Let us pray: Holy and living God, who are we that we should matter to you? Yet in your providence and in your love, you look on each one of us. You look into each one of us and know us immediately and intimately. Grant us grace on this day to seek intimacy with you. Help us to wade through our excuses and our stresses in order to see you and to seek you. Rid us of all unnecessary barriers that prevent us from shining your true light into this often dark and cold world. O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you. For you are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Taking a step into the future is often difficult for us: 1) Leaving home to join the military and/or to go to school; 2) leaving our family to pursue love or a lifelong dream; 3) leaving a secure job that will only become higher in demand to follow a call into ministry; 4) making the decision to stop our current plan of care and enter into hospice; 5) selling everything that we own and giving the money to the poor and accepting the invitation to come and follow Jesus. The last one is the recommendation given to the man who comes and kneels before Jesus in the gospel text that Mark read for us today.
The gospel reading that Mark read for us is likely a familiar story. In fact, my spouse would argue, (and I agree) that it is so familiar we often merge the narratives from Matthew, Mark, and Luke and create a character we like to call The Rich Young Ruler. The fact of the matter is that this narrative occurs separately in the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Matthew, the person who comes to Jesus is described as young. In Luke, the person is described as a ruler, and in this gospel account of Mark, the person is just a man who has many possessions.
Not having witnessed the encounter, I can only speculate that perhaps this man came to Jesus and knelt before feeling pretty good and fairly confident. After all, the man had kept the commands of Moses, which his parents likely imparted to him, since he was a little boy. He has many possessions, and in the first century those two factors would naturally deduce that this man is a man of good virtue. My sense is that the man is sincerely hoping to confirm what society and he already know to be true, that he already possesses his golden ticket for the train bound for glory. Jesus, as Jesus, does in the gospel of Mark, puts a stop to the train before it takes off and reframes the idea of my eternal life into life in the kingdom of God.
We’ve seen something like this before. In fact, between two separate accounts of Jesus healing blind people in the gospel of Mark, people who think they know Jesus, think they know about Jesus, and who know Jesus ask him some questions: Is it legal for a man to divorce his wife? What must I do to obtain eternal life? Then, who can be saved?
Last week, we learned that while the Pharisees were asking Jesus about the permissibility of dissolving a marriage covenant, that God’s intention for humanity has always been relationship with one another. Today, in a similar manner, Jesus reframes the question of one person’s salvation and begins to describe who will participate in the kingdom of God, the kingdom that is already close at hand, the kingdom fulfilled when we repent or turn towards God and believe the good news. Jesus’ response is startling to the disciples, “Sell everything. Give the money to the poor. Come and follow me.” After all, the disciples have already given up their livelihoods and their families. They have been following Jesus, and now, as they participate in the kingdom of God, they begin to question Jesus: “What about us? What about our salvation?” The disciples are now the ones who are fearful about the future they have embarked upon with Jesus.
By a show of hands, how many of you think that the man left dismayed and was saddened because he was not able to follow Jesus? Because he was not able to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor? Me, too. But, as I read this, I wonder, could there be another reason that the man is dismayed and saddened? I mean, we have already established that sometimes—in fact more times than not—taking that first step into the future is a difficult step. So, what if the man accepted Jesus’ invitation? What if he decided to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor? Perhaps, the reason the man is sad is because Jesus just told him—a virtuous man by any person’s standards—to slough off everything that defines who you are and choose to be defined by me alone. Who among us would not be sad or dismayed if we had to give up the home where we grew our family and made our memories? Who among us would not be sad if we had to give up the independent pleasure of driving ourselves wherever we needed to go and instead follow? Who among us would not be sad or dismayed if we could no longer buy what we needed or thought we needed when we chose to do so? Who among us would not be sad if we were no longer able to reach out and talk to, text, skype, video messenger, or snapchat when we wanted? Just one of those scenarios is enough for me to become dismayed and saddened. For the man to make the choice to abandon his former self and to follow Jesus would have involved some emotion.
We are not told what the man decided to do, but through the eyes of the disciples and the words of Jesus, we are given a glimpse at how excruciating it is to abandon our lives for the sake of Christ and for the building up of the kingdom of God. After all, taking that first step is always painful: 1) sitting your child(ren) down and informing them that you are getting divorced 2)telling your loved ones about a difficult diagnosis with an uncertain prognosis 3) coming out to your family as gay, bisexual, transgender, or anything other than a cisgender heterosexual male or female. 4) Responding to that call from God, that call from which you will never be able to run.
And what about us? We who are gathered together to offer our worship this morning in this place. When a team of us went to Nicaragua in February, we attended a Sunday evening worship service during which Pastor Pablo said, we were too comfortable and in which he challenged us to ask God to test us. I remember thinking as Pastor Pablo preached to the congregation: “Too comfortable?” You are a full-time pastor who makes $200 a month and works a second full-time job to provide for your family? Too comfortable? You are preaching to a congregation in the second poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. And as I reflect today, Too Comfortable? In the past six months your country has erupted in violent protests making it difficult to impossible for people to access education, healthcare, or even food. Meanwhile, we who are here this morning are quite adept at thanking God. We thank God for the shelter over our heads, the food in our stomachs, the clothes on our backs, the love of family and friends. This good and right, but beloved, we are called to do more.
The kingdom of God is not a mirrored reflection of life on this earth. The kingdom of God is one in which the life of every person is transformed by God’s redeeming love through Christ. And, if we who offer our worship to God, believe that our lives have been transformed by the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ, then we are called to re-examine those possessions in our own lives. We are called to prayerfully consider what it means to us as individuals and for us as a community to sell our possessions and give the money to the poor. For me, it means that I have to first consider everything I have as a gift that God has entrusted to me, and secondly, it means that I am called to use every bit of my gifts to share God’s transforming love with others so that they too may then share that same transforming love with someone else.
God has already taken the first steps here: God has created humanity out of the ground and breathed life into us. God has called us into relationship and has reconciled each person to God through the death, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. God invites us now to come and follow. What will we choose to do? What will be our first step or next step as individuals and as a community of faith in building up the kingdom of God? Amen.