SERMON - OCTOBER 14
James 1.9-11: Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich [boast] in being brought low. Prosperity is as short_lived as a wildflower, so don’t ever count on it. You know that as soon as the sun rises, pouring down its scorching heat, the flower withers. Its petals wilt and, before you know it, that beautiful face is a barren stem. Well, that’s a picture of the "prosperous life." At the very moment everyone is looking on in admiration, it fades away to nothing. [1.9-10a NRSV/ 10b-11 The Message]
Mark 10.17-27: As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." 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." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" 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! 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." They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
In the Eye of the Needle
At a dinner in their honor recently, missionaries Michael and Rachel Weller shared the story of a particularly Ethiopian problem: along its border with South Sudan, there is much unrest, some nation to nation, some tribe to tribe.
One particular tribe requires its young to steal a cow and kill someone from another tribe as a rite of passage into manhood. If you happen to be a neighbor of a different tribe, this is a problem for you.
The Christian elders of one of these neighboring tribes, suffering the loss of their cows and the murder of their fellow tribesmen, concluded that in order to stop this problem, they must witness the gospel to the marauding peoples of the other tribe, reasoning that if these folks of ritualized violence learned of the love of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, they would no longer engage in such activities.
The gospel is a very practical thing to these folks. A very practical, life-saving thing. Thus understood, the live-giving, life-saving gospel becomes a strategy to solve very real problems.
These Ethiopian Christians understand the lived gospel proclaimed by James very well indeed. Per William Barclay, "as James saw it, Christianity brings to every[one] what he needs." And what we each need is to know that we matter (and in learning that we each matter, so do we learn that others matter too).
So the poor one learns that his worth lies in the fact that he matters to God. No matter how little he has, he matters to God. Not his lack. Him. And so the rich one learns that his worth lies in the fact that he matters to God. No matter how much he has, he matters to God. Not his plenty. Him.
The trick to understanding James is to realize that our relationship to God is a most practical thing. Wisdom, faith, grace, all the words of our traditions, mean nothing if they don’t have practical application to our lives. So James speaks of faith without concrete evidence of changed lives (what he calls works) dismissively.
James and Jesus have much in common. So Jesus tells a rich man yearning for kingdom assurance to rid himself of the burden of his wealth, in order that he might enter into kingdom life.
Unless and until we understand the gospel as more than a philosophy, more than an idea, more than a way to think, but truly as a way to live, we, like the rich man, will be stuck in the eye of the needle, unable to move forward.
William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: The Letters of James and Peter, Rev.
Indeed, until we engraft the gospel onto our lives and live it in every aspect of our day-to-day existence, we will be stuck as either victims or victimizers, suffering stolen cows and murdered kinfolk or avenging the slings and arrows of our own outrageous fortunes.
Adapted from Hamlet’s discourse, "Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them'.", by William Shakespeare.
Thus, perhaps we might begin by pondering the questions we ask, for in living out our practical faith, we must always remember that the questions we ask will determine the answers we receive.
In Jesus’ encounter with the rich man in Mark, if we focus on giving to the poor, we come away understanding that unless we give all we have to the poor, we’re bound for hell. We will have learned something about the state of our own souls, perhaps, but we will have learned very little about the poor and virtually nothing about God.
If we focus on this one rich man to the exclusion of any lesson he may have to teach us, likewise we may learn much about wealth but very little about our own place in the world and virtually nothing about God.
Perspective is everything. And the perspective Jesus has towards the rich man is the perspective of love. It was the same perspective our Ethiopian brothers and sisters brought to their own problem. Of course their solution would provide help to them. But it would also (and more importantly) provide salvation practical and spiritual to their marauding neighbors.
Jesus speaks and acts out of concern, out of genuine loving concern – for the rich man. For unless the rich man knows true value, he will know nothing. So too the Ethiopian Christians speak and act out of loving concern for their own tribe but also for their neighbors.
That there can be loss in wealth, we all understand; after all, sorrow comes to us all. But that wealth itself is a form of loss, is more difficult to accept. That wounding your neighbors wounds you as well is fundamental to the gospel yet may sound like a foreign language to those who have never yet encountered it.
Jesus’ words are motivated not by punishment nor by justice nor even by a call to sacrifice for its own sake, but by love. Jesus looked at the man and loved him.
So too our Ethiopian brethren. If the desire were merely for justice, or even vengeance, well, jails and prisons and courts and fines and capital punishment exist for such things. What they were looking for was redemption – changed lives that bring about changed societies.
There lives within each of us a rich man pretty sure he’s done everything right, but wanting just to make sure he didn’t overlook anything. He is earnest in his desires, this comfortably rich fellow. Interested in learning. Wanting to be sure. But not too sure. Not too interested. Not too earnest. For the rich man living within each of us doesn’t want things to change – at least not too much – for the way things are is actually pretty good. And who wants to exchange pretty good? Certainly not the one who cannot even imagine that by accepting pretty good, he’s actually settled for less than excellent.
Because here’s the thing: when my rich man has sway over my heart, I hear every other voice but God’s – the voices of worry and fear and doubt and concern and desires and plans and eventualities. But not God. I may even be hearing pretty good. But I am not hearing God.
And in not hearing God, I am missing out on some amazing possibilities in this life as well as the next. I am missing out on the chance to make enemies friends . . . the possibility to turn wealth into treasure . . . to get unstuck from the eye of that darned needle!
And getting stuck in the eye of the needle has practical implications. Author Tim Kasser, in his book The High Price of Materialism, concludes that materialism does not cause unhappiness; rather, unhappiness feeds our desire for things and our desire for things feeds our unhappiness.
Jesus’ call is to move away from feeding our own unhappiness.
And so one day a rich man came to Jesus demanding answers, which Jesus gave to him. The problem wasn’t in Jesus’ answer. The problem was in the man’s question, unspoken as it was, for the man was not asking what he needed to do. Rather, the man was asking what he needed to do to that wouldn’t cost him anything – or anything beyond what he was willing to pay.
By contrast, some fellow Ethiopian Christians, realizing that everything is on the line for them and for their tribal neighbors, looked to the gospel and saw the possibilities of good news beyond anything they could have imagined on their own.
Every day, in one form or another, we have it before us to choose: be a grieved and grieving rich man clinging to our own ways, our own solutions, our own savings and investments, our own ideas, our own politics, our own everything which amounts at the end of the day to nothing very much at all.
Or will we be Ethiopian tribal leaders, taking ourselves and our kinfolk on the adventure of a lifetime, risking all our cows and all our lives for the chance to change enemies to friends? Understanding the gospel as giving us a road map for the kingdom that is here and that is now as well as the one yet to come?
Will we receive the gospel as a bad news ideal we can never hope to achieve? Or will we receive it as a good news way of life that holds the keys to our own freedom?
That choice truly is ours to make.