Risk and Possibility
A Sermon Preached by
Rev. Julie Emery
at the Larchmont Avenue Church
October 14, 2012
Text: Mark 10:17-31
“As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? N one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.”
He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again,
“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell 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. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
A number of years ago, when my good friend Jenny’s two, now college-age daughters were back in elementary school, there was a particularly beautiful summer season when the girls set up a lemonade stand. As I followed my friend’s story, I found myself amazed at the committed attention of their father, who walked the girls through every detail of setting up the stand. It was clear that this wasn’t just a fun summer activity, it was a business. He taught them about overhead, labor costs and profit. When they had an accidental spill, they had to pay for more lemonade mix and increase what they were charging by a nickel. And while I don’t remember any intense political talk about taxes or healthcare costs for small businesses, the girls still ended up with a crash course in money management, along with with a nice little bundle of cash to spend on all the candy and toys they could want.
Part of my amazement was what the girls took in and understood – concepts that certainly stuck with them as they make their way in the world, as they consider the possibility of a career in business. Part of my awe was the intention of their father, whose deep value was to teach his daughters about the importance and power of money, the care with which one can gather it, the respect with which one should treat it.
The only thing missing, I found myself thinking, was a word about giving some of that money back to God. It’s not my friend’s fault, really. He had already bitten off quite a bit of teaching for a couple of elementary kids; and pledging to the church or another organization doesn’t seem to come up in our everyday discussions about money the way it once did.
But what might those girls have learned, both about money and about faith, had they been taught that what they had earned had been a gift of God, and not merely a result of their own efforts? What might they have learned if they had been taught that giving away part of what they had gained was a deeply spiritual act, as fundamental to the life of faith as prayer?
Jesus believed, as my friend’s husband clearly did, that money is an essential, important element in the spiritual lives of his disciples. Jesus talked about money more than anything else except the Kingdom of God. 11 out of 39 parables talk about money, and the word money is used in connection with Jesus approximately 25 times throughout the four gospels, not including the times he speaks of treasures or wealth. There is no doubt that Jesus taught that money: our relationship to it, our uses for it, our desperate accumulation of it, is of utmost importance for our lives of faith and discipleship.
The gospel lesson for today is one of the more challenging stories about Jesus and money, and it is one we know well. Jesus is approached by a righteous man, a man who has kept all the commandments in Jewish law. Now, there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity as he approaches Jesus swiftly and intently asking, “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” After confirming the man’s life as devout and committed to the laws of the Jewish faith, Jesus speaks the words we all dread and yet know are coming: “There is one more thing” he says, “Sell all your possessions and give them to the poor, and follow me…”
Jesus follows up with that unforgettable declaration, to the disciples and to us: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Whatever we might have heard, scholars have debunked every theory that would try to wiggle around these harsh words of Jesus. There is no way to avoid it: Jesus simply says that wealth gets in the way of faith.
But that’s not all the story says.
It also says that Jesus loved him. He looked at the rich man and loved him, and in loving him Jesus said to him, “sell what you own, give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven…”
It is out of compassion, out of love for the man that Jesus tells him what he must do – not punishment, not obligation, not responsibility, but love.
It is out of his love for us that Jesus wants us to notice the ways in which our riches prevent us from loving him back. It is out of his love for us that Jesus wants us to notice that so often our own abundance and plenty does not satisfy our hearts but fuels a never ending excessive desire for more. The more we have, we so often discover, the more we want.
Culturally, we know this to be true. This is one of the things that is mentioned again and again by the young people who speak out in the film, “The Race to Nowhere,” which was shown in our church this past week and which we will discuss further after worship today. We live in a culture that believes more is always better: more homework, more school, more rooms in our houses, more speed in our cars, more money, more everything. More.
But what happens if we intentionally choose… less?
Recently I spoke with my dear friend Drew who has been going through some major life transitions. He is picking up the pieces after a divorce, and is finding life and wholeness again, along with the support of a wonderful church community. Over lunch, somehow, Drew and I got to talking about stewardship season, and the act of pledging to his church. He spoke of how this year, more than ever, he was making very intentional choices about his budget, now that he is living on his own.
He shared with me how he had decided to commit to his church a large enough portion of his budget that he really noticed it; enough that it kind-of… hurt. And then he spoke about how the church had supported him when he most needed them, how they had even saved him from grief and depression. And how the act of writing that check every month was an act of prayer, of gratitude, of commitment, of faith.
Not only that, but he described how his pledging had somehow made him care even more. Not that he didn’t before, but now it was different.
He cared how that money was spent, since he was giving to the church a little more than what was easy for him. He paid closer attention when new programs were developed and when they were cut. He found himself more connected and committed, as well as more hopeful and excited about the ministry and mission of his church.
Certainly pledging and stewardship are anathema to Jesus. Jesus did not have electric bills to pay or construction of a women’s bathroom to contend with. He did not need to repair a steeple or pay for mission trips to the Dominican Republic. As far as we know he did not pay for pizza or curriculum, salaries or manses. The church has certainly come a long way from the early days in the book of Acts when the disciples gathered together all that they had and shared it equally.
But, anathema or not, clearly Jesus understood the sway that our possessions have on us, so visible on the face of the man who turns away from him grieving. And anathema or not, intentionally committing to pledge is one very tangible way to live out the spiritual discipline of stewardship. As Drew experienced and shared, the act of giving back to a community in which you spend time, grow relationships, give and receive compassion, creates an intimate relationship between us, our money and Jesus. One which brings into view just how important our faith is to our lives.
The disciples, after hearing the condemning words of Jesus toward the rich, respond much as we might: “Then, Jesus, who can be saved?”
The response that Jesus gives lifts up stories throughout the scriptures of the abundant grace of God, the miraculous, the surprising, the holy, the exciting. “For mortals,” Jesus says, “it is not possible, but for God all things are possible.” These words are reminiscent of those words spoken to Mary at the annunciation, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” They are words of hope and opportunity, of faith and conviction.
And perhaps that is just what might become of your act of commitment and covenant. Because out of your intention comes the hope and possibility that is the future of our church community at LAC. As you risk, as you stretch, as you prayerfully discern your giving, the leaders of our church dwell in possibility. We wonder at what God is doing in this part of the world, and how we might join in that work. We dream of ways we might draw our community closer to Christ. We listen for God’s leading us into love and outreach.
Friends, we are about nothing less than the building up of God’s Kingdom here on earth. Here at the Larchmont Avenue Church we do that by making a joyful noise to the God of hope and faith through our ever-growing and creative music programs.
We do that by sharing God’s love and grace with our children and grandchildren, sharing stories of faith in Sunday School programs, offering fellowship and faithbuilding in youth groups, and working alongside one another in mission and outreach.
We do that through our ministry of compassion and care, visiting the homebound, caring for grieving families, reaching out to those among us and beyond us who are in need. We do that by our own commitment to tangible outreach to the least of these through Midnight Run, HOPE Food Pantry, CAP Center, Bridges to Community and many more organizations.
In the next few weeks, you will receive letters and communication from our stewardship committee, asking you to prayerfully consider the ways in which you might help us prepare for the ministry of this church into the future. You will learn about the variety of creative ministries we offer, you will hear about the ways our church has been a tangible presence of God’s love, you will hear about our hopes and dreams.
As you discern the ways God is loving and calling you, consider this as an opportunity to deepen your faith and your relationship with Christ.
Consider that this is a way you can join us in living out the abundant grace of God, the miraculous, the surprising, the holy, the exciting, here in this place.
Wonder what might you risk to invest in a ministry that makes God’s love tangible and visible in the world and in the lives of people you already know.
Imagine what we can dream of, to show God’s grace and share God’s love here in this place.
Do not go away grieving, but stay, risk, invest, love.
For with God, all things are possible.