Reflections on "The Rich Young Man"

10-14-18 

Mark 10:17-31

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. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

            This is an anxiety producing text. Everyone is always trying to get around what Jesus said to the rich man, by interpreting it as being somehow different than what he said. In the Middle Ages there even got to be a legend, that is still repeated today, that “the eye of the needle” was the name for a gate in Jerusalem: a small gate, but not one so small that maybe an unloaded and relatively small camel couldn’t go through. But Jesus was talking about regular size camels and regular old needles. The impossibility is the whole point. And that, along with selling our possessions and giving the money away, makes us uncomfortable. So as I now go on to interpret this text in various ways, I hope you’ll also just let it sit as the impossible, difficult, and face value story that it is.

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            Voluntary poverty is radical, and it always has been. Throughout church history there have been people who have taken up this call to give away all their worldly possessions. In early and medieval times there was Anthony of Egypt who sold his family’s property after hearing this story, and Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi who were born wealthy and chose radical poverty, and closer to our own time St. Teresa of Calcutta known as Mother Teresa, and the as of today officially canonized St. Oscar Romero who very publicly advocated for the poor in El Salvador and was martyred by a sniper while saying mass in 1980, as well as many more who have not received as much recognition. Choosing poverty and to advocate for people who have little money and power is so against human inclination that we look at it with astonishment, just as the rich man and the disciples reacted with shock to Jesus’ instructions. Of all the things people do because of their faith, this is one of the rarest.

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If you know someone who hoards then you’ve seen the other extreme. For the family and friends of a hoarder, there is no question as to whether possessions get in the way of relationships and health. Possessions literally become an addiction. The hold that possessions have over a hoarder’s life, psyche and relationships though is not completely different than the hold that possessions have over all of us. It’s just amplified. Giving up all worldly goods may not be the only way to follow Jesus, but the Bible is clear that what we own can become a danger to our very spirits, as well as hurtful to the people around us. Being a Christian absolutely calls us to reckon with our money and our stuff, and to take seriously what our material situation reflects and impacts about our values, relationships and trust in God.

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            We here are materially rich in the grand scope of the world, many of us even by the scope of our country. And I think most of us recognize that. Though maybe not everyone of us has had what we needed at every time in our lives, we also know what it is to have more than we need. Maybe we know the freedom of giving or even throwing possessions away, and that is some of the lightness referenced here, but the rich man is not asked to just have less, he’s asked to have less specifically to benefit others. Poverty in itself is not a moral good and shouldn’t be romanticized. It takes a huge toll on people in mind, body and spirit. The kingdom of God is not a place where everyone is poor, but a place where everyone has enough, and the last become first. For those of us who are closer to the “first” side of things right now, that is a difficult thing to hear. What Jesus is doing in this text is inviting the man to begin that process of no longer being first so someone else can be. And he went away sad because he knew he would be giving up a great deal.

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            The rich man in the text was probably born rich (social mobility wasn’t much of a thing in the 1st Century). There’s no indication that he was lying when he says he kept all the commands that Jesus listed so he did his best to be a good person. He was born though, with wealth and privilege that was getting in the way of his relationships with God and other people. I think it’s fair to say that all of us in this room were born with different types of privilege, wealth of power if you will, that get in the way of our relationships with God and one another. Us white people always carry the power of our whiteness with us, often oblivious to the literal and figurative wealth it grants us that is unearned and by its very nature taken from someone else. We may be personally horrified by our “wealth” of white privilege, but to actively seek to give it up or at least use it to the advantage of people of color is much, much more difficult. First it involves seeing the ill-gotten power that whiteness grants, then learning to recognize it in our own lives and relationships, considering how to truly give it away in various situations, and finally having the will and the prayerful consideration to push it away at a cost to ourselves. This is difficult for us white folks, but it’s not only a Godly practice, it is one that brings us back into community.

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            Jesus’s answer to the question what we must do to enter the kingdom of God is to give up wealth and possessions, but that’s not the whole answer. He doesn’t ask the man to go live a lonely life of need, but instead invites him to follow and promises “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.” If we look at any of the lives of the saints I mentioned earlier we can see the truth of this statement. They were far from alone and often had many places in which they lived and worked, but those places were more difficult and more complex than the comfort they left behind. Jesus is describing what he sees as a win win situation for both rich man and the people who could benefit from his wealth, albeit a very difficult one for the rich man to enter into.

 ———

            All of this, in the end, is about possibility: what is possible for us and what is possible for God. We don’t like acknowledging the limits of our self-made possibilities, and we like even less to be told that we are incapable of saving ourselves from the internal and external things that torment us. As Jesus says, no one is good, not altogether. We can do good things and make meaningful choices, but we cannot fundamentally change the hurt that we have received and given in relationships, or wholly deconstruct the unjust systems we are a part of. No one is good. This is the fundamental impossibility that we, along with the rich man, the disciples and the camel, all face. But we cling to our ideas of self perfectibility so closely that it’s hard for us to hear Jesus’ invitation to let go of the way we would re-make the world and ourselves and instead look to God’s. Unfortunately we tend to hear our own impossibilities much more loudly than God’s possibilities. We do not need to give up on justice, healing and forgiveness and our participation in them, nor should we. Instead Jesus looks at us with love and asks us to follow a more gentle and more radical way, with the assurance that rather than carrying the weight of the restorer, we are just one of the things being restored. This is the final thing this story asks us to give up: the belief that we’re capable of achieving perfection and fixing it all on our own, so that we can be invited, like the rich young man, to leave the hurt and anger and self-righteousness, and yes the money and possessions, that we’re clinging to and follow Jesus to a place where the first become last and the last become first, and all of us have enough.

God knows your name.

6-3-18

 

1 Samuel 3:1-10

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!”and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

 

This sermon is not just a chance to talk about my dog but I’m going to start by talking about my dog. As many of you know, Maggie and I adopted a German Shepherd named Abe about six weeks ago, but that wasn’t his name when we got him. Abe came with the name Sarge, because the people at the rescue didn’t like Baruka, which was his original family’s name for him. So the rescue put a picture of him on facebook and essentially had a caption contest to determine his new name: the winner was Sarge. Now what you have to understand is that Abe looks terrifying. People cross the street when they see us coming. He’s a Western Lines German Shepherd and bred for police work, so the name Sarge LOOKS like it fits. It doesn’t. This dog was scared by a rabbit the other night. I’ve never heard him bark, except when he’s dreaming. All he wants is to hold hands, or sit on your feet and lean against you. He loves children, but is not great with shadows and loud noises. In short, he’s a lovable dweeb. An Abe, not a Sarge.

But the people who just saw his picture online couldn’t know that. They couldn’t really give him a name because they didn’t know him. Name, identity and relationship are all connected, and in this story today of God calling Samuel by his name we can see some of those same connections.

We all really like our names and care when people get them wrong. Savvy marketers and waiters try to manipulate us by auto-populating our names or reading our name off our credit cards and saying them back to us when they bring the bill. Manipulation aside though, one of the first things we learn about someone is their name, and if we don’t know their name it’s clear we don’t really know them.

In the Old Testament names were even more intimate and powerful than they are today. When something important happens to someone in the Old Testament they often get a new name: Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah, Naomi says to call her Mara after her sons die, Jacob becomes Israel.

But we never really know God’s name. There’s a sense that to know God’s name would be to get too cozy, like an extreme version of calling your professor by their first name. The closest we have, YHWH, is simply an approximation pronunciation-wise, and even so many Jews say “ha Shem” which means “the name” because YHWH is too holy. All the things we call God, with the exception of Jesus as part of the Trinity and perhaps YHWH, are titles or metaphors, not names. We don’t really know God like that.

But God does know us. It says here in 1st Samuel that Samuel didn’t know God yet, but God knew Samuel. And in the Psalm that goes with this reading for today it says,

“O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
139:2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
139:3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
139:4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.”

These are meant to be comforting things. I think sometimes God’s knowledge of us has been used as a threat, and there is some caution in that, but that’s not the context of these scriptures: God knows us from our names to our thoughts to the tips of our ears, and knowing all of that does not give up on us.

God calls to Samuel four different times in this story, patiently waiting for him to realize it’s not Eli’s voice. And I think it’s important that God calls Samuel by his name, unlike from the whirlwind or earthquake or fire that marks the appearance God other places in the Old Testament. Instead God called Samuel’s name in a voice that sounded so familiar, Samuel was positive it was Eli in the next room. And of course it was Eli that figured out who the voice was.

It’s often the Elis in our lives who point out the things that aren’t clear to us about ourselves and where God may be calling us. We all need people we trust who can see and hear the things about ourselves that we get confused. Sometimes it’s our Elis more than anything else that point to where God is calling us. Sometimes we hear the voice of God more directly in prayer or meditation, or indirectly in a series of strange coincidences or an idea that just won’t leave us alone. But we know a call by what Howard Thurman calls “the sound of the genuine” that echoes with something deep in ourselves. We might not know why exactly but just that this thing is real and right for us. Almost as if someone had called your name and said “Pay attention to this!” As if someone who knows you is persistently directing you back to where you should engage right now.

But it’s okay if it takes a while. If you’re unclear or if you head off in another direction, God isn’t going anywhere. God knows your name and God knows you.

Sometimes we hear the voice of God ourselves, sometimes we need the Elis in our lives to let us know what they perceive about us, and sometimes it feels like we’re just kind of like Samuel lying on the floor in the dark, wondering if the voice will call our names again. But God always does. Knowing you and knowing your name, God is not going to give up on you.

The things that you are called to do are often not easy. Samuel became a beloved and powerful prophet, but his very first job was to go and tell Eli that Eli’s own biological sons, who were horribly corrupt priests, were going to die. God rarely pushes people towards a super easy life. Instead God calls our names and points us to engage with what is complex and sometimes painful in ourselves and the world around us.

In the Lutheran ordination rite, after the new pastor has made lots of impossible promises about following God’s call, the bishop says to them, “May God who has given you the will to do these things, graciously give you the strength and power to attain them.” The promise that comes with all difficult calls is that we are not alone, we will have both God and a community beside us, and we will be given strength.

God knows your name, and God knows and cares for you. Wherever you are in your own heart and your own life, God is not going to give up on you.

 

Past the End of the Story.

4-1-18

Luke 24:13-35

Part 1:

13Now on that same day [that is Easter] two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 

 

            It’s technically still Easter but the story has already been told. We have heard the readings, and songs, and acclamations and now it’s over.  The candy is on clearance, the flowers are wilting and those of us who attempted a nice Spring Easter dress have given up and gone back to snow boats. And maybe snow boots aren’t the only things we’ve been resigning ourselves to in the past days and months. In our national life, but also our personal and communal ones, I have lately felt a tired sense that we have heard this story through. That for all the sound and fury of change, the deep down stories of who we most fundamentally are, the harm we do to one another, and what we expect God to be able to do amidst and within us have basically been told before and now are done.

            Cleopas and his friend were also facing a story that was over. They set out on the road to Emmaus because there was no longer much need for them in Jerusalem. Jesus had died, and in spite his body being missing and some women having claimed to see angels, there wasn’t really anything left to stay for. Jesus was gone, they’d waited a couple days while the dust settled, and now it was time to go back to whatever they had been planning to do before all this drama and tragedy. So they set out on the road, still trying to make sense of what had happened, and how it was that their hopes had been so completely dashed.

 

Part 2:

Verse 25: 25Then [Jesus] said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” 

 

            This response seems like an odd way to go about comforting your grieving disciples, but I suppose it’s good to see that even in resurrection Jesus has not lost his characteristic bluntness. I like to think though that “Oh how foolish you are” was spoken with some affection, rather like saying to someone who thinks you don’t care anymore, “Oh darling, you could not be more wrong.” Then Jesus starts again with the beginning of the story, God’s strange and complicated love story with humanity, and tells it all from his side. All of the care, grief, anger, delight and longing of God’s long and troubled relationship with humans pouring out as the three of them walk along. It must have been marvelous to hear scripture exegeted by the one who was in and through it all, and who could recount not just the words but the memory hanging behind each of them. But still Cleopas and his friend don’t see the connection to their own story, and the story of a dead man who had claimed to be the son of God.

 

Part 3:

Verse 28: 28As they came near the village to which they were going, [Jesus] walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

 

            It was Jesus next to them, Jesus telling his own story, close enough to touch, and they had no idea. Until he sits down to eat, and in the familiarity of a gesture they’ve seen a hundred times across a table there’s a flash of recognition. Frederick Buechner has a beautiful little book on preaching that illuminates the gospel as a tragedy, a comedy and a fairy tale. Here in the microcosm of this story we have all three. What a tragedy to be next to the one you are mourning and only recognize them at the end. What a comedy to spend hours on the road with an old friend who is talking about himself the whole way and mistake him for someone else. What a fairy tale for the dusty stranger on the road to be revealed as your heart’s desire. But whatever type of story it is, suddenly it’s not over! Jesus has walked with them right past the end of the story. Jesus has walked with them past what they know to be the way the world is, past who they thought themselves to be, and past who they thought God to be. Resurrection, this strange Christian belief that life can come after death, has broken into the end of the story.

We praise Jesus’ resurrection because it “burst the chains of death,” because our God is a God of abundant life and cannot be held by even the worst of what we could do. But we also praise it because we know that it is for us as well, and that through Jesus we also are drawn into new life, not only at the times our death but daily in ways personal and communal, mundane and dramatic. Because we have been buried with Christ in baptism the end of our stories is not the end.

So when you have reached the end: the words spoken that can’t be taken back, the grief of a loss that changes life forever, the quiet resignation that this is how things are and how they always will be, or even death itself, God will be with you to tell you that you have not in fact reached the end. Jesus will walk with you past the end of all those stories. Jesus will walk with you in landscapes colored by grief in which there is still beauty. Jesus will walk with you past the death of who you thought you were and into the slow resurrection of abundant life. Jesus will walk with you in the midst of love tested and hope lost. Because for God that is never the end of the story. With God life can come from death, hope can come from despair, and beauty can come from the worst life will throw your way. You are traveling with God, and God is not done with the story of the resurrection.

 

Verse 33: 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The gospel of the Lord.

 

 

 

You are loved. Pass it on.

2-11-18

Mark 1:9-15

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

 

            I saw a slightly cheesy comic online the other day. It shows two small furry creatures, prairie dogs maybe, talking to each other. One says, “The world is hurting. I want to help, but how?” and the other small furry creature just gives him a hug and says, “You are loved. Pass it on.” So the second furry creature finds a rhino and hugs her and says, “You are loved. Pass it on” and the rhino finds a lion and gives him a hug and says “You are loved. Pass it on” and the lion finds a giraffe and pretty soon whole world is saying “You are loved. Pass it on.”

            Like I said, slightly cheesy. But also a lot like what is happening in the gospel of Mark today and what we are doing tonight and what most of the whole church around the world is doing for Lent, saying again and again, “You are loved. Pass it on.” Or as Jan Richardson put it in the poem “Beloved is where we begin.”

            Lent can feel like a time doing a lot of things, and it often is, but the doing of all the things is not where we start. It’s not even where Jesus starts. That was chapter one of Mark, the first gospel to be written, and the first appearance Jesus makes. You might expect a grand entrance of miracle working or a speech, but instead Jesus goes to get baptized by someone else. In this first scene we don’t hear Jesus speak at all, instead he hears a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” That’s where Jesus whole ministry starts, with being beloved.

            Now Jesus hears this at his baptism and baptism is an important manifestation of God’s love for us and the ways we promise to pass that on, but baptism formalizes that relationship, it doesn’t create it. Jesus was thirty years old when he was baptized. It’s not like until then he had been walking around with God thinking, “I don’t know about this guy” and then baptism changed God’s mind. God already knew that Jesus was his beloved son, and whether or not you have been baptized, God already knows that you too are God’s beloved child. Baptism is important to bring up today though because it gives us a context for our use of ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Part of the baptismal ritual is to trace a cross on the baptizee’s forehead with olive oil and say “You, child of God, you are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” In other words, you are beloved and you have an identity completely apart from what you do or what happens to you. When we put ashes on each other’s foreheads tonight it’s also with olive oil and in the shape of a cross, but now we say “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It doesn’t contradict the words at baptism, it adds to them. That blessing of “child of God” is always underneath the new words and where this Ash Wednesday ritual begins. The ashes that are added to the oil add another truth, “You, child of God, are mortal. You, child of God, are flawed. And you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

You are loved is always where we begin, but the reason that that comic struck me as kind of cheesy is because we all know it’s more complicated than that. If we could just pass hugs around and achieve world peace I think we would have done it by now. But it’s more complicated because we are flawed, the churchy word would be sinful. We all make decisions and get caught up in systems that harm ourselves, each other and God’s creation. And so ashes are a sign of repentance, that means stopping that harm and living a different way. In the Old Testament when people realized just how messed up they or their communities had gotten, they would put ashes on their heads as a sign of that repentance. So that is part of what we do today. Because I know that everyone in this room knows how messed up things have gotten, and the ways that each of us has participated in that or at least stepped back and watched it happen. And we want to do better, we want our communities to be better. But in order to actually live differently we have to not only acknowledge that we’ve messed things up, but hear that God still loves us and we still love each other, and it really is worth it to try to do better. That’s what confession lets us do: acknowledge the mess out loud, commit to trying to do better and hear that we are still loved and that it’s still worth it to keep trying. 

            But we also use ashes and the words with them, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” to remind us of our mortality. We are not forever. We are not limitless or the complete captains of our own destiny. We die, and people who we love die. Even in the sincerest hope and belief that death is not the end for us, being mortal is difficult and often filled with grief. We put ashes on our foreheads both to be honest about that fact, but also to set it right next to that promise that you are a beloved child of God. Yes, we will return to dust, but doesn’t make us meaningless, because before and through that truth is the truth that you are loved, that is where you begin and that part of your identity will last forever.

            These are difficult things to say: I am sinful. I will die. And yet there is a freedom in acknowledging our mortality and our world’s brokenness that exists even within our own hearts and minds. We know we are broken. We know we will die. What Lent asks us to remember with that is that we are loved. That sin and death do not have the last word on who we are and they are never our most foundational piece or the place where we begin. During Lent we’ll have plenty of opportunities to take that love and pass it on, but only because we are loved. In God’s eyes we are all mortal and loved, sinful and loved, but beloved is always where we begin.