November 8, 2020
“If only I had…” “I just need…” “I’ll feel better when…”
These are starters for scarcity conversations. And they worm their way into my head on a regular basis. Most recently, I couldn’t let go of the idea that the world would be better… “as long as my candidate won.” Which, of course, assumes that the world will devolve into utter evil if my candidate didn’t. Scarcity thinking. With the reality being that neither of these statements are completely or necessarily true.
“What must I do?” the man asks. “I’ve done everything I can think of. I’ve kept every commandment. I have everything I could possibly need. But something’s missing. What’s the key ingredient to salvation?” What’s the key ingredient to happiness, to joy, to perfection? Even the question drives the idea home. I need. I want. I’m missing something.
And so we spend our lives trying to fill—fill our hearts, fill our stomachs, fill our bank accounts, fill our minds, fill the government, fill Facebook, fill our homes, fill the Church. If something is empty, it must be lacking. It must be bad…weak…less than.
And so we work harder, say more, add more programs, argue more, buy more, hold on to more. And in the process, we lose touch with all that we already have.
I’m curious how many of us, in the last 8-9 months, have gone through a closet or a junk drawer or a basement and decided to get rid of a bunch of stuff. I hear Marie Condo’s approach to decluttering has become a huge trend, especially during the pandemic. We’re stuck at home. Nothing left to do but tackle the dreaded clutter. Donate the lovely fondue pot you received as a wedding gift 20 years ago and used once. Toss out the jeans that you once thought you would fit in again…until the pandemic 15 hit, and ice cream became a staple. Do something with the items you got for that really cool project. And then…do more. Paint the walls. Expand the porch. Change the hardware. Clean the cupboards.
And still, there’s a sense of unrest—of agitation. You still have a need for something. Something is missing…something beyond the obvious fellowship. Something is nagging at you, urging you, compelling you. What is it? What do you need?
Today’s gospel tells of a man who felt that unrest and agitation. He had been working hard at being righteous. Though, I find it amusing that in Matthew, when Jesus says to keep the commandments, the man asks, “Which ones?” Really? Are you really going to challenge Jesus on which commandments are necessary and which are optional?
But Jesus runs down a list of them, ironically leaving off the first ones about honoring God, God’s name, and the Sabbath. And he sums up the ones about coveting with “love your neighbor as yourself.” The man states that he’s kept them all, but he still doesn’t feel right with God. He doesn’t feel saved. He doesn’t feel loved. He doesn’t feel forgiven.
And his question is so telling. “What do I still lack?” What do I need more of in my life that I don’t yet have? It’s such a normal, human question. We tend to fill our lives with all sorts of stuff. When we have the means, we tend not to buy only what we need but those things we want—those things that we expect will make us feel happy, will help us enjoy life more, will satisfy a craving. We hold on to things we anticipate we might just need…someday. And most of us still don’t feel satisfied. There’s an unrest…a deep need…a craving or desire. There’s something missing. Something essential.
But that’s the irony in this passage. Instead of needing something more, Jesus tells the man he needs less. He tells him to let go of all those things he’s using to fill his life and his home and his heart. Let go of those things he thinks will make him happy. Let go of the things he’s using to satiate his desires and longings and unrest.
But it’s not just things, is it? It’s everything. One of the things I keep having to come back to, myself, are the things I use to escape my world. When I’m doing a task I don’t want to do, I plug in my earphones and listen to an audiobook. I listen when I drive, when I walk, when I clean, when I mow. I listen during my down times. I escape into another world more often than I reside in my own. If I’m not listening as an escape, I find myself going down the Facebook rabbit hole of arguments and counterarguments—about politics, people, ideas, practices, religion, and so much more.
While these are often functions of my anxiety and depression, they aren’t helpful coping mechanisms but make things worse. When I finally come up for air, I realize that what I’ve needed the whole time isn’t an escape or more information. What I’ve needed is a grounding in reality. In the reality of the red burning bush leaves outside my window and the snap of cool concrete on my feet. I need the grounding of real voices talking to me in real time about real things—things of the heart and of life and of love.
I need to learn to let go of my poor coping mechanisms because they disconnect me from real people and real problems. And I’m sorry. I don’t need more stuff—just real stuff. The man who came to Jesus didn’t need more stuff—he needed real stuff. He needed a real connection with the God he desired. All of his mechanisms—his obedient lifestyle and his money—actually held God at a distance because as long as the man relied on these things, he didn’t need to rely on God.
That’s what he was lacking—actual relationship. And not just a personal relationship with God but a full relationship with God, with God’s Son, and with God’s people.
I know that’s what I’m lacking. I’ve gotten myself so caught up in the ugliness of the political world that I have let it get between me and the people around me. Maybe that’s what it is for you, as well. Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s school. Maybe it’s depression. Maybe it’s a number of things all rolled into one that we tend to use to make ourselves think we’re getting ahead somehow. And yet, we feel emptier than ever.
And this is where Jesus comes to tell us, “Let it go. Release it. Release your grip on those things you think will save you. Release your grip on the things you hope will solidify your future. Release your grip on the people you think will change the world. This is about you and me,” Jesus says. “No one and nothing can save you except me. Follow me.”
And friends, Jesus has already done the work. He has already forgiven. He has already died. He has already loved. He has already readied the feast. The key to feeling that forgiveness, salvation, and love is just this: release your grip. God’s got you.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church