Sunday, October 11, 2015

"Don't Do. Be.": a sermon

“Don’t Do. Be.”
Year B Proper 23 October 11, 2015
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond, VA

Text used: Mark 10:17-31

A story is told from several centuries ago. The Pope decreed that all the Jews had to convert to Catholicism or leave Italy. There was a huge outcry from the Jewish community, so the Pope offered a deal: he'd have a religious debate with the leader of the Jewish community. If the Jews won, they could stay in Italy; if the Pope won, they'd have to convert or leave.

The Jewish people met and picked an aged and wise rabbi to represent them in the debate. However, as the rabbi spoke no Italian, and the Pope spoke no Yiddish, they agreed that it would be a 'silent' debate.

On the chosen day the Pope and rabbi sat opposite each other.
The Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers.
The rabbi looked back and raised one finger.

Next, the Pope waved his finger around his head.
The rabbi pointed to the ground where he sat.

The Pope brought out a communion wafer and a chalice of wine.
The rabbi pulled out an apple.

With that, the Pope stood up and declared himself beaten and said that the rabbi was too clever. The Jews could stay in Italy .

Later the Cardinals met with the Pope and asked him what had happened. The Pope said, "First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up a single finger to remind me there is still only one God common to both our faiths. Then, I waved my finger around my head to show him that God was all around us. The rabbi responded by pointing to the ground to show that God was also right here with us.
I pulled out the wine and host to show that through the perfect
sacrifice Jesus has atoned for our sins, but the rabbi pulled out an
apple to remind me of the original sin. He bested me at every move and I could not continue."

Meanwhile, the Jewish community gathered to ask the rabbi how he'd won. "I haven't a clue," said the rabbi. "First, he told me that we had three days to get out of Italy, so I gave him the finger.
Then he tells me that the whole country would be cleared of Jews
but I told him emphatically that we were staying right here."
"And then what?" asked a woman. "Who knows?" said the rabbi. "He took out his lunch, so I took out mine."

This story, obviously untrue, is a good reminder, we can be doing everything “right” and still be wrong. Like the Pope in the joke, and the man in today’s Gospel reading. We can be patiently waiting for our ship to come in, but we cannot do it at the airport.

Such was the case of the man who came to Jesus, kneeling before him. If we just look at Mark, this is an anonymous man, we throw in him being young and him being a ruler from other Gospel accounts of this story. He kneels before Jesus showing him the honor and respect of a rabbi who would be able to give him the answer he seeks.

“What must I DO to INHERIT eternal life?”

And this begins the slippery slope. What can I do to EARN it? How can I maintain this myth of being a self-made man?” Heaven was the next thing on his To-Do list. Wealth? Check. Respect? Check. Whatever? Check. He had it all, and felt he deserved it because he had done it all right. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And Jesus tosses out a few commandments, most of them, except for defrauding, are from the 10 Commandments.

And here we get to the worry, the fear, at the heart of the question. "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Is that enough? You see he missed the forest by counting all the trees.

Then we have one of the happiest and one of the saddest verses of Scripture back to back.

21 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." 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Verse 21 is happy, because it is very clear how special he was. Our Lord and Savior looked at him, and in his honesty and uprightness, Jesus loved him. This type of love is only used one other place in Mark.

But, alas, despite the love Jesus had for him, the man could not find it in himself to do as Jesus instructed. “He went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” The cost was too dear, the price was too high.
Now please hear me. I do not believe in any way, shape or form that God calls all of us to intentional poverty as a ticket into the pearly gates. Far from it. Neither do I think that he was saying that this one man was being charged that.

The danger of this story is that we take it for a principle, and seek to apply it universally. It is dangerous to do with Paul’s writings, and scandalous to do it to Jesus’ statement here.

I see Jesus speaking to the man’s situation, not to the concept of wealth. But the view of wealth is what gets in the man’s way, the disciples’ way, and probably our way as well.

"How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" [Jesus says later in the passage.]
24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

Jesus here is resorting to hyperbole, like most oral story-tellers do. “I once caught a fish THIS BIG!” One Church Father said that this was a transliteration problem in the Greek, where the word for rope and for camel are only one letter different. “It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is reach to enter the kingdom of God.” Other tales speak of a gateway in Jerusalem that would require a camel to be unloaded and lowered to enter, but there is no archeological evidence to support this, though. So we can take the hyperbole as just that. It is so absurd that it can almost be impossible. I once saw a cartoon of a rich man, I think it was Bill Gates, building a giant needle and walking a camel through and saying, “Phew!”

Whatever, Jesus is exaggerating here to make a point. He is disheartened by the man’s reaction to his calling and encouragement to realign his life with God’s kingdom. We all have things that get in our way. For this man, it was his possessions. He was the Joneses, and he was used to people trying to keep up with him. For some it would be family. For other’s reputation. For others some other reason or excuse.

What keeps us from living in the abundance of the Kingdom of God?

I do want to make clear a distinction, and because we see things synonymously, it can be confusing. The man comes speaking about eternal life. What is our word for eternal life?

[Wait for response.] Heaven, of course.

Too often we speak of the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God as synonyms. Here, this is not the case. The man asked about Eternal Life, but Jesus asks him to refocus. “Don’t think about the Pie in the Sky By and By. Think about being about God’s work in God’s Kingdom right here, right now. As long as you are distracted and focused on building up stuff here, you miss God’s kingdom.”

This is our fifth week, like Susan shared last week, of instructions for discipleship. Hard to hear instructions for discipleship as she mentioned. Mark’s version is not as catchy as Matthew and Luke’s: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.” Mark here puts it this way.

29"Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,
30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age--houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life.

You cannot put Mark’s version on a bumper sticker. The man of the passage and the disciples, too, were caught up in the fallacy of wealth being the blessing of God. Think about that the next time you pray for the lottery. We still are mired in this awful theology. It is attractive and seductive. Wealth is tangible by the stuff we can surround, and distract, ourselves with. And it has not gone away at all.

You may have heard about Pastor Creflo Dollar who told his congregation that God wanted him to have a private jet. If you have not heard about this outrage, I am happy for you. It made me sick. It made me even sicker when his church announced it was getting it for him. This week, this same heretic put out on his facebook and twitter:

On both Facebook and Twitter Dollar posted the following:
Jesus bled and died for us so that we can lay claim to the promise of financial prosperity.
#ProsperityInChrist #WealthyLiving #AbundantLife

I wish I were making this up. But the predominant idea was that people who were rich were blessed by God. The opposite was also as true. This heresy plagues us still.

When Jesus said that it was hard for the rich to be in on God’s Kingdom, the disciples asked, "Then who can be saved?"

Peter brang up the giving things up exception, “Jesus, we gave up stuff!” or from the Bible,  "Look, we have left everything and followed you." And this comes back to the man’s rejection of Jesus’ instruction, and how it applies to us today.

What is it that prevents us from putting God’s ways first? What hinders us? Usually it has wound itself so tightly around us that we have no one of seeing it, like the man here. His possessions were his identity.

Our identities are the thing we see last. It is not a “Do” part of us. It is who we ARE. Could be a team. Could be a hobby. Could be an unfulfilled wish. Whatever that thing is that prevents us from putting God’s Kingdom first is what we must part with.

When we look in the mirror, what is it that looks back?

When we see ourselves as Jesus sees us, as beloved children of God, we can begin to see that he feels the same of us as he did of that man. Jesus, looking at him, loved him. Jesus looking at me, loves me. Jesus, looking at you, loves you. And as we step into the reality, by letting go of the trifles that we hold so tightly like Golem and his Precious! in Lord of the Rings we can never be free to be who we were really born to be. Just like Golem, who became obsessed and even possessed by the Ring, so too this young man was owned by his possessions.

Jesus saw this, and loved him anyway. Jesus sees us, in our confusions and obsessions, our delusions and lies, and Jesus loves us anyway. But it does not stop there. He invites us to a way out of our blindness to open our eyes and see him, and the world, and even ourselves in his light. He asks us to join in the reality and the work of God’s Kingdom, not there and then, but here and now.

As the writer of Hebrews reminded us in today’s reading:

Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

May God bless our following of Jesus, today and always. Amen.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Gifted with a Treasure

Yesterday was the first day of October, cool and drizzly. The people who came to our Food Pantry were in need or they would not have suffered the weather to be there. Near the end of our two hours of being open, one of our leaders said that someone wanted to speak to the "Treasurer" of the Church. Our church treasurer is a lay person and comes on weekends mostly, so being the clergyman in a collar the job came to me.

He was an older gentleman with a winter coat on, my guess because it was waterproof. An older African-American gentleman, he has seen rough days. His hands were worn and calloused. But when I came over to him, he looked me in the eye. He did not say anything, so I said, "Someone told me you wanted to talk."

I grabbed two chairs and we sat down, facing each other. He reached into the neck of his sweater, and pulled out his identification, then his cell phone. He reached back in, stretching it a bit as he rooted around in his shirt pocket. In his rough hands held a white rock, an inch by three quarters by a half. He handed it to me, warm to the touch from being in his pocket. And then he put back his ID and phone. I waited again for him to say something, but he didn't.

I said, "That's a beautiful piece of quartz."

He paused, looked me in the eye again, and with finger raised, finally spoke, "That's not quartz. That's a diamond."

I knew it was quartz, but that did not matter to him. To him it was precious. To him it was a one inch by three quarters by a half diamond. A diamond of fabulous wealth.

It was the pearl of great price.

It was the widow's mite.

It was the most valuable thing he had, and he was entrusting it to me. He gave to me to give to the church his greatest treasure. I was surprised, but I should not have been.

As a priest, I receive more treasures than I know what to do with. People give me their hopes when sense would tell them they should not have any. They send their kids off to camp with me and you can tell when they leave by their lingering how hard this is for them. People tell me their deepest and darkest secrets, usually in a whisper, things that have been under lock and key in their souls festering for too long. Treasures all, much like the rock, or diamond rather.

When the prophet Samuel anointed David, whose own father did not find worthy enough to even mention his existence to Samuel, there is a wonderful line of Scripture. "Man looks at the outward appearances, but God looks at the heart." For all outward appearances, the rock sitting on my desk is quartz, but when I try to look with my God specs on, there is something so precious I can hardly imagine.