a sermon for the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23B/Lectionary 28]
As the gospel-writers are telling us about the life of Jesus, we notice things start to take a very serious turn about halfway through. All the fun things he was doing in the beginning of his ministry—things like healing people and casting out demons and feeding large crowds—basically come to a stop and he gets heavy and stern. With somewhat severe tone he pulls his disciples aside a few times and predicts his suffering and crucifixion in Jerusalem and even scolds them now and then for “not getting it.”
We’ve been steadily reading through Mark off and on since January, and this is the part of Mark’s gospel we’re in right now. He knows what’s coming down the road, so it’s suddenly no more fun-and-games Jesus. Two weeks ago he told us in exaggerated terms about how to address the reality of sin in our lives by cutting of our hands. Last week he had his debate with the Pharisees on divorce and adultery, and today he gets very blunt about wealth. We were discussing all of this in our staff meeting this past week and somebody said, “It’s kind of like when you’ve already read your kid 3 stories before bedtime and they keep wanting another one, but at some point you’ve just got to put your foot down, stop reading stories, and turn out the light.”
This week Jesus kind of ends up putting his foot down on this man who runs up to him and wants to know what to do to inherit eternal life. We don’t know a lot about this man. We eventually find out he is wealthy and apparently has led a fairly upright life. Many of this man’s peers, and probably even the disciples, would have assumed his riches would have come as a result of his moral life, since a common belief back then was that God rewarded moral people with worldly wealth.
We also know he admires Jesus, calling him “Good teacher,” when he first approaches him. Even though Jesus basically rejects that term, the man must want to seek wisdom from him badly enough to walk up to Jesus on the road. He is a go-getter. Whether he’s inherited his money and managed to keep it or whether he’s earned it himself, he’s no doubt a confident seeker of the good life.
It would be nice for him if gaining eternal life were also something that could happen by checking off things on a list, by chalking up the perfect experience, by designing another spreadsheet. If he can just go do something—read another book, climb another mountain, achieve another goal, sign up for one more committee at church, he would be complete.
The problem for him is that he wants eternal life, and apart from Jesus that just can’t happen. Entering the kingdom of God must be done like a child, with trustfulness that allows you to stay near Jesus. Receiving the God’s life-giving mercy involves being like broken soil which takes in a seed and then nourishes it over time so that growth is sustained. Recognizing the grace of God’s presence and forgiveness is something that comes through a relationship with Jesus. It is not a transaction. It is an ongoing thing. It is more like a journey that the man must walk or a way of life that the man must adopt than a particular activity that he can add to his resumé.
What Jesus knows is that the fewer possessions and wealth one has, the easier it will be to undertake that journey and receive that relationship. We tend to think of money and property and financial resources as things that enable and empower us to do things. Jesus, like the prophets before him, typically see wealth as a hindrance to faith and as a barrier to understanding others’ suffering.
Just last week after worship I helped one man who came by the church looking for assistance. He met me at a nearby grocery store and said he needed a few things like laundry detergent and food staples to get him through a couple of days. He was going to be getting on a Greyhound the next day and said that they’ll kick people off the bus if they smell too bad. Now, normally I don’t do this but that day, instead of getting him a gift card and leaving, I decided to help him shop (the church has funds for this kind of thing) and so I took off looking for the detergent and the Hostess cupcakes he really wanted and let him pick out his food.
We met several minutes later in the checkout line, which was really backed up. So we made small talk for a while, and I learned he was a really kind man with an interesting story, somewhat of a vagabond. But because neither of us had been able to find a basket when we walked in he was standing there with his arms full, bottles and bags of different things perched precariously on top of each other. A bead of sweat dripped down his brow and formed on the tip of his nose, but with full hands he was unable to catch it before it dropped onto his container of chicken wings. I was still holding the detergent and something else for him.
When it came time for us to put our things onto the conveyor belt, there was this definite sign of relief at letting them go for a minute. I thought about how, for all I knew, this was all this man had—all of his food and worldly items were right there on the conveyor belt. I envisioned myself trying to hold everything I owned, my greedy arms extending out to fill the whole store to grab all my stuff at home. He had declined my suggestion that he get some fruit, I realized later, not because he didn’t like it, but because he knew it wouldn’t travel well.
Jesus calls this man who approaches him to travel well. To be nimble and unencumbered. Jesus doesn’t curse his wealth or chastise him for it, but Jesus knows the life of the kingdom he brings will require mobility, it will require freedom, it will require hands and feet free for serving and understanding what it’s like to be vulnerable. The man can’t handle that. He is shocked that eternal life will be a future without his many things, and so he turns away.
There is a lot of anxiety these days about the perceived decline of the church in the United States. Like most Christian denominations, our own, the ELCA, loses members every year. The percentage of people who claim to be affiliated with a church or who claim to attend worship regularly also declines with each subsequent year. People are turning away. So many times we in the church blame ourselves. We say things like our worship is boring or hasn’t supposedly kept up with changing trends. Some people suggest it’s because the church has been behind or tone-deaf on important social issues. Others have blamed the decline on becoming too much like culture.
To be sure, there are probably several factors for all of this change, many we have no control over. I never hear anyone, however, link the decline of the church’s membership to our society’s relative wealth. Personal disposable income in the United States has increased with almost every year since 1959. In fact, it has multiplied by almost four times since then, adjusted for inflation. What if the call to follow Christ and to join with his band of followers is simply being drowned out by a very consumerist society awash in options for how to gain and spend money? Maybe there are some connections there that we don’t even investigate. Even Jesus had a hard time convincing certain people to follow.
This man who approaches Jesus but then turns away finds it too difficult to release his goods onto the conveyor belt, so to speak. The fact of the matter is that the more buffered someone is by their affluence, social status, education, or race, the more difficult it will become for that person to look for hope and salvation in something else outside themselves, including in God’s kingdom.
Interestingly enough, we know something else about this man, something we know about no one else in Mark’s gospel. We know Jesus loves him. He is the only person we hear that Jesus specifically loves in the entire journey of Jesus, from beginning to end and there’s nothing to suggest that love is withdrawn as he turns away. All this is to say there is nothing he or we can do to make God give us eternal life or earn Jesus’ love. Jesus has brought us God’s kingdom and loved us even before we start to follow and he puts his foot down to go to the cross where he will lay the whole of his life down on the conveyor belt so that the rich grace of God’s love will come to all. Rich, poor, powerful, weak, well-connected, anonymous…Jesus has called us all into his kingdom, welcomes every single person into the journey.
And once we’re on the journey all kinds of worlds and new realities open up. We realize we receive each other as brothers and sisters, new family members who share the struggles and joys of life with one another.
We receive property! The individual homes where our Seedling small groups are meeting are real extensions of the kingdom’s ministry throughout the Richmond area, and the LAMB’S Basket Food pantry is part of our household too.
And it goes beyond Richmond! Just last week a staff member of Lutheran World Federation drove from Baltimore to Richmond just to meet with me after seeing how many contributions Epiphany has made to their work over the years. Our quilting ministry makes hundreds of quilts every year for distribution to their outposts, and most recently our Lent donation of $2000 for life-saving medical centers in South Sudan had caught her eye.
There was I was sitting in my office with a young, articulate millennial woman who kept saying things like, “our presence, our work in South Sudan is linked with IMA World Health, an international organization devoted to projects in earth’s most remote and poverty-stricken areas.” In fact, I was moved to learn from her that the money Epiphany gave went to helping alleviate diseases related to acute malnutrition primarily in children under 5 and pregnant or lactating women and aimed to help almost 100,000 people.
That is, of course, impressive, but the fact that she kept using the pronouns “we” and “our” instead of “they” and “their” was most moving to me. She meant that Epiphany was actually a part of that ministry—that we, through our fellowship in Christ, we have an outpost in the bush of Africa. We, through our faith and generosity, are a part of that group of disciples way over there. As Jesus promises, we have gained fields abroad where healing work is being done!
Jesus loves us and calls us into service to the world. God’s kingdom breaks in and through his grace we are made mobile, agile, ready to serve. He does put his foot down, oh so thoughtfully, to release us from the things that bind us, to put the first things last and the last things first. To give us more life that we’ll ever imagine.
What a serious turn of events in Jesus’ message, but what a amazing one for us! With God…all things are possible!
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.