We are the rich man – a sermon

Every Sunday morning, at approximately 8:02, Episcopalians at Christ Church and all over the world hear these words, “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, ‘thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’”  As I read and reread the Gospel passage for this week, I couldn’t help but notice that those words are not what our Lord Jesus Christ saith to the man who came to him seeking eternal life.  I began to wonder what was it about this guy that he would receive such a unique response from Jesus?  There is nothing in this story that would lead us to believe this man sought out Jesus with anything other than a sincere desire for eternal life.  Unlike most of Jesus’ sparring partners, this man doesn’t appear to be a spy from Scribes and Pharisees trying to trap Jesus in a war of words.  Rather, he is simply a faithful Jew, trying to gain a deeper understanding from this now famous itinerant Rabbi.

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Isn’t that the question all of us have for Jesus?  Please, just tell me clearly, what exactly must I do to gain entrance into heaven?  Do I have to say the sinner’s prayer?  Do I need to have a momentous conversion experience?  Do I have to memorize Bible verse?  What can I do to get my ticket punched?  Jesus responds as only Jesus can.  Jesus never answers a question directly, so he starts by inviting the man to think about the very natures of God and of humanity.  If no one is good but God alone, then a) calling Jesus good would put him on par with God, and b) the man’s question is already answered in the asking.  No one can do anything to gain eternal life because no one is good except God.

After a brief aside, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, essentially listing the last seven of the Ten Commandments.  These are said to have made up the second of the two tablets brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai.  They deal with how members of the community of the faithful interact with one another.  It would seem that here Jesus saith only the commandment that is like unto the first, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Why?  Elsewhere in the Gospels, we are told that Jesus can see into the hearts and minds of those around him.  When the Pharisees grumble amongst themselves, Jesus knows.  When the disciples are afraid or confused, Jesus knows.  Jesus knows the heart of this man as well. He knows that he has lived a good life; that he isn’t one prone to fraud, violence, or theft.  Jesus knows full well that this man knew the second tablet by heart and that his life was defined by those laws.

“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  By changing the way in which he addresses Jesus, the man proves that he is listening to him – that he will really looking to learn from this Rabbi and amend his life.  It is no wonder that Jesus looked at him and loved him in this moment.  How many others had approached Jesus with some sort of need, but were totally unwilling to be changed?  This man was genuine, and Jesus loved him for it.  And yet, Jesus knew the man’s heart.  He knew that he did, in fact, lack one thing, and Jesus loved the man anyway. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.”  The man, who, we now find out was exceedingly wealthy, walked away from Jesus shocked and saddened.  He had learned what he must do to inherit eternal life, and he knew he was incapable.  Jesus had called him to a radical reorientation of his life’s values, and he knew that he couldn’t pull it off.  The rich man had loving his neighbor down pat, but it was the first three commandments that he couldn’t quite get a handle on.  Jesus, no longer the good teacher the man wanted, but rather the teacher that he needed, tells him that even in his faithfulness to the law, he is lacking something.  It seems it is that pesky first commandment.  You know, the one about having no other gods but God.  It seems the rich man has hoarded his wealth.  His possessions were his idol – his riches, his god – and so, if he is truly committed to living faithfully in the Kingdom of God, he must give it all up, give all his money to the poor, and follow Jesus.

This is where we encounter the truth of the Hebrews lesson for this morning.  Scripture really is a two-edged sword.  As much as we might like to have this story be all about the rich man’s failures, it is about our own as well. It is easy to hear today’s gospel lesson and think, “Oh, that’s not about me.”  When Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” and “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.” the reaction of most 21st century American Christians is to look at least one step up on the economic ladder, shake our heads, and think, as the Pharisee once did, “Gee, I’m glad I’m not them.”

This temptation is one we should be wary of.  First, Jesus wasn’t too kind to the Pharisee in that parable.  More to the point, however, is the reality that 21st century America is, by and large, a very wealthy place.  Even the average minimum wage worker in the United States earns more than 93% of the rest of the world’s population.  The monetarily rich, it would seem, aren’t that far away.  Still, I can’t help but think if this passage is both about money and not about money.  What if Jesus is using the example of the rich would-be-disciple to prove a larger point about faithfulness?  In Eugene Peterson’s idiomatic bible translation, The Message, he translates Matthew’s version of the beatitude about poverty as, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

What if being rich isn’t just about money?  What if being rich is about being comfortable.  What if being rich is about self-reliance?  Even if we are unwilling to characterize ourselves as financially rich, by virtue of our upbringing in self-reliant post World War 2 America, many of us are subject to this idea that we don’t need anyone else.  Me and (maybe) my Jesus are all we need to get through life.  When we look at the world this way, then yes, it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a person who is rich in self-reliance to enter the kingdom of God.

Kingdom living is about fully trusting in God’s grace.  Kingdom living is about turning outward, looking at the world through God’s eyes, and seeing that life isn’t just about me, myself, and I, but about the communities in which we live and move and have our being.  Kingdom living is about taking all we have, giving it up for the good of the world God created, and following Jesus.

Kingdom living isn’t easy.  You might sometimes feel like the rich man, ready to walk away shocked and saddened.  Other times, you might want to join with the disciples in throwing up your hands and wondering, “Who then can be saved?”  I know I feel that way from time to time.  In those moments, it is important that we hear another thing our Lord Jesus Christ saith, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  Amen.

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The Rich

In an era of growing income inequality, with many, for the first time, coming to recognize the plutocratic power of a few corporate conglomerates, it is easy to hear Sunday’s gospel lesson and think, “Oh, that’s not about me.”  When Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” and “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.” the reaction of most 21st century American Christians is to look at least one step up on the economic ladder, shake our heads, and think, as the Pharisee once did, “Gee, I’m glad I’m not them.”

As I’ve said elsewhere, this temptation is one we should be wary of.  Even the average minimum wage worker in the United States earns more than 93% of the rest of the world’s population.  The monetarily rich, it would seem, aren’t that far away.

camel-and-needle3

As preachers are wont to do, however, I can’t help but think if this passage from Mark is both about money and not about money.  What if Jesus is using the example of the rich would-be-disciple to prove a larger point about faithfulness?  In Eugene Peterson’s idiomatic bible translation, The Message, Peterson translates Matthew’s version of the beatitude about poverty thusly, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

What if being rich isn’t just about money?  What if being rich is about being comfortable.  What if being rich is about self-reliance?  Even if we are unwilling to characterize ourselves as fiscally rich, by virtue of our upbringing in self-reliant post World War 2 America, many of us are subject to this idea that we don’t need anyone else.  Me and (maybe) my Jesus are all we need to get through life.  When we look at the world this way, then yes, it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a person who is rich in self-reliance to enter the kingdom of God.

See, kingdom living is about trusting in God’s grace.  Kingdom living is about turning outward, looking at the world through God’s eyes, and about seeing that existence isn’t just about me, myself, and I, but about the communities in which we live and move and have our being.  Kingdom living is about taking all we have, giving it up for the good of the world God created, and following Jesus.

I’m not saying that Jesus’ encounter with the rich man isn’t about money – it is stewardship season, after all – but what I am suggesting is that if we think it is only about money, it becomes too easy to dismiss.

You might join with the disciples in throwing up your hands and wondering, “Who then can be saved?”  I know I think that from time to time.  Just remember the words of Jesus, “For mortals it is impossible,” that is, you can’t rely on your self to get it done, “bur not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Living and Active

One of the great joys that came in 2017 (and there were many – new church, new house, new town, etc.) was the opportunity to write two chapters for Acts to Action: The New Testament’s Guide to Evangelism and Mission.  Edited by two dear friends of mine, Susan Brown Snook and Adam Trambley, Acts to Action is a deep dive into the eight chapter of Acts as a blueprint for being the Church in a changing world.  I commend it to you. (Full Disclosure – I receive no personal financial gain from your purchasing this book from Forward Movement for you, your congregational leaders, family, and friends.)

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Seriously, buy this book

One of the chapters I was asked to write was about the Bible, and how we might use it to help facilitate mission and evangelism.  The central text was the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, in which Philip, led by the Spirit, helped the Eunuch to understand what he was reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  As I wrote that chapter, what continuously came to mind is the opening line from Sunday’s lesson from Hebrews 4, “The word of God is living and active…”

There are two things I love about this phrase.  First, as I’ve discussed elsewhere (here and here), I think it cases the letter w properly as a lower case letter.  Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the Word of God, capital W.  The Bible, on the other hand, is the word of God, lower case w.  I can’t remember whether it was on the television or radio, but sometime in the last week, I happened upon a preacher who was talking about the absolute truth of the bible.  He suggested, with an eye toward liberal mainline Protestants, that some churches didn’t believe the bible to be absolutely true in everything it says.  Count me among those accused, but I’d argue for a bit of nuance, which isn’t the forte of television and radio preachers.  Saying that the Bible isn’t absolutely true, to my mind, means that it isn’t 100% factually accurate.  One need not look beyond the first two chapters of Genesis to see the two very different creation stories to know that the bible cannot and does not claim factual infallibility.  The bible is, however, 100% true in that it tells the very real story of God’s love for all of creation, and God’s desire to be in right relationship with humankind.  My friend the radio/television preacher was arguing for the book he was holding in his hand to be the Word of God, but I would suggest that only Jesus gets to carry that capital letter.

I’ve digressed, as usual.  What this post was supposed to be about was the titular phrase, “living and active.”  As I said, while writing that chapter, this phrase kept coming to mind.  Those who read the scriptures with regularity often note that they have found something new in their reading.  Rather than being a dry, old book that sits on a shelf, when you engage the bible, you’ll find that the Spirit is at work in and through the words on the page, ready to teach you something new, expand your horizons, or call you to a new and deeper understanding of God.

Good Teacher?

Preachers have only now begun to recuperate after yesterday’s triennial tap-dance around the divorce text when a young rich man comes running up to Jesus, falls at his feet, and cries out, “Good teacher.”  Good teacher?  Did he not hear what went down earlier in Mark 10?  Good teacher?  Is he not aware of what Jesus is about to do to him and to preachers for the next several thousand years?  Good teacher?

After a quick rebuke from Jesus, the rich man, seemingly no longer on the ground in front of Jesus, puffs up his chest, removes the good from his title and goes to to proudly claim that he has kept all of the commandments since his youth.  Good God man!?! Who in their right mind would make such a claim?  And yet, he does.  He boldly suggests that he has been able to keep all 10 of the Big-uns for as long as he’s been in control of his actions.  Good for him.

Jesus, no longer the good teacher, but now the teacher that the rich man needed, tells him that even in his faithfulness to the law, he is lacking something.  It seems it is that pesky first commandment.  You know, the one about having no other gods but God.  It seems the rich man has hoarded his wealth.  His possessions are his idol – his riches, his god – and so, if he is truly committed to living faithfully in the Kingdom of God, he must give it all up, give all his money to the poor, and follow Jesus.  In the words of old Hank Williams, Jr.

that-aint-good

That ain’t good, at all

It is easy, and quite tempting on the heels of last week’s text, to make this not-so-good teaching from Jesus exclusive to the rich man.  It’s be easier to say, “Jesus wanted him to sell everything, but Jesus didn’t understand late-stage capitalism, and you’re good.”  But, well, that’s probably not all true.  It would be difficult, and maybe a little tempting in a world built on scarcity, to say, “Yep, Jesus meant this for everyone.  To follow Jesus, you’ll have to sell it all, give it to the church (because the church is surely poor).”  But, that’s probably not all true either.

What the teacher, who we know to be good, seems to be saying to the rich man and to us, is that we do all kinds of bending over backwards to make sure God isn’t the God of everything in our lives.  We like to make it look like we’ve got this faith thing together, like we trust in Jesus, and like we are living in the Kingdom of God, but the hard reality is that all of us struggle to keep from making something else the god of our lives.  It might not be money for you.  It might be power, drugs, success, soccer practice, feelings, politics, or your resume.  There might be any number of things that are clamoring for you to hold on tight, lest God might come into your life and change your priorities.  What Jesus is inviting that rich man to experience is truth faith, letting go of everything he thought he could control, and trust fully in God.

That’s a teaching that might be hard, but it really is good.

God cares about how we spend our money – a sermon

Technical difficulties mean the audio of today’s sermon will be delayed.  In the meantime, you can read it here.  UPDATE – you can now listen to it here.

“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.” Mark tells us that the disciples were perplexed by these words. I’m guessing that most of us are as well. In the days of Jesus, wealth was considered a sign of God’s blessing. It was just assumed that those who were well-to-do in this life would also be well-to-do in the age to come. If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us probably still feel that way. Surely, we know that some multi-billionaires have made their fortunes by nefarious means, but by and large, we’ve bought into the myth that money is a sign of God’s grace. Jesus won’t let his disciples live with that myth any longer, but he is not the first prophet to suggest that the rich will have a hard time getting into the kingdom of God. Amos was an unlikely candidate for the role of God’s prophet. He lived during the time of the Divided Kingdom. Amos was from Judah, the Southern Kingdom, where he made a modest living as a migrant laborer: working as a herdsman, something like an assistant shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees also known as a fig picker. Somehow, despite his lowly background in Judah, Amos found himself called to the Northern a Kingdom of Israel where he would prophesy to the powerful king, Jeroboam II. King Jeroboam reigned for 40 years of relative peace and prosperity. As the years went by, the rich got richer, and as is often the case in times of great wealth, the poor got poorer. God grew impatient with the economic disparity in Israel and sent Amos to declare a day of judgment. Again and again the prophet speaks of God’s fury over the mistreatment of the poor:

  • They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way… The strong shall not retain their strength, nor shall the mighty save their lives… (2:7, 14)
  • Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy… The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. (4:1-2)
  • Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. (5:11)

The message of Amos is clear; God cares what we do with our money, and on the heels of the unlikely prophet’s dramatic prophecy, we hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with a rich young man.

There is a tendency to hear these things with a certain ambivalence. It is easy to hear these stories admonishing the rich and think that they don’t apply to us, but the uncomfortable truth is that, in the grand scheme of things, most Americans would qualify as rich on the global scale. The average minimum wage worker makes $15,800 a year, which places them in the top 7% of wage earners in the world. Whataburger pays its employees $11 an hour, making them one of the wealthiest 2.5%. I make $60,000 a year, which means I’m richer than 99.81% of the world’s population. The desire to always push rich a tax bracket or two higher than our own may be tempting, but the reality is that, if they were around today, Amos, Jesus, and the rest of the prophets would have been speaking to most of us in this room.

At 35, I barely qualify as young anymore, but picture this rich, young man as me or you or your son or grandson. He grew up in a religious home. He’s always been a rule follower, and went to church all through high school. He’s done his best to keep the commandments since he was a youth, but deep down, there has always that nagging feeling that God had something more in store for him. Hearing that Jesus was passing through town, the young man dropped his work and took off sprinting after him. Gasping for breath, he approached Jesus with awe and reverence, knelt down before him, and said, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man really wants to know the answer to this question. He, like all of us, is seeking after not just eternal life, but abundant life. For all the good he has already done, something is still missing. He knows it, and Jesus knows it, and so Jesus lists the commandments, adding one that isn’t normally in the top 10 – “You shall not defraud.”

In our Old Testament Lesson, we heard Amos decry those who “afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” The gate was the place where small claims court was held, where the rich would bring the poor before their friends who served as judges in order to extract even what little they had from them. It seems this rich young man, for all the good he had done in his life, had found ways to expand his bottom line through less than honest business practices, which usually come at the expense of the poor. This ill-gotten gain was what stood between him and the abundant life he sought. He knew it, and Jesus knew it, and so Jesus told him that he should give it all away. “Sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor,” Jesus said, “And then you can follow me.” But note the tone in which Jesus spoke to the rich, young man. Mark tells us that before the man made the choice to follow Jesus or not, Jesus loved him.

The same is true in the lesson from Amos. Even as he prophesies of the destruction of Israel, Amos promises that God’s love is never-ending, that the Lord would be gracious to the faithful remnant. The same is true for you and me today. God loves us no matter what, but in that love, God also desires of us the same thing he desired of the rich young man and the same thing he desired of the Disciples, that we drop everything and follow him. More often than not, the one thing that holds us back from giving our whole lives over to Jesus is the money piece. It was true in Amos’ day, in Jesus’ day, and it is true today. Money is the all-time, #1 idol. We worship it in place of God when we fear that we won’t have enough, when we gain it on the backs of the poor, and when we hold onto it even when God invites us to trust him enough to give it away.

It really is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter fully into the kingdom of God. Our economy simply won’t allow for us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor. It is the great irony of the American Dream: we’re stuck in a life that is something less than abundant because of the abundance of stuff in our lives. How can we avoid walking away sad like the rich young man? The answer is simple, we can gain abundant life by entering into relationship with the poor. By volunteering to teach a kindergartener the ABCs, helping bring one of the 80% of Foley Elementary School students who live in poverty one step closer to breaking that cycle. By helping a high school senior buy the clothes and school supplies he needs to be the first member of his family to graduate. By spending the night on a cot in the education building as Family Promise guests work hard to make enough to get back onto the economic ladder. By swinging a hammer on a construction site to help a Habitat family get on sure footing. Wealth tends to isolate, it tends to make us think that we don’t need anyone else and, worst of all, wealth tricks us into thinking that we deserve to be where we are. Jesus invites us to think differently; to remember that everything we have is a gift from God, that first and foremost we were created to be in relationship with all of our neighbors – the rich and the poor alike – and that abundance comes by giving away our resources in love for another. Without Jesus, it is impossible to fit a camel through the eye of a needle, but with Jesus giving up our abundance in order to inherit abundant life means that anything is possible. Amen.

Rich?

Money seems to be everywhere these days.  Whether we’re talking about the net worth of Presidential Candidates, the portion of the BP Settlement that will actually makes it way to the Gulf Coast, reading James in the real-life version of Draughting Theology or studying the lessons for Sunday, it seems like we just can’t get away from money.  In all of these conversations, however, I’ve noticed a theme: rich is always at least one tax bracket above us.

Think about your reaction to the story of the rich, young man from Mark’s Gospel.  Don’t most of us hear Jesus say, “It would be easier to put a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” and think, “well thank God I’m not rich”?  Whether we are on a fixed income with Social Security, make minimum wage, or pull in 30, 60, or even 100 thousand dollars a year, the American economy has made it possible for us to always envision ourselves as poor.  I mean, I can’t buy that 70″ 4K TV, so I must be on the south side of rich.  Right?!?

There’s a website called the Global Rich List, where you can enter your income or net worth to see where it ranks on a global scale.  The average Social Security check is about $1,180 a month.  If that was a retiree’s only income, it would put them in the top 10% of wage earners in the world.  A minimum wage job at McDonald’s places you among the top 7%.  A laborer making $15 an hour, is just outside the top 1%.  Me? My $60,000 stipend, not counting health insurance and pension, puts me in the top 0.20% of wage earners.

Rich is a relative term, but to always put it one or more steps above our pay grade is to act in the same way as the rich young man.  In this story, Jesus invites the man (and by extension, I fear, us) to find solidarity with the poor (another relative term) by entering into relationship with them.  He doesn’t ask the man to write a check to his favorite charity, but to get down and dirty with the down and out.  Truth be told, I think he wants the same from us: to roll up our sleeves and enter into the depths of poverty with those who have no choice but to be there.  It seems that’s where the kingdom of God can be found.

Sin, Healing, Amos, and the Rich Young Man

In yesterday’s post, I argued that Mark 10:17-31 is not about stewardship in the contemporary, “keep the institutional church functioning,” sort of way.  Instead, I suspect that the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man is enlightened by the Old Testament Track 2 lesson from the prophet Amos as it is a story about healing and the forgiveness of sins.

Amos’ prophetic ministry took place during a relatively calm period in the life of Israel and Judah.  For many years, two good kings reigned and there was very little threat from the powerful empires of Egypt and Assyria that surrounded them.  As is often the case, an extended time of peace brought with it a time of great prosperity… for a few… built on the backs of many others.  The sin which Amos decries is not richness, per se, but the lack of concern for the poor that often comes with it.

Which brings us to the rich young man’s encounter with Jesus.  Mark tells us that he approaches Jesus and kneels before him.  David Lose, in his 2012 commentary for WorkingPreacher.org, notes that everyone who kneels before Jesus in Mark’s gospel has come in search of healing.  It would make sense that this man’s motivation is similar.  He comes to Jesus already following the Way of the Torah.  He’s kept the commandments since his youth, and yet he still feels like something is missing.  There is a sin, a sickness, deep within him that he knows needs to be healed, and so he asks Jesus for forgiveness and healing.

Jesus sees that the man is possessed by wealth.  He is in need of the same sort of admonition that Amos gave the ruling class of Israel – to remember to care for and show hospitality to the poor.  Before doing anything, however, Jesus loves him.  The man is already saved by grace through faith, even though, in the end, he will walk away disappointed because his faith wasn’t strong enough to trust God’s abundant provision.

This is a story about money: a story about how money tends to isolate those who have from those who have not. The call to sell all he has and give it to the poor is a call to renewed relationship, or as the Book of Common Prayer calls is, the restoration of unity with God and each other.  It is a story about healing, about Jesus’ desire to set us free from those things that possess us: wealth, pride, envy, anxiety, victimhood, etc.  Over and over again, Jesus tells those he has healed 1) “your sins have been forgiven” and 2) “your faith has made you well.”  For each of us, part 1 is always true, but it takes part 2 to find abundant life. Which makes this ultimately a story about discipleship, about how Jesus calls us to give up everything that keeps us from trusting him fully.  The young man exemplifies many of us who, though we know we are deeply loved, have a hard time following Jesus because it means we’ll have to give up that one thing that we hold most dear.  It’d be easier to shove a camel through the eye of a needle than to give these things up on our own, but thankfully, God loves us even in our sinfulness, and loves us enough not to leave us there.