Gotta love the classics. And what better song to usher in the season of Consecration? J
Did you know that the first line actually came from a poem written by Michael McClure? A friend of Janis’ quoted the line while they were playing pool at a bar in New York in August, 1970. Janis liked the line and quickly wrote the song. She sang it that night at a concert.
A few months later in a recording studio, on October 1, Janis returned from a break and told the producer to roll tape. She sang “Mercedes Benz.” That’s what we just heard.
By October 4th, Janis Joplin was dead of a heroin overdose. She was 27. The car parked outside her motel room? A customized Porsche.
The song itself is fun. It’s social satire at its best. The story behind the song demonstrates just how seductive and, yes, addictive, wealth and privilege can be. A self-described “middle class white chick from Port Arthur, Texas,” Janis didn’t want to be addicted to drugs and to things, but in the end the pull was too great. What she consumed consumed her.
The young man who comes to Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson is facing a similar struggle. Running up to Jesus, he says: “Good Teacher, What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The first thing Jesus does is call the man on his obsequious flattery: “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone.” In that one line, Jesus invites the man to a deeper—and more authentic—level of communication.
Then he reminds him of key Jewish laws—don’t murder, steal, commit adultery, lie, or defraud. Honor the ‘rents. The man assures Jesus he’s kept all the law since he was a boy.
Then, Mark tells us: “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” Jesus saw the man’s eagerness and loved him for it. He wanted to act that young man into well-being. Knowing what it would take for this man to *get* the God-thing, Jesus told him: “You lack one thing. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Mark tells us “the man went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
When Jesus explained to the disciples how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kin-dom of God, it must have sounded strange. They’d been raised with the belief that the richer you were, the closer to God you were. So, for Jesus to say that having wealth actually made it more difficult to get into the kin-dom? It didn’t compute. No wonder they ask, “Who then can be saved?”
At this point, Peter reminds Jesus that, “We have left everything to follow you!” Jesus assures Peter that the disciples’ many sacrifices no doubt will result in blessings in this world and the next…“But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
You don’t have to read far in the Gospels to see that Jesus loved turning everything on its head. The thing he’s turning on its head now is the conventional wisdom that one’s worth in God’s eyes equals one’s net worth. But are the wealthy—by virtue of their wealth—first in God’s eyes? That’s the question Jesus invites the disciples and us to ponder.
So what do you think? Does God love the wealthy more than others? Our first response, I’m sure, would be, Of course not! God loves us all equally! Some might even say God has a preference for the poor. But do we really believe that? Or do we believe–deep down—that God blesses some more than others and you can tell who is who by checking out their net worth?
I’m not making any judgments here. I’m just saying that as middle class folks in one of the wealthiest countries of the world, the rich man’s dilemma resonates. It’s so easy living in a consumerist society like ours to equate wealth with God’s blessing. Separating out the American Dream from the kin-dom of God can get tricky. It takes a lot of work. In fact, it takes conversion.
Rochelle and I are reading a book together for her Pathways work. In the book, the authors offer a new way of understanding religious conversion. For them, conversion isn’t about “getting saved.” For them, conversion is about seeing the basic structure of reality as God created it. And what is the basic structure of reality? You’re going to love this! The basic structure of reality as God created it is koinonia! Which means that everything is connected.
So, for these authors, conversion is what happens when you finally *get* that everything is connected. You’re able to see God’s kin-dom, to enter it, to “inherit” it, as the rich young man asked of Jesus, only when you grasp that every thing, every person, every creature, every created thing is connected to every other thing, person, creature, and bit of creation.
It was out of that koinonial spirit that Jesus invited the young man to experience conversion. Turn from this self-centered focus—I’ve kept the laws; I want eternal life, I have great wealth…I, I, I… Sell what you have and give to the poor, that is, look at the relationship between your wealth and the poverty of others and take action to bridge the gap. Use the power of your privilege to create God’s kin-dom here on earth.
Despite his professed eagerness to inherit God’s kin-dom, the man goes away sad because he’s unable to grasp this different version of the kin-dom Jesus presents. A kin-dom not achieved by personal effort? A kin-dom built by recognizing the inter-connectedness of all people and all creation? That didn’t compute. It made no sense. The man wanted God’s kin-dom, but not the way Jesus was describing it. What he didn’t understand was that God’s kin-dom isn’t something we inherit or achieve; it’s something we create.
Do you ever feel guilty about your privilege? I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege recently, mostly about white privilege…which, of course, is closely linked with economic privilege. A lot of really thoughtful, progressive Christians do feel guilty for having so much more than other people in the world. Unlike the young man in today’s Gospel lesson, we have experienced conversion; we do know that everything is connected. We also understand that consumption practices in the developed world create severe hardships for the world’s poor…
Knowing all that, we tend to do what we’re really good at—we beat ourselves up and feel guilty about what we have.
But here’s the thing. Jesus didn’t rain down judgment on the young man because he was wealthy. He didn’t ask, How many religious laws did you have to break to make all that dough? No. Jesus looked at the young man, loved him, and invited him to use his wealth to help others.
That, I think, is the opportunity privilege gives us. It’s important—vital—to reflect on how our own personal consumption patterns and, especially, the consumption patterns of our country, create hardships for others in communities throughout the world. But if we get paralyzed by guilt, we’re not going to be able to do anything to change the world. Changing the world requires action. Changing the world requires the just action of people with privilege.
Hear the story of the Edna Aden Maternity Hospital in Hargeisa, Somaliland. Though raised by a progressive physician father, Edna grew up in a culture that didn’t see her worth. She attended elementary school, but there were no high schools for girls. Edna parents did allow her to eavesdrop on her brothers’ tutoring sessions in their home, which she hungrily absorbed.
Thanks to her father’s advocacy, Edna was allowed to sit for a test to see whether she might attend further schooling in Britain. She had to sit in a separate room from the boys who took the test, but she passed it. Edna became the first Somali girl to attend school in Britain. She studied midwifery and hospital management. // After graduating, Edna went back to Somaliland. Eventually, she married the man who became president. After divorcing her husband, Edna was recruited by the World Health Organization. “She lived the good life of a UN official and was posted around the world. But she dreamed of starting a hospital in her homeland, and in the early 1980s she began building her own private hospital in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. When war broke out, the project had to be abandoned.
“In the UN, Edna rose to be the top WHO official in Djibouti, with a lovely office and a—wait for it—Mercedes Benz. But she didn’t want her legacy to be a Mercedes; she wanted it to be a hospital. The dream nagged at her, and she felt unfulfilled. She knew that Somaliland has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world…So when Edna retired from WHO in 1997, she sold her Mercedes, took the proceeds—along with her savings and pension—to build a hospital in the town of Hargeisa.” (Half the Sky, by Kristof and Wudunn)
The Lord gave Edna a Mercedes Benz // She sold it for money, shocking her friends
The Lord gave Edna a Mercedes Benz // Now women have healthcare; everyone wins.
Edna used her wealth and privilege to build a maternity hospital. Because of Edna’s willingness to use her privilege and share her wealth, now women with difficult pregnancies have a place to go; midwives and physicians are being trained. The maternal mortality rate in Somaliland has plummeted.
I don’t know Edna’s faith background, but I do know that she has experienced the conversion to which Jesus invited the young man in today’s Gospel Lesson. Edna knows that we all are connected. Edna *gets* that the things we have been given, any wealth we have is an opportunity to share with others, a chance to make the world a better place. Amassing wealth is fine, but using that wealth to improve the lives others? That is the way to find true happiness. That is the way to find fulfillment. That is the way to enter God’s kin-dom. That is the way to inherit eternal life.
Edna had a Mercedes. She sold it made and her little corner of the world a little better. What do you have that you might use to make your little corner of the world a little better? What do you have that you might use to help create God’s kin-dom here on earth?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
(C) 2015 Kimberleigh Buchanan