Monday, October 15, 2012

Sermon for 20th Sunday after Pentecost: “Riches to Rags to Riches”

+ 20th Sunday after Pentecost - Oct 14, 2012 +
Series B, proper 23: Amos 5:6-15; Hebrews 3:12-19; Mark 10:17-22
 In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Something’s missing. You know the feeling. Frantic searching. Turning couch cushions and doormats upside down. Tossing papers like confetti. Running around on hands and knees, out of breath. And finally, there is it. How did you ever miss it? It was right in front of you the whole time.

That’s where we find this rich young man in today’s Gospel reading. He was missing something too. Otherwise he wouldn’t have come running up to Jesus and knelt at his feet and asked: Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
We know he’s wealthy because of Jesus’ comments later on as the discussion progresses. So what could a rich young man possibly be missing? He had everything he could ever want; he could do whatever he wanted. Possessions. Wealth. Status. He had it made. He could have anything that money could buy. He was the model citizen, the kind of guy a Pharisee’s daughter would’ve brought home.

He had all the riches and he was religious too. His religion was man’s religion, old Adam’s default setting: do it yourself religion. The good and bad you do are measured by a checklist. Or a punch-card. Or better yet, a transaction, something this wealthy man would’ve been more familiar with. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Perhaps Jesus could give him some secret techniques for making a spiritual profit just as there were for making a temporal one." [Capon - Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, 383].
He had it all, possessions and piety. And yet, riches and religious weren’t enough to address that nagging doubt in the back of his mind that something was lacking in his life.

And how does Jesus answer the man’s question? He plays along with the rich young man’s game. You ask a Law question; you get a Law answer. After all, since when do you do something to receive an inheritance? You don’t. It’s a gift. Someone dies and names you as an heir. That’s how you inherit. It’s not by doing but by grace. By being in the favor of the one who died and left you the inheritance.
Jesus answers the man accordingly, giving him a brief catechism review along the way. You know the commandments: Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Do not defraud. Honor your father and mother. Jesus goes right down the second table of the Law, you know, the ones that deal with you and your neighbors.

"Teacher, all these I have kept since my youth."
And how does Jesus answer that? I know how I would’ve responded. Huh, yeah right. Kept the commandments? Try again. There’s no way you’ve done any of those things, let alone perfectly. The Law always leaves us with something that we didn’t do, some place where we could improve.
And while we’re busy keeping score and pointing fingers at who’s the greatest sinner of all, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter. Notice how Jesus does it: looking on him, he loved him... Don’t overlook those words. Jesus doesn’t love him because he’s kept the commandments. But in spite of his attempts to do so. Jesus loves isn’t based on a transaction or what we’ve done or left undone.

            Jesus spoke in love to kill the gods of riches and religion that he clung so dearly in order to give him the one thing he was truly lacking: Jesus. Jesus is a jealous God; you cannot serve God and mammon; God and yourself. But he is as jealous for you as he was for that rich young man. He wants you to be his own and be in his kingdom, no matter what the cost to Himself. He’s willing and able to pay it.
            Jesus is in the business of clearing out whatever gets in the way of your following Him through death to eternal life. I wonder. What would Jesus say to me? What’s getting in the way of my following Him? My ego? My pride? My stuff? My sin! What would He say to you? Looking on you in love, wanting you to be His own, embracing you in His death and life, what do you suppose He would say to you? What is it that gets in the way of your hearing the Word, of your receiving forgiveness, of your following Jesus as He leads you through this life, through your death, and on to your resurrection to eternal life? What is the junk that is getting between you and Jesus? Who or what is it that you, or your family, or your congregation fears, loves and trusts above all things? What is it that you set your heart on for financial security, emotional support, physical safety?  It could be anything, really. Our hearts are capable of turning any good gift into an idol. Whatever it is, it sure isn’t worth hanging on to, is it?

            In a way, Church is like Jesus’ rummage sale. All your junk. All your sin. All that clutters your heart and mind; all that stands between you and Jesus. Everything has to go. You can’t take it home with you; it’ll bury you. So leave it here with Jesus: your sin, your guilt, your death. He wants to take it from you. He has taken it all from you upon himself, nailed it to the cross and buried in his tomb. Your debt is paid; you have been ransomed by His blood. And you can’t have your sins back, not over Jesus’ dead body. Because Jesus will not let anything - not sin, death, Satan the grave stand in His way of saving you.
            That’s what it means to follow him. Not to keep a perfect checklist of all the commandments you’ve kept. That’s a sad, losing game, just ask the rich young man. No, following Jesus means to die and rise with Jesus; to lose your life of self-righteous pride and find true righteousness in Jesus’ blood; to become last in order to be first; to be poor in spirit yet inherit the kingdom of heaven.

This is what it means to live in your Baptism. Daily dying and rising. Daily we hear those words: “follow me.” It’s not a to-do list; it’s Jesus leading you to his Word. Follow me. Jesus leading you to pardon and peace in absolution. Follow me. Jesus leading you to eat and drink his body and blood. Follow me. Jesus leading you to the poor in love and mercy.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus‘ answer: Follow me.

You almost miss it, don’t you? The young man did. All he heard was that stuff about selling everything and giving the money to the poor – another commandment, and one he couldn’t keep. But he missed the answer to his question. What must I do to inherit eternal life? “Follow me.” Follow Jesus. Those were the words spoken to the fishermen and the tax collector Matthew. “Follow me.” It’s more than an invitation. Here was the answer the young man was searching for. He lacked one thing. In all his riches and all his religion and all his commandment-keeping, he lacked one thing. And that one thing was not poverty; it was Jesus.
He lacked Jesus and faith in Jesus. And Jesus was offering Himself with the words “follow me.” And whatever got in the way of following Jesus had to go. Don’t let your riches get in the way of Christ’s riches. Don’t let your works get in the way of Christ’s work. Just like the rich young man.

No wonder Jesus Prunes. Rummages. Strips. And kills our old Adam. Dethrones our false idols and puts a King, crowned in glory on the cross, in its place. For there on the cross, Christ gives up everything to be your King, your Savior, your Redeemer. By his poverty you have become rich. By his death you are given life. By his suffering on earth you are given treasure in heaven.
For that is what the Kingdom of God is: inheritance. Gift. And it’s given by the King, who makes you heirs by his death on the cross. The currency of the Kingdom of God cannot be purchased by gold or silver, by status or wealth, by poverty or piety, but by the holy precious blood and the innocent suffering and death of Jesus.

So what happened to that rich young man? He went away downcast, Mark says, for he had great possessions. But what happened next? Did he go home take a look around at all his stuff and say, “He’s right, this is absolute vanity. It’s all rubbish. It just gets in the way and I can’t take it with me anyhow.” Maybe he packed it all up and dropped it off at Goodwill and ran to catch up with Jesus on the road. Maybe he joined the church later and was baptized.
Some scholars, and I'm inclined to believe them, say this was Mark, telling his own story. How else would he have known that Jesus loved the man?  At any rate, we just don’t know. Mark is a good storyteller that way. We’re not told the end because he wants us to read ourselves into the story. Will you leave sorrowful? Or will you see that what you seek was right in front of you the whole time: Jesus speaking to you in his Word. Jesus forgiving your sin with a word. Jesus baptizing you in his death and resurrection. Jesus feeding you with life and salvation.
Whatever it is that you lack; whatever it is that you need whatever peace and comfort you seek. You won’t find it by following the rich young man. But you will find it in Jesus, just as he has promised. For your inheritance, and all that you lack is found in Christ Crucified.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.







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