St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (October 11, 2015)

Liturgical Color: Green

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Holding Things Lightly and Holding God Fast

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

This story from Mark could be about lots of things. It could be telling us about the evils of wealth. Or about sharing our money with the poor. Or about the way to eternal life. Or perhaps even it about the reversal of fortunes in the kingdom of God. The high brought low. The lord as servant. The despised as honored. The last become first.

Let's permit the text to lead us:

As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "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.'

The story begins with a seemingly innocent question about eternal life. The problem is that the rich man wants to know what to "do". So Jesus calls him on it. Goodness is hard to come by, and the commandments bear witness to the impossibility of doing only what is good.

Still the rich man, who some believe is the author of this gospel, persists:

He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "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." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Rather than contesting the man's prideful assertion that he is blameless before the law, Jesus chooses to up the ante. "Alright, even if you have kept all of the commandments, you remain rich. So, go even further in honoring the will of God for your life. Share what you have with those for whom God has a special concern—the poor."

There is an ironic humor in the young man's response: "He went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions." Would you go away sorrowful if you had great possessions? If you had just won fifty thousand dollars in a contest, would you go away sorrowful? No, you would be rejoicing. But this young man went away sorrowful, because he had great possessions.

Why? Of course the answer is that he could see there was no way he could serve two masters. Jesus had pierced right to the heart of this young man's life, right to the deep things of his spirit, and had shown him that he was owned by another god. This young man, who had everything that money and power and youth could give him, nevertheless had wanted something far more important. He caught a glimpse of it, and he wanted it—eternal life. Not just living forever, but a quality of life he knew he lacked, an emptiness within his spirit he could not fill. He knew Jesus could fill it. And he was sorrowful, because he also knew, at the words of Jesus, that he had to give up his other god in order to have it. He could not have both.

In the end, it wasn't that he was rich. It was that he was unwilling to accept the free gift that Jesus offered. He simply couldn't make the shift from relying on and loving his wealth to relying on and loving God.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that pigs and money go together. As in "piggy bank." As in "bring home the bacon." As in "living high on the hog." And even though "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," you try to picture a pigskin pocketbook once you hear that proverb. Even in the life of the church, pork meets penny. The term "steward" traces back to the medieval English "sty-ward." Yep, a pig-keeper.

Jesus talked a lot about stewards and stewardship... One-sixth of Jesus' words have to do with money—the only subject he talks about more is the kingdom of God. (Steve Lane, "Shepherd's Diary", 9/92, 2)

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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."

Why is Jesus so hard on the rich? It just doesn't seem fair.

Until we remember that the tradition of Israel and its hope has at its heart—good news for the poor. With or without possessions, when people who want to revere Jesus are not good news for the poor, one thing is missing.

Riches so easily blind people to the vision of the kingdom and make them deaf to the cry of the poor. And who could argue that our hearing has gotten any better? Malnutrition and starvation kill thousands of children every day. Millions of people die every year from the lack of food, shelter, health, education and hope. The poor are vilified and robbed of their dignity and self-esteem.

The rich-poor divide is nothing short of overwhelming, and the expanse of that division grows ever wider as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middle class dwindles. It's a reality we do well to face squarely. Perhaps then we can move away from attempts at self justification, like those of the rich man, or making amends to the kind of grace that says: leave that preoccupation with yourself behind, believe in grace, be set free from all of that, so now you can live the life of love and compassion.

Here's an intriguing statement:

"churches seldom practice a spirituality of connection to the margin, and there is often not enough diversity to tempt the Spirit to make us all one. (Russell, "Church in the Round", Westminster, 1993, 203)

Jesus calls the rich and the poor alike to be a part of the kingdom, along with every other kind of difference among people. And only where such diversity is present can the Spirit do the work of uniting us into the fullest expression of the body of Christ. That's the reason I treasure the diversity of this community—and call us to engage in regular conversation with one another.

Isn't it interesting that when rich people come to faith, they come in exactly the same way as the poorest of the poor? They acknowledge their complete and utter need. They come as sinners and receive the gifts of life, grace, and forgiveness from the loving hands of Jesus. There is no other way to come! There isn't any short-cut, only the way available to all.

They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

What the rich man had requested was impossible. No one can "do" anything to inherit eternal life. It is not a commodity or possession that is passed from one generation to another. Nor can anyone ever do enough good to earn it. For mortals such things are, as Jesus says, "impossible." But, thanks be to God, "for God all things are possible." What cannot be achieved or earned is offered as a free gift.

Yes, we are called to be less piggy and better stewards. Yes, we are called, as is the rich man, to give of what we have for the benefit of the poor. Yes, we are asked to give up all other gods in order to embrace the love and grace of the one true God.

And still, salvation is a gift, free, and possible. For God overturns every judgment of this world. In Christ, everything gets thrown off balance:

Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."

When we understand this, what a difference it makes in our lives—to hold things lightly knowing whose all things are, and to understand that God has committed resources to us not that we might please ourselves, but that we might advance the cause God has given us. It is God we hold tightly, not things.

I close with a story:

A rich man came to Jacob, the baker, and asked him, "When others turn to me for help, what should I say?"

"Say, thank you," Jacob replied, toying with a leaf that had fallen from a tree.

"What?" said the man, "why should I say thank you?" His voice grew louder as if to boost his confidence. "What can the poor give me?"

"Have you ever met a man whose success is not also a burden?" said Jacob. "Charity allows you to lessen your load. In this way having less can add to your life!"

Now the stranger's voice took a new tone. "I feel like a fool," he said.

"No," responded Jacob, "a fool is one who knows too much to learn anything" (Noah BenShea, "Jacob's Journey," Villand, 1991, 41-42). Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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