Possible Impossible - Sermon for 20th Sunday after Pentecost 2015

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Money and property are can both be very much stumbling blocks in living out a grace filled life. But very few of us can live without them.  Can we be saved? 

 Please listen to the sermon rather than read it.  The text is included for your convenience, but it is not entirely like the delivered version, which includes nuances that can't be read.  

Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley. 

October 11, 2015  - 20th Sunday after Pentecost

"Possible Impossible".  Text is from  Mark 10:17-31


I love this gospel story, and there is such a treasure trove of wisdom evident in Jesus words to this unfortunate man who arrives with the simple and sincere desire to learn from Jesus, who he calls good teacher. And how taken aback must have been to be immediately castigated, told that only God is good. Jesus then reads off all of those commandments that deal with interacting with one another, with the curious exception of the commandment on covetousness. 

The man, now very sure of himself, responds that he has certainly kept all of these commandments and have always done so.  And then Jesus, and we are told that as he said this, he loved him, tells the man that he has to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor.  And that he will then have treasure in heaven. We are told that the man is shocked by Jesus's words, and for no small reason in that he is a rich man, and instead of following Jesus, he wanders off, his head hung low. 

Jesus then follows up with one of the most interesting metaphors in the New Testament. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle that for someone who is rich enter the kingdom of God."  And there we have it. 

How we can very easily say that this reading from our Gospel today reflects so much of what we find in society as a whole. That and possessions are such stumbling blocks, to use a term from a reading a few weeks ago, from entering heaven. Indeed, we see the harm that can come from powerful corporations, the kind that feel like they have gotten into the core of our media services, influencing what we eat, how we live, how we drive.  

All my worldly possessions.jpg

One need only look at the political leanings of the poor in certain parts of the country, generally in the South and Midwest, after having been fed dose after dose of certain news stations consistently and regularly voting for candidates who have the best interests of the wealthy at heart. It's not that people are stupid, it's that they consistently hear a message that upholds their own beliefs, and beside that message that consistently tells them that white Christians are the new oppressed minority, which, given their own poverty and condition in life seems very easy to believe, and then wrap it up with another one that says things about bootstraps and taxes and how those other people are trying to take away from them and you get a self-perpetuating cycle of influence in which money and power does by the votes of people who are being harmed by voting that way.  

And I wonder how being a country that is indisputably the richest on earth is combined with being a country which is possibly one of the most violent countries, one where we have more deaths by gunshot than anywhere else in the developed world, where we imprison one quarter of the world's prison population. 

So it becomes easy to put money in a position of evil as something that gets in the way of someone's salvation, when it seems that such un-Christlike behavior goes along with it.  And we can look at the example of those who give everything up and live very simply and who do not have all those distractions of trying to keep and maintain and upgrade their own wealth and well-being. How I have imagined myself with the belief that just giving everything up and going to live in the woods somewhere would just make life so much simpler, or even something like monastic life, meditating and chanting and working together to make delicious honey or cherished wine that we sell simply to provide the upkeep of our property.  Devoting our lives to fulfilling the discipleship of Jesus, or at the very least, fulfilling living our own lives in worshiping God. Even if we are technically not out sharing the gospel among the world, we are the very least closer to God in our own behavior and lives.  

But, to be honest with you, my sisters and brothers, I would have a hard time living like that for very long. And while I know people who choose to live with very few possessions, I don't think I could very easily do it--at least not and remain a very effective pastor. 

I remember an adage I once heard, "If you think that money and possessions are bad things, go ahead and try living without them." I can scarce believe how ridiculously overpriced our housing market is here in the East Bay, in the Bay Area in general.  My spouse and I have decided we're tired of being beholden to rent that can go up as much as 10% each year and are closing on a house.  

This small home, in a part of Richmond that doesn't have a historical tie to a poor community and we don't feel that buying in the neighborhood we become part of a group of people of money and means that come in, look for a real estate deal because it's a traditionally poorer neighborhood, but prices are skyrocketing and more they can't afford San Francisco so might as well gentrify this place.  No, we this is in the east hills of Richmond, and this little house is going for a pretty penny, but not out of the realm of affordability. 

But we are still griping, because despite the fact we can afford it, it will still be somewhat higher than our current rent and while we thought that things would become easier once I had a steadier income, this was a good deal in a good neighborhood and the market is just going to get even more ridiculous. So we grit our teeth and tighten our belts and settle. 

And I am not currently in a position to tell you that I could just give it all up.  I love my little smartphone and I love my little laptop tablet and my access to high speed internet and all those things that make my life easier, because take one of those things from me and I just about crack up. Yesterday my home PC just wouldn't start and I almost melted down. Wednesday morning my automobile broke down on Shattuck Street. In a metered parking zone. And I just didn't know what to do right away. Thankfully I had my smartphone with me and people to call who had resources AAA, and we managed to tow my car back to the church and while it's being repaired I have a very nice bicycle and a spouse with a car besides. 

And so I just don't think I can give all of that up.  But looking at the standards of Jesus' time, what constituted rich, a man with many possessions, no matter where we think we fall in the economic spectrum in our society, there are very few of us who would not be considered in the same class as this rich man. And while it might be easy to judge him for not having faith and doing as Jesus said to do, I actually find it a lot easier to relate to him for being shocked. And walking away grieving.  I do not know if I could do the same.

But we do not know what becomes of the man after that, and nor does it, in fact matter very much, because the gospel is indeed revealed soon after.  Because Jesus says that while it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, he goes on to say that with God, all things are possible.   

In no place does Jesus condemn this rich man. In fact, the scripture tells us he immediately loved him. If the man is perplexed by Jesus' command it is not one that convicts him in his heart but one that underscores the way he is living his life. That while his sincerity is real, that what he wants is to learn from the good teacher and keeps all of God's commandments, his actions still must go further and he needs to gain one great thing, whatever it is that comes from selling all his possessions and giving all the proceeds to the poor. Generosity in spirit? Freedom from the world? Faith? 

And yet, even dejected, the rich man still has a chance. God is the God of all people, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. It is not our wealth that makes us fail in our as Christians that love one another, time and time again, but how we use it. It is not money that prevents us from loving one another, but the inability to share it with each other.  Our property does not keep us from the kingdom of God, so long as we steward it and his earthly kingdom, bearing in mind that we share it with billions of others as well as those who come after us.

God's kingdom is for everyone, though, my sisters and brothers. In his grace he has given us all we need for our salvation. The great camel passes through the tiny needle because God wishes and wills it, and we may enter God's kingdom with confidence because Jesus Christ, in his suffering, death and resurrection has already taken away those things that would leave us bound to the world. In the wondrous event on the cross, through Jesus our God has bestowed upon us the faith we need to hold the key to his kingdom.  

And so, be generous, my sisters and brothers. Unburden yourselves from time to time of your possessions, because if you're like me, you have drawers full of clothes that you never wear and storage full of things you never use.  And donate them to a good charity.  Because as Christians, that's what feels the right and proper thing to do.  But know that even if you cannot be parted from all of what you own or what you have, you yet retain a full reserved seating at the banquet that Jesus Christ has laid out for us in the feast to come. And that is good news worth sharing everywhere.  Amen.

Image credit: "All my worldly possessions..." by flickr user K2D2vaca available at https://www.flickr.com/photos/k2d2vaca/2569459457 CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 retrieved 11 Oct 2015

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This page contains a single entry by Cary Bass-Deschenes published on October 11, 2015 1:57 PM.

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