September 9th, 2018

That Difficult Addiction
Matthew 19:16-24

16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
18 “Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

In my first pastorate, I confessed to the entire city of Baltimore that I was an addict, and my confession was printed in Baltimore Monthly Magazine.

It all began when Baltimore Monthly announced it would be having a contest to determine the best cheesecake in Baltimore. The magazine invited people to apply to be cheesecake judges and directed potential judges to send a letter listing their qualifications.

So, that’s what I did. On church letterhead, my letter went like this.

Dear Baltimore Magazine. I am writing to respond to your request for cheesecake judges and feel I am uniquely qualified to fill that role.

Despite being a Baptist minister, it may surprise you to hear me confess that I have a vice - a terrible addiction. I am addicted to cheesecake. Let me illustrate the horror of my addiction. Whenever we are having a church dinner, I instruct my members to bring the deserts by my office so I can arrange them on the desert table. Truth be known, when cheesecakes are brought, they rarely get out of my office. I think my addiction sunk to its lowest last year when I ask people to bring in cheesecake refreshments for Vacation Bible School. When people brought cheesecakes, I would often sneak into the church kitchen and eat the cake before it could get to the children. Oh, the shame of it all – taking cheesecake from the mouths of innocent babes.

All of that is to say, that when it comes to cheesecake, probably no one is more qualified to judge it than I. Therefore, I am offering my services to you in hopes that you can use my cheesecake addiction to accomplish something of socially redeeming value. Signed, Reverend Gene Wilder.

Two days after sending my letter, I got a call from the editor of Baltimore Magazine. She could hardly stop laughing as she invited me to be one of the cheesecake contest judges. And when contest was over and the results were published in the magazine, guess whose letter was reprinted? Like I said, I confessed to the entire city of Baltimore that I was an addict.

Obviously, the confession of my cheese cake addiction was all in jest, but I have other addictions that are not as funny, addictions I find more difficult to confess.

To ease your mind, I’m not addicted to alcohol or drugs, but I am addicted to wealth. Like any addict, I find it very difficult to give up my appetite for wealth, even when I realize the damage it brings to my soul.

That’s the addiction we find in today’s text. As the text begins we find a young man who realizes that something is wrong in his life and he comes to Jesus seeking a cure.

At first, Jesus addresses his behavior. He tells him, that if he wants to be healthy, he needs to obey the commandments.

Hopefully, the young man asks, "Which ones"?

Jesus answers, "Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’"

Without hesitation, the young man replies, "All these I have kept." But even as he answers Jesus, the young man realizes that something still is not right. So he asks, "What more do I still lack?"

That’s when Jesus confronts his addiction. Jesus tells him that if he wants to be spiritually whole, he needs to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor.

I can almost see the picture of this pitiful young man. As Jesus makes him come face to face with his addiction, he probably starts to tremble. He immediately realizes that he’s addicted to his money, to his lifestyle, and to the pleasures that come with it; and giving all that up is just more than he can stand.

Finally, Matthew explains what happens with these words, "When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

Yes, this young addict just couldn’t give up what was making him sick. He just couldn’t give up his addiction to wealth.

As the rich, young, man walks away; Jesus turns to his disciples and offers this commentary. He says, "I tell you the truth; it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. In fact, It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

I’ve read commentaries that say 'the eye of a needle' was a low gate into Jerusalem which camels found hard to navigate; but quite honestly, I don’t think Jesus had any particular gate or camel in mind. I think Jesus was using hyperbole to talk about how hard it is to break one’s addiction to wealth; how hard it is to let go of our money, even if holding it means we stay spiritually unhealthy.

At the beginning of my sermon I openly confessed that I have an addiction. And when I read “the eye of the needle passage” I realize Jesus is talking about me.

You see, I like my house. I like my car. I like living on the golf course and going out to dinner. And the thought of giving all that up, even for heaven’s sake, makes me quake. I’ll admit it. I’m addicted.

Now, like any addict, I can give all sorts of rationalizations for my addiction. I can say that Jesus wasn’t talking to me because I’m not really that rich; and when compared to Donald Trump or Warren Buffett, I’m not that rich. But when I realize that the average income of households worldwide is less than $10,000 a year, and when I realize that nearly 3 billion people live on as little as $2 per day; that excuse about not being rich really doesn’t hold water.

I can also say that Jesus didn’t ask everyone to give up their wealth. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were probably wealthy. Abraham was extremely wealthy when he died. And Jesus was even buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a very wealthy man. But you know what, that still doesn’t excuse my addiction to wealth.

I can even justify my affluence by talking about all I give. My parents taught me to tithe since I was a child, so I’ve tithed all my life and, quite often, I give extra to help the needy and the poor. But in a roundabout way, my tithe is almost an escape. You see, by giving ten percent, I convince myself that I can do whatever I want with remaining 90 percent, but if you asked me to give THAT up, you’d see the ugly face of my addiction.

Do I think my addiction will send me to hell? No, I don’t. Like any other sin, my addiction to wealth is covered by the grace of Jesus Christ. But though my addiction won’t send me to hell, it does diminish the depth of my spiritual life. And while I may not miss heaven, I probably miss some of the joy God has for me in this life.

As you might realize, I’m not alone in my addiction. Most Americans are just like me. We love our wealth and often blind ourselves to the spiritual damage that comes with it.

Someone recently asked me, “Why do you think Americans are no longer interested in spiritual things?” While the answer is complex, I think I know one reason why many Americans no longer turn to God. I think it has to do with our affluence.

In times past, people used to attend church because they didn’t have the money to do all those other things they do today. Instead of spending weekends involved in social activity, we spent our weekends at church. And there’s something else. Because we’re wealthy, we unconsciously believe that we don’t really need God. Since we’ve got plenty of money, we figure we can just take care of ourselves. And so, while our love for money continues to grow, our love for God continues to dwindle.

Okay, I’ve admitted my addiction, and perhaps that’s the first step toward my cure, but how about you? Are you willing to admit your addiction?

Just think about today’s text. What would you do if Jesus asked you to give up all your possessions and share with the poor? Or even more simply, what would you do if Jesus asked you to give up all your discretionary money and share with the poor?

Yes, most of us are addicted to our affluence, and while our addiction won’t send us to hell; it will keep us from experiencing the fullness of God’s Kingdom on earth.

Let me close with the story of Giovanni (whose nickname was Francesco). Francesco was born in Italy, the son of a wealthy silk merchant. Like his rich friends, Francesco enjoyed all the perks that came with wealth. But as a young man, Francesco began to realize something was missing in is life, something that kept him from knowing real joy.

Several years later, Francesco became ill; and as he was praying for healing, he had a vision of Jesus Christ. In this vision, Jesus asked him to repair the house of God. So when Francesco got well, he took his father’s wealth and repaired the town’s dilapidated chapel.

His father was furious and beat him, hoping to help his son see the error of his ways. But the beating did just the opposite. After the beating, Francesco left his father’s home, renounced his inheritance, and decided to live among the poor.

For the next years, he lived off the land and off of the left-overs people would give him. Surprisingly, in his poverty he found more joy than he had experienced in his wealth.

Soon others began to follow his way, giving up their worldly wealth to live a life of poverty and service. Eventually, Francesco and his followers founded a monastery and became known as the Franciscan Monks.

In poverty, Francesco found what he could not find in wealth. In fact, Francesco considered poverty to be his greatest blessing. In his book entitled, The Little Flowers, Francesco writes . . . the treasure of blessed poverty is so very precious and divine, that we are not worthy to possess it . . . For poverty is that heavenly virtue by which all things earthy . . . are trodden under foot . . . so that (the soul) may freely enter into union with . . . God. It is also the virtue which makes the soul, (able to) converse with the angels . . .

Yes, in his poverty, Francesco found a new life with God. Yes, Giovanni Francesco, or as you may know him, St. Francis of Assisi, found his greatest joy in life by casting off his addiction to the things of this world.

I don’t know about you, but I’m still wrestling with my addiction, and while I’ve made a little headway, I have a long way to go. Yes, the eye of the needle certainly is small and I’ve yet to push my camel through it, but I keep trying and so should you. For, as St. Francis said in his well-known prayer;

It is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.