Sunday, October 14, 2018

For He Had Many Possessions

Sermon for SMHP, Year B, Proper 23, Oct. 14, 2018
Mark 10:17-31
               17As 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?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You 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.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
          21Jesus, 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.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
               23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth* to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus 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, 30who 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. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

          So here’s what I’m wondering…
          What happened next?  We have this story.  Most of us have heard it before, and likely all of us have heard the phrase “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.”
          We know the rich man came to Jesus and Jesus told him to sell everything and give the money to the poor, and that the young man “went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
          But isn’t it deeply unsatisfying not knowing what happened next?
          Like, is this the end of that man’s story?  He asks about the kingdom, Jesus gives him a really difficult task to do, he refuses…end of story?!
          I don’t know about you, but I’m looking for something more.  Because single encounters with Jesus shouldn’t be the end of the story.  What makes Peter’s story, and the story of James and John, The…Sons of Thunder!...what makes those stories so compelling is that their single encounters with Jesus aren’t the end of their stories.
          The Peter who rebuked Jesus for his passion prediction is the same Peter who preached that gospel narrative on the first Christian Pentecost.
          The Sons of Thunder are all thunder-y throughout the gospels, but they are also the ones whom Jesus wants with him in important moments.  Peter, James and John are the only witnesses to the raising of the daughter of Jairus.  They are also the only witnesses to the Transfiguration.
          Their story didn’t end the day they wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan town.  The story of our relationship with Jesus doesn’t end the day we do something stupid, or selfish, or I daresay this sanctuary would be empty this morning.
          The rich man’s story didn’t end that day on the road, when he asked Jesus a question and didn’t like the answer.  (And who hasn’t been there?)
So I thought I’d spin out a possible ending for this little Morality Play, based on all of the other stories we have of encounters with Jesus that aren’t the end of the story.
          Like, maybe Jesus continues up the road a bit, and they stop in a town.  They go to the home of the wealthiest Jew in town, knowing that the family will put them up for the night—Middle Eastern Hospitality Code—and the Lord of the house comes to greet Jesus and his apostles.
          And guess who it is?
          It’s the man.  Your Bible might say “the rich young man” or even “the rich young ruler,” but the text actually just says he is “a man.”
          The man who owns the big house on the edge of the town.  Which is not a surprise to Jesus, because he’s Jesus and he knew which house he was going to.  But the man is stunned to see Jesus again and just stands there for a moment…until he recovers his manners—Middle Eastern Hospitality Code—and calls for water for the washing of their feet, and the preparation of a celebratory meal.
          The water comes, and the servants set about washing the feet of the disciples, but the Lord of the house moves his servant aside and kneels to wash the feet of Jesus.  They say nothing, just engage together in the last-as-first model of discipleship, the man awkwardly engaging in this ritual as the washer, for the very first time, having been waited on by servants his entire life.
          When the dinner is ready, the man invites Jesus to the place of honor, next to his elderly parents.  The disciples take their places, and soon all are enjoying good food and plentiful wine.
          Seeing a good opening, the Lord of the house turns to Jesus and says, “Lord, I want to follow you.  But who will feed and shelter all of the people who work here?  No one else in town has the means.  And who will care for my parents?  I am all they have.”
          And Jesus looks at him once again, and feels love for him, once again.  “You have many things, my child,” Jesus says.  “You have many reasons, and many possessions, and so much to consider.  It is not easy to let any of these things go, in order to commit fully to discipleship.  Full discipleship requires you to be willing to let all other things go.  You are not yet ready or able to do that.
          “What can you do?”
          The man thought for a while.  He was used to his life looking a certain way.  He was comfortable with the way that it looked.  But he also wanted to be part of this Jesus Movement taking his village by storm.  And he liked the idea of inheriting eternal life.
          “I could sell the field beyond the house and give the money to you and your disciples!” the man said to Jesus.
          “Close!” said Jesus.
          The man thought back to their original conversation.  “I could sell the field and give the money to the poor!” he cried out with enthusiasm.  “And I could invite them to come here for their gifts and I could throw a banquet for just the poorest people in the village!”
          “Now you are getting there,” Jesus told him.
          And that’s all we get for now.  Still an unsatisfyingly unfinished story.  But discipleship is like that.  Some days you’re really good and you think, “hey, I’ll do this great thing for someone else.  Maybe someone who really needs it.”
          And some days you are madly in love with your i-Phone and your computer and your dinners out and you can’t imagine giving those things up…even for Jesus.
          And make no mistake, absolute discipleship requires the willingness to give up your i-Phone.  All that stuff gets in our way, and Jesus wants us to be free to focus.
          But Jesus also understands that we are flawed human beings who struggle to follow his call.  Who struggle to do the right things and say the right things and give up the right things.
          And Jesus loves us.  Just as he loved the man.  Loves us in spite of who we are and because of who we are.
          Jesus loves us and Jesus forgives us and Jesus gives us second and third chances to get it right.  Because Jesus knows that we are trying to get it right.
          And when we don’t get it right, Jesus loves us and Jesus forgives us. 
          That is always the next part of the story.  Always.

What has been put together...

Sermon for SMHP, Year B, Proper 22, Oct. 7, 2018
Mark 10:2-16
               2Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3Jesus answered them, “What did Moses command you?”4They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
               10Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
               13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

          So…divorce is a bummer.
          It is very important that you hear what I am saying here, because I don’t want anyone going home and posting on social media that Pastor Donna preached a sermon judging divorced people.
          You know, because I know you spend your Sunday afternoons reacting to my sermons on social media.

          I do want you to hear what Jesus is saying to us this morning, and what we can probably agree to:  in general, divorce is a bummer. 
          Except in cases of abuse, when divorce can literally be a life-saver.  And in other cases I bet we can name, cases in which the greater good could be found in an amicable parting, rather than an antagonistic pairing.
          So even as we hear Jesus offering this morning those words which are still pronounced in many a marriage ceremony—“What God has joined together, let no one separate”…even as we hear those words, and we recognize a clear preferential option for marriage over divorce…
          …we want to start by acknowledging that it should be clear that the concern Jesus is raising here is the same one he has been raising to us for three weeks now—first in Capernaum, and now in “Judea and beyond the Jordan”: concern for the most vulnerable members of society.
          Divorce in the time of Jesus left vulnerable people—women, and often children—without the means to live a good and productive life.  The division of labor was clear—men work for money or goods, women tend the home.  There were rare exceptions, but the structure of first century Palestinian life was pretty simple and consistent.
          And marriage structured the household for the care of all the people—women, men, children.  It was outlined throughout scripture, and reiterated by Jesus that day “beyond the Jordan:”  “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”
          God intends for us to be in relationship with one another.  God longs for us to be in relationship.  Shortly after creating the first human, God realized that a second human was necessary.  According to the Genesis account, which we heard this morning, as soon as God called that second human into being, God ordained marriage as the structure for their life together. 
          And it is possible to read the account in Genesis 2 and assume that God’s only hope for deep relationship is marriage between a man and a woman.
          If you don’t read past Genesis 2, that is.
          Further on in Genesis, and throughout the scriptural narrative, human beings are called into several types of deep relationships of love and fidelity.
          Abraham loved his son Isaac so much that God used that relationship to test the depths of Abraham’s faith. 
          Moses couldn’t have been Moses without his sister Miriam’s strength and his brother Aaron’s voice.
          James and John, the Sons of Thunder, are seemingly inseparable disciples of Jesus who speak and act in unison.
          David the future king, loved the son of King Saul, Jonathan, so much that upon the death of Jonathan, David sang this Psalm:
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
   your love to me was wonderful,
   passing the love of women.[1] 
          Ruth swore fealty to her mother-in-law Naomi.  Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”[2]
          And then there are these two.  Joseph defied the law to marry a woman carrying a child not his own.  And raised the son of God to be a great human as well as a great Messiah.
          So many relationships. So many kinds of relationships.  Parents and children, stepparents and children, siblings, friends, lovers.
          Relationships marked by bonds of all kinds which share one trait:  a sense that the destiny of the one is caught up in the destiny of the other, caught up in what Dr. King called “an inescapable mutuality.”
          Think about the relationships in your life.  It is my hope for you, and it is certainly God’s hope for you, that you have those sorts of relationships, relationships of “inescapable mutuality.”  God ordained those relationships because they serve important purposes for us. 
          When God created the first woman, it was with clear purpose…which was?
          Help and companionship.
          A marriage relationship, and for that matter any other sort of covenantal relationship, should provide love and companionship.  God ordained marriage in order to provide a helper, a lover, a companion for Adam.  The marriage relationship shelters the persons within it, especially those who are vulnerable.  Protection of the vulnerable is one of its primary purposes. 
          Protection of the vulnerable should be a primary goal of any of us who claim Jesus Christ.  For three weeks now in our gospel lessons, alongside discourses on a range of topics, Jesus has been drawing little children near to him.  In the midst of a conversation about marriage and divorce, Jesus insists that children will be the ones who will inherit the kingdom.
          And during those weeks, in the world beyond this sanctuary, we have seen vulnerable women mocked and vulnerable children locked away.  If this discourse on marriage seems antiquated to you, do look again.  It is the failure to honor and respect one another that has brought us to the precipice of civilization.
          Those who will coax us back from the ledge will be the ones who understand as Dr. King did, as Jesus did, that we are bound to one another, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
          The garment of our destiny is a bit frayed, but it can be mended, when we begin to realize that God called us into relationship with one another for just that purpose.  That we might work together. 
          That we might rise together, and fall together.
          That we might build up what is good, together.  And tear down what is not.  Together.
          God ordained marriage to be a melding of equals for the purpose of care, help, love, and joy.
          God raises up other companions for our journeys as well, because, as God noted in God’s first moments with us, “it is not good for us to be alone.”
          Let us not be alone.  Let us be together.  All of us.  Honestly, the world is counting on us.

[1] 2 Samuel 1:26
[2] Ruth 1:16-17


Sermon for SMHP, Year B, Proper 20, Sept. 23, 2018

          Before I read the gospel text, I want to show you some pictures.  As you look at them, ask yourself one question:  “Which of these persons is the greatest?”
[Show slides]
          We have Bill Gates.
          A teacher, helping a student.
          And Patrick Mahomes, who last Sunday set the record for touchdown passes in the first two games of the season.  In his third start.
          Got your answer?  Shout it out.
          Now I’d like to read the lesson:

The Holy Gospel according to St. Mark, the ninth chapter.  Glory to you, O Lord.
Mark 9:30-37
          30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
               33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
The Gospel of the Lord.  Praise to you,  O Christ.

          Let me show you the pictures.  And ask again.  Of all of the people you see, which one is the greatest?
          Who is it?  Who would Jesus tell us it is?
          “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.  Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

          The greatest of these is the student, who needs help from his teacher.  The one with little autonomy, probably no big bank account.  And little chance of throwing a touchdown pass in the NFL.
          We have now reached the part of Mark’s gospel that is about Identity.
          Who is Jesus?
          Who are we as his disciples?  What do disciples look like, and what values do they hold? 
          We can talk about what disciples do, but it is clear that Jesus is more interested in teaching them who they are.  Because—as we’ve noted before—what we do flows from the values we hold.
          It’s not enough just to put on a t-shirt that says “Christian.”  People will know you are a Christian when they see how you treat others…especially the Last Ones…the least of these.
          Christians move the last to the first, and themselves to the places of less honor.
          So Christians hold some pretty counter-cultural values.  Those are not the values of our 21st century Western culture, are they?
          Who would our culture say is “the greatest” of the people I showed you?  Probably Bill Gates, since Patrick Mahomes hasn’t quite proven himself.  Maybe if I put up Kobe Bryant…  And our culture isn’t exactly holding up and valuing teachers—or children—these days.
          But our call to do so should be very clear.  There should be absolutely no question for us as Christians where greatness lies.
          It can be hard to understand a message so countercultural, can’t it? 
          Our lesson opens with Jesus offering his disciples another chance to understand his purpose.  “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”
          How did they do?
          They didn’t understand and were afraid to ask.  In Mark’s gospel especially, the disciples have a very difficult time understanding things.  Understanding Jesus.  And discipleship.  Kind of important things.
          Jesus keeps telling them that the end game of this whole operation is suffering and death.  And that doesn’t make much sense to them.    
          After all, this is the most powerful human ever, right?  Since they’ve been with him, they’ve watched him still a storm, walk on water, feed five thousand people with a few loaves and fish, turn around and feed four thousand people. 
          He has cast out demons and healed people of all manner of diseases.
          He even brought back a little girl everyone thought was dead.
          Jesus has incredible, super-natural power.  If he can raise other people from the dead, why would he allow himself to be betrayed and killed?
          It makes no sense to the men who were, just that day, arguing about which of them was “the greatest.”
          Do you think they were arguing about which of them was the most like a powerless little child?
          The most likely to welcome a little child?
          The one who would be willing to suffer on behalf of other people?
          Probably not.
          The word “Great” seems to have a life of its own these days.  It’s not an eternal life, though.  That’s the life we find in following Jesus.  A life which sacrifices for the other.  A life which cares about the last and the least. 
          As Christians, we are called to stand over against the sort of “greatness” that sacrifices the little ones for the sake of earthly power.  And these days that means standing up when we see our children yielded to the bottom line of gun manufacturers.  It means speaking up when we see our immigrant neighbors sent back to dangerous places and their children incarcerated.  For the sake of a seven hundred fifty dollar a day payoff to the prison industrial complex. 
          “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
          That is the place of the disciple.  End of the line.  Giving up power, rather than accumulating more.  Following those who lead us to serve, not to destroy.  Strength through vulnerability.  Power through grace.
          It ain’t pretty.  It ain’t glamorous.
          It ain’t “Great.”
          This world will not reward our discipleship.  And that is how we will know that we are doing it right.