October 14, 2018 Sermon

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 23, October 14, 2018 Lectionary B

ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY IN RICHMOND HILL, GEORGIA

The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector                                            Scripture: Mark 10:17-31

 

Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30   

 

What must I do?

 

Let us pray.  Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to seeking not that which passes away, but that which lasts through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.

 

    In this morning’s gospel, Jesus is on the move again, setting out on a journey.  No, He has not packed up His SUV with all the things we find necessary for a journey to the beach or wherever.  Jesus was a light traveler—sandals on His feet and the clothes on His back. He didn’t even apply sunscreen, though He may have been listening to Handel’s Messiah on His earbuds.       

   Suddenly, a man, named Isoff, ran up to him and knelt before him, addressing Jesus as “Good teacher”.  We are surprised by the good shepherd’s response to the man.  “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.”  Had Jesus done something bad or wrong?  Why would He disavow being called good?                                

    It is a rare individual who can see him or herself for who he or she is.  We are speaking of humility, are we not? We are speaking of self-honesty.  We are seeing ourselves through eyes other than that of the world’s eyes. That’s a tough one.  How often do we value our lives by the good we believe we have done? How often do we de-value our lives by the good we have failed to do?                                                     

   Isoff, kneeling before Jesus, poses a question.  It is a serious question. It is a question that might even be rare, perhaps not during the time of Jesus, but certainly it is today in a world that can see no further than its outstretched, cell phone, grasping hand.  No, the question asked by most in today’s world is more like what diet, what exercise, what medication must I take to live a long time?                                          

      Isoff’s question, as we heard, was concise and to the point.  He asked Jesus, “. . . what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Have we asked a similar question? “Am I good enough to inherit eternal life” (or, if you like, to go to heaven).  Notice, a significant, two letter word in the man’s question. “. . . what must I do?”  The word is “do”.  Isoff is a “get it done” kind of guy.  He would and could make it happen. “As governor of your state, I would fix education,” Isoff would tell us.                                          

    Isoff’s idea of goodness is defined by doing or human achievement (i.e., by the good things he had done).  Have we done no less? Rhonda is good because she gave to some charity or did something nice for Mary Smitherman whose mother just died.  Isn’t that how we define someone as being good?                                      

       Notice a particular word in Isoff’s question to Jesus that doesn’t really belong.  Did you catch it? Was Mark signaling something? The word is “inherit”. “What must I do to inherit eternal life? We don’t think of doing something in order to inherit.  Usually one inherits from a parent because one is the child of that parent; doing has nothing to do with it, rather it is the relationship.  The question, at least as Isoff understood it, should have been more like, “What must I do to earn eternal life.” In that form, the man’s question is exposed for its underlying meaning.                                         

        Had Isoff set himself up for failure if doing good is the criteria for attaining eternal life? Jesus seems to play along with the man’s salvation assumptions, saying to him, “You know the ten commandments.” Jesus then lists the commandments, as if to suggest that if Isoff has kept them, he will inherit (earn) eternal life.  Isoff, with proud self-satisfaction, boldly pronounces to Jesus, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  We can see his chest swell and hear confident firmness in his voice. In contemporary terms, Isoff is saying look at my resume, the trophies on my mantel, and all my certificates of achievement.  

    As job interviews go, it would appear that Isoff was doing well.  Think of it. He had kept all those commandments Jesus listed from his youth.  If there were ever a time when we might not have kept the commandments, well, as a youth or teen that certainly would have been the case.  Wasn’t there something about that in the recent Supreme Court battle?        

    Did you notice that there was one commandment omitted by Jesus?  If you are thinking it might have been the prohibition against stealing or bearing false witness (lying), those are captured by Jesus’s use of the word, defraud.  The commandment missing is “Thou shall not covet.” Did Isoff notice Jesus’ omission? Was he beginning to get a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach? Was there something diagnostic as to the man’s spiritual health by Jesus leaving out that commandment?                           

               If you have had a job interview, you know there is often a question the interviewer asks that catches you off guard.  Jesus pops the question to Isoff in the form of a statement. “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.” Jesus had indeed put His finger on the one thing holding Isoff back—his immense wealth.  He who supposedly had so much was actually lacking. Who would have thought it? His assets had become liabilities.  This man who was so good at doing, majored in it, suddenly found himself unable to do something; he who was the doer of doers.  So, as we heard, “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”                                             

    Jesus had not told Isoff to go away.  In fact, as Mark’s gospel recounts, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”  No, it was the man who removed himself from the scene.  He did not try to argue with Jesus or ask for clarification.  He might have asked Jesus when exactly did he have to give up all that he owned.  Could Isoff have waited until he felt more like it? So, he went away grieving, but for what?  Was it because he knew that he could not give up his wealth? Who wants to be poor or be uncertain as to where one will spend the night?  The man loved his money and his things. They meant so much to him. His houses, his cars, his clothes, his boat, the place at the beach and all that money in the bank defined who he is.  They said he was somebody. They said he was important. Who would he be without those things—a nobody, a nothing, a bum? He would be giving up his standing in the community. “There goes old Isoff. He gave it all up to follow some crazy rabbi and a trouble maker. What a fool!”     

    We know something of Isoff’s dilemma and struggle.  We’ve been there. Some choices are just too costly.  Will I give up my freedom to get married? Will I sacrifice my time and money to get a better education?  Maybe, my health is in jeopardy. Will I give up sugar or the food I love to bring down my blood sugar or cholesterol?  Can I give up this addiction so that I can live longer and healthier? Heck, we’ve had to give up chocolate or wine for Lent for six weeks.  That was terrible. Besides, aren’t we supposed to have it all? Why, it would be un-American not to have it all. Make that bucket list as long as possible.             

    On the other hand, was Isoff grieving because he would not be able to inherit eternal life?  Who wants to go to hell, right? That prospect would make anyone sad. Isoff was grieving because he suddenly realized that he was not the righteous dude that he had thought he was—holy and all. Jesus had delivered a real blow to Isoff’s ego.  “I am not as good as I thought I was.” It is a depressing thought, is it not? We’ve all been there. Of course, Isoff might have decided he could change the rules for inheriting eternal life. That was his right, was it not?We are entitled to our opinion whether it has anything to do with reality or not.   

            If the truth is known, could it be that not to keep the last but not least commandment about not coveting, possibly undermined all the other nine—the first being the most important of them all.  “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage.  You shall have no other gods but me.”  Who was Isoff’s god?  Was it his wealth and what he owned?  Who is our god?  

   Isoff wasn’t the only one bummed out by Jesus’ words.  So, too, were Jesus disciples. As we heard, “Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words.”  They were perplexed, lost, bummed out.  It was a common belief then that if a person had wealth it was because God had blessed him with that wealth.  Now, Jesus is saying that ain’t necessarily true. Wealth may not be a sign of God’s favor toward a person. Cogitate on that one.                                         

            Having brought the debate about inheriting eternal life to a screeching halt, Jesus then delivers one of His more memorable images further astounding His disciples and further rebutting the notion that wealth may be a sign of God’s blessing.  Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.”  It is an image that would not soon be forgotten if at all—a big, old camel smoothly slipping through the tiny eye of a needle more readily that someone who is rich, someone like Isoff.  It is an image of impossibility, of hopelessness, of never going to happen. Is it any wonder that the disciples after hearing Jesus’ words about the needle and camel reacted by saying, “Then who can be saved?” If a rich man who had so much and had accomplished so much could not get into heaven, well then, no one could, so it would seem.  

    The truth be known, Jesus had everyone exactly where He wanted them—at the end of their rope where no amount of effort, no amount of doing good could save them.  How then could they be saved? How can we be saved? Jesus answers the question quite simply. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  With those words St. Peter steps in with his usual bravado, not looking before he leaps, not quite grasping what Jesus is telling them.  Look, we have left everything and followed you,” Peter says.          

       As usual, Peter has half understood Jesus’ words.  There is a bit of Isoff in Peter. He, too, thinks that inheriting eternal life is a matter of doing something.  In effect he has said to Jesus, “Look at what we have done. We have given up everything to follow you—family, occupation, and friends.  The old Jew in Peter has not yet died. Have we done any less? Are we still trying to earn God’s good graces by doing good? That is impossible, so Jesus has told us—impossible.    

    We look back at old Isoff and say his wealth, his treasures, were keeping him from inheriting eternal life.  Jesus seems to be suggesting as much. His wealth aside, consider this. Isoff had been really trying for most of his life to please God.  With the exception of the tenth commandment, he had seemingly obeyed them all—no easy task, only to learn that all his efforts were in vain, to no avail.  Sad, isn’t it—to try so hard and be told that your efforts weren’t good enough?                                        

        What Isoff and the disciples did not understand is that eternal life functions by a different currency (dollars and cents), operating by a different economy than the world does.  The world’s economy operates by cause and effect. Work hard make money. Work smart make money. The Kingdom of God knows no such equation or formula. It is grace driven, grace that comes out of relationship with God through Jesus.  The Kingdom’s economy and the world’s economy are like oil and water.                                           

      As we heard, Jesus speaks of leaving house and family for His sake. The focus is on Jesus.  When we enter into a relationship with Jesus, the matter of inheriting, not earning, eternal life begins to make sense.  In answer then to the question, what must I do to inherit eternal life, the answer is simple. We must invite Jesus into our lives, thereby becoming a child of God, an inheriting child of God.                               

               What is the result of following Jesus?  In His words, “(You) will receive a hundredfold now in this age– houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children,  and in the age to come eternal life.”  Jesus is not being literal about receiving houses and family a hundredfold.  What He is telling us is that the Kingdom of God has no limits—none. Isn’t that how we understand eternal life, as having no limits for an eternity?  Being first or last really has no particular meaning when it comes to eternity.                                    

Granted Jesus also warns us that to follow Him will mean persecution.  We have only to think of Pastor Brunson, recently released from a Turkish prison.  False charges were brought against. Why? It was because he is a Christian. His statement to the press upon release is telling.  I’m an innocent man – I love Jesus, and I love this country.”  Curiously, this past Friday night the reporter for FOX News left out Brunson saying that he loves Jesus.    

    Jesus came to earth not so we could have more earthly wealth or earthly things—things which will in time perish.  He came that we might have the ultimate and enduring treasure of eternal life. His teachings, as with the rich man in today’s gospel, are His way of getting us to see reality, what matters from a different perspective, the true perspective.  Not only does He want us to see it, but also He wants us to live into that reality, known as eternal life. He is asking us to live beyond the wants of our flesh and into the realm of the Spirit, where there are no limits and no costs because He has already paid the cost on the cross.        

      So then, we begin a new season of stewardship, of asking where our priorities lie. We can look it as a matter of giving up something of our time, talent, or treasure or as a matter of taking another step into the Kingdom of God where there are no limits.  The choice and the opportunity are ours.                                        In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.