Anybody feeling hopeless today? The Supreme Court. The UN Climate report. The Florida panhandle recovering from Hurricane Michael. Residents of our own state still recovering from Hurricane Florence. People in Indonesia continuing to recover from the typhoon. Racism. Sexism. Heterosexism. Classism. Not to mention the complete dissolution of civility in the public square.
Gloom, despair, and agony on me. Deep, dark depression, excessive misery. If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. Gloom, despair, and agony on me. That’s probably the first—and last—time I’ll quote Grandpa Jones from Hee Haw in a sermon. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
The times we’re in do feel desperate, don’t they? Those of us who want to act the world into wellbeing, we who want to be agents of good in the world, those of us who have worked tirelessly for justice all our lives—to see progress that’s been made threatened—or reversed—if we’re paying attention to what’s going on in the world, it’s hard not to feel hopeless, isn’t it?
In the face of all the daunting issues looming for the human community today, how can we nurture hope? How do we act the world into wellbeing when all we want to do is to crawl into bed, pull the covers over our head, and sleep the years away until things get better? As the hymn says, “how do we hope when hope seems hopeless?”
Do you ever wonder how we got to where we are? Like, maybe every hour of every day? How have we gotten to the point that UN scientists have given us a single decade to get our environmental house in order before circumstances become so dire life as we know it will change forever? How have we gotten to the point where the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor keeps speeding up instead of reversing? How have we gotten to the point where we can no longer converse civilly with someone with whom we disagree?
Whatever it is that has gotten us to this point, is, I suspect, similar to what got the rich man to the place where he couldn’t follow Jesus.
The man comes to Jesus and, having acquired everything money could buy, asks Jesus how he might obtain the one thing he hasn’t been able to purchase—eternal life. Jesus tells him “You 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.” Basically, treat others with justice and kindness. “The man says, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’
“Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him—that is, Jesus wanted to act the rich man into wellbeing—and so he told him, ‘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.’ When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
What is it about material wealth that makes it hard to enter the kindom of God? Why is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…That’s likely a reference to a low gate into Jerusalem called the Needle Gate. A camel loaded down would find it difficult to get through the gate. A camel that had been relieved of all the packs on its back had a better chance of getting through. So, why is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of the Needle Gate than for a rich person to enter God’s realm? A woman’s experience at Koinonia Farm in the 1950s might shed some light on the topic.
While he was in seminary, Clarence Jordan read Acts 2 and took it literally. That’s the passage that describes the first community of Jesus’ followers–a community where everyone had everything in common. Believing that living in community was the literal call of Christians, Clarence and his friend, Martin England, searched for farmland in the deep South. In 1942, with the help of a benefactor, they purchased 440 acres near Americus in southwest Georgia. Koinonia— an interracial intentional Christian farming community—was born.
One day, an old black car “shuddered into the driveway of Koinonia Farm, coughed to a halt, and delivered a quiet, 40-year-old spinster who asked if she could remain for a visit.”
After a couple of days, she “approached Clarence and [expressed] interest in joining. He explained what Koinonia was striving to be, how one must surrender totally to Christ, including all their earthly possessions. At Koinonia, he said, they do this by asking everyone to enter the same way: ‘flat broke.’ Her eyebrows jerked upward in alarm. She had questions.
“Clarence was perplexed” by the woman’s hesitation. “‘Jesus said it would be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom, but we’d never had one apply.’” “Clarence asked her what difficulty there would be with relinquishing her possessions. She had a fair-size difficulty, somewhere between $80,000 and $90,000.” That’d be $800,000 – 900,000 in today’s dollars.
“Clarence swallowed a couple of times, 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: ‘No. If you put that money in here, we’d quit growing peanuts and start discussing theology. That wouldn’t be healthy for us. And, unless I miss my guess, you’re a very lonely person, and you’re lonely because you think every friend you ever had is after your money.’ She confirmed that judgment.
“Well, if you put that money in here, you’d think we courted you for your money, that we loved you for your money. You’d 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.” (The Cotton Patch Evidence, 86-87)
These stories—about the woman at Koinonia and the rich man who came to Jesus—illustrate the deepest spiritual struggle human beings have: Will we give ourselves to the common good, or will we maintain our death grip on our own personal good? Will we act the world into wellbeing or only ourselves?
At the heart of nearly every depressing thing you can name these days—climate change, immigration, healthcare, over-development, systemic racism, exploitation of the poor, sexism—at the heart of it all is this spiritual struggle between allegiance to the common good or allegiance only to one’s own personal good. I’m not saying we should abdicate responsibility for improving our own lives. What I am saying is that if we work on improving our own lives without considering how improving our lives affects the lives of others, then we risk making decisions that lead to, well, the world in which we’re currently living.
Which brings us back to wanting to crawl into bed, pull the covers over our head, and go to sleep until things are better. I know how much we’re hurting right now…how angry we are, how puzzled and bewildered and scared we are… But, as much as we’d like to, we can’t withdraw from what’s happening in the world. We can’t simply rage or tweet or sink into cynicism. We can’t crawl into bed, pull the covers over our head, and wait for things to get better….
We can’t hide from the world, because the world needs us. The world needs us. Do you hear what I’m saying? The world needs us –our gifts, our experiences, our passion, our faith, our vision, our imagination….The world needs us to act it into wellbeing…the world needs us to speak truth to power…the world needs us to advocate for the least of these…the world needs us to do everything in our power to transform systems that oppress women and the poor and people of color…the world needs us to vote…the world needs us to work for the common good…the world needs us to share what we’ve learned from Jesus….the world needs us to listen…the world needs us to share our hope…
Which brings us back to where we began. How do we hope when hope seems hopeless? How do we hope when hope seems hopeless? We do what every one of us has done today—we gather with other people who also are struggling to hope. The saddest part of the stories about the rich man and the woman at Koinonia is the loneliness. Each of them chose their possessions over community. Each of them chose their own personal good over the common good…
But here’s the thing. When we choose the common good, we’re also contributing to our own good. Ubuntu, right? I am because we are.
I can preach all day about what we need to do about what’s happening in the world. I can exegete and exposit and cajole and conjure….but the real source of our healing, the real source of our hope, the thing that’s going to make it possible for us to be God’s hope in the world is what we’ve got right here in this room: our togetherness.
So, as we continue to do our part for the common good out there, as we vote and serve and advocate and do everything within our power to act the world out there into wellbeing, I encourage us in this community to be intentional about acting each other into wellbeing. Let us listen to each other. Let us encourage each other. Let us nurture hope in each other.
Because the world needs us. The world needs us. The world needs us.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2018
“Will we give ourselves to the common good, or will we maintain our death grip on our own personal good? Will we act the world into wellbeing or only ourselves?”
If Jesus had posed a question to the rich man rather than made a statement, this would have been a good way for him to phrase it.