Scripture: Mark 10: 17-31
Sermon: “Beyond Possible”
Today is Thanksgiving Sunday. Our sanctuary altar would normally be flush with as many non-perishable items as possible. Due to the pandemic, we can’t offer our goods in that way, but we can offer in other ways. Today’s gospel is about wealthy man. When I read about the rich, my mind automatically switches to someone else. Not me. I drive a Mazda or a Dart, and I live in what my friends back in the states might consider a “tinyhouse.” This is my automatic response to anything regarding ‘wealth’ in the Bible. But this text is not just for my definition of the rich. This passage today is for all of us who are bound by our possessions, and our securities in other things, other than God. Today’s Scripture is indeed about the rich—but the definition may be broader than our own minds might imagine. Here now the word of the Lord
Reading: Mark 10: 17-31
Somewhere along the way, we got this idea, the whole world got this idea, that when you come in first on anything, it means you’re the best at it. I’ve always been a little wary of this, especially when it comes to sports. I’ve watched many a game, when clearly there was a “first” team picked to win, and somebody else out of the blue comes back to take the trophy. Even though the actual skills of the losing team may be better, the lesser team won. I was in sixth grade. Had a reputation for being a fast runner, especially when it came to the 60 yard dash. (Yes, we ran in yards where I’m from). Well, I got a little confused, because we had already run the 60 yard dash, which I knew…but during the race which was really the 75 yard dash, it sure looked like a whole lot of people were at the finish line (at the 60 yard finish). They were cheering really hard and smiling at me as I crossed over the line first, but there was no string to break through, which surprised me. As I slowed down, I realized the finish line was 15 yards ahead with a string waiting to be broken. One of my long-legged grade six opponents strided right past me and broke the string first! I was appalled. Donna Timm beat me. She runs flat-footed. She jokes about that herself! I was faster than her, but I didn’t win. What does it mean to be first? And what is it that we should really strive for in doing so?
Today’s story in Mark is about a rich young ruler. You learn just with a glance at the other gospels, that only Matthew says the man was young, only Luke says he was a ruler, but all 3 say he was rich! This man had some status. This man had achieved, and was quite successful. He knew what it took to get there, and he succeeded. He was also no fool. He had achieved all he knew how on earth, but he still knew he needed to achieve more to earn that key to heaven. This rich young ruler also knew he kept the commandments, yet something inside him told him that there was still probably something he was missing. When Jesus said the words “You lack one thing,” don’t you think the man just paused a minute with relief? Whew. Keeping all those other commandments was good—I can check them off, and thankfully, I’m only lacking just one other thing, and then I’ve achieved my goals.
But Jesus, who loved this young man, must’ve looked very deeply inside of him, for the one thing he asked of him, was the very thing he could not let go. Jesus shocks him with those five imperatives: Go. Sell. Give. Come. Follow. If you do what I ask, you will receive treasure in heaven.
I think maybe the problem was that bit about THEN you’ll receive treasures in heaven. We are so bad about that, aren’t we? I mean, we can’t even take care of our environment for the sake of our children. Much less work out something that might help us after we die! That’s so hard to do, so much to ask. And well, life is pretty good as we have it, and eternal life seems so far away. So, to give up so much, and for the rich man, to give up all he had accumulated, so that he would have treasure in heaven?? God’s treasure, that is. The young man can’t do it. Atleast that’s what we assume when he leaves with sadness. And he grieves that fact. In Luke’s gospel when the man heard this from Jesus, it says he became very sad, for he was very rich. But before we judge him too quickly, we too must be careful. Because before we know it, we just might make the same mistake. One writer explains “The problem is not with wealth per se but with our attitude toward it.” As we accumulate more, we are tempted to trust in our possessions, rather than in God for our ultimate security and comfort.
This rich young ruler is a part of a call story in Mark. We read of many call stories in the Bible, don’t we? Elijah was called to prophesy with a gently whisper, Moses was called to lead the people out of Egypt, Isaiah was called to prophesy after an angel touched his lips with a burning coal. But look here, the only call story in this gospel where the person called responded by not following, but by going away. Stunning. There is this remarkable tension between the ideal and the possible. This man could not fathom the impossible, which for him would be giving up his most prized accomplishments—his possessions.
It was Kierkegaard who said, “Christ has many admirers but few followers.” (walking along some of the nicest houses!)
It’s a bit confusing because in this man’s day, wealth was a sign of the blessing of God. So, for Jesus to come back and view this wealth as the very hindrance to entering the kingdom of God, was in a word, amazing. Certainly not what the young man expected to hear. The Good News, writes one scholar, is that “the way to be really rich is to die to wealth.”
You see, this young man had all his ducks in a row. He probably had his children’s college education all planned out. I’m sure his retirement plan was out of this world, and his investments would allow him to retire early. He was really rich. Remember, all three gospels mentioned this above all else. Yet, even this man knew that being rich was not enough. You see, this man struggled with is very core being the choice that it would take to change course and follow Jesus, was just too much for him to accept. Part of acquiring his possessions was part of who this man was. To be removed of his possessions, meant to be stripped of everything that gave him this supposed worth. He would be naked—with his very identity stripped. He would have to trade his wealth, hid education, his success, his power, for a very different word: Free. Peter Gomes reminds us that the very possessions weren’t what was hard to give away, but “the ultimate difficulty [was] to give away himself.” Not only did the rich young ruler choose not to take the road less traveled, he chose the wrong road altogether! Then Jesus turns to his disciples and says “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”
This indeed is a text about money and wealth, but it is also not just a text about money alone.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes “The kingdom of God is simply not for sale. The poor cannot buy it with their poverty any more than the rich can buy it with their riches.” The kingdom of God is a gift to be received. The catch is, “you have got to be free to receive the gift.” For the rich young ruler, his wealth could not set him free, only God could. Yet, he was more afraid of poverty than bondage. He could not let it go. Charles Campbell writes “Jesus here names the ‘power’ that holds the man captive and invites the man to step into freedom.” This may feel impossible to the man—but with God, all things are possible.
What are you holding on to today? Jesus addresses the grown men, his disciples, by saying “Children…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 C.S. Lewis makes a little side note to that. He writes:
“Now all things are possible. All things are possible. It is even possible to get a large camel through the small eye of a needle. That’s possible. But it will be extremely hard on the camel.”
The truest test of the church is setting their sights on things impossible, and then watch and see how God can work.
Tom Sine wrote “The ‘good life’ doesn’t have anything to do with materialism or consumerism. The good life is the life given away.” All of us Christians should think seriously about our stewardship of money, our material possessions, and how we care for this earth. We are creating suffering for others by the way we live, by our frivolous ways, our inconsideration of God’s land and air. Or are we giving, giving in all ways, giving up, giving away, giving of ourselves, so that our lives reflect God’s goodness and grace? Is our treasure in heaven, or on earth?
Jesus reframes the question this young, rich, ruler asks, just like he did with the Pharisees when they tried to corner him with the question about divorce. Rather than addressing the “eternal life” question, Jesus is rather saying, “Come, follow me.” After hearing Jesus’ answer, finally the disciples cry out, “Well, then who can be saved?” We are saved in the company of others, nurtured by believers, working our salvation out together.
Jesus turns the question of the man away from the man’s concern for his own salvation, and directs it toward gracious behavior to others.
Last week I briefly mentioned how I called a doctor’s office and they didn’t even say hello. They answered the phone with two words. “Kindly wait.” I didn’t even have a chance to respond before I was put on hold. But, I loved it! They didn’t ask “Can you hold please.” Because obviously there was no option. But, they’d also been a people who’d been probably treated with frustrated behaviors, and they needed the caller to simply be kind—no matter what.
I thought about that a long time. And realized what a great adverb that was to use towards most things we do and say. Kindly wait. Kindly give. Kindly speak. Kindly give. Kindly share.
How do we treat others? And what is our attitude towards others? That might be the more important question. I love the old monk story about how one learns about a person. The monk says, “I don’t know, ask my neighbor.”
John Wesley was known to have said, “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” He made sure that money never stayed with him. “It would burn me if I did,” he said. “I throw it out of my hands as soon as possible lest it find its way into my heart.”
What is possible? What can we control? What are we holding onto? Let it go.
Then, you will be free to follow Jesus, and you will have treasure in heaven. Impossible, you say? Impossible indeed. But not for God, for God…all things are possible.
In this passage today is the very famous words
“the first will be last, and the last will be first.” I mentioned my turmoil and frustration with the flat-footed runner in Grade 6. She’s very successful now, and quite happy in her life—doing well. She rarely if ever thinks about that race where she beat the fastest runner in the class.
What is simply what it means to be last, means that we have to re-focus our attention and our behavior towards others. What if being last means we have to take first steps. Make that first appointment to the local AA group. Set up that first marriage counseling appointment. Take that first dose of prescribed medication for the depression or the anxiety, even though you’re scared. The ‘last’ will be first…and the first…will be last. And in the end, we won’t really remember who crossed the line before the other. We’ll just be surrounded by those nurtured in the faith, and those who followed Jesus. And we won’t have to mourn any more, for our glory will indeed be in heaven. Amen.