+ A sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) / Proper 23B / Ordinary 28B at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on October 14, 2018 +
Texts: Amos 5:6-7,10-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
We hear this plea from a man who found Jesus on his way to Jerusalem.
A man who has kept the law his entire life but still feels incomplete.
He comes to kneel before Jesus almost looking for healing – not from an illness, not from a disability, but from the realization that he’s still missing something.
But even this seems somewhat ironic – we’re told this man had many possessions.
He was rich – what could he possibly be lacking?
What could he not buy, what could he not achieve, what could he not make happen in his life with the vastness of his resources?
And perhaps therein lies the problem.
Perhaps the man assumed that his wealth and the power that comes with it would allow him to work his way into heaven – that it would be as easy for him to enter the kingdom of God as it was for him to control every other aspect of his life.
By all measure, it seems this man has done everything right.
He has kept the law, he is seeking God’s approval, and he is wealthy.
Then as now, the common understanding was that wealth showed that a person had been blessed by God.
That they had worked hard and found success.
That they had done everything right.
But still this man senses that something is missing, that he hasn’t done enough to earn God’s love.
Really, I wonder if this man’s success in life as the world sees it led him to ask the wrong question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
But as Jesus tells his disciples, we cannot save ourselves. “For mortals it is impossible,” he tells us, “but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Because no matter how our society works, we cannot get into heaven by ourselves.
No matter how much we may want them to be, the commandments are not a checklist of how to get into heaven.
And no matter how much we try, we cannot earn God’s love.
In a couple weeks we will commemorate the 501st anniversary of the Reformation, a movement that was sparked in part by one monk asking a very similar question – what must I do to get into heaven?
And because of his question, we as Lutheran Christians confess that we cannot get there on our own – that we cannot earn our way into heaven.
But instead we have already been saved and made right with God.
And rather than trying to earn this love, we get to spend our time proclaiming that love in word and deed by loving and serving our neighbors.
For us, church is not about being saved because God has already done that.
Salvation is not the end goal but the starting point for us.
It’s the start of a new life in Christ and where we partner with him to realize God’s reign on earth.
Now, this does not get us off the hook with Jesus’ words here.
And make no mistake, Jesus is talking as much to us as he is to this rich man.
How many of us cringed when Jesus said those words to him, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor…then come and follow me.” And again, “It 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.”
We many not think of ourselves as rich.
We may not see ourselves as wealthy compared to the millionaires and billionaires that live just up the road.
But when we compare ourselves to the rest of the world we realize that our wealth far exceeds those of the vast majority of our siblings.
According to one source, an income of just over $32,000 a year puts a person in the top 1% of the richest people on earth.
And around 15% of people around the globe – including about 1.5 million people in this country – make less than $2 a day.
We live in one of the wealthiest societies in the world and so much of our wealth is dependent on other people who make far less than we do.
So many of our products are made by people who work in extremely difficult conditions and make very small wages.
And yet the constant desire and driving force of our society is the accumulation of more wealth and more possessions.
We acquire more stuff to improve our status and to feel better about ourselves but forget those who labor to produce these products.
We cover the globe in pollution just so we can produce and buy more things.
Like the people in Amos’ day we seek more economic prosperity at the expense of our neighbors and our climate.
And even though the only way money brings us happiness is by giving it away, we cling to our wealth and our possessions and find ourselves in the place of this rich man.
Just as Jesus says to him he repeats to us: you’re still missing something.
Even with all your wealth and all your possessions, you’re still lacking something.
We’re missing the connections we are meant to have with each other – not just our friends and family, but to our neighbors here and around the world.
We miss our place in God’s good creation.
In our quest for riches we exploit the vulnerable and capitalize on the work of others.
We allow our wealth to blind us to the needs of our neighbor and push us to look out for ourselves first.
We forget the value of people who don’t have as much as we do.
We disparage the poor for not working hard enough rather than addressing the systemic injustices that hold them down.
We buy into an ideology that builds up wealth for the few on the backs of the many.
An ideology that tells us that we still don’t have enough and tricks us into thinking that we need to just work harder, do more, be better and gain even more wealth. Gain more influence, more status.
But by doing so, Jesus tells us that we risk missing out on the reign of God on earth.
We miss out on recognizing our need for God and our need for each other.
We fool ourselves into thinking we can do it on our own. That we can buy our happiness and work for whatever we want – that we don’t need anyone else.
We become so inwardly focused that we forget the needs of the people around us.
We think we’re so self-sufficient that we forget what God has done for us.
So today we hear Jesus ask us to reassess our priorities – to realize what our clinging to our possessions does to us and to the people around us.
Instead Jesus wants us to care for each other – to look beyond our own selfish desires and see the people around us that need our love.
To see the people whom Jesus served and to join him in that ministry.
To see that we need them in our lives too.
To see gain a family and possessions beyond our wildest imagination.
That’s what the commandments are intended to do – to push us to look beyond ourselves and to love and serve our neighbors.
That’s what Jesus is telling this rich man – that he is so focused on his possessions that he is missing the community around him.
This man who is so focused on what he has done that he forgets everything that God has done for him – what Jesus is going to Jerusalem to do for him.
Jesus is challenging us to set aside anything that prevents us from seeing what God is doing here and now – whether it’s wealth or ambition or our possessions – and see how Christ is reshaping our world into a new commonwealth where we truly care and love each other.
We are invited to sell our possessions and give our money to the poor – not to earn a place in heaven, but to remove the blinders that we have put up and see Christ all around us.
To see that we cannot do it on our own.
To see that we need each other and we all need God.
As we have seen throughout Mark’s gospel, the reign that Jesus is bringing is not like the kingdoms of this world.
Rather than caring for the rich and powerful, Jesus is more interested in the poor and outcast.
Rather than protecting an order that puts the affluent first, Jesus announces that those who are last in our world are first in God’s reign.
Rather than protecting the wealth of a few, Jesus is establishing a commonwealth where all are equal in God’s eyes.
The reign of God is not something we can obtain if we try hard enough or pay enough.
The reign of God is about being in relationship with each other and caring for those in need.
It’s about those mutual relationships we have with each other.
Jesus knew that by obsessing about attaining wealth, we place barriers between our siblings in Christ and ourselves.
So Jesus is inviting us to let go of the things that hold us back from fully embracing this new reign.
To allow God to work in and around us as we serve each other in true love and equity.
To help build this new society where all people are equal in our eyes just as they are in God’s eyes.
My friends, Jesus’ words today may sound like condemnation upon those of us who cling to our possessions.
They may leave us despairing that we cannot sell what we have and give it all away.
But Jesus does not condemn this rich man today any more than he is condemning us – he looked at this man, saw him for who he was, and he loved him.
And in that love, Jesus told him that there was nothing he could do to gain God’s love, because the work was already done.
There was nothing he could do to gain a spot in heaven, but God, for whom all things are possible, had done that already.
And Jesus invited the man to let go of the burdens that weighed him down, that prevented him from truly seeing his neighbors, and to fully embrace the new life that Jesus is bringing.
Jesus sees us for who we are, knows who we are, and loves us.
What are you lacking?
What is preventing you from embracing God’s love for you?
What is holding you back from living into the life Jesus brings?
And can you let it go?