A sermon at Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Church Ossining, New York Oct. 14, 2012
The Gospel today presents a fascinating story—a man runs up and kneels before Jesus. Jesus invites him to follow him. The man goes away crestfallen. The parts in between present a challenge to me as a preacher.
First off, there is quite a bit about money in here, and we know it’s always a losing proposition to talk about money, especially in church. But my real problem is that there are two usual approaches that are taken with Jesus’ challenge to this young man, and neither is satisfactory: one approach is to explain away the hardness of Jesus’ words “sell everything you own and give it to the poor” and make it into something more palatable and less like the Gospel and the other is to push a dramatic vision of discipleship that just is not relevant to how people live their lives. But the Gospel, particularly this Gospel is relevant to how we live our lives, as individuals and as Christian congregations.
In this conversation, Jesus looked at this man and he loved him. The lesson we read makes a point of this. Frequently the Gospel does not attribute motives or feelings to Jesus or others. Here, it is quite clear, Jesus is not trying to catch this guy out, or reveal his hypocrisy or anything else—he loved him. What follows is an invitation: give up what you have and follow me. It is not that far off from what Jesus said to Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee when he saw them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee: “follow me.” Of course, what they left behind was their fishing nets and long hard days of physical labor, while this young man was told to leave behind a substantial fortune. But the invitation was the same. The man was shocked and crestfallen because he had asked a straightforward question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and he had in mind that he would get a straightforward answer. And he expected that that answer would be within parameters that he could expect and which he could adjust his life to fit.
Jesus’ answer was straightforward enough, but it was way outside the man’s expectations. The young man hadn’t asked how to be a hero, or an apostle or a martyr; he just wanted to know what to do to inherit eternal life. Until you think about it, that seems like a fairly small thing, like having good teeth and staying out of jail; just part of a properly run life.
But eternal life begins now, and with Jesus it requires things we don’t expect, and perhaps haven’t budgeted for. We certainly see it among Jesus’ disciples, like when Peter realizes that Jesus is expecting to suffer and be crucified as the result of his ministry. Peter is shocked and tries to talk Jesus out of it—“Get behind me Satan!” is Jesus’ response. Following Jesus has turns in the path that we don’t necessarily expect, and being faithful requires us to stay with him when those turns become difficult.
As an illustration let’s look into these questions of money and goods which come up in today’s Gospel. I’m not even going to try to explain about camels and needles. In our own lives we expect to get along and to prosper as long as we do our share. And in this way we have a lot in common with the man who approached Jesus. And Jesus, of course, may have something in store for us, that we are not expecting, just as happened with that man. Our expectations get wrapped up in what we expect money to do for us, or likewise how a particular shape of our material well-being is a necessity for life. That is the tragedy of this man, this prospective disciple. Jesus presents an opportunity to look at this differently.
Eternal life is on the one hand more secure than the prosperity of this world, but on the other hand it requires us to let loose of our expectations of security and prosperity.
The future of Christianity in the next hundred years will expand and open before us, and it is not likely to be the same as the last two hundred years. There is no longer a presumption in this country that people ought to attend church or that they ought to be Christians. As Christians, we can no longer rely on institutional inertia to keep church services going to have the faith passed down to the next generation. It is only in following Jesus on his road into the unknown future that we can inherit eternal life.
So what does he require? That we sell everything? Well, perhaps more…perhaps our expectations of what church means, and what we get from that may be turned upside down. We gather as a community of Thanksgiving—thanksgiving for this Jesus whose generosity in giving himself models for us how our life can be filled with generosity and thanksgiving. The question of money and possessions is not a question of anxiety or fear with Jesus, rather what we have is an opportunity to live lives of generosity and thanksgiving, both individually and corporately.
Finding what Jesus is calling us to is not a matter of reading a few verses of scripture or a 10-minute sermon. It is not a matter of literally copying what Peter, Andrew, James, or John or this rich young man was told to do. It is a matter of courageously accepting the call to eternal life and the real difficulties of discerning what of our expectations to sacrifice, so that we can confidently live that life of thanksgiving that Jesus has for all those who he loves.
“Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”