Sunday, October 14, 2018

Through the Eye of the Needle: Mark 10:17-31 - 21st Sunday after Pentecost

17As [Jesus] 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.”
Through the eye of a needle by Juan Ramón Martos on flickr.  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

We’ve been praying the same prayer of confession for a month now, at the beginning of our service.  But last Sunday, one line hit me like a lightning bolt: “we confess that we have not allowed your grace to set us free. We fear that we are not good enough.

If I had to sum up all of my spiritual struggles throughout my lifetime, it is the fear that I’m not good enough.  And that’s a fear I’ve experienced on two fronts: that I’m not good enough for God, and that I’m not good enough in comparison to other people.

The rich young man we encounter in today’s Gospel knew no such fears.  He was the gold standard of good enough.  He kept all of the commandments since youth.  You could say he was born good enough.  His was a life of power, privilege, and prestige. 

It’s hard to say what exactly was on his mind when he approached Jesus—whether he wanted a stamp of approval from “the good teacher” or if he truly felt something important was lacking in him…  Either way, he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus looked at him and loved him.  He loved him.  “But you lack one thing,” he said.  “Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Here’s a man who was always “good enough.”  And yet, Jesus does not tell him to give away his wealth in order to become “good enough.” 

Why would he want to do that?  His wealth with a sign he was in God’s favor! It gave him the freedom to have whatever he wanted, and do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.  His wealth was security—if trouble found him, he could buy his way out.  If the whole world turned against him, he’d still have his riches and his wealth to keep him company.  He could buy his way into people’s affection.  He could buy their approval. 

Would you love to be just like the rich young man?  Don’t you want the same good things he has: a good name, a good reputation, and a good life?  Wouldn’t be great to have wealth to give you power, control, security, and esteem? 

The rich man has done good.  Everything he has is good.  He even calls Jesus good.  Problem is, his whole conception of “good” is flawed.  His mind is set, his heart is set, and his life is set in all the wrong things.

Jesus says, “no one is good but God alone.”  His lifetime of good works cannot gain him eternal life.  Even worse, God’s goodness has no place in his life.  He’s never had to depend on God’s goodness for anything.  And now, Jesus is telling him to give away everything that made his life good.  That would’ve been more unimaginable than dying.

He was captive to his good name and all his good stuff.  You could say these things were possessing him.  God’s goodness could not possibly live through him.  He refused to let Jesus take him through the eye of the needle, to discover his identity, his security, his strength, his destiny—in God’s goodness. 

Fact is, in Christ no human being must worry about being “good enough.”  In Christ, the question of “good enough” is settled.  Jesus is the only “good enough” you’ll ever need.  God’s righteousness is expressed in Jesus Christ giving his life away for sinners and doing for you what you cannot do for yourself. 

I doubt anyone here could claim to be fully like the rich man.  We’ve made mistakes.  We’re all rich and poor in our own ways.  We all want the power, control, security, and esteem we think money can buy us.   We want life to be good.  We want to be good and we want to do good.  The question for you is, from whom or what will that good come? 

If Jesus looked you in the eye and told you to give everything up, what would be the hardest things to lose?  Keeping the old smartphone instead of upgrading to the new one?  A staycation instead of a vacation?  Eating leftovers instead of going out?  Watching the big game on TV instead of in the stadium?  Missing out on all the stuff your friends are doing?

And I wouldn’t suggest emptying yourself of everything in one fell swoop, but rather to stop and consider the things you fear most to give up. 

Let Jesus take you through the eye of the needle.   Let go of the things you cling to in order to be a good enough person— so that God‘s goodness lives through you. Go through the eye of the needle to where God is the source of all things good. 

You may look at these things and wonder how you can live without them—and you’ll not want to let them go.  But it’s Jesus love, that won’t let you go, that will make going through the eye of the needle as liberation and release.  With God, all things are possible.  The good you receive—and the good you give—because God is good—will outweigh anything you will have given up.

Jesus is the end of your questioning, Am I good enough to be saved?  Am I good enough when people say otherwise?  Will I make it through these tough times?  Will my life be good?  Jesus has the answer to all those questions: God is good.  God’s is the only goodness you will ever need.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Your True Value: Mark 10:2-16 - 20th Sunday after Pentecost

2Some Pharisees came, and to test [Jesus] they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 

13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (NRSV)

Cross Sunset2 by Sean Wolf.  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Very early on in our relationship, Elizabeth and I cooked dinner together in the community kitchen of our seminary dormitory. 

One evening, I prepared a bowl of Uncle Bens Boil-in-the-bag Rice. 

Elizabeth takes one bite, and immediately spits it out.  “It’s undercooked!  It tastes like gravel,” she said.

After one bite, I couldn’t help but agree.

If Ben were my real uncle, he would’ve disowned me for disgracing his good name. 

However, if one were to abide by a strict interpretation of Old Testament Laws; and if Elizabeth were the one cooking dinner and I (as husband) was displeased—I could lawfully divorce her.  And I would have no further responsibility to her—or to our children—from that point on. 

On the other hand, if I were abusive and unfaithful to her, she could not lawfully divorce me.  Women had no say in matters of marriage or divorce. 

For most of human history, marriage wasn’t about love.  Families arranged marriages to advance their social and economic interests.  A wedding was a transfer of property.  The woman was property; her value measured by her ability to bear masculine children to preserve the family bloodline.

This is why Jesus objected to divorce: because women were being treated as disposable objects.  In God’s kingdom, no human being is disposable—for any reason. 

That’s good for us to keep in mind as Jesus addresses what is an extremely uncomfortable topic for us.

If you personally haven’t been through it, someone very close to you has.  It’s devastating in every way imaginable.

Sadly, we are living in a time where marriages are being entered into—and discarded—with extreme haste.  For many, the bonds of marriage are binding spouses and children to abuse, neglect, or exploitation.  Sometimes, a couple will try their hardest to make their marriage work—but still, their efforts fail.  In all those cases, divorce is the only way to break free of the misery and begin again.  But still, there is so much shame that comes with having been divorced.  And when you have people acting as if they’re superior for never having been through it, it only adds to your shame.

Let’s not forget the problem at the heart of Jesus’ teachings today is the devaluing of persons.  Much like in Jesus’ day, there exists today a social hierarchy.  You have honorable people at the top; less-honorable people at the bottom.  The further down the hierarchy you go, the more your life will be dominated by poverty, disgrace, and shame.  The further down you go, the more disposable you are.

In Jesus’ day, children had little or no status in the social hierarchy—even if they came from good families.  Much like women, they were property—and they could be disposed of by their male superiors at will. 

So when Jesus takes the little children into his arms, and when he attacks the customs of marriage and divorce, he is attacking the social hierarchy.  He is restoring humanity to human beings who were treated as disposable objects.  With Jesus embracing children and making friends in low places, Jesus becomes the measuring rod of their true value.  Most especially, he shows human beings their true value by giving his life for them.

The challenge for us, then, is to stop thinking of ourselves and others according to the social hierarchy.  When Jesus shows up, the hierarchy crumbles.  Shame is shattered; sin is forgiven; disgrace is removed.  Love covers over a multitude of sins.  The humble poor are exalted.  The proud are brought to repentance.  Those who have much share with those who have little.  Even the poor are empowered to radical generosity by the Spirit.  The least of us is as significant as the wealthiest because we belong to the Body of Christ.

The Church is where the social hierarchy crumbles, and the tyranny of shame is destroyed.  To make this a reality, ask: who among your neighbors is being devalued?  Who are the nobodies?  Who is the suffering and poor that are otherwise hidden from view?  They need more than handouts; they need hands to hold.  And yet when you enter kinship with these persons, they will help you to discover your true value as a child of God, as you do the same for them.

How have you been devalued—or do you devalue yourself?  What is your shame?  When you come forward for communion, dip your fingers into the baptismal font, make the sign of the cross on your forehead, and be assured that your sins and your shame are being washed away in the waters of your baptism!  Jesus values you just as you are today. 

And finally, how do you attempt to ascribe value to yourself with success, superiority, or strength?  Are you valued in a way that brings you power and privilege unknown to others?  What if you saw this not as an achievement or entitlement but a spiritual gift to share?  You can do so much more for others than you could ever gain for yourself.

In God’s Kingdom, everyone discovers their true value as a child of God—measured by the life Christ gave for you.  We won’t always agree, but the love binding us together is always something worth fighting for. But everyone can live peacefully and securely knowing that they can never be thrown away.