Monday, October 10, 2011

Sermon the (A)Mount

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Mark 10:17-31:

We are now in week six of our eight-part series on the challenges of being a disciple. We have looked at answering the call to discipleship, forgiveness, loving our neighbor, fulfilling the great commission, and servant leadership. Next week we will cover the nature of God and conclude with what often is seen as something that Christian can’t have, which is joy. But today we look at the issue of money and our possessions.

Now I know that all of you just look forward to the time in which the minister talks about money. I know as you were on vacation this summer you turned to someone you loved and said, “You know what, this fall I really hope we get to hear a lot of sermons about stewardship.” Now obviously I am being facetious and the reason we don’t say that is several fold. The first is that we don’t want to hear about some of the strict teachings the bible has about money, because we don’t know what to do with those teachings, today’s passage included.

The second reason we don’t want to hear about money is because the church has mistakenly reduced financial stewardship down to just being about giving to the church, and that is what most people ever hear from church about their finances, that they should be giving more, which we don’t really always want to hear. But, in reality, giving to the church is only a small portion of what stewardship is about. In three weeks we will begin a sermon series on how we as Christians should be thinking about our money in order to be good stewards, and as I just said, giving is only a small portion of that overall picture. The scriptures have a lot to say about how we relate to our money and our possessions, as well as what we should be doing with them and we ignore them at our own peril.

Today’s passage is most commonly referred to as the story of the rich young ruler, but that title is actually incorrect. It is incorrect because that is a combination of this story from all the synoptic gospels, which are Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is from Matthew that we are told he is young, and Luke tells us that he is a ruler, but Mark only says that he is a man with many possessions. But that is really the key characteristic of what this story is about. As the story begins it is not clear what is going to happen because of how Mark sets it up. The man rushes up to Jesus and kneels before him. There is a sense of urgency and pleading in his approach.

Based upon what has come before in Mark, this has all the makings of a healing story, and in some sense that is what this story is about. This man is looking for healing. He wants to know what it will take to gain eternal life. He says he has been doing what is proscribed in the law, but as it turns out he is unwilling to take the next step. He considers his possessions to be too important to give up and because of that they come between he and God. His relationship with God is impacted because it appears that he is unwilling to put God first. That is really what Jesus is talking about when he says that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle then it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Certainly not the statement that most people want to hear, and if we do hear it we want it cushioned for us at least a little bit so that it doesn’t seem so harsh, so that we might still have a shot at eternity. I have some good news and some bad news to help us through this. First I’ll start with the bad news.

Over the years, there have been two different rationales that have arisen to help soften this statement about the rich. The first is that it has been said that in ancient cities beside the large gate where people would normally enter and exit the city that there was also a small gate which was just big enough for a person to walk through and this gate was called the “needle’s eye.” If a camel was able to get on its knees and crawl, it might also be able to make it through, and therefore getting a camel through the needle’s eye might not be as impossible as it sounds. This is a view that I’m sure that many of us have heard or read. The problem is that this interpretation does not develop until at least the 9th century and more than likely not until the 15th century, and there is no archeological evidence to support it, regardless of what tour guides will tell you. And I will caution you that if you do go to the Holy Land do not to listen to most things that the tour guides will tell you. I had a professor who worked on the archeological digs in Corinth, and one day he and the head of the excavation decided to take one of the archeological tours and little that they and the other tourists were told were actually true.

The second interpretation often used involves the similarity of the Greek words for camel and rope, and since all of the New Testament was written in Greek this could be possible. Camel in Greek is camelos and rope is camilos. So, the thinking goes, somewhere down the line as the gospel was being copied and recopied someone inadvertently switched the vowels and changed the overall meaning of the story. This certainly seems plausible, but unfortunately, like the first interpretation, I would say that this has come about only as a way to soften the harshness of Jesus’ statement. Jesus often used large juxtapositions of ideas in order to make his statements powerful, as we saw with the parable of the Good Samaritan. He painted word pictures, and which has more impact, seeing a rope going through the eye of a needle or camel? The Talmud, which is a collection of Jewish teachings, uses the analogy of an elephant getting through the eye of a needle. Ultimately any softening we try to do about Jesus, or the Bible’s, view of wealth is self-deceiving.

Another portion of our self-deception on these biblical passages comes from the fact that being rich is sort of subjective. Very few people view themselves as being rich; it’s always someone else who is wealthy. The rich are the people down the street or in the next town over or in the next church over. It is this thinking that causes Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana to claim that it’s hard to feed his family on the 200,000 dollar profit he makes from his business. I know your heart goes out to him and his hardship. Stacey Simpson, a Baptist minister from Georgia, recalls encountering this scripture for the first time while reading in bed when she was seven years old. She says that she became so alarmed that she slammed the Bible shut, jumped out of bed and ran down the hall to her parents’ room, where she awakened her mother out of a sound sleep. “Mom,” she whispered urgently, “Jesus says that rich people don’t go to heaven!” Her mother’s response was brief and to the point: “We are not rich. Go back to bed.”

But, the simple fact is most of us are far wealthier than this man who approached Jesus. By any standard the people of this country, even most of the poorest ones, are far better off than the majority of the world. Did you know that 2.8 billion people live on less than $2 per day, and an additional 1.2 billion live on less than $1 a day? These 4 billion people represent more than half of the world’s population. Last month Forbes released their newest list of the 400 richest Americans. In order to make the list, you had to be worth at least 1 billion, and the cumulative total of those 400 was 1.37 trillion. To give some perspective on this amount of money, the 582 million people who live in the 48 poorest countries have a cumulative net worth of 147 billion. The top five people on Forbes list are worth more 181 billion. Five people have more money that 582 million.

It would take an estimated 6 billion to provide the entire world’s population with basic education, 13 billion to provide basic health care and nutrition, and 30 billion to build the infrastructure necessary to provide everyone in the world with clean water. Yet we as a world community cannot seem to come up with the money. In comparison, in the United States we spend 7 billion on bottled water and 8 billion on cosmetics every year. We spend 110 billion on fast food, and the fast food industry spends 3 billion just on advertising. The western world spends 17 billion on pet food, and the entire world spends 780 billion on the military, but we can’t find the money for education, health, food and water for the majority of the world. We happen to live in the richest country on the planet, and no matter how much any of us are worth, we are rich by the majority of the world’s standards, and therefore we ignore Jesus’ messages about wealth at our own peril. It is one of the challenges of being a disciple of Christ.

Now many of us will probably say that these numbers are comparing apples and oranges, that we have a different standard of living here and we have to spend more just to get by in this society. To a limited degree that is true, but we still look very much like the rich man to the majority of the world. The Bible has something to say about this.

Now for some good news. First, is that while having money and possessions pose a problem they are not necessarily a sin. A lesser known song by Huey Lewis and the News begins “if money is the root of all evil I’d like to be a bad bad man.” Of course, the actual scripture from 1 Timothy says “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” For you see, it is not the money in and of itself that is the problem but how we relate to money, how we relate to possessions, or anything else which can become a god for us, and that is truly the problem. Money is a morally neutral object. It is neither good nor bad in and of itself. The problem becomes in where we place our allegiance and where we give our loyalty. By having things that we are unwilling to give up we invariably replace God as the most important thing in our life and instead they become another god, and that is where the problem lies

The second bit of good news is Jesus’ reaction to the man. Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him, and loved him. He loved him! There is not a look of derision or a tone of condemnation coming from Jesus toward this man; instead Jesus’ statement is made from a position of love. Neither Matthew nor Luke contain this little aside, and I think it is significant for Mark’s story and for the concluding statements about eternal life. Jesus does not look down on this man, for he can see that he is really struggling. The man's question about eternal life is not posed as a way to trap Jesus, as many of them are, but instead as a true entreaty into what is needed. He is sincere in his request because again as Mark sets up the passage, this is a story about healing. The man’s soul is hurting and he is looking for the cure.

Unfortunately he is unwilling to take the steps necessary. We are told that upon hearing the solution he was shocked and went away sad for he had many possessions. He was unwilling to separate himself from the things of this world in order to gain eternal life. His identity had become tied up with what he owned and how much he made, and he could not imagine any sense of security without the things in his life. That should be a familiar affirmation of faith because it is also our society’s dominant creed. The accumulation of things, keeping up with the Joneses is the dominant motivating factor in our culture. But that misplaces the focus, it takes our eye off the ball, it takes our attention away from God. And anything which takes our focus away from God is troublesome.

Within Western Protestantism, there has been a strong push that wealth, instead of being a problem, is an indication of God’s blessing. This strain of thought comes out of Calvinism, a 16th century development, which saw, according to Peter Gomes, each person’s “earthly calling as a divine enterprise in which personal industry would be visibly rewarded with material success by God. The harder one worked, the more one achieved; and the more one achieved, the more were the revealed blessings from God.” This belief still has strong emphases today. Joel Osteen, who some of you may know from his books and televised church services, preaches a particular theology known as the gospel of wealth. He believes that there is no need to apologize for or to be ashamed of being wealthy, that wealth indicates that God likes you better than other people. God has specifically chosen you to receive this bounty. In the mid-evil world this idea came to us through the divine right of kings, that is the reason why the king was king and we were not was because God wanted them to be king. So we just need to deal with it, if God wanted us to be rich we would be rich just like rich people so anything they have is because of God. Of course these rules are sort of self-fulfilling and also happen to be written by those who have power and money to start with. Osteen also does not believe that there are any special responsibilities that come with having this wealth. Instead, God has given wealth to us to enjoy and do with as we please. The root problem is that this is just not scriptural.

As those who will be attending my class on the history of Methodism will soon find out, Wesley firmly rejected Calvinism. Instead, Wesley, who always had concern about wealth and the problems that can arise from having wealth, believed that with greater wealth came greater responsibilities, and led to his famous statement “make all you can, save all you can and give all you can.” For those of you who may still think that the gospel of wealth is a good belief, that God clearly rewards those who are in favor, let me make a different analogy on this that might help you change your mind. If God does really reward those who are preferred, then God must really dislike the Cowboys and the Broncos right now, and for those who root for the Chicago Cubs, their 103 years without a World Series title is clearly some sort of judgment. This theology doesn’t seem to look so good from this angle now does it?

Money has the ability to dominate our lives and to change our perspectives and our relationships. It has the ability to make everything a commodity to be bought or sold, and it has the ability to make us believe that we are completely self-sufficient, this may be the biggest issue. When God provides manna for the Israelites in the wilderness, they are commanded not to accumulate anything more than what they need for today, why? Because if they gather more than one days worth than they begin to believe that God is no longer necessary, that they can do it all themselves. The problem in having riches is that our priorities change because our options are increased.

If you ask me why Christianity is on the decline in the Western world, I think that one of the reasons that must be given is that as our standard of living has increased our belief that we need God in our life has simultaneously decreased. The two are connected. Why do we need God when we can have a large screen TV with surround sound and 500 channels to keep us occupied? We are routinely informed that all of our problems will be taken care of; all of our prayers will be answered simply by making the right credit card decision. By answering the simply question “What’s in your wallet?”, and of course answering it the right way, we will be able to achieve the life we’ve always wanted and also be able to avoid the dangers and troubles of life, such as pillaging barbarian hordes. Not feeling good about yourself? Feeling as if there is a void in your life? Simply go out and spend some money, especially money you don’t have, accumulate more things, and that will make you happy. These are the things considered most important by our culture. But, unless you have something about your faith in God in your wallet or in your possessions then there is nothing in there of any absolute importance. These things will never fill the void that can only be filled by God.

What people like Joel Osteen and others are really preaching, in the words of Bishop Will Willimon, is God as cosmic butler, that all we need to do is ring a bell and ask and it will be delivered to us: poof. We might also see this as God as our magic genie. But in this scenario God serves us rather than the other way around. In looking at our own possessions or riches first, or in viewing God simply as a way of getting those things, we often fail to recognize life as a gift and a blessing and instead of loving and sharing with one another we begin to compete, to use and abuse each other. Rather than being children of God, we instead become what we own, know or produce. Those things become where we attain our very sense of being and assurance, and because of this they take our attention and adoration away from God. St. Paul called this “will worship.” The moment we begin to think that we can overcome our sin by the strength of our own will and that we are no longer dependent upon God for anything is the moment when we stop worshipping God and begin worshipping ourselves.

In the scripture reading from Hebrews today we are told that Jesus understands what our life is like. He knows our weaknesses, he knows what it’s like to be tempted, he knows what we face in our life. He knew the situation of the rich young ruler the same as he knows the situation of each and every one of us, and he looks at us with love. But Jesus has also issued his warning that we must be willing to put God first and to put our reliance on God instead of ourselves, to do anything else leads to difficulties. This is the challenge of being a disciple.

Which leads us back to the man’s question, what chance do we have of gaining eternal life? Our chance if we rely on ourselves is non-existent, for mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible. It doesn’t matter what’s in our wallet or what’s in our bank account, or what car we drive, or what TV we watch, all of that is absolutely meaningless to God. What is important is our relationship with God and where God sits on our list of priorities, and as the author of Hebrews says, “let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” for with God all things are possible. Amen.

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