jesus lists a few. The young man says that he has done all of these. What then is he lacking?
I want to break into the story here because the 10 Commandments can be broken down into two categories. There are the commandments that govern our relationship with God and Commandments that involve our relationship with other people. The ones that involve our relationship with other people are, as you might imagine, honor thy father and mother, shalt not kill, shalt not commit adultery, shalt not steal, shalt not bear false witness, and shalt not covet. Jesus named all of these but one. The commandments that govern our relationship with God are thou shalt not have any other gods before me, shalt not make graven images, shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain, and remember the sabbath. Jesus did not mention any of these.
I’m gonna let that hang for a second as we return to the story.
So Jesus says to the young man if you will be perfect, sell all that you have, give it to the poor and follow me. What an opportunity this is for this young man. Jesus if giving him a literal once in a lifetime chance to follow the Messiah, the Christ in the final weeks, months, year of his earthly ministry. To hear the teachings first hand. To see the miracles. To be there. How many people go to the Holy Land every year to see places where we think at one time Jesus was. And here this man has a chance to be there. Right in the middle of the action.
And what’s more Jesus says if he does this then he will be perfect. If you’re telling me there’s one quick and easy action that I could do to be perfect, I’d at least have to think long and hard about it.
So who wouldn’t want to jump at that chance. To be one of Jesus’ disciples. To be declared perfect by Jesus the Christ.
All he has to do is sell all that he has and give it to the poor.
He can’t do it.
He can’t sell all he has. He can’t give it up. He can’t do the one thing, the one thing that would let him freely follow Jesus, the one thing that would make him perfect. And wouldn’t you know, in refusing and walking away he’s showing he can’t follow one of the 10 commandments? The one involving people that Jesus didn’t ask him. Thou shalt not covet. He loves his things too much. He covets his wealth. He can’t leave them behind. He walks away sad. He walks away grieving.
And Jesus turns to his disciples and says it is hard for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. I find it interesting that Jesus connects what has just happened to the Kingdom of God. And I find it interesting because the commandments Jesus didn’t list to the young man were either about coveting or about our relationship with God. And I wonder if there’s a connection there.
You see, in the Kingdom of God, God is king. Duh. Jesus talks about entering the Kingdom of God and that the rich young man was unable to enter into it. Which means he must be living in something other than the Kingdom of God. In his book Defying Gravity which is the foundation of this sermon series, Tom Berlin talks about how its possible for us to live in a kingdom of the self. That we like to live in a place where I am king. Where I make my own decisions. Where I have complete rule. The rich young man liked living in his own kingdom. Where he could decide what things he had and what things he would give up. What he was willing to do and what he was unwilling to do. He liked being the ultimate authority on what things would command his attention and devotion.
The rich young man liked being able to choose what he loved. What he found valuable. What he found desirable.
And I think therein lies the connection between coveting and our relationship with God. This rich young man loved his things more than he loved God. He coveted his own possessions over desiring to follow the Messiah. And because of that, his relationship with God was out of whack. His possessions, his wealth had such a hold on him that he couldn’t be drawn into a right relationship with God. The gravitational pull of his wealth and possessions was too great.
That gravitational pull affects us all. Jesus says its hard for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God. It’s hard to defy gravity. It’s hard to defy the gravitational pull of wealth and possessions. Jesus says its harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Which is a really weird analogy to make. Like, where did that come from Jesus.
Well in the city of Jerusalem there was a gate called the needle gate. The main gate of the old city of Jerusalem was wide. Like a normal great city gate. But there was a secondary gate called the needle gate that could be accessed if an invading army was coming in. The gate was not big enough for an army to get through and could form a choke point if an army tried to get in. But it was perfect for smugglers running supplies into the city during a siege. When Jesus talks about a camel going throw the eye of a needle, he’s very likely talking about the needle gate. In order for a camel to go through the needle gate, the camel would have to get down and essentially crawl through. Not easy to get a camel to do that.
But what’s more, camels were beasts of burden. A camel traveling to Jerusalem would not just be carrying people, the camel’s main purpose would be to carry stuff. Food. Spices. Goods. Money. And if a camel weighed down with stuff were to attempt to pass through the needle gate, the saddle bags, the stuff would have to be removed.
This is the way gravity works. Things that have more mass create greater gravitational force. The earth has enough gravitational force to hold the moon in orbit. The sun, having a much greater mass than the earth, generates enough gravitational force to hold the whole solar system in orbit. And I myself have gravitational force enough to keep donuts constantly around me. Yeah, that one was really bad.
The same can hold true for wealth and possessions. The more we have, the greater the force of financial gravity on us to keep the things we have and to get more. I know I’ve said this before, but there was a survey done that revealed the vast majority of Americans believed that if they earned 10% more they would feel they were on good financial footing. We all think that we need just a bit more to have all we need. Financial gravity is hard for us, who live in the midst of such affluence, to overcome. We feel it in ways more acutely because of our connection and association with places of greater wealth.
Yet Jesus says to fully enter into the Kingdom of God we need to defy that gravity. We need to overcome the financial gravity that calls us to consume more, to acquire more, to have more. We need to resist the pull our society places on us to have the newest thing, the biggest thing, the best thing. Instead we need to come to see that the Kingdom of God is the best thing.
But the first step in defying gravity is understanding that it is a force operating on us in the first place. We need to see this is something at work in our lives, at play in our lives. We need to see the ways this force works in us, the ways the force changes our attitudes and behaviors, the way the force affects what we desire. And we have to understand that this force is actively working against our discipleship, actively working against our ability to follow Jesus, actively working against us fully entering into the Kingdom of God.
And over the next few weeks we are going to be talking about how to defy gravity. We defy gravity through learning how to be generous. We break free from the culture of more by becoming generous people who give of our time, our talents, and our treasure. We’re going to talk about financial planning and doing homework to be able to prepare for generosity. We’re going to talk about stewardship and financial giving.
Which I get is a little awkward. Much as there is a pull in our culture towards having more, consuming more, there’s a pull for pastors to not talk about money. Because it’s awkward. And yet we are going to do it for a couple weeks. So from the outset I want to do something even more awkward so that the most awkward moment of this sermon series can be out of the way.
All this talk about defying gravity has got one song stuck in my head. And some of you might have had the song stuck in your head too. So as we consider the financial gravity we all feel that can hinder our discipleship and strategies to break free, I have only one response
It's time to try
I think I'll try
And you can't bring me down!
It can’t get any more awkward than that. But friends let us all try to defy gravity. And see if we can’t break free from the culture of more. Let us pray.