Sermon, 10/10/21. Is it really true: “In God we trust”?*

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20 Pentecost

Psalm 22:1–15 ; Job 23:1–9, 16–17; Hebrews 4:12–16; Mark 10:17–31

Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”  Mark 10:27

Good people, I am very much aware that, on this 20th Sunday after Pentecost, I stand not in a classroom and that you are not students. For that reason, I cannot advise you to review a syllabus in preparation for mid-terms.  Still, I can recommend to you a book, one that I believe will assist you greatly in understanding today’s gospel from Mark.  The title of the book is “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough.”  It was written by Rabbi Harold Kushner, first published 1986 and then reissued in 2002 in paperback.  Kushner’s name may be familiar to you, for you have surely heard of his first book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” 

Kushner’s book is an easy read, because he is non-judgmental and writes in a language that the average layperson can understand.  His title serves as a “spoiler alert.”  In his book, he addresses a basic human question: What is it that gives meaning to life?  That is the stuff of religion.  This is a question to which, so I believe, we all seek an answer, consciously or unconsciously.

Kushner writes, p. 25, the following: “This book is not about how to be happy or how to be popular…. It is about how to be successful, but not in the way most people use that word.  What it is really about is how to be human, how to live with the feeling that you are more than a moth that lives for a moment and then disappears.”  He continues: “It is about how to know that you have lived as a human being was meant to live, that you have not wasted your life.  It is a book about giving your life meaning, feeling that you have used your time on earth well and … that the world will be different for having passed through it.”

The fact that Kushner is Jewish does not preclude his knowledge of the New Testament, the Gospels, and the Epistles, just as our being Christian does not mean that we have no knowledge of the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible.  Moreover, Jesus, whom we call the Messiah, was himself a descendent of the House of David, a royal line that held power over the biblical Israel for centuries.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise, that what Kushner writes sounds as if it were influenced directly by today’s gospel. 

Kushner writes further: “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth or power.  Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve.  Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through it.”  With this observation, Kushner directs our attention to the essence of our being. 

Such a center is held before us so frequently in our Book of Records, in both the Old and New Testaments, that we become, as it were, almost immune to the power of that message of where that center is to be found.  The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, which we are now reading, has said: “For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.”  (Hebrews 3:4) This does not differ in substance from the observation of Jesus when confronted with a coin that bore the likeness of Caesar on one side, that we should render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but to God, the ultimate owner, that which is God’s.  The substance is different, but the essence, the message, is the same.

With that as our base of inquiry, let us consider again the situation of the rich young man in today’s gospel.  Too often, so I believe, we are tempted to engage in what is known in German as Schadenfreude.  We rejoice in another’s misfortune.  That is to say, the rich young man got his comeuppance.  However, I plead the case for the rich young man.  I believe the rich young man was asking ultimately the same question that we all ask: How do we find meaning in life that is more than an accumulation of things?  Because of his youthfulness and, lacking an editor who could have assisted him in formulating his question differently, the rich young man received a disappointing answer.

Remember, his question was “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  What would have been the answer had he phrased his question differently?  Is emphasis to be placed on “do” or “inherit?”  Would Jesus have responded differently had his young inquirer asked, “How do I inherit eternal life?”  This would have skirted entirely the issue of doing something, of seeking to earn one’s right.  Recall that the writer of the Epistle of James has instructed us that what we do is not to earn faith; rather, what we do shows that we have faith.  It is our faith that moves us to action. 

To what extent do we, as social beings, contribute to the dilemma exhibited by our young man?  Again, Rabbi Kushner hits the mark when he says, “… worst of all, society applauds this imbalance, honoring us for our financial success, praising us for our self-sacrifices.  ‘The achievements which society rewards are won at the cost of a diminution of personality.’ Forces in society won’t let us become whole people because we are more useful to them when one small part of us is over-developed.  Like hunting dogs who have been trained to bring back the game birds in their mouths without taking a bite out of them, we have become useful to society by denying our healthy instincts.” (p. 25)

Therefore, the rich young man was simply fulfilling what his society had outlined as his role.  But the question of inner fulfillment still nags.  We clergy are quick to declare Jesus’ immediate response to be one of rejection and condemnation.  I do not deny what Jesus said.  It was a straightforward observation: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

However, I, for one, do not hear Schadenfreude in Jesus’ response.  I do not hear glee or a tone of rejoicing.  Rather, I hear a different tone in that observation.  I hear the voice of regret and sadness.  Remember that the speaker of those words is the same speaker, Jesus of Nazareth, who instructed us of the widow who lost a coin and then turned her house upside down, inside out, until she found it.  Money has value.  That is, money is an integral element in our lives.  It is the same speaker who gave us the parable of the prodigal son and taught us to what end we should go to seek redemption and reconciliation.  No, his pronouncement (at least for me) is one of regret and compassion and hope that future disciples would not behave thusly.

Historical documents, including the Bible, have defined the phrase “eternal life” as having to do with life after death; as the Prophet Daniel wrote: Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.  (Dan. 12.2)  Other writers intensified this perception of the Kingdom of God as a realm beyond our earthly existence.  I prefer to think of eternal life as that quality of life which one experiences when discipleship to Jesus is accepted and that continues indefinitely—anywhere God is, wherever God is. 

And so, the young man is half right in seeing union with God as an inheritance, for that is a covenant that God has repeatedly reaffirmed.  However, he was wrong if he thought he could earn it by doing something other than living into a relationship with God as Jesus has sought to define it.  The operative option in Jesus’ reply was “come, follow me.” 

Before we dismiss the rich young man solely because of his wealth and status in his society, we do well to recall that he was not the first to decline discipleship and turn back.  Others, according to Mark’s gospel, turned back and followed Jesus no longer, and it was not because of wealth, inherited or earned.  Rather, he demanded something of them that they were not willing to do.  One had to go and bury the dead; another had to buy a cow; and another had to settle a land transaction.  Still others turned away because they found repulsive his analogy of his body and blood as the bread of life and salvation.  Therefore, the rich young man found himself in the company of those of similar mind.

If we think about this injunction and its subsequent demand, we will recall that it is the very same one that Jesus had issued to other disciples who now wanted to brag about their loyalty, and which made them want to stop others who were healing and casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  Jesus had not done or said anything different.  Jesus had asked of the rich young man no more than he had of Peter and Andrew and John: Give up your boat.  It was the change that the young man could not fathom for himself.  Jesus asked then, as he does now through scripture, the reordering of the priorities of life.

An old friend was godfather to my older daughter, had once served as senior warden in his parish and had directed his parish’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity in Sarasota, Florida. Through him, I came to know a contemporary instance that demonstrates how reordering one’s priority can indeed bring inner peace, a.k.a. the kingdom of God, to the rich, as well as to the poor.  According to my friend, Habitat for Humanity was begun in Americus, Georgia, by Millard and Linda Fuller, young, self-made Alabama millionaires.

Because their wealth had not brought them the satisfaction that they had envisioned, because they found in their busyness so little time to give to each other—they gave away their wealth.  And in an era when it was unthinkable, when sit-ins were met by counter-actions—actions sanctioned by the state and local governments in the South—and were making headlines, Millard and Linda Fuller went to live in and work at an unpopular, interracial, communal farm near Plains, Georgia, called Koinonia, a community founded earlier in 1940 to improve the equality of life for poor, black and white, rural Georgians.

Following several years in Koinonia and some time spent in the Central African nation Zaire, working alongside other volunteer to build better homes for the people there, the Millards returned to the USA and in 1976, while practicing law in order to pay the bills, they began a ministry that has now developed into a worldwide ministry of volunteers, building and selling houses to the working poor at mortgage rates that they can afford.  And the rest you know.  My friend informed me that over 300,000 people now have improved shelter because of Habitat’s great ministry.

Two young Alabamians, wealthy beyond their immediate physical needs, but lacking where it mattered most to them, decided to reorder their priorities.  Through their response to the age-old question about finding value in life, they brought tangible relief to the discomfort and despair of hundreds of thousand of individuals, and they established a legacy that will outlive them.

So, one question remains.  Can a rich person become a disciple of Jesus?  My deduction forces me to say: It all depends.  Ordinary disciples, with or without money, still ask the question, and Jesus replies, “…for with God all things are possible.” (Mk. 10.27)  I began my ruminations by turning to a Rabbi.  I close by turning to former United States President Jimmy Carter, who is from Plains, Georgia.  President Carter, as quoted by M. Fuller, in his book on Carter, A Simple, Decent Place to Live, talks about “the conversion of wealth” and says: “With Habitat we build more than houses.  We build families, communities and hope.” (Dallas: Word, 1995, back cover)

That is the fruit of faith. That is the essence of today’s gospel.  Money, in and of itself, is neutral.  It is neither good nor evil.  It loses its neutrality, when it, or its equivalent in other fields, distracts us from the essence of our being.  That was and is the simple test put to all who would be disciples God’s Messiah.  Jesus offers us in the big and small things of life the path to the peace of God that passes our understanding.  Amen

Note: further resources and references can be found in The Clergy Journal, May/June 1997, p. 50f.

* Title refers to the official motto of the United States, not to the novel by Jean Shepherd