Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Oct. 10, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Oct 10, 2021 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 20th Sunday after Pentecost

Oct. 10, 2021

A man of wealth asks Jesus about eternal life in our reading from Mark today, he’s also in Matthew and Luke, though with significant differences. One critical message is that Mark tells us, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” None of the other accounts include this declaration. Furthermore, he is the only person in Mark’s gospel of whom this is said. This one phrase carries a vital truth; the failure to give with a generous heart or even to cut loose from something else which binds us, does not make anyone less deserving of Jesus’ love. Though to do so brings us to more fully embody and multiply that love.

To get there, we need to unpack the earlier bits. When asked what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus lists the commandments about how to treat each other, placing the honor of father and mother out of order and last. Jesus also slips one in that isn’t even from the original top ten; “You shall not defraud.” Yes, yes, all of these I have kept since my youth, he says, and here is where Jesus looks at him and loves him. He has kept the commandments but has he lived them? There is a difference between keeping the letter of the law and doing what is right and just. By adding “You shall not defraud” Jesus hints at the law against coveting (which he omitted) thus making it more about justice, relationships, and actions. One covets in one’s own heart and possibly privately. To defraud is something you do to another person—with the added insult of being ‘legal’ but certainly not right or just. Finally, Jesus lists honoring one’s parents, moving it from the first of the commandments about loving each other to the last. 

We repeatedly hear Jesus knows a person when he looks at them or even before. To speak against defrauding might hit home for this man. How was his wealth obtained and kept? He asked what he must do to inherit eternal life (not to earn it or work towards it or grow into it!), so his wealth is likely also inherited. Does he use it in ways that honor the parents he inherited from? Gaining wealth this way is not wrong and Jesus doesn’t tell everyone to sell all they own and give the money away. So who is the ‘parent’ Jesus calls him to honor in this scene? The man knows he can’t inherit eternal life from his parents or he’d already be certain of it—it can only come from God, the eternal ‘parent’ of us all. Do we know where our ‘inheritance’ comes from, is it privilege or poverty received by accident of birth? Earned? Deserved?

Then this man running up to Jesus is told what he was just beginning to realize; “You lack one thing…” Among all that he has, he is still lacking, and now Jesus makes it worse; to acquire what he lacks he has to put a price on all he has and sell it. Jesus didn’t say to give his things away, he said to sell them and give the money to the poor. He must face deciding the value of what he owns. This is his particular stumbling block and Jesus knows it. It isn’t ego or adultery or lying, it is valuing his possessions above all else. 

Oddly enough I think this has been one of the gifts of this pandemic; we’ve had plenty of time to consider who and what we hold most dear, and plenty of obstacles to teach us. We want to see our loved ones, though even if we think ourselves safe from COVID-19, we understand the cost of loving others is distancing, wearing masks, getting vaccinated, all to keep them safe. This is at the crux of the challenge Jesus gives the man because he’s only looking at what he has, what he wants to attain for himself. I wonder if he’s sad because he’s going home to sell everything or sad because he doesn’t understand Jesus’ call to wholeness and his promise of treasure in heaven. 

This was not about wealth but about attachment to wealth as an obstacle between him and God. “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor” and “then come, follow me”—its not the usual cost and call to discipleship. Those who supported Jesus and the twelve weren’t asked to give all their possessions away, they used them for good. His close friends and most ardent believers, Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany had a house and means to host them. Mary Magdalene and other women supported their ministry. Sending disciples off with only one tunic and no pouch meant that someone would have to give them food and shelter. Ability to do so was a good thing, a blessing. It wasn’t for keeping and having, it was used relationally, for helping and giving, and Jesus knew it was what the man needed to experience. What he lacked Jesus now promised.

None of our ‘stuff’ or any self-serving predilection can offer us eternal life, or love, or God’s grace. Strangely, none of these things are bad or wrong on their own and in perspective; the problem is in what value or attributes we assign to something, if we are attached to the point of it defining us. Jesus knew it then and it still is true; when it’s all about what we each want ourselves, the gap between poverty and wealth widens, ever more people are destitute, desperate, and peace becomes increasingly impossible. Fear of scarcity spreads, and instead of partnering with each other nations stockpile things like medical equipment and vaccines, even while others try valiantly to share them. 

We each have non-essential things we are afraid to go without, and grasping them usually makes it harder for us to recognize our need for and dependence on God. Whatever ours may be, the camel is a great image because they were beasts of burden. It couldn’t go through a needle’s eye anyway, but it evoked an animal freighted with a load of valued possessions. Theologian Amy-Jill Levine says that if a camel can be burdened with riches, so can we! (The Difficult Words of Jesus; His Most Perplexing Teachings, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 2021) This expression Jesus used isn’t original, in rabbinic literature it was a saying which likened the use of truly strained legal argument to forcing an elephant through the eye of a needle. (b. Berakhot 55b and 38b). A camel makes it more apt.

What about us? What is our possession-idol, the obstruction to our deepest richest relationship with God? It may be nothing to do with money. What do we identify with so much that we can’t set it aside to answer Jesus’ invitation? I admit mine is too often rich food, and this reading really struck home for me. For another it might be lavish trips, alcohol or drugs, an impressive home, public honor, collecting ‘toys’ or tech tools, and yes, financial means. Anything we hold tightly enough to think it makes us secure or independent, such that to give up we think would feel too vulnerable somehow. Naming it can make these less overwhelming, recognizing them as idols helps us take them to God, praying for courage to let go, to stop being controlled by our false dependence on them.

A month or so ago, I mentioned a woman with dementia in hospice care I visited, and how her tears so touched me. She had downsized from a house to a large apartment and now to a single small room, she had lost her husband and so many treasured memories—yet her tears were not for what she had lost, they were for her great joy in finally receiving Communion again, after more than a year of quarantine. Think back over the past year and a half; what do you now fairly easily live without that surprises you? What did you most want to keep hold of? Let go of? Did anything change in your relying on God or recognizing Christ’s unconditional love? He calls us to ‘come and follow me’ so that we too might embody that love; what gets in the way of answering his call? For me it helps to ask myself what I consider important that has no relational element to it. How can we love our neighbor if we have none? How do we care for the stranger if we are so insulated as to never allow one near? So how is this story about you? (I know it’s about me!) What question would you run to Jesus and ask? Although “for God all things are possible,” is there an answer you would be grieved to hear?  Now imagine Jesus, looking at you, loving you, and saying, “You lack one thing…”

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.