Saturday, October 13, 2012

One More Dollar...

Thanks to the work of "Preaching Peace" and "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary" in helping bring clarity to this week's sermon.

Mark 10:17-31

As he 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.'" 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.

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." 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."

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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

“I went to find the pot of gold
That's waiting where the rainbow ends.
I searched and searched and searched and searched
And searched and searched and then -
There it was, deep in the grass,
Under an old and twisty bough.
It's mine, it's mine, it's mine at last...
What do I search for now?”

Shel Silverstein’s poem could have been written for the man who runs to Jesus and falls at his feet. He had all the stuff he could ever want, and in a culture which equated wealth with God’s favor, it was obvious to everyone that God really liked this guy, that the Almighty was blessing him above others.

This guy knew the rules. He followed the teaching of the Pharisees, he played the game the way it should be played...

Well, that really might not be a fair way to put it. After all, he believed in God, and believed he was doing the right things for the right reasons. And yet… it started deep down in his spirit, this emptiness, and it grew every day – the cold realization that in spite of all his strict observance of the law, in spite of his comfort and wealth, something was missing. Something big.

A man I once worked for had a saying: “The answers are easy. It’s the questions that are hard.” His point was that the key to finding solutions to problems was in asking the right questions.

I don’t know how true that saying is, but I know that for the man in our account today, knowing the right question isn’t hard at all.  It’s the biggest question of all, really: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus gave him a list: “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.”

In my imagination, the man’s reply, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth,” isn’t a statement of pride, but of desperation. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got that, Jesus. Come on, I know there’s more!”

And the Scriptures tell us that Jesus looked at him and loved him. Did you know that this is the only place in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus is said to have loved someone? And the word there in the Greek is “agapeo,” which means for Christians an unconditional, complete, all-encompassing love.

So what Jesus says to him, the challenge, if you will, is said out of love. “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.”

The man gets up and walks away sad… not angry, convinced that Jesus has asked too much; no, the man knows that the Lord is right... and that he cannot.

As he walks away, Jesus says something that shocks and troubles his disciples: “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.”

There is, of course, a strong temptation to water these statements down, to make it easier, more palatable to our 21st-century consumerist minds. To make believe that Jesus is not making the hard demands on the believer that he seems to be making here, where this living word of God cuts us to the core. The easy thing to do is to lessen the impact of the statement, qualify it to be less of a burden.

It is, after all, a dangerous thing to say that if anything at all is in the way of full and unfettered devotion to the Creator, it must be thrown away.

I should get to this part of the sermon, let the tension hang a moment, and give a theological interpretation that makes us all feel better about our faith journey as it is.

For years I was told that, in the “eye of a needle” statement, Jesus was referring to an actual location familiar to everyone in Judea. You might have heard this too: In Jesus’ day, when travelers reached the walls of Jerusalem after dark, and the main gates were closed, the only way into the city was through a narrow passage called the “Eye of the Needle.” They would have to take the packs off of the camels, and make the camels squat down on their knees and crawl through the gate to get into the city. Then they would follow, dragging the camels’ burdens behind them. It was a dreaded, difficult, time consuming process, almost impossible.

And it’s the “almost” that would make the statement OK, wouldn’t it? It would go from “impossible” to “possible, with the right tools.”

But even though that explanation for Jesus’ words has been around since at least the fifteenth century, and maybe as far back as the ninth century, it is painfully obvious that there is no historical or archeological evidence that the story of the hole in the wall is in any way true. There is no “Eye of the Needle” gate in Jerusalem or anywhere else. The hard statement, the perplexing problem of possessions must stand as it is.

It must be easier for literal, camel-sized camel to go through the literal, eye-of-a-needle sized needle eye than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

So… what do we do with it? How do we address the words of Jesus to the rich man: “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me?”

Surely, we can claim that it doesn’t apply to us. After all, wealth is relative, and we can all point to Bill Gates or Donald Trump or Ted Turner as examples of wealth who could stand to spread some of their billions around. We can join in the familiar cry of the Occupy Wall Street movement, that we are the ninety-nine percent, and demands that the one-percenters give all they have to the poor…

But did you know – as residents of a developed nation, as far as our income and life expectancy and freedom and affluence are concerned, you and I are the one percent, and everyone else, all over the planet, are the ninety-nine percent? What happens to those demands then, I wonder?

And anyway, is that really all there is to it? Just getting rid of stuff?

Well, first let’s get one thing off the table: there is nothing we can do to merit God’s favor, nothing we can do to earn eternal life. The man who falls on his knees before Jesus in our reading today is approaching the whole matter from the wrong direction – what must I do, he asks. I think that’s why Jesus reacted to being called “good teacher” in the first place, by the way: to make the point that, apart from God, no one is good, no one can be good.

That being said, I think that what Jesus is challenging the man to do is profound for us in our day and age and location on the globe.

After all, what is money? Colored paper and shiny coins, and nothing more – though more and more these days money isn’t even that, it’s a collection of numbers on a bank or credit union’s computer hard drive.

Yet this paper or metal or binary code represents value – the value we place on the portion of our lives we spend earning the money. Further, it represents security – the more of it we possess, the greater the likelihood that we won’t starve or go naked or be homeless. Moreover, it represents the idea of self-sufficiency: if we have enough, we won’t have to work or worry or depend on anyone or anything else, ever.

Yet history proves that, even when someone arguably reaches a place of self-sufficiency, the drive, the desperation for more never stops! At the height of his wealth, a reporter asked John D. Rockefeller, “How much money is enough?” Rockefeller answered, “One more dollar than I have.”

This man who knelt before Jesus was, like us, looking for security: security in this life, and assurance of eternal security in the Kingdom of God. What Jesus told him to do was to let go of self-sufficiency – divest himself of any hope of ever being able to depend on himself for anything – in favor of finding his sufficiency, security, and salvation in God.

What Jesus calls us to is a relationship where nothing – nothing! – is more important than following Him. Jesus calls us to the place where the camel meets the eye of the needle, where we can go no further. Jesus calls us to give up more than just our possessions, just our desire for wealth and security, just our desire for one dollar more than we have. Jesus calls us to give up our selves. Jesus calls us to follow him.

Today’s reading calls us to serious reflection, challenges us to give up the things dearest to us in order to walk more closely with Jesus. if anything at all is in the way of full and unfettered devotion to the Creator, it must be thrown away. This is something we must confront on a daily basis, through prayer and study, daily meeting the place where the camel-sized camel of our lives reaches the eye-of-the-needle sized hole that leads to the Kingdom of God. And when we reach the eye of the needle, and that camel won’t go through, and we at last agree with Jesus that with mortals, this is impossible, there is a wonderful promise awaiting us.

No, we can’t do it – be good enough or earn enough or do enough things to merit God’s favor. We can’t build a bridge long enough or a ladder high enough to reach the Kingdom of God. For us, it is impossible.

But it is not hopeless. We do not have to walk away, consumed with grief. We are not alone.

We have within us the Holy Spirit, through which God works to bring us into that glorious, now-and-coming Kingdom, by which God brings that camel through the needle’s eye and into eternal life.

This is the Good News: “For God, all things are possible.”

Alleluia, amen.

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