St John’s and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, 23rd October 2016, Creation 8
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; Luke 18:18-30
This morning’s reading, the rich young ruler who was invited by Jesus to ‘sell all that you have and distribute the money to the poor’ is one of those readings that doesn’t leave us feeling great. Most of us probably ignore it. A few days ago I mentioned I would be preaching on this to a couple of good friends. Steve said he felt utterly condemned by the words of Jesus and had no idea what to do with them. Is this what we are supposed to do? Give everything away? Or just sit there and feel condemned? Or ignore the words? Some people have actually taken Jesus at his literal word – most famously of course, St Francis of Assisi, but actually many, many monks and nuns who have taken vows of poverty through the ages have done the same. St Francis heard the words as if directly spoken to him and took them completely literally. And it would be safe to say that it worked for him! So what do we do with it? The story appears in all 3 synoptic gospels so it can’t be ignored. The Bible has over 800 references to money and possessions in it – far more than it does about sex but look at the song and dance we make about that! Speaking very broadly, on the one hand there’s a message that wealth is a blessing (particularly an OT idea); but on the other hand, that wealth – or more accurately the love of it can become a false god, a block to our relationship with God. ‘…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’ (1 Tim 6:10) wrote Paul to his young apprentice, Timothy. Perhaps for the rich young ruler, the love of money was his problem and that was why the solution was so radical. But we should remember that Jesus words were spoken to him and we are only overhearing them.
But let’s not distance ourselves from this text too much. I want to link it with the last time I spoke, back in August when I reflected on my recent visit to Taizé and the message from Brother John about our faith being embodied in ‘the life we live’. That our faith takes on flesh, in the way we actually conduct our lives. This struck me as profoundly true. What other Christianity is there apart from the one that people see? Brother Roger, the founder of Taizé, wrote this in his Rule of life to the brothers in the community: ‘Be filled with the spirit of the Beatitudes: joy, simplicity and mercy’. So I would like to interpret the story of the rich young ruler through the lens of simplicity. Though the young man sought to obey the commandments (‘All these I have kept from my youth’ he replied to Jesus), in fact he was bogged down, hampered by love of his possessions and Jesus’ words to him were calling him to a radical simplicity – something he would need if he truly wanted to follow the ‘Good Teacher’, as he called him.
Some of you know that a few years ago Rosemary and I had the privilege of being able to walk the Camino de Santiago, a distance of 500 miles from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. It was a pilgrimage. One of the things you learn very early on is that less is more. That if you are carrying all you need on your back, the lighter it is, the better. Twice we stopped and offloaded stuff and posted it on to Santiago so that our rucksacks would be lighter and the journey easier. A very common topic of conversation with fellow pilgrims was the weight of our packs, what we had brought with us. Because what do you need? Really? It boiled down to these essentials: a sleeping bag, 3 pairs of underpants, 2 pairs of trousers, 3 shirts, a fleece, a waterproof, boots and a pair of crocs, 3 pairs of socks, a towel, a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, a water bottle, and of course money to buy food and pay for lodging. The unnecessary luxuries included a mobile phone, a Kindle (actually mine bust after 3 days) and a camera. Bang. That’s it. Less is more. Because what really counted, what gave joy, was meeting fellow pilgrims, sharing food, the beauty of the walk, the moments when the unexpected happened and was often rich with a sense of giftedness. None of us carried much on the Way, so it equalised us – ‘all in the same boat’.
Pilgrimage is a kind of lived parable. You deliberately put yourself – literally, your body (to connect with Vince’s sermon last week) in a particular situation where you cannot have everything you are used to and then go on a physical, literal journey to a destination. This is not a ‘mind’ journey – not something we do in our heads – it’s something we do with all of us. And something happens in the doing of it. But my point here is that you have to be unencumbered, you have to embody simplicity otherwise you just cannot do it. Well, you don’t have to be a genius to get the point I am making. The journey itself is a metaphor for the journey of our life with pain as well as joy, rain and sunshine, good and bad companions, disappointments and joys. The rucksack you carry is a metaphor for what you take with you on that journey. And it’s a very literal metaphor, because it has real stuff in it. And the more you think about it, the more you reflect on what you actually need to live contentedly, the more you realise the answer is ‘not that much’. Here are some words from a Spanish nun we met on the Way, printed on a leaflet she kindly passed to us: ‘The Camino makes you simpler, because the lighter your backpack, the less strain to your back and the more you will experience how little you need to be alive’
So what do we do with this? The story of the rich young ruler, challenged by Jesus to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor is almost certainly unrealistic for us in that literal sense. It was a message from Jesus to one man in a particular situation at a particular time that few have been able to follow in that literal way – although worth saying again, that men and women who are called into monastic orders, to become monks and nuns, do exactly that. And that can have profound effects – we can think not only of St Francis but also Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her order, Franciscans today like Richard Rohr and Jesuits like Pope Francis, and the community of Taizé. We have been thinking of the powerful experience of pilgrimage which tells us how little we actually need, and of the joy of not having too much in your backpack. So we have these voices speaking about a different way of living that runs counter-culturally, against the tide of advertising that tells us we must have this or that, that we can’t be happy without it; against the common assumptions that we live to accumulate. We should remember too that at least a billion people in the world today live in abject poverty – for them ‘simplicity’ is not a life choice they make. And also, that it is greed and consumption in the West which in large measure has driven so many of them into poverty – through our dark history of imperialism, slavery and greed which has devastated natural resources; through the excessive burning of fossil fuels leading to climate change, which always affects the poor more than the rich; and through unfair trade agreements which disadvantage further the already disadvantaged. Mahatma Gandhi, the father of modern India, was a man who took to heart the message of simplicity and by it, made a huge impact. It was he who said this: ‘Live simply, that others may simply live’.
But we live in a world where we have to have somewhere to live, where most of us have or need a car (but by no means all!), where we have become used to lots of nice things – good food, international travel, technology, the odd bottle of wine and so on. None of these are bad in themselves. It is not my intention to make us feel guilty, but simply to begin to question, in the light of Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler and the experience of pilgrimage: what do I really need? How could I embody simplicity, to unencumber my life somewhat, to free myself? To let simplicity become more part of ‘the life I live’? To ‘travel light’? Interestingly, we were talking about exactly this in our home group this week. Let me give you some suggestions by drawing on the Quaker teacher Richard Foster. I think each of these suggestions is possible for each of us and takes us in the direction of simplicity of life. The suggestions go beyond possessions to our attitude towards other people, our relationships
- Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status or prestige.
- Learn the difference between a real need and an addiction. Then find support and accountability to regain “sobriety,” freedom from addiction.
- Develop a habit of giving things away.
- Avoid unnecessary and short-lived technological gadgets that promise to “save time.”
- Enjoy things without owning them. For example, take advantage of public libraries and parks.
- Nurture awe and appreciation for nature. Spend more time outdoors!
- Get out—and stay out—of debt.
- Use plain, honest speech. Say what you mean and keep your commitments.
- Reject anything that oppresses others. For example, buy Fair Trade products.
Seek God’s kingdom of love and justice foremost. If anything distracts you from that purpose, let it go.
I’m not going to labour the point any more but to leave you with those thoughts. I have printed out those 9 suggestions of Richard Foster and I will leave them on the table on the back, take one if you like.
Finally, think about going on a pilgrimage! It is a fantastic opportunity to feel this for yourself – actually know it in your body. Of course there is the Camino de Santiago but many others too – Iona, Taizé, Lindisfarne and Greenbelt are places that many of us have been to but may not have seen the experience as a pilgrimage – but they are places of pilgrimage, and going to each of those places will mean a lightening of the load in a physical way. A holiday can be a pilgrimage too – think of the word ‘holy day’ but only if it means a leaving-behind of stuff rather than a grabbing of more.
So I challenge us to see the words of Jesus to the rich young man as a call to declutter, to simplify life, to cut away what is getting in the way of following Jesus. And to interpret that for us as the vocation to embrace simplicity in our lives. To come back to these words, ‘it’s the life we live’.