Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
Yesterday, I read about a new book by Barbara Ehrenreich, the socialist sociologist and writer who is as ubiquitous and colorful as, well, as Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, George Will, and a host of other cultural critics. In her latest effort, Ehrenreich has taken on what she sees as an epidemic of positive thinking. Her new book is called Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Positive thinking is different, she says, from being cheerful or good-natured—it’s believing that the world is shaped by our wants and desires, so that if we all would just focus on the good, the bad will cease to exist. She began to develop the theory when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Everywhere she turned, she was told to be positive, to think positively, to maintain a positive outlook, even to the point where she was essentially told that her cancer arrived in her body because she allowed negative thinking to take hold in her. This “positive thinking” wave has permeated our culture at every level, she writes, blaming those to whom bad things happen, including victims of the current financial crisis. In her book, Ehrenreich examines how the positive-thinking movement was started by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, and an amateur metaphysician named Phineas Parkhurst Quimby in response to Calvinism; how being positive became mandatory in corporate culture; and how she thinks prosperity preachers, such as Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston encouraged a culture of debt by telling their congregations that God wants them to have a big house and a nice car. The only impediment to financial wealth is one’s own negative thinking. You can think yourself rich. You can think yourself healthy. You can think yourself into anything – if you just think positively.
We hear this week from Mark, a somewhat different message. He tells us about a rich man who has done everything he can imagine doing to be a good disciple - all he believed appropriate and necessary to follow Jesus and then he is told, there is one more thing, and it is that one thing that is just too hard and so he goes away from Jesus, sad.
I remember when I was still very new to ministry, a gathering with fellow UCC clergy for Bible-study and hearing from an older colleague that he had been working on a reinterpretation of the gospels in which he sought to prove that Jesus was a supporter of financial wealth. This was someone I didn’t know very well but still, I admired him for his years in ministry, his apparent success in a number of churches. He was something of a dean in that group of clergy, so his words seemed especially shocking to me. What? You’re spending time doing what? Now, years later, I think about him and I realize he may have been trying to work out something that isn’t as clear as it might first seem.
The problem with the young man in Mark’s story is not that he is rich. It is that he is holding back just a little cushion against trusting God completely – a little just-in-case fund. And Jesus was not fooled. The rich man could not take that last, huge step, the preposterous leap of giving away all he has to follow Jesus. Give away my stuff?!? I pray, I fast, I keep the commandments. I am righteous and I am even generous, giving away a large portion of what I have to the poor, and to the saints for the work of the church. I am a good person!
Jesus was not, at that moment, looking for one more good person. He was, instead, looking for one more selfless person and that was just more than this fine young man could be. He could be good. He was good, in fact, and deeply religious. What he was not, was selfless.
Jesus looked for disciples who trust God with their lives, with their hearts, minds, bodies and souls. Jesus wanted nothing to get between the human heart and God’s heart. Nothing, not money, not power, not prestige, not obsessions with our culture’s lusts, not sorrow over the things that have been lost or worry about the things that will never be, not our prejudices nor our limited perspectives. Nothing. And since we too would rather walk away sad than give up that last, self-protective layer that keeps us from trusting God completely, are we not, like the rich man, going to have a hard time entering the kingdom?
This wonderful story and a hundred others tells us that clinging to the security of money is one of the most common things that keeps us from trusting God. This story does not tell us that money itself is a bad thing. It tells us that clinging to it as the source of our security is a bad thing. I don’t think the man became sad because he wanted to hang on to a comfortable, materialistic life style. I believe he was sad because Jesus asked him to give up something he trusted more than God. Relinquishing what we know, can touch and taste and run through our fingers, to cast ourselves upon what we do not yet see, that leap of faith is more than most of us can make. He could not do the last thing required of him. He could not trust God. Can we?
We all fall short. I imagine most of us think we’re pretty good judges of the character of others. We are reasonably smart and, since we have not lived as recluses, we have done quite a bit of relating over the years. Some of us are supervisors of the work of others. Some of us depend on our ability to “read” people for our livelihoods. We all have had interactions with arbitrary service providers and most of us have been stopped in achieving our goals by a receptionist or two. And if we have bosses, we probably think, down deep somewhere, we could do their job a little bit better, or certainly as well as they do. We just wouldn’t want to. We read books and newspaper articles about people. We are pretty sure we know what makes people tick, what’s right and what’s wrong with the ways they act, how they will respond to particular situations. We can identify the peculiar characteristics of New Englanders, Midwesterners, Californians. We think we understand why people of color are angry and why there is a white backlash. We’re clear about gender issues. We know how children should be parented. We understand why so many people seek fundamentalism in their religions. Maybe we’re even right about some of what we think.
But I’ll tell you something - the only thing we really know is that we all fall short of the glory of God. I wonder how human dynamics would change if we would stop measuring how far everyone has fallen short and just recognize we’re all on the same side of that line.
Let’s look at Jesus’ words to the rich man once again. The man began his question with the words, “Good teacher,” and Jesus began his response with “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” I wonder how the power of positive thinking folks would interpret Jesus’ response. Actually, more importantly, how should we interpret them? Amen.