21ND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Pentecost 21B 2018
Texts: Job 23:1-9, 16-17 | Psalm 22:1-15 | Hebrews 4: 12-16 | Mark 10:17-31
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Mark 10:27
In the past year, five Westfall’s have moved to someplace new. There have been moves from North Dakota to California, from St. Louis to Granville, from a college dorm room into a new “big boy” apartment, and from a long time, 3600 square foot house to a small 800 square foot retirement apartment.
All of these moves required sorting, pitching, donating, and determining what was really needed to bring along. Perhaps the hardest move, emotionally as well as physically, was the move from my in-laws house into a retirement facility just two miles away. The shortest distance was the hardest to negotiate. And just because a move is made physically, doesn’t mean that it has been made emotionally.
The sheer volume of things that needed to be gone through, sorted, thrown away, packed for donation or to be taken to the new place took a very, very, long time. Months and months, actually.
Going through the possessions that marked a life-time together, that signified the raising of children, the graduations, the births of a new generation, items that had been given a long time ago on some Christmas past was very hard work. A life-time of accumulating these things and the emotional work of letting go of them, was probably one of the most difficult things my mother in-law has had to do.
It was overwhelming on many days and if the truth be told, on most days crawling back into bed and pulling the covers over her head was preferable to facing the mountain of papers, knick-knacks, and memories that went with each foray into this task.
We really couldn’t help. My mother in-law had to make the decisions herself as to what she thought was worth keeping and what needed to be let go of. We couldn’t tell her what she needed and what she didn’t, what was more important than something else. Those were very personal choices. And even knowing that it had to be done, that those choices had to be made, did not make choosing any easier. There was a lot of grief in making those decisions. None of them were easy.
In this morning’s gospel reading we have what is known as one of the hard sayings of Jesus. Jesus was “setting out on a journey.” He was on his way to Jerusalem where he would be killed. At the beginning of the journey a rich young man runs up to him and kneels before him and asks Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus refers him to the commandments that have to do with relationship to others-what are known as the covenantal commandments.
The young man assures Jesus that he has been devote, that he has kept all those commandments. And then we are told that Jesus looked at him and loved him. Loved him enough to tell him something very hard. Jesus told him that even with all he had, he was in fact lacking in one fundamental regard; he needed to sell what he owned and to give his wealth to those who were poor. We are told that he was “shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” He may have been in right relationship with those close to him or to his business partners as evidenced by his keeping the covenantal commandments, but he wasn’t in right relationship with his possessions, and it was his possessions, his “stuff”, which he couldn’t let go of that kept him from following Jesus.
He wants to know what he has to do to inherit eternal life. It is as if eternal life was one more possession to attain, one more goal to work towards, one more item to claim as his own. He wants to know how he can earn it. But to inherit something is to be given something as a gift. To inherit something also implies that something or someone has died. To receive an inheritance is to gain something through loss.
I think the young man knows on some level that there is more to life than what he has, but he is shocked that rather than be told how to attain eternal life, he is told that it can only be received by letting go.
But is that really surprising? When our hands are clutching something, we can’t hold something else until we open them again, until we risk the dropping or taking of what is in them. We can’t receive another gift, a better gift, if we don’t let go of something else first. We have to be open to risk, to loss, in order to be open to new life.
That Jesus was concerned with wealth and material possessions and their effect on our discipleship cannot be argued. No other topic occupies so much of Jesus’ preaching and teaching. There are 38 parables in the New Testament; seventeen of them pertain to one’s possessions and to giving. There are over 2,100 verses on the topic, which is far more than those that address believing rightly (272) or to praying (371).
Jesus is very concerned about how we are in relationship with what we own, and how that relationship with our possessions in turn effects our relationships with our neighbors who have less. Our relationship with our possessions is at the heart of our discipleship.
Jesus recognizes how difficult it is to give up those things we care about, those things we think buy us safety and security. Jesus recognizes the grief of the rich young man. But Jesus can’t make the decision for him. He can’t tell him what has to go and what can stay, what is important to him and what isn’t. The rich young man has to decide for himself as to what his relationship with his wealth, his neighbors, and his God will be.
It is no different for us. We may not think it possible to give up what in the past has defined us, helped us, made us feel safe. We may just want this text to go away. Perhaps if we just pull the covers over our heads this hard saying will disappear. No. We have to get out of the beds we have climbed into and decide for ourselves what our relationship with wealth and God will be.
We have to decide if we will hold our possessions lightly, or with a clenched fist. Whether we will be open to new gifts and possibilities that will require some loss, or whether we will go away grieving because we just can’t do what Jesus is asking of us. Jesus will love us regardless, that is not the point.
The point is whether in all that we have we continue to choose to lack that one thing that has the potential to open up new life for us. Jesus loves us too much to make the choice for us. We must make it for ourselves.
1 The New Oxford Annotated Bible Mark p. 76
2 Ottoni-Wilhem, Dawn. Preaching the Gospel of Mark p. 180