Sermon by William Bradbury
21 Pentecost—Proper 23-B/October 14, 2018
Amos 5:6-7,10-15, Psalm 90:12-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31
Folks my age use to divide the world before and after November 22, 1963. Before that date many of us were living inside the myth called Camelot, a magical kingdom of prosperity and hope. After Kennedy’s assassination that day in Dallas, we fell into a black pit where White power and privilege opposed the Civil Rights movement and then killed its leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. Then, we woke up to the nightmare of the Vietnam War and the social upheaval that followed from it.
My kids’ generation divides the world before and after September 11, 2001. Before 9/11 we seemed to be at peace after the collapse of the Evil Empire, but when the towers fell war became endless—did you notice we recently passed the 17th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, where I heard on NPR the enemy control, more of the country now, than the day the war started. Since, then, we have gone through a great recession, political dysfunction, and the destruction of the norms of leadership, governance, and civility.
For first century Jews, the world is divided between the Present Age and the Age to Come. The Present Age is a time of Roman occupation, religious capitulation, and no justice for the poor. As N T Wright puts it, it is a time when “good people suffered and wicked people got away with it.” Mark for Everyone, p. 134.
But the “Age to Come” will be that time on earth when God finally takes control, liberates Israel, and brings justice and peace for all.
So the key question for a faithful Jew is: “how can I be assured I will be welcomed and accepted into the Age to Come when it shows up here?”
Jesus announces that the Age to Come, what he calls the Kingdom of God, is breaking into the Present Age through his ministry. Jesus teaches his followers to pray, Our Father in heaven, your Kingdom come, your will be done on EARTH as it is in heaven”, So it makes sense for the rich man to run up to Jesus and ask: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit this new life of justice and peace?”
This question does not mean, “what must I do to get into heaven when I die”, but rather it means, “how can I be sure I will be part of that coming Day, when heaven begins to shine through on earth and God finally gets what God wants, making life on earth good, beautiful, and true?”
Jesus’s initial response is to live now as if this new life is shining through you: So he tells the man to follow commandments #5 to #9: “don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, defraud, and don’t forget to honor your parents.”
The man responds, “I’ve been living that way since I was a boy.”
And Jesus says, “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 recognizes that there are two things holding this man back from experiencing more of the Kingdom right now: He is struggling with covetousness (Commandment 10) and idolatry (Commandment 2) because he has become so attached to his wealth that it has become a replacement for his relationship with the living God.
The remedy for the man’s covetousness, that is his lack of generosity is to sell his possessions and give to the poor. The remedy for his worship of money is to follow Jesus, instead of his wealth.
The Message translation of the man’s response captures the man’s real problem: It reads: “The man’s face clouded over. This was the last thing he expected to hear, and he walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.”
When we are holding on too tight to our image of ourselves as successful and powerful people, then our hands are not free to receive the gifts God is giving us.
We can feel the man’s pain, though, because we too have been raised in a culture that trains us to hold on tight to image and status, things which time and age will surely take from us. Deep inside us is the fear that if we lose these things then we lose our life. I get it why men were jumping out of their top floor offices during the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929. Without their wealth there is no life worth living.
What’s harder to get is why someone like journalist Pico Iyer, after watching his house and all his possessions burn up in a wildfire in Santa Barbara in 1990, decides at the age of 33 to move to Japan and live in a rented house with only two rooms. He discovers “Sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it.”
(You can listen to him on Oprah’s recent episode of her Super Soul podcast.)
Jesus understands how strongly we are attached to money and its acolytes, Status and Control, so he has his disciples engage in practices that will loosen their death grip on Money. He sends the 12 apostles on a journey without extra clothes or money. He says “Give to everyone who begs from you….”
In other words, Jesus is saying that as we practice generosity, we share Jesus’s experience of God.
Practicing generosity now works to heal our misshapen attitudes and appetites, so we can experience love of God and neighbor every day.
So Jesus says, “giving to the poor stores up treasure in heaven.”
But Bill, I thought you said the age to come doesn’t have to do with heaven, yet here is Jesus talking about heaven—what gives?”
Here’s the thing: When we put our money in the bank, are we looking forward to the day we will go sit in the bank and play with our money? See N T Wright’s Mark for Everyone
No, we put money in the bank, so we can have it when we need it to go on a trip or buy a house.
So when we put our treasure—our generosity, mercy, justice and peace—in the heavenly bank, we will receive God’s generosity, mercy, and justice here in this life when we need it.
Jesus is trying to save this man and us, whom he loves, from missing the joy of the abundant life now and forever.
Charles Dickens shows us Ebenezer Scrooge whose life is darkened and hardened by his lack of generosity, by holding on too tight. In his long life he has missed the joy of living, the joy of being a practitioner of the Age to Come; the joy of loving Tiny Tim.
Scrooge, like us, can’t save himself. It takes divine intervention in the form of dreams to pull him into an experience of the kingdom.
So too for us it is impossible, but not for God! The good news proclaims that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of Jesus’ Spirit is God’s intervention for us all. All we have to do is to trust this intervention enough to follow Jesus and act on it. The rich man refuses to trust this good news, so he keeps his money, but loses his the chance to live a truly abundant life. But those who follow Jesus will “receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come God’s own LIFE.
So we can continue to divide up our world according to the latest social cataclysm OR we can be part of God’s insurgency to unite the world by living the generosity of Jesus, our Teacher and Christ.