We’ve heard a lot about Koinonia Farm over the last couple of years. Koinonia started as an interracial Christian community in Southwest Georgia in the 1940s. Under the leadership of Clarence Jordan, the community tried as best it could to live out the Sermon on the Mount.
From time to time, people saw what was happening at Koinonia and wanted to join. One such person arrived one day in an old black jalopy. A middle aged woman emerged from the car, looked around the place, and told Clarence she wanted to join the community. “He encouraged her and explained in detail what Koinonia was striving to be, how one must surrender [herself] totally to Christ, including all [her] earthly possessions. At Koinonia, he said, this is achieved by asking everyone to enter the fellowship in a common condition known as “flat broke.” At this, her eyebrows jerked upward in alarm, and she cautiously began asking questions.
“Clarence was perplexed. ‘I couldn’t understand it,’ he said. ‘As poor as she looked, I was really surprised. Jesus said it would be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom, but we’d never even had one apply at our place. She was really quite agitated.’
“Clarence asked her what difficult there would be with relinquishing her possessions. She had a fair-size difficulty, somewhere between $80,000 and $90,000. “Clarence swallowed two or three times and then reasserted that she would have to dispose of the money to become a part of Koinonia. How, she asked? Give it to the poor, he said, give it to your relatives, throw it over a bridge—but you must enter the fellowship without it.
What about giving it to Koinonia Farm? she asked. “Clarence grinned, and replied: ‘No. If you put that money in here several things would happen. First of all, we’d quit growing peanuts and start discussing theology. That wouldn’t be a healthy condition for us. And in the next place, unless I miss my guess, you are a very lonely person, and you are lonely because you think every friend you ever had is after your money.’ She confirmed that judgment.
“’Well,’ Clarence continued, ‘if you put that money in here, you would think we courted you for your money, that we loved you for your money. And in the next place, if you put that money in here you would get the idea you were God’s guardian angel, that you endowed the rest of us, and that all of us ought to be grateful to you for your beneficence.’
“She was listening; Clarence pressed his point: ‘Now for your sake and for our sakes, you get rid of that money and come walk this way with us.’ Tearfully, the woman replied: ‘I can’t do it.’ She packed her old car and left. (Lee, Dallas. Cotton Patch Evidence, 86-7)
I wonder what led that woman to Koinonia. Loneliness? A feeling that, despite all her possessions, her life lacked something? A desire to be part of something bigger than herself?
I wonder if the man in today’s Gospel lesson was feeling some of the same things—lost, lonely, lacking in purpose. Whatever the reason, he ran up to Jesus, knelt down, and begged: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Were you surprised when you heard Jesus’ response? This man comes up desperately seeking eternal life….You’d think Jesus would applaud the man, say, Hey, let’s step in here to Starbucks and talk about this over a cup of joe. But, no. Rather than praise the man for his seeking, Jesus gets snarky. “Why do you call me good?” he says. “No one is good—except God alone.” See? Snarky. Why give this man grief for just calling him “good?”
Who knows? Maybe Jesus was having a bad day; he has a lot of those in the Gospel of Mark. Or maybe he suspected this man of trying to curry favour. Running up? Kneeling down? Begging? All those actions were far beneath the wealthy man’s station. Maybe Jesus quibbles about who is good as a way of cutting through the man’s game: You’re playing humble, but are you really humble? Or are you just trying to butter me up to get what you want?
But after the snarky comment, Jesus goes on, sounding appropriately rabbinical again: “You know the commandments, he says. “Don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or cheat; always do your mama and daddy proud.” “Teacher,” the man says—see? He’s been listening. No more “Good Teacher,” just “Teacher….” “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
To this point, you get the sense that Jesus has been testing the man. So, you’ve run up, knelt down, called me good. Whatever.
But when the man says, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was boy…” Something about that statement, or maybe it’s the way the man says it…whatever it is, you can almost see Jesus soften. It’s like he finally gets this man’s desperation. The man has everything money can buy, everything except the one thing he wants—eternal life, happiness, a sense of wholeness. He has all the money he could ever need, but still his life is lacking something, something crucial. “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.” And what does Jesus do in response? He looks at the man, Mark tells us, he looks at the man and loves him…or, as we like to say around here, Jesus looks at the man and wants to act him into well-being.
And here are the loving words Jesus chooses, words he knows will act the man into well-being: “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Jesus doesn’t make this statement to be mean or because he’s a socialist commie or anything like that. Jesus makes this statement out of love for the man. He’s seen how desperate the man is for a more fulfilling life. Having all the material things he wants and needs hasn’t met the man’s spiritual needs. Being faithful in his religious life hasn’t fulfilled him, either. Despite everything, the man still lacks something.
Jesus knows what it is…and so, in love, he tells him: get rid of your possessions. Why? Because those things are possessing you. Get rid of them and follow me. “At this the man’s face fell,” Mark tells us. “He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
Tom Shadyac became a VERY successful film director when he cast newcomer Jim Carey as Ace Ventura. Subsequent films like Liar, Liar and Bruce, Almighty made Shadyac very rich. He got so successful, in fact, that he bought a mansion in Beverly Hills. “But something happened to me when I bought my first house in Beverly Hills that took an edge off my buzz,” Shadyac says. “I was standing alone in the foyer after the movers had just left and I was struck with one very clear, very strange feeling—I was no happier. There I was standing in a house my culture had taught me was a measure of the good life. And it made me absolutely no happier.”
A few years later, Shadyac wrecked his bike and suffered a concussion. The effects of the concussion lingered; Tom thought he might die. That experience gave him perspective. And it raised two questions for him: First, What’s wrong with the world? And, second, What can we do about it?
Being a film director, Shadyac set out to answer the questions by interviewing several wise people for a film he called I Am. The film’s title comes from a quote by G. K. Chesterton. The London Times once asked Chesterton to write an essay on what he saw was wrong with the world. Chesterton wrote back: “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely, G. K. Chesterton.”
Like Chesterton, Shadyac recognized that, despite his love for the world and his desire to do well, he actually was a part of the world’s problems. He had bought in—literally—to the idea that more is better, that acquiring is the mark of success and happiness. What was wrong with the world? He was.
But what about the second question? What can we do about what’s wrong with the world? Here’s how Shadyac answered the question after interviewing others: We solve the world’s problems by “realizing and acting as if we are all connected, not separated.”
Shadyac’s response to this realization was to sell his estate and most of its furnishings and art. He started biking to work; he moved into a mobile home community in North Malibu. He also started teaching at a local university about the things he’d been learning.
Of these changes, Shadyac says: “There’s an old voice in me that’s saying I’m insane because I’ve left the world’s carrot and I’ve gone a way the world wouldn’t call a successful way to live. But it feels almost the opposite.”
Strange, huh? That separating himself from his possessions helped him connect with the world and the people around him? Or maybe not so strange. Maybe that’s why Clarence Jordan told the woman in the black jalopy to get rid of her wealth before joining Kononia—because he knew that doing so would contribute to her well-being. And maybe that’s why Jesus told the rich man to sell all he had—because he knew that was the one thing that would act the man into well-being. Maybe….
I do have one lingering question about today’s gospel lesson. Mark tells us “the man’s face fell” when Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Here’s my question: Did the man stay sad? Did he hear Jesus’ words then go back to his life as if he’d never heard them? Or did he grieve for a while, then—still desperate for eternal life— did he go sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, look Jesus up, and start following him?
Changing your life—especially when it relates to your lifestyle—that’s hard. And it does involving grieving. We work hard for the nicer things in life. Giving them up? That’s hard.
But there can be life beyond the grieving. Once we adjust to our new way of living—that is, sharing what we have with others for the sake of God’s kin-dom—on the far side of mourning can be an unbridle joy –and freedom — we have ever known.
So, I guess all of this brings us to one last question: Where are you in relation to your material possessions? Are you clinging to them or are they clinging to you? Are you holding them lightly or tightly? Are your possessions possessing you? As you think about your relationship to your possessions, what do you imagine will act you into well-being?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2012
Mark 10:17-31 (NRSV) As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know 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.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”