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Proper 23B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

A young man runs to Jesus, kneels at his feet, and asks: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). Jesus ‘looked at him and loved him.’ This is the only time in Mark’s gospel where Jesus is said to “love” someone. It’s little wonder, this young man would make any mother-in-law proud. He is a faith do-er. But he lacks one thing. He is not yet a faith-receiver (vs. 30). Salvation must be a gift before it is a call.

Of course, we are always getting this backwards. This was the central dispute of the Protestant Reformation. Lutheran theology recognized grace comes before the law. Trying to ‘do’ our way into God’s good graces is more difficult than passing a camel through the eye of a needle (vs. 25). I cannot see the eye of a needle anymore without glasses. God does what we cannot. God does not keep score. In baptism God cleanses us from selfishness and raises us to new life. At the table, we drink the same cup of suffering and death for the sake of the world that Jesus drank. In this way, Christ abides in us, and we are alive in him. Not by doing, but by receiving God’s love with thanksgiving and joy as a gift.

Seeing things as a gift changes the way I relate to them. If I begin to think of my tennis shoes as a gift of the natural world and from the human hands that made them, perhaps I will wear them longer. If the food I eat is a gift, perhaps I am more mindful of what I consume.

Let’s be clear. This gospel is not a command to burn your paycheck. Wealth is a resource like any other. We do not regard our time and talents as taboo. Neither are material blessings. The young man asked to inherit salvation as one inherits land or real estate. This is where he went wrong. We are not owners. We are not landlords. We are stewards and caretakers with God of one another, the natural world, and ourselves.

So why does this gospel trouble us so? Jesus’ New Economy of grace—the biblical vision of Sabbath economics, spells trouble for the comfortable, and comfort for the troubled. Could it be this gospel brings something into focus we wish not to see?

This question has special significance this weekend when Columbus’ controversial “discovery” is remembered throughout the world. Columbus and the explorers, soldiers, and priests who accompanied him had the blessing of kings and popes and conquered in the name of both Spain and Christianity. And the vast majority of them, confessing Christianity, stole land, resources, and the very lives of native peoples.

Scripture says, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24b). It turns out this is true even for non-human species. Monkeys and chimps, you’ll agree, are famously fast and dexterous. It’s difficult to see one in the wild let alone get close to one. Yet, there is an easy way to capture monkeys unharmed. You don’t need any fancy equipment –just drill a hole of a certain size into a coconut, attach the coconut to a rope secured to a rock or tree, place some rice in the hollowed-out shell, and wait.
When the monkey reaches in to grab the rice it discovers the hole in the coconut is too small to allow it to withdraw its fisted paw. The monkey is trapped, but only if it refuses to let go of the rice. If it lets go it can easily free itself. The trap works by forcing a monkey to choose. The monkey may have its freedom, or it may have the rice (which, I’ve heard is impossible for them to consume), but it may not have both. The monkey is trapped by their greed. Many (if not most) monkeys place a greater value on clutching onto the rice, than in preserving their own freedom. Does it surprise you humans and chimps share 98.8 percent of their DNA?

Money is not an end-in-itself. It is not the goal. If all I leave behind is money, then my life legacy is poor and will soon be forgotten. A legacy of changed lives and lives loved –that is how we store up treasure in heaven. We must die to wealth to become truly rich. But this does not mean we should be dumb and unthinking about it. What if we were to think of our wealth as venture capital for building the kin-dom of God? What if we were to think of our ourselves us entrepreneurs of grace?

One of my favorite examples of an entrepreneur of grace is Muhammad Yunus who leveraged his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University on a bet that wealth and economic systems could serve a higher purpose by helping eliminate poverty, assist the marginalized, and support education for all. In 1976, Yunus founded the Grameen Bank to make very small loans that make a very big difference. “Charity is not the answer to poverty,” Yunus wrote, “It only helps poverty continue. It creates dependency and takes away the individual’s initiative to break through the wall of poverty.”

It would have been more charitable—and certainly a lot easier—just to give poor woman money. But instead, Yunus lent a woman $27. She and several of her friends used the small loan to start a successful furniture-making business to escape the bonds of poverty in their rural Bangladeshi village. (Tom Hundley, Tribune foreign correspondent, Chicago Tribune, October 14, 2006, page 1).

If grace is a gift than you and I are on the hook. It’s up to you –collectively it’s up to us how to steward all that we are entrusted with. How are we called to steward the resources of this congregation? How do we balance support for ministry today with the ministry needs of tomorrow? Do we have it within our power to move toward a sustainable budget in 3, 4, or 5 years? Maybe the answer is that we’re supposed to live the question with humility.

Not long ago someone told me worship at Immanuel gave him confidence to finally take steps to re-start his life. He got a full-time job at a local fast-food restaurant and is making enough money to support himself. Your generosity and spirit of welcome made that possible. It all begins with God’s love.

Jesus looked upon the young man and loved him. Did he love him because the man recognized his need? He knew his life was not complete despite having achieved so much already. But notice Jesus’s love didn’t leave the young man where he was. Jesus’s love isn’t Minnesota “nice.” “It doesn’t prioritize the young man’s comfort over his salvation. Jesus’s love is provocative. It’s incisive. It’s sharp. Even as it offers unconditional welcome, it also offers mind-boggling challenge.” (Debi Thomas, “What Must I Do?” Journey with Jesus, 10/03/21)

The seeker walks away, and love lets go. Mark’s Gospel tells us the young man is “shocked” by Jesus’s invitation, and went away grieving. “What I find shocking is that Jesus lets him. Jesus doesn’t cajole. He doesn’t plead. He doesn’t manipulate. He doesn’t judge. He honors the man’s freedom — even his freedom to refuse eternal life — and allows him to walk away.” (Thomas)

The Galilean vision of God in Mark’s gospel is that God is the invitation of love. It is a love we see fleshed out in Jesus. The answer to who is God is a story about a homeless first-century Jew. This flickering Galilean image of the divine reveals that faith is not something we possess and build upon. It is the invitation to participate in self-giving liberation seeking love. It is an encounter. We get clarity about who God and what God asks of us by actually living in relationship with God.
The coming of the Christ is the invitation to be the Christ –to participate. This is our one and only life. What kind of human being do I want to be? (Tripp Fuller speaking about Process and Reality, by Alfred North Whitehead, p. 342)