20th Sunday after Pentecost; Oct. 11, 2015; Year B
Amos 5.6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90.12-17; Hebrews 4.12-16; Mark 10.17-31
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who looks at us and loves us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A number of years ago I was having a conversation late one night at a campfire with a good friend, a person I had known all my life. He was raised Catholic, loved God, and continued to attend mass regularly. In the AM hours our conversation turned towards faith, God, salvation, judgment, heaven, hell…you know, all that serious stuff that most people wonder and think about.
He said to me, “I think that if you are a good person you are saved and if you are a bad person you’re not.”
Then my questions to him were, “What does it mean to be a good person or a bad person? How does one know if they are good enough? What does it really mean to be saved?”
Around and around we went deep into the night until we were too tired to talk any more about these unproven statements and challenging questions.
In our Gospel reading a young man with many possessions approaches Jesus, kneels at his feet, and asks him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Don’t we all wonder this question? Don’t we all wish the answer was simple…an answer like, “All you need to do is be a good person?”
Well, that’s not Jesus’ answer. Jesus says goes on to talk about some of the 10 commandments and the young man says, “I have kept all these since my youth.”
It is appropriate for us to take this man at his word, that he has indeed kept these commandments, and having not cheated anyone out of money, we must also assume that he came by his wealth honestly.
By today’s standard and certainly the standard back in Jesus’ day, this man would have been the ideal “good person.” He follows God’s law, he is earnest in seeking out eternal life, and he has wealth, which is seen as having favor with God. If anyone should be gifted eternal life, it should be him.
But Jesus, 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.”
We just need to pause right here and take the time to realize what Jesus is asking of this man. Jesus is telling him that to fully enter into the life of the Kingdom of God, this young man need to give up his wealth, which also would mean, giving up his political and social power, his standing in the community, his influence, and also his identity as a financially wealthy person.
To inherit eternal life is much more than being a good person or following commandments.
The man becomes sorrowful (Scripture says “shocked”) and goes away grieving because he does not want to give up his wealth. Money is a barrier for him for participating in the Kingdom of God, and Jesus knows it. The man chooses his wealth.
I don’t know what kind of answer he was expecting as he knelt at the feet of Christ, but I’m sure it’s not the answer he received. Maybe he had his own idea of what eternal life meant…that he could keep his wealth and status in this life and in the age to come. He cannot buy his salvation and he cannot earn it. Life in the Kingdom of God requires sacrifice.
I really love this story for reasons I will share in just a bit. First it’s important that we all understand that this story is about us. We might hear it and say, “Well, I don’t have a lot of money, so I don’t have the rich man’s problem.”
We all have the rich man’s problem because we cannot save ourselves and there will always be something we are not willing to let go of to more fully step into life in the Kingdom of God on this earth.
Here are three brief stories to illustrate this:
A few years ago there was a person who spent time here at YCC. He was really active in worship and said he wanted to continue worshipping on the outside. We made arrangements for him and after he got out he attended worship once and I didn’t hear from him again…until he arrived back here on campus. We had a conversation and I asked him what happened and if he was okay. He told me, “Going to worship is just not who I am on the outside.” He was not willing to give up his reputation or give up selling and using drugs. He was like the rich man who went away grieving, and yet, Jesus still loved him.
I heard this story from another pastor who walked with a man who desired to be baptized. All throughout his baptismal classes (he took one whole year to prepare for baptisms with weekly meetings!), he was a manager of an adult video store. Right before he was to be baptized he said to the pastor, “In our study of Scripture and in preparing to be baptized I have come to realize that I need to find another job.” This man’s heart was transformed and he knew he needed to let go of a profession that exploited other people and step into something new.
I have a good friend who will graduate from seminary in May. She will be the first Haitian woman to become a pastor in our church. I was with her in Haiti a few years ago with a number of her friends when she told them that she was going to go to seminary and become a pastor. Her friends laughed and did not believe her because it was culturally unacceptable that a Haitian woman would be a pastor. In going to seminary she has risked her deepest friendships. Like the disciples, and in a rare case, she leaves everything to follow Jesus.
We wonder with the rich man: “What are the minimal requirements I need to do to get into heaven when I die? How do I know that I am saved? How do I participate in the Kingdom of God?” Even the disciples, after the man has gone away, say to Jesus: “Good grief, Jesus…if this guy isn’t “saved” then who can be?”
This story is the ultimate leveling story. Jesus says that actually no one is good but God alone (not even him to make an even greater argument!), so we can’t point fingers at one person and say, “Oh, they are really good,” and then point at another and say, “Oh, they are really bad.” This one is saved; this one is not.
One reason I really love this story is because it exposes our need for God. No one can say, “I don’t need Jesus because I’m a good person,” or, “I don’t need Jesus because I don’t have many problems,” or, “I can follow Jesus and it won’t cost me anything or require that I make changes in my life.”
Another reason I love this story so much is because even though the rich man cannot part with his wealth and at that moment chooses not to follow Jesus, Scripture says that Jesus still loves him. No one can say, “I’m not good enough for Jesus to love me.”
Lastly, I love this story because the ultimate good news for the question, “Then who can be saved” is in verse 27: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Therefore, no one can say, “He or she or I am beyond saving.”
It is good and right for us to want and long for eternal life. God has placed this longing in our beings. Jesus makes it clear that eternal life is not just about going to heaven when you die. If that is all we think about when we hear the word “saved” we are missing the point.
Following Jesus is about entering into the Kingdom of God here and now on this earth. It is about experiencing the grace of God and the healing that God offers in this life. It is about being part of a community that practices forgiveness, who gathers for worship regularly to be fed and strengthened for life in the world.
Eternal life, the Kingdom of God, and being saved is not just about me, but also God’s work in the redemption of all things.
Our story today holds demands, judgment, and promise. If you take nothing else away from the story and this sermon, let these words ring in your ears: “For God all things are possible.”