The Very Rev. Tom Callard, October 14, 2018
Last Sunday as I was getting ready for the Stewardship Dinner, I went into the office to look for some name tags. And I started to go through the drawers and the first drawer I opened was the lost and found. There’s always something interesting in the lost and found.
We have right now a mitten that was lost sometime last winter, and a couple of old discarded children’s toys, and a bunch of miscellaneous stuff like this tubing that looks like it came from one of the bathrooms. But I was surprised most of all to discover that the number one thing we have in the lost and found of the Cathedral is lots and lots of glasses. About 10 pairs of glasses.
Now if I were to lose my glasses, it would be total chaos, because without them I can hardly see anything in front of me. I can see far, but I can’t see near. So in the shower without my glasses I can’t read the bottle to see if it’s shampoo or conditioner. And if I lost them, I couldn’t put my car key into the ignition to start the car. So I probably will not lose my glasses here. I may break them at some point. That’s very possible. But I can’t imagine I would lose them.
So obviously the glasses here in the lost and found are different from the ones I have. They are probably the kind you use for reading, that you buy at the pharmacy. And so if you’re not using them you just put them in your pocket. And you can see how someone would easily forget about them and leave them on the arm of a chair or on a table and just walk away.
There are things in this life we need and then there are things we need. And today Jesus invites us to see the difference in this story from Mark of the rich man, who apparently believes he needs everything he has. And he does not want to let go of anything, even while Jesus is offering him the possibility of eternal life, which is what he has asked Jesus for. And Jesus is standing there telling him that it’s basically all set and ready to go as long as he does this one thing, which is to let go of what he has and sell everything and give the money to the poor.
But the Man just walked away. The truth is, we don’t know much about who this man is. We know that he had many possessions. And we know what other fact; we know he was religious. He was one of us! He went to church. He followed his faith. He knows the commandments and has kept them since his youth. Which is pretty amazing.
How many of us have kept the commandments since our youth? I had a time in my youth when I was far from the church and had only a vague notion of the commandments. So I can’t say I have kept the commandments since my youth. But those of you who have are to be applauded. In fact, all of us should be applauded just by the fact that we come to church. We should be proud that we do things for our faith, and especially that we make an effort to have Jesus in our life.
It’s just there’s this one thing. And this “one thing” which is at the heart of the Gospel today. Which is to let go of all we have and follow him without reservation. To not be attached to the things we own and carry around with us. To be generous with our possessions, because after all, at the end of the day, they have nothing to do with inheriting eternal life.
So we can still be religious, we can still come to church, we can still pray and follow all the commandments, but unless we are able to do this “one thing,” we will at the end of the day, like the rich man, turn away dejected because we are not clear about what we need and what we really need.
I remember one time at the laguardia airport in New York. I was running to catch a plane because my first flight arrived late from overseas. And I had to get out of security and then check back in through security, and take off my shoes and belt and do it all over again. And it was taking so much time. And then I got to my back pack and the security person stopped me and said: what’s this? It was a water bottle. And he said: You can’t bring this onto the plane. And I loved that water bottle. It had this cool black cover. It was the perfect size with a great lid. But without a second thought I said: throw it away, because I wanted to catch my flight.
Those reading glasses we just forget and leave behind. That bottle we’re able to just let go of because we have to catch our flight. Our lives are full of all these little things we don’t mind letting go of, because they’re inconsequential in the long run. They’re really not that important in the big picture. Because we can get along fine without them.
The trick is to realize that everything is that way, and that there’s really nothing that we can’t just let go of. That it’s all inconsequential, compared to the joy we gain in finding the presence of God.
I’ve been reading the book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama called the book of joy, and there’s a chapter all about being generous. They describe a man who founded a software company in the 1990’s and made a huge fortune. And at one point he was so wealthy that he made a donation to a charity in the amount of something like thirty million dollars. But then the stock market crashed in 2008 and it turned out that the man lost all of his fortune. He was completely wiped out. But, his accountants said, you could probably get back some of that thirty million you donated to charity. But the man said, why would I do that. It made me more happy to give that money away than it would to live with it again.
That chapter in the book is about generosity. And it is a study of what happens when people are able to give their things away. And they feature a neuroscientist named Richard Davidson, whose studies on the brain look at exactly what happens in our brains when we do various activities. They have sensors connected to the brain that show that certain parts light up depending upon action we’re doing.
And it turns out that that there are specific things that people do that always stimulate parts of the brain and create a general feeling of positivity, and make us feel happy and joyful. They create a basic, overwhelming feeling of good in a person. And the thing that does that the most, the scientists have found, is practicing generosity.
The more generous we are, the more joyful we feel, and our brains respond in these positive neural connections where the happiness and joy abide. More than drugs, more than sex, more than the feeling of being powerful. It is the act of generosity. So that rich tech executive who lost all of his money in the stock market understood that yes he could get some of money back, but having it would never equal the joy he received in giving it away.
Jesus stood there two thousand years ago telling us the very same thing that modern science has shown us today, that there is more joy in giving than receiving. That there is more to be gained by letting go of our possessions than there is to holding onto them. From the most inconsequential thing we have to the most profound possession we own, the trick is not to try and live with nothing, but the trick is to be able to be generous with everything.
Look again at what the text says about how Jesus looked in this man’s eyes with love, that he loved the man after he confessed that he had been following the commandments his whole life. That he loved the man despite the challenges the man faced to follow the Lord. That he loved the man despite that he could not do what Jesus asked him to do. And you see how generous God is with us. That Jesus gave him the most profound thing he had, the most profound gift that he owned, he gave him his love.
We struggle, and its right we struggle with this material life. For from the moment we’re born we start to gather and the world tells us and reinforces that we must gather and do so forever. So we gather in abundance for we see the struggle of the world and especially the struggle of those who do not have, and we every day are challenged to know the difference between what’s needed and what’s not. And the world out there only tells us yes, get more and more and more, that this is the way.
But within all of us and around all of us, and underlying everything, is this incredible love of Jesus, the love of God, who looked the man in the eyes, who looks each of us in the eyes, and tells us that in reality, we struggle for nothing, for in reality there’s nothing more that is needed, but this unconditional and profound love. For he has already saved us, and we are already his. And so why not just let go.
So the spiritual life, this deeply profound path to which we are called, on which we are all set, is a response to the love Jesus has for us, which allows us to little by little to learn how to let go. The spiritual path, a way little by little to be generous. To be gift givers and sowers of seeds, and planters of vineyards in the deserts of the world. To be those who share, and those who lend a hand to others in need.
And our brains know it, and our hearts know it, and the happiness centers within us know it, that in the end nothing is needed more than this love, that this is the only thing we really need in this life. And that this love, too, is here to be given away. So give away your love.
Mary Oliver wrote a poem entitled “in blackwater woods,” and the concluding verses of the poem go like this: “You must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”
The mortal life is all this stuff and things which pass through our hands and make up the material of our days, which fill our homes, and which we’ve fought and struggled so hard to get and spent so much time trying to have. And so let’s love these things and certainly appreciate them and hold them to us for a moment. But then, in the next moment, let’s offer them to God, for we are much better when we can, with no reservation, let them go. And eternal life is a pretty amazing thing to gain.