The Season of Hard Sayings

Preached on 11 October 2015 at St. Luke’s Memorial Episcopal Church, Tacoma, WA
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23, Year B

This is the Season of Hard Words.  Week after week, we hear Jesus teaching in the gospel of Mark, about discipleship: the life and the high cost of discipleship.  This year, we had a bit of a reprieve last week and we will again next week in our celebrations of St. Francis and St. Luke.

And lest the preacher be tempted to avoid these teachings by preaching on the Old Testament, there, we find Job – righteous man suffering and calling God to account.

In today’s gospel episode, we find a rich young man asking one of what I like to call the “Big Questions.” “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks Jesus.  Jesus responds with the Law.  When the young man claims that he already follows the Law and has all his life, Jesus doesn’t challenge him.  No, he gazes at him with love, knowing that what he says is true.  The details in the story indicates that the man is genuinely righteous and his question sincere.

Jesus gazes at him and is filled with love for him; God’s love.  “you lack one thing,” he says.  What does he lack I wonder?  And how would selling everything and giving the money to the poor, as Jesus instructs him, fill that lack?  “And then follow me,” Jesus says.

I think he means it.  Evidently the young man did, too, because rather than following Jesus he does the opposite, he turns and walks away, deeply sad.  Commentators say that the word used to describe him means gloomy or deeply saddened.  Why is he so sad?  What keeps him from following Jesus?  What does he lack?

We don’t know the answers.  We do know that in asking him to sell everything and follow, Jesus is asking him to not only give up his possessions, but also his control over his life, his privilege, his status, his very identity.

Discipleship is very costly indeed.  St. Francis, whom we remembered las week, took Jesus words quite literally and found joy in his poverty; in his ministry.

Like I said, this is the season of difficult words of Jesus.  They make us uncomfortable.  We want these teachings to be about someone else: the Scribes or the Pharisees or the 1%, the Super Rich – just not us.

Even the disciples are getting nervous.  Jesus explains to them – who are all relatively poor, by the way – that it is nearly impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.  Peter asks him, but what about us?  we left everything.  Jesus goes on to say that anyone who leaves everything will be rewarded a hundred-fold in this life: family, houses, fields – and Persecutions.

So often, preachers try to soften these hard words or spiritualize Jesus message.  We try to pretend it’s not really about money.  It’s not really about us.  We won’t have to change.

I’m not going to do that.  I just offer it at face value.

I do want to say a few words about voluntary poverty as opposed to involuntary poverty.  St. Francis chose poverty – he had wealth and he gave it up so that he could live in solidarity with the poor, to serve Christ in them – and he didn’t keep a lifeline so that he could escape whenever he wanted.

Many people live in desperate, even deadly poverty.  Some were born into poverty; others were thrust there.   War, famine, a natural disaster that destroys everything they own, a catastrophic illness – it could happen to any of us.  This is not a call to keep them there.  Notice that Jesus told the rich young man to give his wealth to the poor.

In these hard words, what do you hear Jesus saying to you?  What is the invitation?  What’s the Good News in this gospel?  I hear an opportunity to enter the Kingdom of God right now.  St. Francis heard it and found God among the poor; he experienced the joy of the Kingdom of God.

What holds us back?  What held back the rich young man in our story today?  I know I struggle with these hard, harsh words.

This is about being totally dependent on the mercy and providence of God.  Are we held back by fear; fear that God won’t provide?  That Ben Franklin was right: God helps those who help themselves.  Perhaps we prefer the illusion that we won’t need God if we provide for ourselves.  Hard work and savings will save us.

We live in a broken world.

But there are also signs of the Kingdom breaking through.  They’re all around us – people reaching out to those who are suffering.  And there are those trying to change the systems that cause suffering.