Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Call to Serve: The Eye of the Needle

As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.

Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.”

Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.”

Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life. But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.”

--Mark 10:17-31 (CEB)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Father; Christ, our Savior, and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter. Amen.

I have an honest question for you. Over my past few sermons have I seemed just a little angry to you? If you said no, I’d say you were being too kind. If you said yes, I would have to agree with you. 

There are just times - perhaps you’ve experienced them, too - when I just feel angry at the world. Maybe it’s the political situation. Maybe it’s the research and study I’ve been doing these past few weeks, as I’ve been learning about the ways we have damaged our environment. Maybe it’s the weather, as I long for warmer days and sunshine. Maybe it’s just life in general.  

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s these darn disciples in Mark. Do they frustrate you like they frustrate me? They always seem so clueless. Even though Jesus is standing right in front of them. There are times when I want to reach into Scripture and just shake them and say, “Wake up, you idiots! Wake up!”

But I’ve learned from experience that, most often, when I am angry at the world, it’s often not because of what is happening externally. Instead, it’s usually my own stuff. Things that are going on internally. Remember what Jesus said to the disciples and to us just a few weeks ago? That evil things don’t come from the outside, but that they begin inside and contaminate us.

But, more on this in a few minutes. Let’s turn to today’s story.

It’s important that we understand the structure of this part of Mark. Last week, we heard Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ. I mentioned that, just before this lesson, there is a healing by Jesus. Of a man who is blind. It takes Jesus two tries to heal this man. 

Immediately after, we have the story we heard last week - of Peter’s confession. It’s at this point that Jesus begins to teach the disciples about what will happen to him. To begin to help them understand “why” Jesus, the Christ, has come to earth. And to cement Jesus’ teaching, he is transfigured on the mountain and the voice from heaven speaks to the disciples, telling them to listen to Jesus.

But, still, they don’t get it. Like the blind man, they don’t understand on the first try. Or even the second. Because, this past Wednesday, we heard the story of the disciples and their argument on the road headed to Jerusalem. The argument about which one of them is the best!  And we heard Jesus’ response - that whoever wants to be first in the kingdom of God, must be last. Then, to illustrate his point, Jesus takes a child in his arms and says to them that God's kingdom belongs to people like these. Like children. Who, as we learned, in Jesus’ day had no status at all and were likely to die before reaching adulthood.

This story immediately precedes our story today. Jesus is walking on the road to Jerusalem. Suddenly, a man runs up, asking what must he do to inherit eternal life. He seems respectful and sincere, even when Jesus tells him - good Jew that Jesus is - that he must keep the entire law. And we hear the man respond that he has kept all of it since he was a boy. He seems truly sincere. 

It’s at this point, that I’m always blown away by Jesus’ response. In verse 21. “Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. We’ve heard Jesus rebuke the disciples when they didn’t get it. One has to wonder why Jesus doesn’t unload on this fellow. But, for some reason, Jesus just looks at him intently. And then he loves him.

It’s pretty convicting, isn’t it? At least, it is for me. Especially as I’ve been so angry at these disciples, who just seem to get it. It reminds me of the times when I would get frustrated with my son growing up, when he just wouldn’t get things either. And I’d scold him. Then, he’d look at me with such a hurt look on his face that I often ended up apologizing to him and picking him up, then, and hugging him. But, Jesus? He looks at the man and he loves him.

I’ve been reading a book titled “30 Day Journey With St. Hildegard of Bingen.” Hildegard was a female Christian leader in the medieval church, one of several who we today call the Medieval Mystics. She received visions from God and, eventually, wrote extensively about them, also founding an abbey for nuns in Bingen, Germany. She became very famous and corresponded with bishops and popes and even the major political leaders of her day. I’ve read some of her writing before and picked up this book especially because many of her themes relate to creation and to things in the natural world. So, I thought it would be a good way for me to prepare for our Lenten conversations around this same topic.

Earlier this week, I read an excerpt from a letter she wrote in the late 12th century. In it she refers to a world suffering from “already festering wounds” that is in dire need of healing. And that, if you apply scourges (a scourge is generally understood as a whip used to punish). If you apply scourges to an already festering wound, all you will do is bring forth poison mixed with blood. But to show mercy is to simply refrain from applying more scourges. 

Isn’t this what Jesus is doing to this man? He could easily have applied scourges to this man. Shaming him for his unwillingness to put Jesus first in his life by giving up all of his wealth to the poor. But, he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus looks at him intently. And loves him.

How often do we apply “scourges” to “already festering wounds” in our world today? A world that seems to be hurting so deeply, witnessed in part by the large number of mass shootings this year, one this past week. How often in a world that seems to be walking wounded do we respond like Jesus simply with love? I think it’s no accident that today’s story is preceded by the story of the little children. Because children have no wealth. They have no power. They have no advantage in our world. Yet, in the subversiveness of God’s world, their advantage is their helplessness. To not be possessed by those things that end up wounding us. Those things that lead us away from life. Instead, in their helplessness they simply believe. And trust. And love. 

Because, ultimately, it’s not our wealth that makes it hard to get into heaven. It’s our unwillingness to give up the things of this world that possess us, that draw us away from God. That keep us from passing through the eye of the needle.

So, what was making me so angry over these past few weeks. It’s because, in preparing my sermons, I myself was completely convicted. I like the disciples saw, but failed to perceive. Heard, but did not understand. Refused to allow my blind eyes to be opened. 

But, that’s the thing about Jesus. If his healing act doesn’t work the first time, he keeps trying it until our eyes are opened. Because, just as Jesus looked at the rich man, he looks at us. And loves us. And never gives up on us.

In this discipline of Lent, may we practice showing this same mercy to a world with festering wounds. By sacrificing. By loving. By trusting. Because Jesus promises that our childlike discipleship will not be futile. No matter how hard it may be. 

“Many who are first will be last. And the last will be first.” Amen.

Preached March 1, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY

Lent 1
Readings: Mark 10:17-31, Deuteronomy 8:11-14, Psalm 19:7-10

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