Saturday, March 7, 2020

“Threading the Needle” - March 1, 2020

Text: Mark 10:17-31

Some of you will remember the TV show The Twilight Zone.  I was a little young for it when it aired, but not too young to watch it later when it was in syndication.  The Twilight Zone was awesome – it was eerie and sort of creepy, and could be scary for a kid.  But The Twilight Zone was not only entertaining; it often had a real point and could be a great vehicle for teaching.

One episode was titled “A Nice Place to Visit.”  It told the story of a thief named Rocky Valentine, who is shot by the police during a robbery.  When Mr. Valentine wakes up, he finds himself in a strange place where he has everything he ever wanted.  He is in a beautiful penthouse filled with perfectly-fitting, expensive clothes.  The dresser drawers are filled with more cash than Mr. Valentine has ever seen.  He’s surrounded by beautiful women.  When he gambles, he wins…every single time.  Everything is so perfect that he concludes that he’s died and gone to heaven.

But within a month Mr. Valentine is bored out of his mind.  He realizes that having everything he ever wanted is not what he thought it would be.  It’s not paradise; it’s more like torture.  He realizes that all of these things have no real value.  At the very end of the episode Mr. Valentine cries out to a man he assumes is the “angel” in charge of this strange place, saying, “I can’t stand this!  I don’t belong here in heaven.  I belong in the other place.  Please send me to the other place!”  To which the “angel” replies, “Mr. Valentine, this is the other place.”

It’s a commonly held belief that the “stuff” of life is what will make us feel fully alive.  This is nothing new.  And it is addressed in our scripture today.

A man comes and kneels before Jesus and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The man is very respectful, but Jesus does not want the flattery.  “Why do you call me good?” he asks.  “No one is good but God.”  Then Jesus describes what the law asks.  “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.’”

The man replies that he has kept the law since he was a youth.  He is honest and pious and he genuinely wants to do the right thing.  The scripture says that Jesus looked at him and loved him.  Surprisingly, this is the only occasion in Mark where it says Jesus loved somebody.  This man comes to Jesus, he is deeply interested in what Jesus has to offer, he has kept God’s law, and Jesus instinctively cares for this man.  I heard someone this week say that Mark can sometimes read like getting text messages without emojis.  But here, we get an emoji – we get a big heart.  Jesus loved this man.

Yet despite his model behavior and attention to the law, something is not right.  This man realizes something is missing – that’s why he came to Jesus in the first place.  Something was keeping this man from God; something was blocking his ability to receive God’s gift.

This is where Jesus’ answer gets very disorienting.  Jesus tells him what he must do – not in anger, not in condescension, but in love, because he wants what is best for this man.  He tells him he lacks one thing—to sell what he owns, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus. 

Can you imagine Jesus saying this to you?  Can you imagine being asked to sell everything, give it all to the poor, and follow Jesus?  We can’t even fathom the possibility.  It sounds absurd.  If we sold everything and gave it all away, we would be out on the street.  How would that help anyone?

This is a radical demand.  But if we think about it, it is really no more radical than what Jesus has been saying for a while now.  In our scriptures the past few weeks, Jesus has been saying that you must lose your life in order to save it, that that the greatest must be the servant of all, that we each have to take up our cross, that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  Here, he is putting this radical demand in very concrete terms for this man.

Now you may not have caught it, but it is only at this point of the story that the man is identified as rich.  This is a wealthy person.  He walks away “shocked and grieving because he had many possessions.”  

He had reason to be shocked.  And the disciples were shocked as well.  There was a longstanding tradition that wealth was a sign of God’s favor.  While the Old Testament warns about the danger of riches and the folly of trusting wealth, it also speaks of riches as a sign of God’s blessing.  Proverbs 22:4, for example, states that “The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.”

The prosperity gospel--the idea that God will bless you if you have enough faith--was not invented by modern-day televangelists.  It has been around a long time.  And in the first century, the rich were closer to God, at least in the sense of following the standards of ritual law.

If a person were wealthy, one could afford to closely follow the law.  The poor did not have the time or resources to follow purity laws or give alms.  The poor might have to take a job tanning animal hides or working with the sick or burying the dead, all of which made a person unclean.  It was much easier for the rich.

You might remember Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof singing “If I Were a Rich Man.”  In that song, he basically says that if he were rich, he would have time to be holy.  I was going to read the words, but it might be better if somebody sang it.  Does anybody know the part I’m talking about?  Any volunteers?      OK, Aaron – (Aaron stands up in congregation and sings)
If I were rich I’d have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray
And maybe have a seat by the eastern wall
And I’d discuss the holy books
With the learned men
Seven hours hour every day
That could be the sweetest thing of all.
There was not only this tradition that wealth was a sign of God’s favor, there was also some truth to that idea that rich people could more closely follow the law and in the eyes of society, they were seen as actually being closer to God.  It was one of the perks of being rich. 

So the disciples were as perplexed as anyone when Jesus asked this man to give away his riches.  Why would anybody do that?  Why consign yourself to being farther from God?

Jesus’ words are very disorienting.  We can buy the part about keeping the commandments - that is a pretty standard, boilerplate response on the part of Jesus - but this is going way too far.  There are people out there who brag about being Biblical literalists – they say that the Bible means what it says and says what it means.  You just need to read it and believe it and do it.  But if you direct such a person to this scripture, chances are they will stop being so literal about things. 

Jesus not only asks this man to let go of all of his possessions, he goes a step further and confuses everybody by saying that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.  This teaching has troubled people so much that we generally either gloss over it or we look for a way out.

One interpretation is that this actually referred to a gate in the temple wall called the Needle Gate.  It was a narrow gate with a very short door.  If a camel got as low as it could and kind of did the limbo, then maybe, with great difficulty, it might be able to pass through this gate.  The problem, however, is that it was the Middle Ages before somebody came up with this interpretation, and there is no evidence that something called the Needle Gate ever existed.

This is such a tough teaching that we want to look for loopholes.  The most obvious way out, of course, is to claim that we are not rich.

We can look at athletes and celebrities and CEOs making millions of dollars and think that we really don’t have all that much.  But we are deluding ourselves.  In our world, if you have a place to live with central heat and running water and electricity and two changes of clothes and no worries over where your meals are coming from, you are rich.

You can google the term “Global Rich List” and find a website where you can enter your annual income and find where you stand compared to the rest of the world.  I did that and learned that worldwide, I am in the 1%.  If you earned just over $32,000 or more, you are in the top 1% worldwide.  Compared with the world, we all qualify as rich. 

We may try to weasel our way out of this statement of Jesus by finding various loopholes, but I’m not sure it works. 

The story is told of the guy who dies and is standing before St. Peter at the pearly gates.  St. Peter explains the point system: you tell us what you’ve done, we give you points for it, and if you make 10,000 points, you get in.  The guy rubs his chin somewhat nervously, but only a little, because he's been really good, and he starts in on the list.  “Well, I was a minister in the Baptist Church for fifty years and dedicated my working life to the church.”  St. Peter perfunctorily says, “100 points.”  Oohh, that’s not very many points, the poor guy thinks.

He goes on: “I was married to the same woman for 55 years, and faithful the whole time.  We raised four children—one is a teacher, one is a doctor, one is a pastor, and one is a missionary.”  St. Peter says, ”100 points,” and adds it onto his page.  Yikes, this is really tough, the guy thinks.  “I was a member of Rotary and volunteered countless hours helping my community.”  100 points.  “I didn’t drink or smoke or swear or cheat or lie.”  St. Peter adds another 50 points.  “Oh, my,” the guy says, sweating profusely now.  “If I get into heaven at all, it will be by the grace of God.”  “Grace of God!”  St. Peter shouts.  “10,000 points---you’re IN!”

This is the point Jesus is making.  The man asked Jesus, “What must IU do?” but that is the wrong question.  Because eternal life, or what Jesus often calls the kingdom of God, is not about what we do.  It is about what God does.  In the end, it is pure grace.

Eternal life is God’s doing; it is pure grace.  But we need to be careful here.  There is a temptation to make God’s grace into a way out from having to listen to the truth Jesus spoke to the rich man.  God’s grace can become just another loophole.

What Jesus asked of this man is not terribly unlike what he had already asked his followers to do.  You may remember our reading from a couple of weeks ago – Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs to share the Good News.  They were to take no food, no money, no extra clothes.  They had to be vulnerable and depend on one another.  They had to depend on the community.  They had to depend on God.

Jesus asked the man to give away everything and follow him.  But he walks away shocked and saddened.  And Peter says, “Hey, that is what we have done!  We have left everything to follow you!”  Jesus replies, “There is no one who has left friends or family or possessions behind who will not receive a hundredfold back – friends and family and houses and children and fields – along with persecutions – and eternal life.” 

What is that about?  Well, Jesus seems to be saying that when we give up everything to follow him – when we live not for ourselves but for others – we become part of a community of faith, part of a kingdom that is a source of joy and belonging and support and meaning, and that we are blessed with eternal life together.

It is interesting that this story begins with an individual.  What must I do so that I might have eternal; life?  But in the end, the focus is on the community of faith, the kingdom of God that is present here and now.  We have such a strong focus on the individual as Baptists that it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that eternal life, the kingdom of God, the coming age, as Jesus variously puts it, is not just about me.  

Jesus’ challenge to the man to sell his possessions, give to the poor (again, building community) - and follow him was a way of exposing a flaw in the man’s keeping of the commandments.  The commandments are not so much a checklist of rules to be followed so that we can get a good grade – so that we can earn our salvation – but rather characteristics of one who is living the eternal life God offers.  In other words, we might think of them not so much as the way to eternal life, but more in terms of what eternal life looks like.

Jesus did not simply ask the rich man to sell his possessions; it was sell your possessions, give to the poor, and follow me. 

The real question is, "How do we follow Jesus?"  Jesus comes back to this again and again.  “Follow me,” he says.  He was asking of this rich man the same he asked of everyone. 

Simon and Andrew and James and John had left their nets and their careers as fishermen to follow Jesus; Levi had left his toll booth and his job as a tax collector to follow Jesus; this man is asked to leave behind his wealth and follow Jesus.  

What are we holding on to that keeps us from more closely following Jesus?  Perhaps we are clinging to old ways of thinking and doing.  Maybe we are holding on tightly to our reputation, our power, our need for control, our need to be in charge.  Like the man in this story, it may well be our attachment to possessions.

By letting go, by becoming vulnerable, we become open both to others and to God, and we are able to take hold of God’s gift.

In The Twilight Zone, Rocky Valentine learns that in the end, a life centered on ourselves is no way to live.  Jesus invites us to a better way.   Jesus invites us to eternal life, abundant life.  Life shared in God’s Beloved Community.  Jesus invites us to follow him.  Amen.

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