(a sermon for July 5, 2015, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost; third in a series, based on Mark 10:17-31)
She was sixteen years old; part of our church’s youth group and one of my “confirmation kids” from the year before. And she’d really stood out in that particular class, not simply for the level of her participation or the sheer number of deep questions asked over the course of that process (!), but also for the ways in which her faith exploration seemed to be spilling over into the rest of her life. This girl was bright, funny, outgoing and genuinely appeared to be following some sort of spiritual pathway in her life; and one day she actually came to my office to let me know that she’d decided that she wanted to become a minister; specifically, a church pastor!
You see, at this point she’d been thinking about college, and was wondering what course of study she might consider before going on to seminary. And we talked a lot about that; several times, in fact, over the next few months; that is, until one day when I asked her how her college search was going, and she answered, “Well, um… about that,” and then informed me that she’d decided against going into the ministry. Now, this wasn’t terribly surprising to me; I mean, where vocational pathways are concerned, people (and kids especially) change their minds all the time; and besides, a call to ministry is not something to be pursued casually but with all due conviction, so better to know this up front. But I was curious, and asked why she’d reconsidered; and to this she replied, “Well, I did some research, and it turns out that church pastors don’t make a lot of money.” And then, without even a hint of irony or sarcasm in her voice, she added, “And it’s very important to me in whatever I end up doing in life, that I do well and make a lot of money.”
Hmmm… well…. as I recall, I said something to her to the effect that while I completely understood her concern and yes, she should move into the future in a way that’s financially responsible, that whatever she chooses to do in life she should also always remember that money buys neither happiness nor vocational fulfillment (and, by the way, kid, it’s not like pastors still get paid in vegetables and poultry!). But it didn’t matter; bottom line was that for this young woman at that point of her life, it was a matter of priorities; and the allure of potential wealth and “stuff” out there in the world was just too great to leave behind, no matter what the reason!
Hey, no judgment here (!), because like most of us, I suspect, I can sympathize! Whereas none of us here can lay claim to a Bill Gates/Donald Trump level of wealth (and if I’m wrong about that, we need to have a talk after church about stewardship and pledging!), I also suspect that if we were to potentially lose that which we do have, that would be enough to put us into a true panic. Even when we have more “stuff” than what we actually need to live (which in all honesty, friends, when compared to the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants, includes most of us); there’s this huge reluctance and even fear on our parts in letting those things go.
But… what if letting go of those things meant… everything? Would we do it? Could we do it? That’s the question at the heart of our gospel reading this morning, the story of a “rich young ruler” who met Jesus along the way; which, incidentally, is the only instance in the gospels when Jesus calls someone to follow, and (spoiler alert!) that person refuses.
Actually, as Mark tells the story, we really don’t know if he is truly a “rich young ruler.” Matthew’s version speaks of him as “young,” (19:20) and it’s Luke that refers to him as “ruler.” (18:18) All Mark says is that he’s simply a man, albeit one with “many possessions;” and as such he represents any one of us who has ever yearned to know, conclusively, what it takes for us, what we have to do “to inherit eternal life.”
Understand this was no empty or casual inquiry on this man’s part; first of all, Mark tells us that he “ran up and knelt before [Jesus],” which in and of itself was a stance of humility and great respect, as a student unto a teacher; and he refers to Jesus as “Good Teacher,” a title that Jesus immediately refutes, saying that “no one is good but God alone.” Moreover, as they continue to talk it becomes clear that this man knows his faith; he understands the commandments, and what’s more, he keeps them just as he always done from the time of his youth. He is what those of his time and culture (and ours, for that matter) would consider to be a faithful, sincere and righteous man; so far, so good! But then comes the kicker; and you’ll notice, by the way, that what Jesus says next is not said unkindly, nor as a taunt, but it’s spoken with love: “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.”
And that, of course, hit the “rich young ruler” very hard; we’re told that he was “shocked” by this, and with nary a word, “went away grieving.” Think about this for a moment; this man meets Jesus, he’s invited to be Jesus’ disciple, and yet he purposefully heads in the opposite direction! And the reason, all three gospels make very clear, is because of the money; because “he had many possessions.” Simply put, there was just too much – too many possessions, too much property, too much stuff – for him to let go, even if letting go would bring him the eternal life he was so yearning for. So; even given that there’s a clear sense in this story that for him there’s a great deal of sadness in this – maybe deep down, this man already knew that his possessions were possessing him, understood that his very wealth had created a barrier between him and God, and could see that it had tainted his relationships with others in the process – nonetheless, he was unwilling or unable to divest himself of it all and he walks away!
And make no mistake, it was a shock for the Rich Young Ruler, and also for the rest of us; because as I said before, we do understand, do we not, that reluctance to take the kind of risk that requires us to give up all that has come before, all that we have come to depend on and to cherish, so that we might wholly depend upon and cherish God! But you see, this is precisely the place out of which Jesus calls us to follow him; and these are the challenges that become very real when God and his kingdom becomes real to us; and why they are challenges so very difficult for us to accept. I love what the Rev. Dr. B. Wiley Stevens has said about this: “To lead us to grow in our faith,” he writes, “God challenges each of us at the one point we cannot give up.” The Rich Young Ruler “might have pleaded, ‘Why so much, Lord?’ Why not allow us to simply say a kind word instead of acting in compassion by helping another? Why not allow each of us simply to put our name on a list saying we are for God instead of actually being involved for God? Why can’t God build his kingdom on good intentions?” The point is that God asks for much more than that; God asks for us to love him with heart and soul and mind and strength; in Jesus, he asks us, “Christian, love me more than these…” these things, these possessions, these obstacles of wealth and privilege that inevitably shift our priorities in the wrong direction.
The challenge is to set our priorities in the proper order, but that turns out to be difficult; if not almost impossible! That’s why even as he’s walking away in grief, Jesus is immediately reminding his disciples that “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.” Now, more than merely providing an incredibly uncomfortable image to our minds (!), Jesus was actually referring to a very real gate in the city of Jerusalem that was named “The Eye of the Needle;: a gateway so small and narrow that the only way travelers could ever hope to get through was to remove any and all baggage the camel was carrying and then proceed to push and squeeze the animal through the opening! In other words, while theoretically at least, you might force the camel through this eye of the needle, there would be no way any rich person could possibly force their way through to God’s kingdom!
This, of course, now came as a huge shock to the disciples, who like so many of us, had equated wealth with power and privilege. “Then who can be saved?” they ask. And Jesus’ answer is blunt, to be sure; quoting “The Message” here, “No chance at all if you think you can pull it off by yourself.” That would seem enough to end the conversation on a rather somber note, but then Jesus, again with great love, adds this: there’s “every chance in the world if you let God do it.”
For God, you see, “all things are possible;” and at the end of the day that’s what neither the Rich Young Ruler, nor the disciples, nor even we fully understand: that yes, it’s next to impossible for those with great possessions to wheedle themselves through the eye of the needle to get to the kingdom of God; but ultimately, it’s not about the possessions, it’s about us! Money and wealth isn’t inherently bad; it’s how we relate to it, how we defiantly cling to these things that end up being the measure of how we move toward eternal life; and the bottom line is that as we become too burdened with the “stuff” of life we miss the kind of intimacy with God we want and so desperately need. So we might well not be able to pull off this journey through the needle’s eye; but here’s the good news: God is able, and by his grace, so will we.
When our youngest son was just a preschooler, he was… obsessed with these little toy “Thomas the Tank Engine” trains. He collected them, it was always our go-to “special treat” for him in those days, and everywhere he went – and I mean everywhere – Zach had to take one, or two, or 20 of these little trains along with him! And I remember walking him across the street from the parsonage where we were living to go to the nursery school at church, and both his hands would be filled with as many of these “choo-choos” as he could hold; to the point where I would literally have to fight to get this kid to hold my hand to cross the street; all because doing so would mean he’d have to let go of a few of those trains!
After a while, of course, we learned to put those trains in a little satchel that he could carry in one hand; or else, what I’d do is quickly shove Thomas, Percy and some of his other compatriots into my jacket pocket until we were safely at the nursery school, at which point Zach always made sure he got them back. It always seemed to me to be a lot like how it is with God and us as we seek to make our way to the kingdom: that there’s so much that we carry with us “along the way” that we are reticent, to say the least, to give up even for a little while; but how, even when the way seems impossible to pass, here’s our Lord, in love and infinite care, offering to take some of the burden of it off our hands and take it on as his own; leading us, guiding us and holding us in love so to bring us fully and safely home.
Next to impossible for you and I to “let it go” and make the journey; perhaps, but not so with God. And the good news is, all we have to do is trust him to do it, and then to take his hand and walk with him together.
Who knows? Maybe next time when Jesus calls us to leave it all behind to follow him, we’ll be ready to let go of a little more.
Something to think about as we come to the Lord’s table today.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry