Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sermon; 20 Pentecost/Proper 23B; Mark 10:17-31

Last week the question was asked, “Why do we bless pets on St. Francis Day?”  I channeled my inner Tevye and said, “Because . . . Tradition!”

Tevye must still be with me, because after looking at today's gospel, I kept hearing, “If I were a rich man . . . yubba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum.”

The first few lines of that song basically equate to, “Would it be so awful to let me be rich for awhile?”

But as the song progresses, Tevye's imagination begins to run away, envisioning a house with a long staircase for going up, an even longer one for coming down, and one just for show; his wife yelling at the servants; and him sitting with the wise men because, if a man is rich, people think him to be wise also.  The song moves from a desire to not be poor into a concern with showing off his riches and being fawned over by others.  Tevye becomes selfishly obsessed with how others would treat him.  His imagined riches lead to conditional deference and a desire to show everyone what his money could do.

The rich man in today's gospel is accustomed to dealing in contracts and negotiations.  His search for eternal life is presented as just one more transaction to complete.  He approaches Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

That “do” is assumed to be an action or donation that he will be able to accomplish by using the interest from his wealth and not the principle.  That “do” is assumed to be something that takes a little effort but not necessarily a whole lot of commitment.  It's like the old joke about the traditional eggs and bacon breakfast: the chicken makes an effort, but the pig is wholly committed.  The rich man wanted to be the chicken.

We need to keep in mind the timeline of the gospel.  Today's story takes place as Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, Holy Week and his crucifixion.  He has made two Passion predictions.  He has told the crowd, “If any want to become my followers, they must take up their cross and follow me.”

Jesus is totally committed to his mission and he is willing to give up all he has for the life of the gospel.  And this is what he asks those who would follow him to do as well.  We are asked to give up what we claim to love most in favor of following the gospel.  Hymn 550 expresses this perfectly in verse three: Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world's golden store; from each idol that would keep us, saying, “Christian, love me more.”

What often gets overlooked in today's gospel is that it is a call story.  The rich man is asking for guidance on how he might obtain eternal life.  Jesus calls him to give up that which blocks him from being fully committed to the gospel.  Like the hymn says, Jesus is calling him away from the worship of vain idols, asking him to love God more.  Jesus is calling him to die to his old, selfish life and into a new life.  Just like with Peter and Andrew, James and John, and Matthew, Jesus is calling him to put away his old life and into a new life of discipleship.  And the man refuses.

We need to pay attention here because it is not wealth per se that is the problem.  The problem is often the attitudes created by wealth: God must love me more than others; my wealth must mean I'm wise; I can buy whatever I need/want, including special treatment; poor people don't want to work and only want stuff for free; and on and on.

The problem with giving up our idols to completely follow Jesus is that the greater the wealth, the more idols there are to give up.  And that's hard.

But as one commentator said, “It's probably no accident that this story follows the story of Jesus welcoming the little children.”  Part of our journey as disciples involves giving up our perceived control and seeing God through a child's eyes.  That is, with wonder, awe, trust, love and complete reliance.  The rich man in today's gospel was unable to do that.  He was unable to trust in God more than he trusted in his own self and his riches.

Eternal life is not a transaction to be completed.  It is not acquired by doing anything, as the rich man supposed.  Instead, it's a “how” to be performed.

Eternal life is how we answer the call to discipleship.  It's how we treat the people around us.  It's how we prioritize our lives.  It's how we live into discipleship with the wonder, trust and complete reliance of a child.

Like the rich man, Jesus is calling us to commit to the cross and the gospel.  How we respond is totally up to us.



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