“Spiritual Responsibility” by Pat Conover

14 October 2012

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost


The biblical passage I will work with today is our lectionary passage Mark 10:17-31.  I will read it from the Scholar’s Translation.  This is a recent original translation from the Greek, not a revision of the King James Bible like the Revised Standard Version or the New English Version.  The translation is by a group of academic New Testament scholars not church scholars.  Among other things, the group was interested in estimating which sayings of Jesus were likely from Jesus himself rather than from the gospel writers or editors.  In doing this work they had the great advantage of access to the newly discovered Gospel of Thomas, parts of which are as early, or earlier, than the gospels that made it into the Bible.  Two of the sayings found in this passage are also in Thomas and that means they were preserved by two quite different early Christian groups.  That means they were likely not added by the gospel writers or editors.  Now for the text.  

As he (Jesus) was traveling along the road, someone ran up, knelt before him, and started asking him questions: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.  You know the commandments: You must not murder, you are not to commit adultery, you are not to steal, you are not to give false testimony, you are not to defraud, and you are to honor your father and mother.”

He said to him, “Teacher, I have observed all these things since I was a child.”

Jesus loved him at first sight and said, “You are missing one thing: make your move, sell whatever you have and give the proceeds to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  And then come, follow me!

But stunned by this advice, he went away dejected, since he possessed a great fortune.

After looking around, Jesus says to his disciples, “How difficult it is for those who have money to enter God’s domain!  The disciples were amazed at his words.

In response Jesus repeated what he had said, “Children, how difficult it is to enter God’s domain!  It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy person to get into God’s domain!  

And they were very perplexed, wondering to themselves, “Well then, who can be saved?

Jesus looks them in the eye and says, “For mortals it’s impossible, but not for God; after all, everything is possible for God.”

Peter started lecturing him, “We left everything to follow you.”

Jesus said, “I swear to you, there is no one who has left home, or brothers, or sister, or mother, or father, or children, or farms on my account and on account of the good news, who wont receive a hundred times as much more, in the present time, homes, and brothers, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and farms – including persecutions – and in the age to come, eternal life.  Many of the first will be last, and of the last many will be first.”

The first story in this reading probably came from Mark and the early church rather than Jesus.  It is built around two points.  Following the commandments of Hebrew Scripture is not enough for salvation.  This point fits well with an early church that was making the transition from being a Jewish sect to becoming the distinctive Christian religion.  There were probably Hellenized Jews in Mark’s church in Rome.  This point says to them, your Jewish tradition is valuable, but it is not enough.  

The second point is the advice to give away your money fortune to the poor and follow Jesus.  This is a point that fits well with the money poverty of most of the early followers of Jesus.  If we think of salvation as occurring within communities, as embodied in the relationships within communities, then it is reasonable to feel a distance in relationships between the wealthy and those with little money.  We are working on this point in Seekers right now in several ways.  I’ll pick this point up again but will focus first on the two sayings of Jesus that probably were very close to the words Jesus actually said.  I’m more interested in the religion of Jesus than the religion about Jesus and the two sayings I refer to are pretty confrontational for me.  These sayings are also found in Luke and Thomas.

How difficult it is for those who have money to enter God’s domain!

It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy person to get into God’s domain!

First a small point.  I was taught that the “eye of the needle” was the name of a narrow passage in a city that a camel could squeeze through.  The academic scholars say this softening of the saying is inaccurate.  My concern is that if these stories are going to help us to salvation we have to deal with them as hard challenges.

Both of these sayings are in keeping with the rich and poor aspect of the story of the rich young man who turned away from Jesus rather than staying to share the love of Jesus.  However, both sayings are here and now oriented rather than about inheriting eternal life.  

The salvation message is that there is no shame in having little money, no shame because one couldn’t afford to keep kosher laws which was a focus of the ritual practice of the Pharisees.  There were no social services for the marginalized and life expectancy was short in Jesus’s day.  Sharing meals was a feeding program among people who were chronically hungry.  Some sold themselves into slavery so that they would at least have food.

Most Seekers are wealthy compared to the followers of Jesus.  Even those of us with little money are living with more resources than the early followers of Jesus because of government funded and charity funded social services and because of help from Seekers.  These sayings are challenges for us all if we take time to hear them and don’t brush them off.     

Let me point out that just because wealthy people have a significant spiritual challenge about what to do with their money doesn’t make poverty a good thing.  Jesus wanted the wealthy man to give his money to the those with little money so they wouldn’t be so deep in poverty.  But I’m not going to develop this theme in this sermon..

How can we who who are wealthy experience salvation?  What is the guidance of Jesus for finding our way into the domain of God?  

Being wealthy doesn’t make us better than people who are poor.  Being wealthy is not a sign of being favored by God as second generation Calvinists and prosperity gospel advocates would have us believe.  Becoming wealthy is not a primary landmark for living well.

Another saying of Jesus can help us work out how to constructively deal with the spiritual challenge of wealth.  It is found in Matthew 6:28-30 and is another saying that the academic scholars consider to be reflective of words spoken by Jesus.  Again, there are parallels in Luke and Thomas.  

That’s why I tell you: Don’t fret about your life – what you’re going to eat or drink – or about your body – what you’re going to wear.  There is more to living than food and clothing, isn’t there?  Take a look at the birds of the sky: they don’t plant or harvest, or gather into barns.  Yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  You’re worth more than they aren’t you?  Can you add one hour to life by fretting about it?  Why worry about clothes?  Notice how the wild lilies grow: they don’t slave and they never spin.  Yet let me tell you, even Solomon in the height of his glory was never decked out like one of these.  If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into an oven, won’t God care for you even more, you who don’t take anything for granted?

This is a salvation message for those with little or no money and for those with a lot of money.  The message about not worrying, not fretting, is about the basics of food and clothing and is even more relevant for not fretting about acquiring a house or a college education or an IPad.  It is about being thankful for having what you have right now and not getting distracted by feeling you have to get all you want before you can live well.  It is about getting on with the life you have, engaging the opportunities to embody and share the lures of God that make life meaningful and satisfying: caring, responsibility, trust, hope, faith, love.  Salvation starts with thankfulness rather than with security, with thankfulness rather than comparisons or shame.  The prosperity gospel, seven ways the experts got rich, and retail therapy are not paths to salvation.  

When you think you have to have all you want before you can live well, you distract yourself from what matters, from what matters most.  It is when possessions become idols, that they are distracting from what matters most in life.  

In the first lectionary story we are told that Jesus loved the young man with the money and wanted him as part of his company of close companions.  Jesus tried to help the young man get over the distractions of his wealth.  Money isn’t intrinsically bad but money as an idol is deadly.  

Thinking of money in terms of ownership rather than in terms of use rights, letting your wealth block you from solidarity in community from those who have little money is turning away from the guidance of Jesus.  Jesus was trying to help the young man over his problem that kept him from being in community with Jesus.  Maybe we should give away more of our money but the key to salvation is not to let our money block us from solidarity.  The point is not whether poor people are better than rich people, or vice versa.  The point is heart-to-heart connection and caring.   

This guidance of Jesus is a high standard for financial stewardship and Seekers takes financial stewardship seriously.  I’m not talking about stewardship just in terms of how much money you give to Seekers or other worthy causes.  It has to do with all our income and all our wealth and how we use it.  Does our spending and saving put us in good relationships with our family and friends.  Do we have a heart felt response to all that is needed in the wider world.  Do we pay our taxes thankfully?  Do we contribute to political campaigns of those we think will help improve the United States of America.  Will we spend a little more for locally grown food and hand made crafts, buy more in bulk to reduce throw away packaging.  I’m talking about money, and also about time and attention, as resources that can be shaped by freedom for caring, calling, generosity, love, and responsibility.  I’m talking about responsible use of our money rather than thinking that ownership justifies doing anything we want to do.

What are we free for?  We make choices all the time about our use of resources.  Will we claim the freedom to guide our choices with changing and growing understandings of hope, healing, and trust?  Will we flag all our moments of fretting and anxiety about money as opportunities for spiritual growth?

In this recommitment season, I suggest you consider stewardship of your money and other resources as one way of engaging the second and fourth questions posed this year as considerations for commitment and recommitment.

What am I called to offer to God and God’s creation?

What do I need from and through this community in order to deepen my commitment to Christ?

We start from where we are.  Few of us meet our highest standards of stewardship as Seekers.  Few of us meet our highest standards of involvement, our highest standards of sharing in the work of helping Seekers thrive.  Many of us, however, are learning that we thrive as we support each other as companions walking the Christian Way, as we look for the landmark posted by Jesus, as we move forwards as pilgrims to discover and appreciate the Presence of God and not merely to work our careful plans.  We need mid-course corrections and sometimes we need transformation.

Here is a landmark from Jesus.

How difficult it is for those who have money to enter God’s domain!  

Work and generosity isn’t enough for salvation.  On the other hand, faith without work, without sharing our resources, is hollow.  Faith is empty without experience and expression.   

I bring you some easy hard news.  Salvation is free.  But it costs you your life.  Beware!  If you recognize the Divine Presence as embodied and present among us in Seekers, you are welcome to come in, to stay in.  Beware!  It is easy to come into Seekers but once you are in you get to be part of we, and we are working with the hard questions.  This is part of our Koinonia, our hope.  

We don’t have to jump to the end of our journeys as if we could helicopter above all the dailiness of decisions, false starts, mistakes, and mixed motives.  We are not a community of the perfect.  

I’m trying to stop beating myself up for being so imperfect.  I’m wealthy and I hope Jesus would have welcomed me into his community of disciples.  I’m working with his challenges, living with his challenges.  I need you as companions as I stumble along, as I dare to explore the callings of God on my life that take me outside my comfort zone.  

I don’t need you to agree with me about everything.  I do need you as companions who take your challenges seriously so that we can be together in such spiritual work.  We don’t have to be ready for such hard challenges to be together.  We do need to show up and help each other notice, explore, and engage such challenges.  We need each other to embody and express what matters most in life so we can see it, experience it.  This will help us put our money in perspective, help to get out of being stuck in fretting, fear, idolatry, anxiety, wishing, blaming, or jealousy.  

I hope you will commit or recommit even though you see what you’re getting into, even though you see what it takes to stay in.    

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