Stewardship and Salvation
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, UC.C.
Mark 10:17-31
Stewardship Pledge Sunday
14 October, 2018

There are moments when I marvel at the timing and sense of humor of the Spirit.  I’m not saying it was part of a divine planthat this passage should be assigned today—after all, there were at least three other passages in the Revised Common Lectionary I could have chosen to use. (All of them are utilized in the opening prayers and liturgy.)  But I had no idea, when the Stewardship Board set Oct. 14thas Pledge Sunday, that this was the Gospel text assigned by the lectionary for today.  Don’t you find it interesting—sometimes in a laugh-out-loud sort of way—when the Bible text we focus on together somehow collides with your life’s current preoccupation in a way that doesn’t seem accidental?

I can tell you honestly that if it wasn’t in the Lectionary, I probably wouldn’t have chosen this particular story in Mark for Stewardship Pledge Sunday.  But as I’ve wrestled with it across the past week, it’s become clear that it’s a perfect text for us to think about today—on Stewardship Pledge Sunday, and also one week before we undertake a congregational vote on whether to begin trying in earnest to raise $2 Million to flesh out the vision we’ve discerned together.

It’s a challenging, even slightly haunting story, isn’t it?  It seems that the author wants us to be identifying in some way or another with the rich man—but our first impulse (mine, anyway) is to dismiss ourselves from identifying too closely with the rich man.  Another pastor tells the story of how, as a little girl, she was reading her Bible before bed, and she came upon this passage.  As a 7-year old white girl living in a comfortable suburb, she knew enough to feel that the abundance her family enjoyed made them rich by the world’s standards.  She wrote, “When I got to verse 25, I was so alarmed that I slammed the Bible shut, jumped out of bed, and went running down the hall.  I shook my mother out of a sound sleep.  ‘Mom,’ I whispered urgently, ‘Jesus says that rich people don’t go to heaven!’  ‘We are not rich.  Go back to bed,’ came my mother’s response.’”[1]Well, that’s one way to deal with it!

It’s easy to laugh, because I think most of us recognize that “We’re not rich” feeling when we survey our immediate surroundings and neighbors.  But we also recognize the truth that we certainly arerich when compared to our global neighbours.  So, what do we do with this passage?  Let’s unpack it a bit to see what the Spirit might be trying to say to us today.

At the beginning of the passage, in verse 17, Jesus is setting out on another journey.  He and his disciples have been moving around, engaged in his ministry of teaching and healing.  The people coming to hear him are longing for deeper connection in life, greater satisfaction with their human experience and understanding.  His lessons are consistently about the kingdom of God, and how to access the heavenly life.  In the verses just prior to this morning’s lesson, Mark reported that people were bringing children to Jesus so that he could bless them.  But his disciples tried to prevent it—and Jesus rebuked them, saying, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”[2]

It seems to me there’s something important about this passage immediately preceding our lesson this morning.  The children coming to Jesus represented an innocence, a guilelessness, an unpretentious sort of bearing that had not (yet) been affected by worldliness.  But the rich man who came and knelt before Jesus was obviously greatly burdened.

The author wants us to understand that he’s really struggling with something, because in other descriptions of individuals who come and kneelbefore Jesus, it’s always people who are in need of healing—for themselves, or for someone they love.  And, there’s an urgency about his question: Mark says he ranup and knelt before Jesus before asking, “Good Teacher, what must I doto inherit eternal life?”[3]  The way he addresses him shows that there’s something about Jesus’ way of being that is recognizably different from the man’s other teachers; something about Jesus reveals God’s goodness to the man.  Jesus’ response makes it clear that it’s not merely what one doesthat makes a person good: God alone is good.  But one can reflect divine goodness—though only by being in close relationship with pure Good-ness, who is God.

Jesus reminded the man of God’s commandments regarding the sorts of behaviors that help facilitate that close relationship—all behaviors the rich man said he had kept since his youth: “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.”[4]  But clearly, one could keep all those commandments and still not feel closely connected to God, or to other people.  It’s possible to keep the letter of the law in following those Commandments, without actually knowing or sharing love.

In another scene a couple chapters later, in Mark Chapter 12, a scribe asks Jesus what is the first or foremost commandment.  Jesus responds, “…[Y]ou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”[5]

This is key to understanding how Jesus responded to the rich young man who just proclaimed that he had kept all those other commands from his youth.  Mark 10:21 says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me.”  But as we heard, the man was shocked, and went away grieving.  Jesus’ invitation was too difficult, it represented too great a sacrifice for him. It’s a poignant scene.

Naturally, his disciples are shocked as well—especially when Jesus utters those really hard words for most of us to hear: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God . . . easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”[6]

Apparently, it’s because of those words that early monastics started the tradition of taking vows of poverty.  The disciples, Mark tells us, “… were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’”[7] They, like plenty of people today, interpreted material wealth as a sign of divine pleasure or favor: if the obviously blessed of this world can’t enter the kingdom of God, then what hope is there for any of us?

Jesus’ response points to the faith in Godthat must be at the heart of any experience of salvation: “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible”[8], he says.  And in the brief exchange that follows between him and Peter, it becomes clear that what’s essential is a heart that’s focused on something beyond one’s self; our deepest attachments and commitments should be to God and the wellbeing of others, and not solely our own comfort and the worldly security of those closest to us.

Before all of this became clear to the disciples, though, Jesus had seen this wealthy man, desperate for an assurance of his place in heaven, and he perceived the problem.  It seemed the man could not envision a meaningful life without his possessions.  Or, he could not imagine why he would sell everything and give it to the poor. Either way, Jesus’ instruction and the man’s response reveals what’s preventing the man from experiencing the peace and salvation he’s seeking: he has more faith and hope invested in his possessions than he has in the provision and power of God’s love and grace.  He believes more firmly in his “stuff” and his personal abilities than he does in the saving power of his relationship with the God of Love.  In the rich man’s worldview, he has to dosomething in order to inherit (or buy) eternal life.  Because he believes the fortune he’s amassed is his own doing and is merit-based, he cannot recognize that it actually represents God’s freely-given grace and abundance in his life.  Nor can he fathom that it’s meant to be shared in order to know the fullness of its joyful potential.  If he understood that, then he’d have been giving generously to support those in need, and would already have a foretaste and assurance of his place in God’s kingdom, and of eternal life.  As it is, the possessions he’s amassed have come to possess the very heart of him, just as they had done to Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ famous story A Christmas Carol.

Mark tells us that Jesus looked at the man with compassionate love, because he saw that the one thing the rich man lacked was an ability to fully trust God, which required a genuine relationship.  He had no concept of what he was missing. According to the Rev. Karoline Lewis, professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, “Where the rich man has come up short is in the actions of looking and loving, of coming and following—all of which ask for attentiveness that turns toward the other. That demand looking beyond one’s self. That insist the answer to the truest treasure is not in the pearls you purchase for yourself, but in how your prosperity propels you to notice the people in your midst, the people in need, the people who are incapable of building up or contributing to the power you so desperately want, and that which you hold on to, regardless of the consequences.

So, as it turns out, what the rich man lacks is his everything. [He doesn’t see] how his wealth has worked against connection. How he has revered his riches over relationships. How he has rejected community for the sake of acquiring more. … Jesus doesn’t stop at, ‘sell all of your possessions,’ but ‘sell what you own and give the money to the poor.’ [It’s] a mandate to look outside of himself. A command to imagine that life’s worth can never be met by the self alone.”

“This is the danger of wealth,” Lewis concludes, “—its lure toward a belief in utter self-sufficiency. Its ability to convince us that our siloistic decisions are justified or are worthy based solely on our own self-validation.”[9]

In order to experience the salvation we long for, that promise and experience of eternal life, we must first devote ourselves to loving God above all else, and loving our neighbour as our self.  It’s nothing less than a pledge to remain in community, to pursue deeper connection with God and God’s beloved ones in need, as we steward all of the resources in our life toward that end.  The ways that we manage our money, our time, and our daily activities – these will bear witness to how genuine and developed our commitment is.  Are we willing to sacrifice, following Jesus’ example, for the sake of something greater than ourselves?

As we make our pledges today, as we promise a portion of our financial resources, our time, and our God-given abilities to help this congregation collectively connect with those whom God has called us to serve, we are invited to feel the challenge.  To engage with it.  To notice our yearning for a sense of deeper connection with God and with others—and our desire to help make that connection real.  Likewise next week, when we vote on whether to make even more significant, sacrificial commitments for the future of this church’s role in raising up a community of virtue and mutuality in Hollis.  One that stands as a beacon of light against a society increasingly dimmed by individualism and self-interest.  May God help us to see what the rich man could not: that it is by our joyful sharing that we will experience the healing, the salvation our souls long for—as we move beyond ourselves and serve others in Jesus’ eternal, life-giving way.  Amen.

[1]Stacey Simpson, ‘Who Can Be Saved?’, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-10/who-can-be-saved

[2]Mark 10:13-15.

[3]Mark 10:17, emphasis mine.

[4]Mark 10:19.

[5]Mark 12:30-31.

[6]Mark 10:23-25

[7]Mark 10:26

[8]Mark 10:27

[9]“What Do You Lack?” A sermon by Karoline M. Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5232

“Stewardship and Salvation”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, UC.C.
Mark 10:17-31
Stewardship Pledge Sunday
14 October, 2018

There are moments when I marvel at the timing and sense of humor of the Spirit.  I’m not saying it was part of a divine plan that this passage should be assigned today—after all, there were at least three other passages in the Revised Common Lectionary I could have chosen to use. (All of them are utilized in the opening prayers and liturgy.)  But I had no idea, when the Stewardship Board set Oct. 14thas Pledge Sunday, that this was the Gospel text assigned by the lectionary for today.  Don’t you find it interesting—sometimes in a laugh-out-loud sort of way (which is what I did when I read the texts for this Sunday)—when the Bible text we focus on together somehow collides with your life’s current preoccupation in a way that doesn’t seem accidental?

I can tell you honestly that if it wasn’t in the Lectionary, I probably wouldn’t have chosen this particular story in Mark for Stewardship Pledge Sunday.  But as I’ve wrestled with it across the past week, it’s become clear that it’s a perfect text for us to think about today—on Stewardship Pledge Sunday, and also one week before we undertake a congregational vote on whether to begin trying in earnest to raise $2 Million to flesh out the vision we’ve discerned together.

It’s a challenging, even slightly haunting story, isn’t it?  It seems that the author wants us to be identifying in some way or another with the rich man—but our first impulse (mine, anyway) is to dismiss ourselves from identifying too closely with the rich man.  Another pastor tells the story of how, as a little girl, she was reading her Bible before she went to sleep, and she came upon this passage.  As an 11-year old white girl living in a comfortable suburb, she knew enough to feel that the abundance her family enjoyed made them rich by the world’s standards—so the passage startled her. She ran to her mother, who was already drifting off to sleep, and asked whether the passage worried her.  “No. We’re not rich,” her mother said firmly, “Now, go back to bed.”  Well, that’s one way to deal with it!

It’s easy to laugh, because I think most of us recognize that “We’re not rich” feeling when we survey our immediate surroundings and neighbors.  But we also recognize the truth that we certainly are rich when compared to our global neighbors.  So, what do we do with this passage?  Let’s unpack it a bit to see what the Spirit might be trying to say to us today.

At the beginning of the passage, in verse 17, Jesus is setting out on another journey.  He and his disciples have been moving around, engaged in his ministry of teaching and healing.  The people coming to hear him are longing for deeper connection in life, greater satisfaction with their human experience and understanding.  His lessons are consistently about the kingdom of God, and how to access the heavenly life.  In the verses just prior to this morning’s lesson, Mark reported that people were bringing children to Jesus so that he could bless them.  But his disciples tried to prevent it—and Jesus rebuked them, saying, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”[1]

It seems to me there’s something important about this passage immediately preceding our lesson this morning.  The children coming to Jesus represented an innocence, a guilelessness, an unpretentious sort of bearing that had not (yet) been affected by worldliness.  But the rich man who came and knelt before Jesus was obviously greatly burdened.

The author wants us to understand that he’s really struggling with something, because in other descriptions of individuals who come and kneel before Jesus, it’s always people who are in need of healing—for themselves, or for someone they love.  And, there’s an urgency about his question: Mark says he ran up and knelt before Jesus before asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”[2]  The way he addresses him shows that there’s something about Jesus’ way of being that is recognizably different from the man’s other teachers; something about Jesus reveals God’s goodness to the man.  Jesus’ response makes it clear that it’s not merely what one does that makes a person good: God alone is good.  But one can reflect divine goodness—though only by being in close relationship with pure Good-ness, who is God.

Jesus reminded the man of God’s commandments regarding the sorts of behaviors that help facilitate that close relationship—all behaviors the rich man said he had kept since his youth: “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.”[3]  But clearly, one could keep all those commandments and still not feel closely connected to God, or to other people.  It’s possible to keep the letter of the law in following those Commandments, without actually knowing or sharing love.

In another scene a couple chapters later, in Mark Chapter 12, a scribe asks Jesus what is the first or foremost commandment.  Jesus responds, “…[Y]ou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”[4]

This is key to understanding how Jesus responded to the rich young man who just proclaimed that he had kept all those other commands from his youth.  Mark 10:21 says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come, follow me.”  But as we heard, the man was shocked, and went away grieving.  Jesus’ invitation was too difficult, it represented too great a sacrifice for him. It’s a poignant scene.

Naturally, his disciples are shocked as well—especially when Jesus utters those really hard words for most of us to hear: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God . . . easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”[5]

Apparently, it’s because of those words that early monastics started the tradition of taking vows of poverty.  The disciples, Mark tells us, “… were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’”[6] They, like plenty of people today, interpreted material wealth as a sign of divine pleasure or favor: if the obviously blessed of this world can’t enter the kingdom of God, then what hope is there for any of us?

Jesus’ response points to the faith in God that must be at the heart of any experience of salvation: “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible”[7], he says.  And in the brief exchange that follows between him and Peter, it becomes clear that what’s essential is a heart that’s focused on something beyond one’s self; our deepest attachments and commitments should be to God and the wellbeing of others, and not solely our own comfort and the worldly security of those closest to us.

Before all of this became clear to the disciples, though, Jesus had seen this wealthy man, desperate for an assurance of his place in heaven, and he perceived the problem.  It seemed the man could not envision a meaningful life without his possessions.  Or, he could not imagine why he would sell everything and give it to the poor. Either way, Jesus’ instruction and the man’s response reveals what’s preventing the man from experiencing the peace and salvation he’s seeking: he has more faith and hope invested in his possessions than he has in the provision and power of God’s love and grace.  He believes more firmly in his “stuff” and his personal abilities than he does in the saving power of his relationship with the God of Love.  In the rich man’s worldview, he has to do something in order to inherit, or acquire, eternal life.  Because he believes the fortune he’s amassed is his own doing and is merit-based, he cannot recognize that it actually represents God’s freely-given grace and abundance in his life.  Nor can he fathom that it’s meant to be shared in order to know the fullness of its joyful potential.  If he understood that, then he’d have been giving generously to support those in need, and would already have a foretaste and assurance of his place in God’s kingdom, and of eternal life.  As it is, the possessions he’s amassed have come to possess the very heart of him, just as they had done to Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ famous story A Christmas Carol.

Mark tells us that Jesus looked at the man with compassionate love, because he saw that the one thing the rich man lacked was an ability to fully trust God, which required a genuine relationship.  He had no concept of what he was missing. According to the Rev. Karoline Lewis, professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, “Where the rich man has come up short is in the actions of looking and loving, of coming and following—all of which ask for attentiveness that turns toward the other. That demand looking beyond one’s self. That insist the answer to the truest treasure is not in the pearls you purchase for yourself, but in how your prosperity propels you to notice the people in your midst, the people in need, the people who are incapable of building up or contributing to the power you so desperately want, and that which you hold on to, regardless of the consequences.

So, as it turns out, what the rich man lacks is his everything. [He doesn’t see] how his wealth has worked against connection. How he has revered his riches over relationships. How he has rejected community for the sake of acquiring more. … Jesus doesn’t stop at, ‘sell all of your possessions,’ but ‘sell what you own and give the money to the poor.’ [It’s] a mandate to look outside of himself. A command to imagine that life’s worth can never be met by the self alone.”

“This is the danger of wealth,” Lewis concludes, “—its lure toward a belief in utter self-sufficiency. Its ability to convince us that our siloistic decisions are justified or are worthy based solely on our own self-validation.”[8]

In order to experience the salvation we long for, that promise and experience of eternal life, we must first devote ourselves to loving God above all else, and loving our neighbour as our self.  It’s nothing less than a pledge to remain in community, to pursue deeper connection with God and God’s beloved ones in need, as we steward all of the resources in our life toward that end.  The ways that we manage our money, our time, and our daily activities – these will bear witness to how genuine and developed our commitment is.  Are we willing to sacrifice, following Jesus’ example, for the sake of something greater than ourselves?

As we make our pledges today, as we promise a portion of our financial resources, our time, and our God-given abilities to help this congregation collectively connect with those whom God has called us to serve, we are invited to feel the challenge.  To engage with it.  To notice our yearning for a sense of deeper connection with God and with others—and our desire to help make that connection real.  Likewise next week, when we vote on whether to make even more significant, sacrificial commitments for the future of this church’s role in raising up a community of virtue and mutuality in Hollis.  One that stands as a beacon of light against a society increasingly dimmed by individualism and self-interest.  May God help us to see what the rich man could not: that it is by our joyful sharing that we will experience the healing, the salvation our souls long for—as we move beyond ourselves and serve others in Jesus’ eternal, life-giving way.  Amen.

[1]Mark 10:13-15.

[2]Mark 10:17, emphasis mine.

[3]Mark 10:19.

[4]Mark 12:30-31.

[5]Mark 10:23-25

[6]Mark 10:26

[7]Mark 10:27

[8]“What Do You Lack?” A sermon by Karoline M. Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5232

 

© 2019 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC