Tuesday, October 13, 2009

the good news within the bad news (mark 10)

So you are on a journey, from here to there, from today until tomorrow, from point a to point b. On the journey you have good days and days. Well, Jesus is on a journey. It is understood, in Mark’s gospel, that this is the journey toward Jerusalem, toward Golgotha, toward a cross. It is a hard journey.

Sometimes, most of us are so focused on the next thing, this day, this week. We are here this morning to worship God, to think about God, but there is also our “to-do” list—getting a flu shot, filing the taxes, putting one foot in front of the next, moving along!

Along the way there is an interruption. You have had days like this, full and complicated days, when you had enough on your plate, enough to think about, and along comes an interruption which takes the form of a question,. It is a question not about the urgent but the important.

Well, Jesus is on a journey, and he encounters someone: we call him the rich young ruler; in one gospel we learn that he is rich, in another that he is young, and in another that he is a ruler. Over time we have combined all of these attributes. Jesus is on the journey, and he is interrupted by the question of the rich young ruler.

What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Interestingly, this is the same question that was asked of Jesus by the lawyer, in Luke 10, the question that prompted the parable of the Good Samaritan. In both settings Jesus quotes the law. You know the commandments, he says. And in both contexts, the response of the questioner, to Jesus, is the same: Teacher, I have done all of this since I was a kid at Vacation Bible School, since I was a young person in Confirmation since I was a teenager in MYF. I went to Garden City I got up early to for youth choir. I’ve sung “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love”. I’ve unloaded pumpkins! Not to mention all of those sermons.

There he is-- a good person. Not a bad person, a good person. We know this guy. We are a lot like him, to be honest. We do often put ourselves, as individuals, in place of the one who comes to Jesus. We have been doing the right things, acting on what we know and have been taught, we are the accumulation of all of the voices of those who have come into our lives: parents, teachers, coaches, neighbors. We come before Jesus and ask: is it enough? Am I on the right track? What must I do to inherit eternal life?

It is an important question. Not a question that we ask every day, to be sure. But it is important. For many of us, the story of the rich young ruler who encounters Jesus is one that we know well, we have heard this story before. And so I have reflected in the last few days on this encounter from a different perspective.

What if this was a word not only to us, as individuals, but to us as a church? For the past year we have been involved in a strategic planning process, we have been on a journey. The world is changing, the truths of the gospel do not change but the world is changing, and the future will be different. We are on this journey, and in the midst of the journey we are confronted with the big question: what must I do to inherit eternal life? Someday, when we stand before God, will we be able to say, “We offered our best to you, we tried to do your will, we wanted to be the church that you wanted us to be!” Will we find ourselves asking, “is it enough? Were we on the right track?

What must we do to inherit eternal life?

Do you know what inheritance is? A couple of generations ago folks thought about the future as inheriting the family farm. It was predictable---the future is going to be like the present and the past. And so the church is asking the question, what is our future going to be like? Well, for many reasons, not like the past---- in the past, people did not move from one city to another, and so church was wrapped up with family; in the past, an interfaith marriage, in the south, was between a Methodist and a Baptist (!); in the past, people did not have homes in multiple locations; in the past, almost all of the population went to church, not just 50%; now as a kid I was as obsessed with sports as anyone you know, but in the past we did not play sports on Sunday mornings; in the past, in a mill town where I lived briefly as young adult, if you missed Sunday School for a few Sundays the foreman at the plant would come and ask if anything was wrong in your life;

This was the past that shaped our church. We even worshipped at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning so that we could go and milk the cows before worship! What must we do? That is what we have been asking you, asking God. What does the Lord require of us in the future? What will the future church look like? We have spent a year listening, and learning. What must we do?

Jesus says, worship God, love your neighbor. We respond: We’ve been doing that, Lord, wander around our church, at any hour of the week, look at our newsletter, look at the parking lot, something good is always happening, we have been doing this for a long time!

And Jesus looks at us and loves us, and says, “There is one thing. Go, sell everything, give up what you have and follow me”.

Let go of all of it, the buildings, the programs, the staff, all of it, and give it to the poor, and follow me. Relinquish everything that you have, and follow me. In our minds we do know that the future of the church is about following Jesus. But it is hard.

Because there is so much about the present, the way things are that we love. In the gospel the response is grief and shock, loss of the past and the present. Follow me, Jesus says. This is exactly what the small group of people who founded Providence did fifty years ago. They left everything behind and they followed Jesus into a new future, a future that became who we are today. Their dreams must have been multiplied a hundred fold---think of the anthems that have been sung, the prayers offered at this altar rail and in the Brown building, the mission trips, the relationships in Sunday school classes.

What is it like to give up everything? We have a word for this in our personal lives. It is simplicity. A year ago I gave a talk to all of the ministers of the Society of Friends or Quakers, in North Carolina. It was a few weeks after the economic shocks that came that affected us all. Among other things, we discussed extravagant generosity. I was talking with one of the ministers after the gathering and he said, “You know simplicity is supposed to be one of our virtues as Quakers, but now, with the economy, we are all learning to live simpler lives, it has become chic!”

Simplicity. Some of us would admit that we are learning to make a virtue out of necessity: discovering a simpler life. Jesus says, sell everything, give it to the poor. Here Jesus combines simplicity and compassion: Simplicity creates a space in our lives to think about the poor, to welcome them and their needs into our lives.

The temptation is to spiritualize the story here, but it is an encounter between Jesus and a rich man. According to the world’s standards, we are all wealthy, of this there is no doubt. Jesus talked a lot about wealth, possessions and money, more about these topics than any other subject except the kingdom of God. And remember: he is talking to someone who has a history of being generous.

The rich young ruler goes away sad, because he is wealthy. Well, the disciples are still with Jesus, making sense of all of this, just as we are. Maybe Jesus will comfort them and us. Maybe Jesus has a keen sense of emotional intelligence to read our social cues and meet us where we are.

No, actually, it gets harder. He gives a vivid word picture: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. This was a story that bothered me as a child, from the time I first heard it, I tried to visualize it and it never worked out. It seemed…impossible.

It struck the disciples get it. Lord, then who could be saved? Are we all shut out from this? It seems impossible.

And then the response of Jesus: with human beings, it is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.

This story of Jesus is one of the most relevant stories in the Bible for you and me. It is about the interruption of our journeys. It is about asking the really important question. It is about being on the receiving end of a hard answer. It is about the grief of leaving something behind and entering into a new future. It is about trying to live more simply, so that we might be compassionate toward the poor. And it is about an impossible situation.

The gospel ends with Peter asking the question some of us would blurt out, if we had been there: Lord, we have gone the extra mile, we have not just done the right thing, we have made sacrifices, real sacrifices, we have left everything and followed you, so…give us some extra credit, cut us some slack!

And Jesus responds, in summary: no one who gives up anything for me will not receive that back one hundred times more, in this life and in the life to come.

You cannot out give God.

This is one of the hard teachings of Jesus. But it is the narrow way that leads to life: what is impossible for us is possible for God. Through grace, we do make it in the journey—God makes a way when there is no way.

Sometimes when we ask the really important questions, we do not hear the answer we want, but we discover that we are in the presence of Jesus who never seems to answer us directly, but puts us into situations where we can learn and grow. Sometimes we get the answer that we do not want to hear, and it changes us. Sometimes we need to let go of something in order to receive the gift that God has been trying to give us.

And sometimes we recognize that salvation really is not our achievement, as good as we are, much of the time----it is either a gift, pure and simple, a miracle, or it is nothing at all. Salvation is something God is willing to do in and with and for us, if we will hang in there with him, if we do not walk away. We would love to do it ourselves, but that turns out to be impossible. The radical good news embedded in this hard teaching of Jesus is that what is impossible for us is possible for God.


Post a Comment

<< Home