Sunday, October 15, 2006

Pentecost 19 - Year B

Some folks have asked if I choose the bible readings for Sunday morning. To which I’m tempted to respond, “Why would I choose to make my life more difficult than it already is?”

Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus talk about cutting off body parts if they make us sin. Last week we got his rather uncompromising stance on divorce and re-marriage. This week, we are told to we need to sell everything and give it to the poor we have if we want to be his follower. Simply knowing the bible is not enough.

If it was up to me, I’d avoid these passages like the Ebola Virus.

But we follow the lectionary. Lectionary means “readings.” These lectionary readings are read in churches all around the world. They’ve been agreed upon by church leaders of many shapes and stripes. The lectionary makes sure that preachers like me don’t always preach on their pet passages. That we have no control over what readings we encounter each week. And I’m sure that the folks who put the lectionary together have some idea of why these difficult readings should run in succession, even if they make my life complicated.

Today’s reading seems to be the climax of chapter 10. This is where Mark ends a string of increasingly demanding and uncomfortable Jesus sayings. This bible reading, this text from Mark’s gospel, chafes and burns like sandpaper. It shows our discipleship as nothing but dirty rags.

“Turn the other cheek,” Jesus says somewhere else, and we remember the time when we angrily swore at the guy who stole our parking spot.

“Love your neighbour as yourself,” Jesus commands, and we remember when we crossed the street to avoid the homeless person coming our way.

“Go sell all you have and give it to the poor,” we overhear Jesus tell that rich, young, man. And we hope those words are meant only for him, because we don’t want Jesus to ask the same thing of us.

“It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Ouch! What was personal for the young man all of sudden became uncomfortably universal.

It is so uncomfortable that we soften the story. We talk about how the Greek words for “camel” and “rope” are very similar and that Jesus was making a bit of a pun. We come up with a myth about a gate in Jerusalem that was called the “eye of the needle” – that a camel could get through, only if it got down on its knees and crawled. And we all know how often camels crawl on their knees.

If Jesus was saying the same thing today he might say “It’s easier for Bill Gates to slide through the slot of the ATM machine than it is for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

But that doesn’t help us very much, does it?

It wasn’t as if this young man was a bad guy. He was your model Sunday school student. He knew the bible inside and out and he could recite the Ten Commandments backwards and forwards. He listened attentively in confirmation class, memorized the catechism, and turned in his worship notes ahead of time. He was the kid with all the right answers.

But Jesus cuts him no slack.

He was asking the question that was probably on everyone’s mind, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

That’s a great question, don’t you think? I’m guessing everyone has asked that question at one point in their life. But Jesus’ answer gives him no relief.

“If you want to inherit eternal life, you need to get rid of everything. Your house. Your car. Your job. Leave your wife and kids behind. Everything you believe to be true, everything you possess – even your relationships – leave it all behind and come follow me.”

That’s not quite what I had in mind, Jesus. Certainly, you mean you just want us to help out now and then at the soup kitchen; feeding those who can’t feed themselves.

“No, I want you.”

Jesus, of course you mean that you want me to give more money to the church. After all we have a building project we’re fundraising for.

“No, I want it all. Everything.”

C’mon Jesus, you mean to say that you want us to take our faith life more seriously, to read the bible more often, to pray more frequently, to attend church more regularly.

“No, I want your very life.”

Jesus, no one can do what you’re asking.

“Exactly. What you can’t do, God can.”

We soften the harsh sandpaper demand of Jesus, and in so doing, we refuse to let it do the job of filing us down. Of recognizing how far we’ve strayed from God’s path. It’s not that Jesus wants to lay a guilt trip on us; Jesus wants to set us free, to worship God the way God wants to be worshipped and live the way God lives in Jesus. Jesus wants us to see where we ignore the first three commandments in our lives – just like the rich young man did: after all, he started with the fourth commandment leaving out the first three about putting God first in our lives, when he answered Jesus’ question.

And I know that he’s not alone. I’m the same way. I haven’t done what Jesus asked the rich young man to do. And I’m up here speaking on God’s behalf. Which makes me a first class hypocrite, regardless of my robes, collar, and ordination certificate. Or maybe because of them.

But my hypocrisy doesn’t soften the sandpaper of this text. That is what Jesus says to us – to you and to me – and either the sandpaper does its work – rubs us raw – or we walk back into safety and security like the rich young man.

So, what is it that prevents us from following Jesus in the way he’s demanding? What once brought tears to my eyes was the realization that, in part, our very religion holds us back. We have structured our discipleship to soften the blow. We hide in beautiful buildings, sing lovely hymns, hear wonderful music, and enjoy astonishing art. We do this so the sandpaper won’t hurt us. So we’ll be comforted rather than challenged. So we’ll be soothed, rather than rubbed raw.

So what do we do? I am a preacher. I am called to interpret the word of God for this community. But in this case I’m called to preach a word that I haven’t been able to live up to myself.

But maybe it’s because I know that I can’t be a follower of Jesus all by myself. I need you to help me. And we need each other.

Maybe you have the greater vision here. Maybe you have greater courage. Maybe you have the greater call because you can’t hide behind church trappings. At least not most of the week. You have the greater task because you live your faith in the world, not just in the church, like us professional Christians.

Today, in the waters of Holy Baptism, Kayla Brooke Trechka joins your courageous company. Where, together, we learn how to be followers of Jesus. The Christian faith is something we’re all CALLED to, not a perfection we’re trying to ACHIEVE. It’s about realizing the dream that God sees when God looks out at the world and sees pain and death, and wants so desperately to see a world where love and joy and peace prosper, where God’s enterprise of new life flourishes and thrives, where our lives and our loyalties lie with the one who gave up everything so that we could have everything God has to offer.

It seems a tall order for any of us to accomplish on our own. But with God, all things are possible. Amen.


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