Sunday, October 18, 2009

What Must I do?

(A sermon on Mark 10:17-31, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church 10/11/2009)

A man ran up and knelt before him.

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Trap,” Jesus thinks to himself. Another trick question...another question loaded with places to stumble and get in trouble. So Jesus answers in his skillful way, turning the tables and using the sacred texts.

“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

“A good answer,” thinks Jesus to himself. “Let them find fault with that!”

The kneeling man replies “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth.”

I imagine Jesus doing a double take at this response, and for the first time, he takes a good look at this man. The Gospel of Matthew describes him as a young man, The Gospel of Luke as a ruler. The key thing I think Jesus sees is a genuine man. Unlike the previous questions, this is not a trap, but honest questioning and concern.

I imagine this man in crisis of sorts. He has tried to live a good, honest life. He has followed all the rules and principles about righteous living. And yet...he senses there is something else. His life, at times, seems to lack meaning and purpose. Sometimes he feels lost, afraid, lonely, and even incomplete. There must be something that he missing.

So when Jesus lists the commandments, the man’s reply “I have kept all these things from my youth” is not a boast, but honest frustration with discovering that doing the commandments, while providing framework and discipline, has not produced enough meaning in this man’s life. There must be something else that he must do! Perhaps earning the promise of eternal life will be enough...

We are told that Jesus, after really looking at him, loves him. Jesus then replies “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mk. 10:21)

We are told that he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

I wonder a great deal about this answer from Jesus. Jesus has been teaching that we don’t “do” our way to heaven. We don’t earn God’s love, it’s given freely: it’s grace, God’s gift to us. It is as a child: vulnerable, and completely dependent on God, that we receive the kingdom.

Why then does Jesus give the man something else to do, and such an extreme thing at that? “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

I don’t think I can fully answer this question. It’s not a simple new law to follow: if you do “a”, give away everything, you will earn “b”: eternal life. That runs counter to everything Jesus has been teaching.

There is, however, a clear message from Jesus here that wealth makes it hard for people to enter the kingdom of God.

Looking again at the man who poses the question, it is clear that he's got some things wrong. No one “earns” an inheritance. It is something given by virtue of blood relations: it is not to be won or earned (although, that doesn’t keep some family members from trying to earn more over others.) The kingdom of God is not to be earned by doing.

The man also seems to stress the “I.” What can I do? How can I save myself? How can I create meaning in my life?

When we learn of his many possessions, we can hear another dimension to this “I.” I have so much...I have so many things, but what I really want is more meaning...more love...more purpose. What is the one thing I must obtain to have these things, in this life and the next?

Consider the connection in this time (and to be honest, in our time as well) to having things and being blessed. The conventional wisdom is that if you have a lot, it is because God blessed you. The flipside is the often unspoken thought that those with little, those vulnerable, and those without power are not blessed by God. Jesus has been turning this thought upside down...saying that in truth God blesses the vulnerable.

The wealth of this man has kept him from being vulnerable. Charles Campbell writes, “Jesus confronts the man with his weakness, his captivity to possessions that prevents him from living into the full life of the kingdom. Jesus here names the “power” that holds the man captive and invites the man to step into freedom.” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. 4., Ed. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 169)

David Howell writes: “The disciples have just witnessed a painful moment for the wealthy man who leaves grieving. Christian tradition has assumed that he went away sorrowful because he was unwilling to sell all that he had, give it to the poor, and follow Jesus. Another possibility is that he went away sorrowful precisely because he had decided to sell all he had and follow Jesus. That bold action would not have been emotionless. That would have been a decisive step into the future, resulting in an emotional letting go of all that he had and the relationships that came with his possessions.

In any event, the disciples are privy to just how painful steps into the future can be (whether the man did or did not give away his possessions). The kingdom of God is unfolding, but joining Jesus in kingdom activity and behavior is not easy and often is excruciatingly painful.” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. 4., Ed. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 166)

First steps are painful: attending the first AA meeting, calling the marriage counselor, talking with the son or daughter about sex or drugs, coming “out of the closet”, leaving a financially secure but spiritually bankrupt job, or perhaps even coming back to church after an absence. All not only require courage, but painful humility and sacrifice. And, yes, most of us the good fortune of being born in the Western World and not somewhere else, by the hard work of ourselves and/or our parents, and by our access to opportunity and education...most of us find ourselves wealthy in comparison with the vast majority of the world. Wealth is dangerous because even when you have it, you feel like there’s not enough, or you’re fearful about what happens if you run out, or envious of those who have more. Wealth ultimately teaches us that we can rely on ourselves rather than God or anyone else. (Mostly from David Howell in FOW as well, with a few things from me.)

And yet with wealth, something still seems to be missing.

Teacher, what must I still do???

My hunch is that most of us have encountered the traps of money. I also think that many of us have encountered the guilt associated with having money as well.

I don't have a solution for you, or even for me.

So, to be clear, I’m not here to say that you and I have to give everything we have away.

I’m also not going to tell anyone here what you must do with your money and wealth. But I do feel called to say that life in the kingdom of God is about caring for and sharing with everyone, and not about business as usual. Doing so is sure to create some anxiety, and even some grief...but there is also joy to be found.

Howell writes: “Those thick-skulled disciples had finally understood something: just how hard it is to change and to live out kingdom ethics. For them and us, Jesus holds out the hope that, with God, change and first steps are not only possible, but are already happening.” (Feasting on the Word, Vol. 4., Ed. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 168)

Perhaps that's what really happened with the man from this morning's Gospel. He may have gone away grieving that day. It's my hope that, by the light of the next day, he was ready to try and walk the first steps in making the kingdom of God a reality: for himself, and for the world.

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