Sunday, October 11, 2009
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23B] - October 11, 2009 (Mark 10:17-31)
Introducing Jesus’ new program this morning: No Disciple Left Behind. It’s a comprehensive new plan to make sure everyone inherits eternal life. No Disciple Left Behind: just a series of tests for which we need to prepare, some rules to memorize, then squeeze through the eye of a needle like a camel and you’re good to go! No Disciple Left Behind! Its concept sounds quite ingenious, but of course, it’s not without controversy. No one really knows yet if it will accomplish its goals. The results of its implementation aren’t yet in, but it hasn’t stopped some from studying diligently just for the exams, like a batch of high school juniors who invest, like I once did, in books on how to ace the SAT.
Take, for example, this rich young man in Mark’s lesson this morning. He’s pretty sure he’s got it covered. He approaches Jesus, the instructor, with fresh apple in hand in order to make the best impression. “What must I do, Good Teacher, to inherit eternal life?” the rich man asks as he bows himself into the dusty ground in a overdone gesture of obedience and respect. This is a bottom-line question; no partial credit. What are the basic requirements? The man is clearly successful, given his material wealth, so he is likely accustomed to figuring out exactly what he needs to know to accomplish his goals. A perfect pupil for No Disciple Left Behind, in fact.
Jesus does not seem initially impressed, but checks the man’s homework nonetheless, rattling off the Ten Commandments one-by-one. Discovering that the man has been following them like a good student since essentially what are his kindergarten days, Jesus then does something interesting. He looks the young man straight in the eye, and, in an act of sincere affection and approval, grabs him by both shoulders and informs him he may progress to the next level of the program. In fact, it is the last element and test of No Disciple Left Behind: “Sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, and begin to follow me.” Eternal life, after all, involves following the Lord of life, and for Jesus’ disciples, that will involve cutting ties to all that would hold one back from moving from place to place to spread the news.
Shocked and dejected, the young man returns to his seat in utter grief. This he cannot imagine. Remember, I had mentioned it is a controversial program. Many reach this point in discipleship and have a similar reaction.
I remember a comic strip that my ethics professor had posted to his office door at seminary. In the first frame, a man stood waist-deep in a pool of water, facing a preacher who was about to immerse him. The preacher says to him, “Now Mr. Jones, when I baptize you, everything that goes under the water becomes the Lord’s.” In the next frame, Mr. Jones is completely underwater for his baptism…except for one hand that clutches his wallet in the air.
However, before anyone has time to process this encounter between Jesus and the young man, before anyone sees a chance to run after the young man to say, “No wait! Don’t go away! Jesus might just have been speaking metaphorically here! Maybe he doesn’t mean you really have to renounce your earthly possessions!” Jesus explains the significance of the young man’s sorrowful response. The man went away dejected because he knew he would be giving up a lot.
As it turns out, in No Disciple Left Behind, each disciple must leave much behind. Each disciple must leave house and home, family and fields, wealth and well-being in order to follow. Each disciple will grapple with poverty in the face of plenty, lack in the face of luxury. Inheriting eternal life will be no cupcake class. And for those who happen to cling too tightly, it may prove to be a no-can-do. It’s like a camel going through the eye of a needle. And the teacher does not mean that metaphorically. He’s being serious.
One of the problems for the disciples here, which accounts for their befuddlement, is that in the first-century religious mindset, wealth was a sign of God’s favor, of being the Good Teacher’s pet, if you will. Poverty, by contrast, was not seen as something to be chosen but rather as an affliction for not having learned enough or not having acted lawful enough. The disciples likely see this young man approach Jesus and think, here’s finally an example of someone who has it made! He knows the law, he’s respectful of Jesus, he’s got evidence of earthly blessing—proof that he can succeed in the dog-eat-dog world of first-century Israel. God has blessed him!
However, when they hear Jesus explain that riches and possessions can make it more difficult for one to enter God’s kingdom, they have to completely reorganize the way God is working in their midst. “Who then can be saved?” they ask, bewildered, disoriented, as if all the answers to the exam have suddenly been changed at the last minute. And, forgetting their most recent lesson in which Jesus explained the kingdom is given to children—those who can’t do anything for themselves—the disciples ask “Who then can do the things to inherit eternal life?” All of them, like us, so focused on the doing, attaining, holding on, squeezing through…never really aware of the losing, the letting go, the receiving.
I think everyone who follows Jesus realizes some sacrifices are involved somewhere along the line. We consider our yearly pledges to the church, figuring out how much of our “hard-earned money” we should sacrifice for the work of the Lord. Our personal and family schedules, especially at this time of the year, blossom and grow with so many commitments, and occasionally we decide to cancel a commitment made to sports or entertainment in favor of attending a meeting at church or volunteering at a charity or sitting with a friend in need. We consider the sacrifices of reputation and popularity we sometimes make when we take a stand to speak for justice and truth in the name of the gospel.
But, if you’re like me, you realize there are many more instances where we shrink back from the sacrifices involved in following Jesus. We, like the young man, walk away, pondering what we would be giving up rather than thinking about what we could be gaining. We, like the man in the comic strip, try to hold much more of ourselves above the surface of the water.
Wealth—in money or possessions—is particularly dangerous in this regard, and Jesus knows it. It’s not that wealth or possessions, in and of themselves, are bad, but they can make it difficult for people who have them to receive and appreciate God’s rule. Those who are wealthy are not vulnerable in the way that poor folk are. Those who are wealthy have the means to control their surroundings and their earthly destinies in ways that underprivileged folk can’t, and, ironically, can be more out of touch with how much of this blessed life is determined by God’s grace. Furthermore, wealth can also blind us to our true needs of human community, based in love and forgiveness. And, because of its power to corrupt the administration of justice, wealth can make us blind and unfeeling to the basic needs of others’.
I heard the wife of a missionary once talk about the time she and her husband were getting ready to go overseas for the first time to serve in Tanzania. They were only allowed to take a certain amount of poundage with them, and so before she even saw where they were going, she had to pare down their worldly goods, not only because the shipping costs were so great, but because they would be serving people who didn’t have much, and being rich in possessions could alienate them from those they served. When she was finished packing, she said everything they had ever owned in their 25 years of marriage was condensed down to 20 small cardboard boxes. She told how she stood there and stared at them on her lawn and just cried—20 cardboard boxes after 25 years and 4 children—shocked that this particular call of Jesus would cause her family to sacrifice so many things that they loved.
Yet, in No Disciple Left Behind, it’s not just the Tanzanian missionaries and those who consider themselves rich who must let loose and pack light. The call is made upon all of us, to every disciple, wealthy and poor alike, It’s for those who’ve studied for the tests since kindergarten, and those who are just getting started. It is for the thoroughly committed disciple and the one who stands at the edge, reluctant. It is a call to relinquish our grip on those things which would hold us back from freely following Jesus.
In letting loose and leaving behind we may eventually learn that we’re gaining much more. We may just come to see that being submerged in God’s kingdom is about far more than what we’re giving up, and that it includes a blessed variety of receiving and winning.
Though the hardship of such a life will surely come, disciples learn they receive in the communion of Jesus a new wealth. Following Jesus grants a new kind of wealth where disciples are freed to share what they have with each other for the good of the world, where they no longer view things as “mine” and “yours” but rather as “ours” or as “God’s.” They see the possibilities that are opened to the whole world through a life shared in Christ Jesus where all our gifts are brought together to help establish his kingdom on earth. It is a new kind of family where those who have been claimed in baptism may see each other as real brother and sister.
And, to get us there, Christ lays hold of us in deep affection, looking deep into our eyes, he bids us to follow by leaving everything behind. All of it. As 20th-century theologian C.S. Lewis puts it, “[Jesus says] Not just a branch here or a branch there. I will have the whole tree down. [And in it’s place,] I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you myself” (Mere Christianity, HarperCollins 2001, pg 196).
It’s all a part of No Disciple Left Behind, this comprehensive new idea to make sure everyone inherits eternal life. Yes, it is highly controversial. Will it succeed? That’s the question. For mortals—like for the camel squeezing himself through the needles’ eye—the chances aren’t looking so good. If it were up to us, we’d fail, exam after exam. But for God, who is its author and architect, all things are possible. For God, whose Son is the great High Priest who passes through the heavens for us, all things are possible. For God, especially experienced here in the light of Easter morning, all things are possible. No Disciple Left Behind!
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr