Sermon October 14, 2012

“Ready for More?”

October 14, 2012

The Reverend Dr. Joanne M. Swenson

 

Mark 10:17-30

17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.

 

Who is the young man, whose story, so poignantly, is told, here?  Some commentators see him as superficial, callow, over-confident – a collector of life’s merit-badges, without any real soul.  His story certainly captivated the imagination of the early Christian community.  All three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – tell his story; all three describe him as morally confident, respectfully addressing Jesus, seeking out His wisdom.  And yes, all three agree: he is rich, having many possessions.

So, is he superficial, just looking for validation and congratulations?  Where’s the evidence?  Is it because he’s rich?  That’s what most commentators focus on.  These commentators judge him harshly because of his wealth.  Yet John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, saw the rich differently.  He noted that the most devout members of his Methodist movement had become, through their own discipline and high moral standards, well-off – some even wealthy.  Wesley wrote: “For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches.”[1]  One member of our Living Word class, just this past week described how he had always saved and invested diligently.  In case he were ever asked by his bosses to pursue actions that he knew were unethical, that growing nest egg gave him the ability to say, “No.”  So, religious commitment can give rise to wealth.

Who is this young, successful man in our scripture?  Whether he is sincere or superficial, one thing that we can agree on:  he seeks out Jesus.  There is something more he needs in his life, and he comes to Jesus, for that “more.”  He has religious achievements, he’s got worldly wealth, but he knows that there is more.  And that “more” seems connected with this man, Jesus, whom he respectfully calls, “Good Teacher.”

William James, in his 1902 masterwork, The Varieties of Religious Experience, surveyed a vast range of people’s religious experience and said, at the core of these diverse and profound moments, was this “more.”  They all shared this sense that there was a “more” with whom they must be in relation.  Beyond the constructs of scientific knowledge, and the firmness of every day reality, there is an intuition that there is a “more,” that lifts up and completes our existence.  William James wrote, that for the religious person, there is, and I quote, a “sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call ‘something there,’ more deep and more general than any of our particular senses can reveal.”[2]

Our congregation is like this young man.  We can be confident in our religious progress:  our church school and teen programs are thriving; our choirs inspire; six times a week adults gather, serious about their faith and the Bible; we have bustling coffee hours and celebrations; we have bands of members equipped to serve the sick and the poor.  Like that young man, we’ve accomplished a lot.  But we share with him, this sense, this certainty, that there is more.  Among many of our leaders and ministry teams, there is a palpable sense that God calls us to more!

So, this is a sacred moment, a time of reflection, reverence and seeking – for us, and for that young man.

But what happens next?  What happens next between this young man and Jesus?

Mark says that, next, Jesus looks at him and loves him.  Loves him.  You know, the word “love” is used in Mark’s gospel only two places!  (John’s Gospel uses it 37 times!)  So when Mark says here, “Jesus loved him,” we better pay attention.  This is a singular moment.  Jesus looks at him, and in this love, Jesus sees him for who he is.  Jesus sees his present and his promise, and says, “This is your next step: Go and sell all that you have and give it away, give it to the poor.”  The Bible says, when the young man heard this, he turned and walked off, dejected, because he had many possessions.

John Calvin here rejects a literalistic interpretation of this scripture – so relax.  Calvin says that Jesus here is not demanding that everyone must impoverish themselves – that this is some general rule or standard of faith.  No, that would be to turn faith into works, as though our salvation depended upon our work, our giving up our possessions.  And we know it is God’s grace, not our “work” that saves us.  Calvin argues brilliantly that what is happening here, between this young man and Jesus, must be framed in that singular, Marcan mention of love.  Love.  And then Calvin quotes Paul: “And if I give up all my goods to feed the poor…but have not love, it profiteth me nothing. (You know that verse, from 1 Corinthians 13.)[3]  Does this young man have love?  He may, as this verse says, speak in the tongues of men or of angels, he may have the gift of prophecy to fathom all mysteries, he may have a faith that is obedient, that can move mountains.  He could give up all that he possesses to the poor, but without love, as Paul says, he will not profit.

But Jesus loves him.  Jesus loves him completely, as he is, today: whether or not he gives his possessions, whether or not he’s ready to change.

Father Richard Rohr, the Catholic spiritual writer, said, “Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change.  In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love.  It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change.”[4]

Jesus loves this young man.  But, did he change?  We know he went away, sad, dejected.  We know that, in this instant, he isn’t ready to do that which Jesus challenges him.  Today he is not ready to change.  Today, even with this holy hunger, with all his intuition that there is something more, he is not ready to change.  He is not ready for more.  Not today.  Yet Jesus loves him.

Is that the end of the story, and our sermon? What is next for the young man, and for us? Is that the last we hear of the young, disappointed man, left to his wealth? Let me stretch our lesson and thinking, by asking: Is this young man Paul?  That this rich young man is the Apostle Paul intrigues me. There’s a continuing conversation in the Christian community that this rich young man does come back, and he is the Apostle Paul.  “…if I give up all my goods to feed the poor…but have not love…” – yes, that Paul!  Paul would have been a younger man to Jesus, and it is not unreasonable to think that he actually met Jesus.  Paul was from a family of some means, with enough wealth to pay for his education with the foremost rabbi of his day, Gamaliel.  Paul has, what Krister Stendahl calls, a “robust conscience.” Stendahl, in one of the most cited articles of New Testament scholarship, writes: “(T)here is no indication that (Paul) had any difficulty in fulfilling the Law.  On the contrary, (Paul) can say that he had been ‘flawless’ as to the righteousness required by the Law (as we read in Philippians 3).”[5]  Last piece of evidence?  Before his Damascus road experience, Paul was a ferocious persecutor of Christ’s followers.  What drove him to terrorize the early Christians? Some speculate that Paul had a vendetta, a sense of malice out of proportion to the mere defense of Judaism. Perhaps this young man was taken down by Jesus’s challenge, devastated by Jesus’s understanding of his inner heart, that his shame drove him to persecute the Christians.

I like to think that this rich young man is Paul.  Because that is how God works.  Sometimes when we seek more, we must become less: humbled, dispossessed, shaken up.  It may take a Damascus Road experience, like Paul’s, where God blinds us and leads us back to Him, stumbling and disoriented. Or, like the Pharisee leader, Nicodemus, we maybe intellectually curious about Jesus, “interested” in this figure, and then walk away.  Nicodemus sought out Jesus, under cover of night, and then disappeared, into the dark.  Did you know that Nicodemus did return, later?  An intellectual and religious leader, yet he humbled himself and went to the cross, cutting down Jesus’s tortured body, and anointing and tenderly wrapping it for burial.[6]  The Bible has numerous stories of shipwreck, fumbling and failures, even Peter’s denials of Jesus – becoming less before we come back to God’s more.

***

 

What is the more to which God calls our church?  This more is represented, with numbers, in the budget you’ll review in the next hour.  This budget isn’t just a spread-sheet, it is More-sheet.  Our Ministry Teams, called to do more, have expressed this with numbers, in our budget.  Here, “more” is not a measure of what we should give, but a treasure of what we will gain.

You know, our secular market place shapes giving as a transaction: what am I getting for my giving?  What does my donation purchase?  But Paul speaks of giving, shaped by love: “And if I give up all my possessions to feed the poor…but have not love, it profiteth me nothing.”  It’s not a transaction; it is a re-action – a reaction to God’s love in our life.  It flows from a changed heart, it flows out in joy for this abundant life we’ve found in God.

***

The rich young man hears Jesus’s challenge, and walks away, not ready!  Not ready – not ready to dwell in Jesus’s presence, not ready to live in His love, not ready to change – not ready for more.  Not today!  But Jesus loves him all the same, and in that love, He will wait.  Wait for us, too.

Amen.


[2] William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (Scribners, 1902) 55, 59, 66

[4] Richard Rohr Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate:  Seeing God in all Things (DVD)

[5] Krister Stendahl, “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” included in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Fortress Press), 80.

[6] John 19:39

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