Sunday, October 14, 2018
Leaning In: Sermon for Proper 23 B
Many people over the centuries have listened to the story of this rich man and heard only a condemnation of him, and of those like him. However, there is an important facet overlooked in this story: this same man is the only person within Mark’s gospel of whom it is said that Jesus loved him. Let that sink in for a minute.
We already see that the man is pious, and in running up and kneeling before Jesus he treats and addresses Jesus humbly, with respect. Yet the man asks Jesus a question that is inwardly focused, which is our second clue about his character. Jesus answers him by citing from the second half of the Ten Commandments—and these are the ones that have to do with our interactions and relationships with each other. Jesus’s inclusion of a prohibition against defrauding is actually not one of the Ten Commandments, but is in the spirit of the prohibitions against false witness and stealing.
Looking at this man, kneeling at the feet of a wandering teacher, Jesus truly sees him and loves him. After all, especially in Mark’s gospel, people who kneel in front of Jesus are seeking healing of one sort or another. This man knows he needs healing. He is just unsure of what that will be, exactly. Jesus loves this man, and knows his heart.
Yet his next words must seem truly ironic: “You still lack something,” he observes to the man.
It must have seemed shocking for Jesus to tell a wealthy man that there could be ANYTHING that he lacks. He has shown himself to be aware of the feeling of something missing in his life to even come chase down Jesus, for even though he has followed all the law here he is, seeking guidance. Jesus wants to heal this man, even as Jesus himself is on the way to Jerusalem.
The man is stuck in a transactional pattern, though, when it comes to his relationship with God. And boy, is that a common habit for a lot of us, or what? We think if we just pray a certain way, if we bargain with God, we will get what we want. This man is no different. The man asks what he can DO to “inherit” eternal life, and as a wealthy person, he probably knows all about inheritance.
Yet eternal life is not a possession. Eternal life is outwardly focused, a way of living in which one recognizes and rejoiced at the abundance of God’s grace, and responds to that grace by seeking the welfare of others. Eternal life, life abundant, is rooted in the now as much as it looks toward the future. Jesus reminded us last week, with his arms around little children, that “whoever does not RECEIVE the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
In other words, we can’t DO anything to earn eternal life. We must instead open our hearts to the love of God acting within us that we may RECEIVE eternal life through God’s grace. That’s what Jesus means when he reminds us that “with mortals, salvation is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” When we open our hearts up to embrace our dependence upon God and each other, to see that dependence as a blessing rather than a weakness, then we are open to receiving and entering the kingdom of God.
Wealth has a tendency to insulate, and that is just as true today as it was in the time of Mark. Wealth can make us think that we are completely independent, and have no need of others, much less of God. Wealth is a form of power, and power often blinds us to our call to the consideration of the good of the community. It has a tendency to make one put their guard up, to hold themselves aloof from real relationship with others for fear that they will be used. The problem with possessions is that they can begin to possess us. Wealth can become a false idol to worship, which takes us back to the commandments—the very first one.
Yet, loving that man as he does, Jesus doesn’t command him—there’s been enough talk of commandments. Instead, what Jesus does is that he INVITES the man into relationship—real relationship with God. He invites the man to participate in the abundance of God within his own life, and to free himself of all that is holding him back from seeking the heart of eternal life. In his case it is not his money alone but the fear that his riches are a symptom of. That fear keeps him focused on the past, rather than embracing the present, much less the future. The problem for this man is that, in the end, his possessions are something that he loves more than becoming a disciple of Jesus. And that’s a danger for everyone that hearkens back to the first and greatest commandment: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.
But the second part of that formula we have heard repeatedly is this: You shall love your neighbors as yourself. This means that we are reminded that we are called to live in community, sharing each others’ joys and pains, seeking the common good in joyous response to the love of God, active and life-giving, that animates our very breath and heartbeat. Salvation isn’t about making sure we go to heaven when we die. Salvation begins right now, when we let the healing love of Jesus free us enough to love each other and care for each other, heal us enough that those who see us in our daily lives witness an unmistakable testimony to the power of God’s healing, reconciling love in the world. We have a tendency to keep even our spiritual focus turned inward only, and to attempt to control God by making deals with God.
Having an inward focus for our spirituality is vital—but then our spirituality must look outward, as well, to live out our spiritual truths and journeys in our daily lives, for the good of the world, for the repair of the world—what our Jewish friend call tikkun olam.
We cannot DO anything to receive eternal life—except open our hearts and be willing to receive that grace and let it take us where it will.
Into life itself.
Eternal life animates us to do and speak and witness to the blessings of God’s abundant love in our lives, and calls us to care about what happens to our neighbors.
I’m sure some preachers have been led to use this scripture during stewardship season to try to guilt their listeners into giving to the stewardship campaign. I am convinced that that is an abuse of scripture. Jesus doesn’t use guilt or fear on the man who comes before him. He doesn't promise the man that he can buy his way into heaven. He loves him, and seeks to set him free from the fears that prevent the man from following Jesus.
These fears become a vicious cycle, too—further isolating him from those around him, further diminishing his power to work in his world for transformation, for the love of others. The man is paralyzed by the fear that there is never going to be enough. It is a common fear that holds many of us back.
And that affects parishioners and parishes, too. Some may be still reacting to wounds they have suffered at the hands of others—even sometimes people in the church. Jesus seeks to heal us and free us of all that holds us back in our growth as disciples.
We too, find ourselves on our knees before him. Can we take hold of the hand of Jesus and follow him? Can we open our imaginations to the possibility of the good that this parish does and will do in the world, if we invest our hearts and our hopes in this community as disciples, so that together this parish can continue to be a beacon of Christ’s light in the world?
Like that man, Jesus is calling us to follow him. He is asking us to “lean in,”—to take seriously the love God has for us, and trust in the attitude of abundance that the Way of Jesus leads us to walk in. Jesus calls us to let go of our fear of scarcity in order to truly be free, grateful, and at ease here in the midst of this new family Jesus calls us to make together as the beloved members of this outpost of Christ’s body. Can we instead rejoice in the blessings we receive here together enough to go all in? I believe we can. Together.
Preached at the 505 on October 13, and at 8:00 and 10:15 am on October 14, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville.
Job 23:1-9, 16-17