Sermon for St John Church, Bandon, 11th October 2015
” The Gift of an Answering Love”
You must have noticed, by now, how the Church, not so subtly, begins to introduce stories about money in the Fall? The readings prescribed in the Prayer Book for October and November introduce Jesus’ teaching on attitudes about wealth, usually just before the annual pledge campaign. That being the case, and the people already knowing what the Preacher is likely to say, preaching before a pledge campaign is a challenge. Especially if you are of a mind to preach Stewardship, which is so much more than a pledge campaign. So rising to the challenge, and hoping Mike Craig, our Stewardship chair, will still be my friend, I have two things you did not expect to hear about Stewardship in Church this morning.
One of the Church’s favorite precampaign Gospel stories is the one about the rich young ruler, this morning from Mark. By the way, notice how we improve on Holy Scripture in this story: Mark just says a man approached Jesus, and later in the story we learn he had many possessions. Luke says he is a ruler; Matthew says he is young. So we have named this the story of the rich young ruler, whereas Mark, the original Gospel, just says he is a regular guy. Sometimes our improvements diminish the story’s impact.
Nonetheless, the man in the Gospel today had status in his community, for his wealth if not for other things. He obviously was a man with personal values and cherished beliefs, and they were recognized by Jesus as good and religious in the best sense. Moreover, he was committed to those values. He asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said, “You know the commandments. Keep these and you will be fine.” The man said, “Yes, I have done so since my youth.” Something must have still been lacking because he came to Jesus in the first place. Even after keeping the regulations for most of his life, something was still missing, and it was important enough that he would press Jesus, “What else?” And Mark, Matthew and Luke all remember that Jesus’ heart went out to the man.
“Here is what is missing”, Jesus offered. “You are almost there, but your wealth and prominence are getting in the way of your future. You have what is essential – your faith – now give away what is holding you back and step into your future. Give what you have to the poor and come work with me.” (Jesus’ words here are my paraphrase.) For Jesus, it is not that something more is needed. The quesstion is not what to add, but what to subtract.
At that, the man seemed to have a kind of heart failure. He had done much that was expected and honorable, but his heart was not in his quest for real security and meaning. He understood investment, but was able to see that his investment in wealth and possessions was not giving him life. Satisfaction, yes, but not meaningful life. I say his heart failed him, because when he got the answer he was seeking, he seemed unable to take hold of it. He could not let go of what had given him security and comfort, and take hold of the hand of God. Now this is not a parable. This is an actual event, an encounter which took place in real time. Who knows? There might have been another disciple, if he could but free himself from ties which held him back from a new future.
Or maybe not! Mark observed the man’s grief, perhaps because he could not give away what he had. But what if he went away sad because he HAD decided to give it all up? That is the first idea you may not have seen coming this morning. What if he HAD decided to give up his house, and all that he owned and his good name in the community. Not an emotionless decision! Moreover, how would he break it to his family? Wouldn’t they be shocked… and didn’t he know it! “Mother, Father, I love you but I am giving away my inheritance to follow a new itinerant preacher who has the words of eternal life.” Of course it would be hard to tell his family he was disposing of his wealth and leaving. There is currently running a television commercial in which a father is saying to his son, “Let me get this straight. You quit your job, and sold all your things to buy a car, and now you are just going to leave and drive cross the country?” That does not at all fit this Gospel story, because as the commercial closes you see the Father in the car with the boy. The point of the commercial is selling cars; the point of the Gospel is eternal life. No, for the man in Mark’s story to tell his family he was risking everything to find his true self might be more like a young homosexual person coming out to his parents. The rich young ruler, who was really just a regular guy with wealth, perhaps went away grieving because he HAD decided to follow Jesus. Not what you expected to hear this morning.
The second thing you may not have expected to hear this morning is that giving away all that you have to follow Jesus may not be good Stewardship. For some who enter the religious life, all is surrendered, but for us secular Christians, a more gradual and general Stewardship is reasonable. Pledging your commitment to the future of our beloved St John Church, volunteering in our communities, bringing canned food for the food banks, expressing gratitude through other thoughtful charities – these are reasonable. Moreover, living in harmony with our neighbors and with Creation – recycling, picking up litter, protecting the small creatures and respecting the large ones, and just being struck breathless occasionally at the rare beauty of it all, that too is Stewardship.
Following Jesus is about character transformation, about becoming more like him as step into our future. Listening to Jesus turns the emphasis away from concern for our own salvation toward gracious behavior to others. Thinking with Jesus leads us to discover that our idols, the things we worship, are unreliable, not because they aren’t pretty, but because they promise more than they can deliver.
We will have a pledge campaign soon, because it is essential to the future of this congregation. There is much good here, and real joy, so the campaign will give muscle to your vision and security to your future. Stewardship, though, is essential to our living faithfully in this world, and to following Jesus. It does not mean we have to give everything away, but it is about saying “YES”. Our life and health and being are gifts from God, and walking with Jesus is a sure way to live with meaning, and real joy.
Two more thoughts in closing: Remember, friends, the only thing that gets us into God’s kingdom… is God. Second, recognize this man in Mark’s Gospel lives in all of us, and remember that one line, that Jesus loved him. What Jesus asks of us is the gift of an answering love.