Gospel: Mark 10:17-31
1st Reading: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
2nd Reading: Hebrews 4:12-16
During my sabbatical, I have mentioned, Sterling and I were able to visit other churches. Each Saturday evening I would explain what was the plan for the next day. We would get up and get dressed, eat breakfast, and then we would go to another church, but it wouldn't be King of Kings. It would be a different church. Sterling would ask me lots of questions. Do they have fans? Will we sing songs. Can I bring my Magnadoodle? About the third week I was explaining all this to him he asks, “Mom, are we going to visit ALL the other churches?” Then on the way there he said, “Mom, are you Pastor Aimee?” It was a question I struggled to answer. I wasn't preaching and teaching. I wasn't visiting the sick or taking phone calls from people asking for help paying bills. I wasn't really listening to anyone's story of faith. At that time I said, “Not right now, but I'll go back to being Pastor Aimee in the Fall.” That seemed to satisfy him. About the second week back here, I came to wake him up Sunday morning to get him ready for church and I was wearing my clerical collar and he said, “Mom, you're Pastor Aimee again!” He was pretty excited.
It is interesting to think about how we define ourselves. Sometimes we don't realize it until it's gone. Retirement can bring up all sorts of identity questions as folks try to figure out who they are how they want to spend their time now that they aren't at work all the time. Losing a spouse can mean redefining ourselves. Some may not have realized how deeply they had internalized that role of husband or wife or caretaker. Sometimes giving up the keys or downsizing to move to assisted living means some of us are evaluating again what do we really need to live. What gives my life meaning? What defines me? What can I live without?
This week I heard another version of the Gospel that goes like this: As Jesus was going on a journey a man ran up to him and said, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus looked on him with love and said, "Go and give up your partisan worldview, your self-righteousness when it comes to Biblical interpretation, your contempt for those politically and theologically different from you, and give yourself to those you find difficult to live with." The man went away crestfallen, for he had great love for his correctness in all these things, and great love for his partisan identity.
Here's this man in the Gospel of Mark. He runs up to Jesus. His first step is to assume how Jesus defines himself. He calls him, “Good,” maybe to butter him up. Well, Jesus is self-assured, he doesn't need anybody's compliments. Jesus makes it clear that he isn't there to promote his own goodness, but to direct people to the goodness of God.
It seems that this guy is pretty sure that he's satisfied all the requirements. You shall not murder. Check! You shall not commit adultery. Check! You shall not bear false witness. Check! You shall not steal. Check! You shall not defraud. Check! Honor your father and mother. Check! Oh, the Ten Commandments, that's a cinch! Check! Here this guy has done all this, but something brought him to Jesus. Somehow, something was missing. Was it Jesus' final pronouncement that he needed, telling him he passed the test? Was it some struggle within him that didn't quite sit right? Something brought him there. There was something still missing.
Maybe he was asking the wrong question. He said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Maybe what he should have asked is, “What must we do to inherit eternal life?”
In the German language, there is the word for you—du, and there is the word for you plural—sie, meaning all you all. In English you is the same for one or for many so sometimes we miss the subtleties in German or in the Biblical languages. In the reading for Amos today, it says, “Seek good and not evil, that you may live.” We tend to take this personally, “I should seek good so that I may live.” But it really says, “Seek good and not evil, that all you all may live.” This isn't about any individual, but about the whole group. If you don't live, I don't live. I can't fully live until my neighbor does. I can't fully live until that prostitute down on 82nd fully lives. I can't live until people don't have to fear their power is going to be turned off, until people have enough nutritious food to eat, until the trees are no longer suffering in the drought, until the salmon can find their way safely upriver again. Our lives are all tied up together.
Jesus turns this man from the “I” to the “we.” He focuses on his relationship with other people. That's what the commandments help us do. What is my relationship with my neighbor? How do I relate to those around us. But the commandments are not a checklist, or a game you can win. They are a journey of relationship. Honoring our parents is a continuum. Sometimes we do it more, sometimes less. Sometimes we honor them by doing things differently than they would. Even murder, adultery, and stealing are a continuum that Jesus says you are on if it even crosses your mind to do any of those things. Our whole lives we are trying to figure out how to live in a way that is true to us and true to the whole of all those God has made. How do we live in respectful way to everyone? How do we seek the LORD? How do we seek what God seeks? How do we journey with other people also on a journey?
Because our journey of faith isn't a checklist, there is always one more thing we could do. Since the man asked for extra credit, so he can be assured of eternal life, Jesus is going to give him an assignment that will make him question whether God and the welfare of his neighbor are central to his life, or whether his things are defining him. The man who has it all is told he lacks one thing. He doesn't have it all after all! “What is it?,” he wants to know! I must have that, too, to add to my collection. That thing is not something he can own. It is something permanent, unlike all those other things he's got. His assignment is to let go of his possessions and quit letting them define him and take his focus, money, attention, and care. “Go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”
The truth is, most of us are not willing to do this. It would be irresponsible if we did. Others would be left with the burden of caring for our needs. We would be less able to visit the sick or distribute food or knit warm hats.
I read a review this week on the New York Times website for a book called “Strangers Drowning: Grappling With Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help.” This book is a series of profiles of extreme do-gooders, people who put themselves on a very restrictive budget so they can give most of their money to the poor, who forgo small pleasures, measuring their cost in the number of malaria nets or school kits that could be purchased with that money. The book is getting great reviews and maybe I'll find time to read it this year. The reviews seem to point out that serving others doesn't always mean selflessness, but can become a contest to win or a test to pass. Serving can be a selfish act, their acts of goodness held over the heads of friends and family. That doesn't mean they aren't doing great good, but made me think of how we define ourselves and if we don't sometimes make ourselves the savior instead of Jesus.
Does it have to be all or nothing? If we were Jesus, we would give it all up and suffer and die. But we aren't. But we value the one who did. He did it for us. He wasn't here to make himself comfortable or to party down. He was here to give life and to help us realize what life is really all about. So when the time came that we lost everything we ever owned, when our parents or spouse or children died, when our friends abandoned us, we would still have hope. And we do. You meet people all the time who have lost it all, and far from being bitter, they are often grateful. People I know who suffered a miscarriage, are grateful for the children they were able to carry to term or the child they were able to adopt or their nieces and nephews they were able to care for, or the school children they were able to mentor. People who have moved into assisted living realize they didn't need all that stuff. The only thing they want is a visit from someone who cares about them. When people have lost a home to a fire, they are just glad that no one was hurt. When people make it through a car accident or surgery, they seem to have a real sense of what matters in life.
“Go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” When we are anxious and afraid, when we are not sure who we are and are searching, Jesus directs us to look to others, and change our mindset from me to we. And I am going to congratulate you all on this. I see you doing this in your volunteer work here and in the neighborhood. Many of you do so many things throughout the week to help those in need. We do this every time we work on quilts that go to local nursing homes, when we work on a house for Habitat for Humanity, when we stock the shelves or go shopping for the pantry, when we participate in cleanup day here at church, when we take in a rescue animal, when we write a letter to our legislators. We are taking our time, which is precious and putting our treasure not for ourselves, but for others. And that is heaven for us—it is peace of mind, it is tangible hope. And it is heaven for the other person—if one parent is educated about why a baby is crying and a baby is spared shaking, if a person is wrapped in a warm quilt, if a child finds food the weekend in his backpack and a warm hat at Christmastime, that is heaven in that moment, a piece of abundant eternal life. Not many of us are going to give it all up on purpose, but together we can have the effect as if many people had given up all they own. Then our lives are not all about me, me, me, but instead about us, us, us.
I hope you will find yourselves encouraged this week by Jesus words, rather than going away grieving. On our own, we can't give up everything and be Jesus. There is only one Jesus and he lived and died to give us life. In thanks to him, we give away our time and money and skills to help others. In response to him, we try to keep our priorities straight. And because we know the love and peace of Christ, when the time comes and we lose it all, we are still at peace because we belong to Christ and rest securely in his love, and no one can take that away from us.
I like to think that this grieving was not the last word for this fellow who spoke to Jesus in the Gospel. It touched him deeply. Surely he looked at his possessions differently from that day forward. Perhaps he stood at the foot of the cross not long after this. But even if nothing changed, Jesus looked at him and loved him and that's what God does for us. What seems impossible, that we would put God first, may be possible in that God loves us and put us before himself. Somehow we find ourselves standing next to Jesus with our checklist and he crumples it up and says, “Let me love you. Give me a hug.” And in that moment, nothing else matters. It isn't long before we have a deeper joy and we don't need the latest thing and we can live more simply and we can live with Christ's love being shared in a free exchange.
I don't know about you, but I can't bear the burden of the world. When I let in all the world's pain, I get overwhelmed and afraid. But Jesus bore that pain. He could do it, because he was there from the beginning to see how things got this way, and he could see the end of the story, how God's love would unite us all and bring peace. So I have to let Jesus carry that pain, and to allow in as much of it as I can take without going into despair, knowing Jesus can bear that with me and that we all bear that together, and that God is working through all of us to bring peace and new life to us all.