Scripture: MARK 10:17-31
Here’s a funny thing about preaching. When we gather here to worship, and the preacher steps into the pulpit to offer a word, there are really three parties to the conversation. There’s the preacher. There’s the congregation. And there’s God. And sometimes preachers are tempted to gang up with God against the congregation, as though the preacher is on God’s side in a dispute with the people of the church. The preacher teams up with God in a tacit, or direct, judgment on the congregation. If I do that, you should slap me, because that’s never my aim.
The nineteenth century theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, once likened worship to the experience of going to a play. He said something to the effect that most of the time, in worship, we misunderstand the various roles: we tend to think of the preacher as the actor, God as the prompter—giving the preacher the lines, in other words—and the congregation as the audience—the audience who watches and observes and perhaps critiques. Preacher is the actor; God is the prompter; congregation is the audience.
Really, though, said Kierkegaard, we should more properly think of the preacher as the prompter, the congregation as the actor, and God as the audience. I’m here, in that way of seeing things, to guide us all in our collective role of adoring the one true God, while God is the one who takes it all in and essentially affirms our collective performance. Preacher as prompter and congregation as actor work together, in other words. And there’s always a sense, in this way of seeing things, in which God is beyond us, in which God is the One whom we encounter together—you and I—as other. That God is outside of us and, while radically affirming us, also has deep and abiding expectations of us.
I say all this as we begin this morning because I want to make it crystal clear, as we encounter today’s bracing gospel story, that I stand with you rather than in some sense standing with God against you. I want it obvious from the outset that, along with you, I am leveled by the startling and unnerving story we’ve just heard.
Maybe you’re familiar with the story. A rich person, who has in every way been a model for how to live a responsible and faithful life, goes to Jesus to ask what it takes to “inherit” eternal life. This is someone who has done everything right: church deacon, faithful attendee of every Rotary meeting, school room-parent, blood donor, dutiful participant in neighborhood clean-up days—an exemplary citizen in every way. This unnamed person is also rich, which, in Jesus’ time, was seen as something of a sign that the person was favored by God. What’s not to like! This person’s apparently got it all.
Something, though, feels incomplete to this unnamed seeker. “What more do I need to do?” asks the inveterate searcher. Whereupon Jesus drops the bomb: you need to sell everything you have and give the proceeds to those who are impoverished. Whereupon this otherwise model citizen says, ‘Uh-uh. Not going to do it. I love what I have.’
And I think: if you and I can’t identify with that seeker’s reluctance to part with what we have, we’re likely kidding ourselves. Is there anyone here who is remotely likely to sell all their possessions after today’s benediction and give everything they have to those who are poor? Is there anyone here who isn’t internally arguing with Jesus about how ridiculous the request is, how impossible it would be to carry out, how absurd is any savior who would ask something so ludicrous?
See if any of this sounds familiar. I like my stuff. I like my car and my TV and my home. I like the Spode dessert plates with the cobalt blue border that I grew up with, plates my mother just gave me this summer. I like the 800-thread-count sheets on our bed. I like the Bugatti overcoat a friend gave me years ago, a coat that a Kent State fashion major told me at a funeral last spring was to-die-for. And you’re telling me, Jesus, that I’m supposed to give it all up, that I’m supposed to sell every last thing I own? I don’t think so. Not going to happen.
And I can rationalize with the best of them why I should keep the stuff I have. If I sell everything I own, then someone is going to have to take care of me—feed me and house me and clothe me. If all the people with the top 50% of wealth sell everything and give it to the people with the bottom 50% of wealth, then we’ve just turned the pyramid on its head, and now the formerly poor half is going to have to sell everything they have. How easy it is to show the absurdity of what Jesus suggests.
And yet, something about what he says seeps under our skin, doesn’t it. Something about these words of Jesus smacks us and won’t let us go. I suspect we all know, at some level, that there is a discomfiting truth lying beneath the cold water those words throw in our face. And it’s not just the learned proclivity some of us have to feel guilty about nearly everything. It’s that Jesus here speaks words we know, at our core, to be true.
It seems to me Jesus confronts us here with a truth that is both theological and moral. Jesus reminds us here of something that is both profoundly spiritual and at the same time deeply ethical. Because we may be tempted to jump too quickly to the ethical dimension, it seems vital that we engage first with the spiritual side of what Jesus is saying.
What Jesus is imploring us here is: put God first. Not your things. Not your income. Not your investments. God. Jesus is reminding us of the centrality of God in all of life. Not our umpteen-inch TV, not our new set of golf clubs, not our car with all the latest features. God.
And putting God first may sound easy. But it’s not. Because we so easily look to lesser things to ground us and show us what we’re worth. See if this sounds at all familiar. I bought a new car this summer. It’s the first new car I’ve ever bought. It has a nice sound system, a moonroof, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. I vividly remember my feelings of anticipation as I waited a couple of weeks for it to be delivered to the dealership. This was going to be great. I was excited at the prospect.
And it came in, and I picked it up, and I really like the car. And at the same time, the thrill itself almost immediately evaporated. In no way could it live up to the excessive expectations I had of it. It’s a car, not a savior. It’s a vehicle, not a god.
Sixty-five years ago, the theologian Paul Tillich published a little gem of a book called The Dynamics of Faith. In it, he said that, whether we know it or not, everyone has faith. Everyone. In this age of ever-increasing so-called “nones,” who claim no religious affiliation, we’re led to think that many people, in their disavowal of religious faith, have left all faith behind. And that, says Tillich, is lightyears from the truth. Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, we all ground ourselves somewhere. We all look to some entity or belief or person or habit to organize us and give our lives meaning. It’s this that becomes our anchor, our lighthouse, our North Star.
For some of us, we put all our eggs in the basket of work success: have we met our quota; how flawless can we be; have we achieved the pinnacle of our profession? For some of us, it may be parenting: everything revolves around our children, and then our grandchildren. For others of us, it may be our possessions: the late-model car will mark our success; the Bugatti coat or Gucci handbag will be the apex; the new fully-outfitted patio pizza oven and fire pit will complete us.
Echoing what Jesus says to the rich seeker, Tillich says essentially: that’s not going to do it. You have to find an object of worship that is worthy of the weight you’re giving it. If you don’t, it’s not only a kind of idolatry, it’s also inevitably going to let you down. It’s putting all your eggs in the wrong basket. It’s worshiping a mistaken god, a god who can’t possibly provide what you and I most deeply need.
Centuries before Tillich, the great mystic Ignatius of Loyola said the same thing in a slightly different way. He said we’re all tempted to be taken in by what he called “disordered attachments,” excessive attachments to things or people or values that are less than ultimate. Some people would call my rooting for the New York Yankees a kind of disordered attachment! We get attached to the video game or the cocktail or the social media feed, and we give it a place of honor that it doesn’t deserve and of which it is not worthy.
And here’s the crux of the spiritual problem with such idols, with such disordered attachments: they can’t sustain us when the chips are down and the waters are roiled and life falls apart. When the life-threatening cancer strikes, when the business goes down in flames, when the marital ultimatum is issued, it’s not a car or TV or handbag that’s going to save us. When the heart attack lays you low or your child severs all connection with you or your best friend ghosts you for no apparent reason, it’s not going to be your ample retirement account or your club membership or your workout routine that’s going to provide you with “the peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:6).
Only God can do that. Only God can undergird us at the cusp points of human frailty. Only God can hold us close when life goes tragically off the rails. When your child dies, when your partner’s dementia becomes unbearable, when your sense of failure chokes you and won’t let go, it is only the Shepherd who leads us beside still waters (Psalm 23:2), it is only the inextinguishable light that shines in the darkness (John 1:5), it is only the God “in [whom] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) who can redeem the pain and soothe the fear and make all things new (Revelation 21:5).
When Jesus tells the rich seeker to sell everything, this is essentially what Jesus is saying: ‘drop your misguided idolatry, leave your disordered attachments. Come to me.’ Remember the startlingly unexpected words we hear in the middle of that story: in the throes of this wildly disconcerting conversation, and as the baseline of everything else, the story tells us that “Jesus looked upon the questioner with love” (Mark 10:21). It’s as though Jesus says to this questioner: ‘Let me gaze upon you as a treasure and remind you that, no matter how it may seem, all shall be well.’
That’s the spiritual heart of this story: you and I are adored just as we are; no matter what we may have thought or said or done, no matter how egregious our failures may be, no matter how unlikely the prospects may seem for any peace and wholeness in our lives, the assurance comes to us that God can make happen what we cannot make happen on our own and may not even be able to envision. Make your bed there. Find your rest there. Let that be the God in whom you find your wholeness.
That’s the spiritual dimension of Jesus’ words to the seeker. At the same time, though, there is also an unavoidably moral dimension to the challenge Jesus issues to that long-ago questioner and to us. If I think I can spiritualize this passage in order to avoid the real-world challenge to share and be generous, I’ve got another thing coming. Just when I may think I’m off the hook because Jesus has said he loves me, I’m reminded that there’s an entire world out there that suffers and that Jesus loves, and that some of those who suffer will only know peace and comfort as I bring it to them.
Jesus has little apparent interest in other-worldly truths. The heart of Jesus’ ethical message to that ancient questioner and to us is that we can make a difference. When we take what we have and give substantially, even sacrificially, to those who are in need, we are living out a crucial dimension of the good news of God. While we may not literally be expected to sell everything, the challenge is nevertheless issued to us: remember that you are incredibly fortunate, that you have way more in the way of money and stuff than 95% of the world, and that your generosity can make a substantial difference in feeding and clothing and housing many for whom such basics are luxuries. You and I are vessels of God’s love.
Which means that we are beckoned to let go of some of our abundance so that those who have not will have. We are prodded to share our gifts with an often-needy world. So when Federated Church invites us in this next month to make a promise of a substantial intention to give generously, let’s remember these words of Jesus. Our gifts to Federated are gifts to the work of God. They make a remarkable and ongoing difference in the world. They feed; they clothe; they provide care at times of disease and divorce and death; they deliver human presence when all seems to have fallen apart; they witness to the richness of efforts for justice nearby and faraway. Our gifts touch and grace the world in amazing and far-reaching ways. Together, when you and I give from out of our abundance, we live out Jesus’ injunction to be generous with what has come to us. And as we do, what may have seemed impossible has become possible. God has empowered us to go and make a difference. May we do so with energy and joy!