Getting to preach in this church is a real honor for me, and I think it is for our other preachers too.
Several of us from St. Mark’s (Lorraine, Bonnie, Joyce, Mary, Corby, Sarah, and I) recently attended a preaching seminar in Seattle led by The Rev. Dr. Herbert O’Driscoll, one of the top Anglican preachers in the world. Dr. O'Driscoll is a former urban Cathedral Dean in Vancouver, B.C., and was the Warden of the College of Preachers at the Washington National Cathedral. (Our Deacon Dorothy McMeekin mentioned Dr. O’Driscoll frequently in her sermons and really liked his preaching.) We were all impressed by his teachings and his style and method of preaching.
Dr. O’Driscoll talks struck a real positive note with me; he said the delivery and perspective on giving sermons has changed dramatically during our generation. Dr. O’Driscoll explained that the sermon perspective has moved from a more hierarchical view of preaching TO an audience to one of preaching while “being a PART OF and WITH the people”. This is exciting to me, for a couple of reasons: 1) We have been changing our worship space to move the preacher closer to the people; Dr. O’Driscoll’s message says what we’re doing fits with changing that perspective. (Our change is actually fairly small, as compared to how dramatic this change becomes in some older larger churches where they used to have pulpits you had to climb stairs to reach and the preacher looked down on everyone.) 2) Here we have a natural opportunity to transform this sermon perspective, in that we have several preachers all who are from within our church community, instead of a clergy person who came to us from somewhere else and thus tends to preach more TO us and not necessarily “as one of us”.
So, what did I find out and think about to share with you in preparing for the sermon this week? I focused on the Gospel read today from the book of Mark, Chapter 10. This passage basically has two parts: How the Rich Can Get to Heaven, and Who Can Be Saved? I’m only going to talk directly about the first part, which involves the story of the rich young ruler.
This rich young ruler asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life”? Jesus responded by giving the traditional rabbi answer to the man, “Have you kept the commandments”? and named off the last six. The man replied, “Teacher I have kept all these since my youth”, but behind his response was a sense of, “but there still is something missing!” Jesus then replied, not to the man’s words but to his intention, “There is one more thing you need to do – go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me”. Hearing this, the man was “shocked”, rejected his command, and went away “grieving, for he had many possessions”.
This story is probably one of the most famous biblical passages that tends to be ignored by modern Christians. One writer suggested that if this passage were actually literally followed today, it is likely that Christianity and Christians would be very different. Instead, it is a frustrating and hard to explain story that tends to be glossed over entirely.
Frederick Buechner once wrote: “The trouble with being rich is that since you can solve with your checkbook virtually all of the practical problems that trouble ordinary people, you are left with nothing but the great human problems to deal with: how to be happy, how to love and be loved, how to find meaning and purpose in your life. In desperation the rich are continually tempted to believe that they can solve these problems too with their checkbooks, which is presumably what led Jesus to remark one day that for a rich man to get to Heaven is about as easy as for a Cadillac to get through a revolving door.
Mark's message today was written in a society in which there were great extremes between the wealthy and the poor. Wealth (and poverty) represented not only economic status but also (and perhaps more important) one's place in society. The wealthy had not only an abundance of material possessions but also all the honor, power, and status. Judaism taught that wealth was an indication of God's favor, further adding to the status of the wealthy, but at the same time the wealthy were regarded with a certain degree of mistrust. In contrast, the poor lacked honor and power in a culture where those things mattered a great deal. In such a culture to be poor had far reaching impacts that touched all parts of life. The poor did not necessarily lack the basic necessities of life, but their existence was meager at best. Religious teachings about poverty were contradictory. While on the one hand poverty and hardship were viewed as a signs of God's disfavor, on the other hand scriptures called for more equitable treatment for the poor and promised God's care for them. In this culture the poor were vulnerable religiously, economically, and politically because they lacked power and honor. Justice in such a culture often meant a redistribution of wealth. [Interesting how that culture existed then; how does that culture compare to the one we have now in the United States?]
I read a survey last week, conducted by Reader's Digest; it asked people from 16 countries one simple question: What stresses you the most?
A total of 150 participants from each country chose between money, family, health and state of the world. The result shows that most participants consider money to be the number one reason for stress. The recent world recession has not only left its mark in our bank accounts, but also in our minds.
Malaysia led the list with 58 percent of participants stating money to be their biggest concern, followed by China and Singapore both with 55 percent. Third one in the list was the United States with 48 percent of participants blaming the dollar for their stress. According to the survey, the nations which cared the least about money were Russia, France and Italy. In Russia, only 15 percent said they were stressed about money, while in France and Italy the number was 18 and 19 percent respectively.
In my sermon preparation I found several ways to look at this story from Mark; here are two ways to look at this rich young ruler story.
The first way goes like this: What did the young man mean when he initiated the encounter with Jesus by asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Was he asking, “What must I do to go to heaven when I die?” Or was he asking, “What must I do to enter the kingdom of God?” This second question is what Jesus understood he was asking, as shown by Jesus’ response to his disciples later in this reading (in fact, Jesus substituted in verse 23 the term “kingdom of God” for the man’s “eternal life”). This man was asking what he needed to do in order to join Jesus’ reforming movement to bring the world (both individually, and the political, economic and religious systems) back to the practice of God’s intentions for the world.
Jesus quickly got to the heart of the issue. God’s intentions aren’t met for society simply by keeping the commandments or by observing one’s religion. Even if the rich young ruler had kept all the commandments and had done nothing wrong, his love and acceptance of his great riches in the face of such inequitable social conditions and the obvious result of that inequity – the suffering of the poor – meant that he had broken God’s greatest commandment of all, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might”. It wasn’t so much that this man possessed great riches as it was that his great riches possessed him!
Jesus stated this: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God”. It is really hard, not because of the presence of that wealth as much as it is what that wealth does to you. To “enter the kingdom of God” is to become committed to working for political justice for all, an equitable sharing of wealth so that none are too rich nor too poor, the removal of poverty, and embracing an inclusivity for all. One can’t work for such a kingdom and at the same time hold on to “great riches” – because those “great riches” are perpetrated only by an inequitable maintenance of wealth. You can’t have it both ways! Either you have great riches or you enter the kingdom of God!
A second and very different way I found to look at this story is: “Where is God in this?” Assume the young man wanted to know what he could do to ensure his eternal life. He had kept the commandments, he had lived as devoutly as he could, and yet he still wanted to know what more he could do to make sure he would get a heavenly reward. Jesus’ answer to him essentially said this, “Nothing! There is nothing you can DO to make sure God will reward you.” The observation that he still lacked “one thing” did not indicate that there was one more task he could perform to earn salvation, and that giving away all his wealth to serve the poor was that one final act. Instead, the call to divest himself of his wealth through giving to the poor was a call to give up the entire exercise of attempting to DO something to inherit eternal life.
Wealth is an effective sign of power; what matters about wealth is not what it is in itself but what it allows its owner to do, the means it provides for its owner to exert her or his will in worldly affairs. The great danger of wealth, as Jesus explained it to his disciples, is not that wealth is somehow inherently evil—Jesus did, after all later promise wealth “a hundredfold” to those who have given up their worldly goods to follow him. The problem with wealth is that it makes it “hard to enter the kingdom of God:” Wealth is a constant temptation to use one’s own will in place of responsiveness to God’s will. Jesus’ call to the rich man to give away his riches therefore amounted to a call to give up his power, to give up his desire to secure his place before God, and to accept that it is not possible for him to enter God’s reign on his own. Instead, he needed to recognize that what is not possible for him is possible for God, that what he cannot do through his own power can be done with God’s power, that his participation in the community and ministry of God is not something he can secure but something he can only accept.
St. Francis of Assisi, who we celebrated last Sunday as part of our Blessing of the Pets Day, probably responded to God’s call to give up wealth and serve the poor as well as anybody. Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant when he heard God's call to live a life of poverty while serving the poor and all of creation. His way of life attracted others and he founded the Order of Friars’ Minor, also known today as the Franciscans.
This message is really important in the upcoming season of stewardship campaigns and pledge making. (Yes, we are getting to that time again this year. You think that might be why they place this story at this time of the year in the lectionary readings?!) Most stewardship campaigns would not try to make this extreme kind of request that Jesus makes of this rich young man (and we won’t either here at St. Mark’s, at least not to just literally give away everything and follow Jesus). But, there isn’t a better time to reflect on what Jesus does ask of us? What is the cost of our following Christ? At the very least we are called to examine carefully where our priorities lie and to consider what it would mean to give more of what is most dear to us, whether it is our money, our time, or our status in the community. It is a challenge not only to deal with those things that stand in the way of making a full commitment to God, but also to consider how our giving, how our choices help to bring about justice in the world, and how we help to bring in the kingdom of God.
Jesus recognizes that this is not easy as he says, "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." But Jesus also reminds us that it is not all up to us: for with God all things are possible, and it is with God and through God that we find the ways to do what we are called to do. AMEN.