Plymouth United Church of Christ

Right click to download to your computer.

Sermon, Year B, Proper 23, October 14, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Job 23:1–9, 16–17; Mark 10:17–31

I read these scripture passages early in the week as I always do as part of my process to read through them again on Monday morning and have them in my head for the rest of the week as I am writing liturgy and sermon, and viewing the world through the lens of the scripture for the week.

And I opened up the Wall Street Journal on Thursday morning while thinking about these texts, especially Jesus’ words “sell all you own, and give it to the porr.” And on this Thursday morning I saw this article on the Wall Street Journal about cashing in your jewelry. My eye was caught by a photo of this ring, a diamond ring. A big one. And that really caught my eye. It has a little box next to it that says “$75,000". I was curious about this ring, so I read the caption: “Circa (the name of the company that buys and resells jewelry) recently acquired this 3-carat round diamond engagement ring from a couple celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary and preparing to upgrade. Circa said the value was about $75,000”. Because, come on, two decades with a 3-carat ring? How embarrassing. And it was probably worn out. It’s old.

And we may chuckle and shake our heads, and perhaps even have some justification to do so, but I have spent my time amongst people of wealth when I lived in New York. People who made more money than they really knew what to do with. And the article didn’t say anything about who this couple is, but it’s possible that there might actually have been some embarrassment around this ring. Embarrassment on her part, maybe, because it was smaller than what her friends have. Or embarrassment on his part because he really loved her and when they got married he didn’t have enough to money to buy her a ring that he felt really showed his love for her. Very real emotional responses.

It is easy for us to look at those who feel some existential angst because they only have a 3-carat diamond, but it’s only a matter of degree. At some level, we all do this. We do it with different things. I don’t know anyone here who has a 3-carat diamond.

But we all do it. This one-upmanship, this spiritual struggle, gets played at all economic levels. WE are all part of that system. What we spend or do for weddings, or birthday parties, maybe you have seen in the news that bar mitzvahs are getting out of control spending $100,000 and hiring bands and doing all this. We do it with our cars, where we travel, the size of our TVs. Whatever we turn into some kind of economic competition, we seem pretty good at finding a way to turn that into a competition.

And there is that struggle we might have over whether that gift we are giving is expensive enough to express the love that we feel for the person we are giving it to. That’s very real emotional response. And we also have this belief, and it’s a false belief, but we do have it that is so much a part of our culture that those who have much are somehow more beloved by God, that it is somehow a sign of their righteousness, their goodness, or that God values that person more than someone else.

But it is just a matter of degree. About where we draw the lines about what is excessive and what we consider to be normal. Upgrading a 3-carat diamond ring may seem excessive. But what about if it was 1-carat? or ½ carat? or 1/8 carat? Would we feel the same way? Or what if the man could only have afforded to buy her a band, and saved up for 20 years to buy something to put on that band. Would we feel the same way? Those maybe don’t seem so bad. They might even seem natural, to start with something that small and do a little upgrade. But the only real difference is... well, there is no real difference. It’s just a matter of whether we draw a line, to say “this one is okay and this one is not”, and if we do want to draw that line, where are we going to draw it? And is there anywhere to draw that line that doesn’t at some level discount someone’s values, or feelings, or who they are?

So let us not be too quick to judge the couple who are trading in this ring. We don’t know their story. We don’t know their story. We don’t know who they are. It’s certainly easy to label them as “rich”, and clearly if they have a $75,000 ring they are trading in to buy something bigger, they certainly have more money than I’ve ever had and probably more than any of us here have ever had. It’s easy to label them as “rich” and let that be his identity, but they are much more than that. Just as those who are poor are much more than just “poor”. Or whatever our occupation is, is not our full identity, either.

So I had Jesus’ words about “sell all you own and give it to the poor” ringing through my head this week, along with this article and the rest of my life.

And I wondered, what if the man in this story was not a man with a lot of possessions, but a man with few possessions. And what if he asked the same question, and Jesus gave the same response. What if jesus had said to the poor man, “Sell all you own and give the money to the poor.” We might find that shocking. “Jesus is telling this guy to sell everything he owns, and he owns hardly anything!” And yet the net result is the same, whether it is the rich man or the poor man. Jesus is saying, “You have to get rid of everything you have and go to complete poverty.”

Sell all you own. And note that in Mark’s telling of this encounter, the man is not labeled as rich, as he is in the other Gospels where this story occurs. It does say later he has many possessions, but not labeled a rich man. And to have many possessions in Jesus’ time might very well mean that the guy still had less than we have in our garage, or basement, or storage units.

And wealth, this question of wealth and money, is really a minor part of this encounter that the man has with Jesus. We need to look at the man’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus will slowly unfold that it is not the question to ask. But, he begins by playing along with the man’s question, where he is leading. And Jesus recites a list of commands:
Do not murder
Do not commit adultery
Do not steal
Do not bear false witness
Do not defraud
Honor your father and mother.
The man says, “Well, I’ve kept all those.” Then Jesus felt love for the man, and tells him that he only lacks one thing: “Go and sell all you own and give it to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Jesus hasn’t answered the man’s question at all, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” He asks that question, and Jesus, “You lack something. You are missing something.”

He lines out five of the ten commandments, what I like to think of as the Five Easy Ones, because they cost nothing to do and are easy. It’s easy not to murder, or not to commit adultery, or to honor father and mother. Basically, they are “Don’t be mean to others. Don’t inflict harm on others.” The ones Jesus left out are the difficult ones because they require some thought or action:
No other gods – that’s an easy trap to fall into.
Don’t covet – that’s a really hard one.
Don’t take God’s name in vain
No images or idols
Honor the Sabbath.

And maybe the man was unfaithful about these, and so Jesus didn’t bother to ask about them. We don’t know. But Jesus definitely raises the stakes on the five commands he mentions. The ones that are basically “Don’t be mean.” And the man says he has followed them, and Jesus replies, basically, “Sure, you’re doing great at not being mean. You’re doing great at not being harmful to your neighbors. But what you lack is being good. What you are missing out on is being a blessing to the people around you. It’s great that you are not doing them harm, but you need to go one step further and do goof for them. You must be a blessing, you must be engaged with the world. Engage the poor. Have an encounter with the poor.”

And then the man walks away sad because, as the texts says, he owned much. But the text does not say that he didn’t sell all of his stuff and give it to the poor. We just know that he walked away because he was sad. Then later with the disciples Jesus explains that the man’s question was the wrong question. It was a completely self-focused question in benefit and labor: “What must I do to inherit eternal life (for me)?” Nothing about God. Jesus answers with, “What you lack is compassion. What you lack is detachment from your stuff and attachment to others.”

Jesus doesn’t answer his question except to say, “Stop thinking about yourself. It’s not about your eternal life. It’s not about what you must do.” And he says to the disciples, there is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life. It is impossible for mortals. Only God can do that. Our salvation doesn’t depend on what we do or don’t do. It’s God’s gift to us.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Nothing. Nothing. You don’t have to. You already have it.” Then Jesus says to the disciples, “How difficult it is to enter the Kingdom.” Because the way into the Kingdom is not to try to enter into it. The way into the Kingdom is to be received. To be welcomed by God. And that welcome has already happened through Jesus.

Jesus’ words speak to his culture and very much to our culture that have this idea of wealth equaling God’s favor. And so the rich ought to have, one would think, the easiest path to the Kingdom because clearly they are the most righteous and faithful people.

But Jesus is a subversive. He turns it around and says that the rich will have great difficulty. And “the rich” is never defined. It’s a hard, hard thing to define. Because compared to the rest of the world, we here in Eau Claire are pretty rich. Not 3-carat diamond upgrading rich, but rich. Compared to the rest of the country, we here at Plymouth are not so rich. Mostly in the middle. Compared to the folks that we have been giving clothing and water to, we are really rich. It’s all a matter of degree. It depends on where you draw that line. “Rich” is easy word to toss around, but impossible to define.

Job is also a story against wealth as a sign of God’s preference. Job is righteous and good, yes. But he is also wealthy and appears to have always been so. It’s easy to be faithful when all is good. There is nothing to question. And faith is asking those questions. Not blind belief or easy platitudes. Not until Job loses everything does he come to an understanding of faith as a struggle. His eyes and heart are finally opened enough to ask questions and to challenge God.

But as I said, the story is not about wealth or money or our stuff. It is about our relationships to God and to one another. To the man, Jesus says, “You have many possessions, but still you lack one thing. Sell all you own, give it to the poor, and follow me. Then you will have it. Follow me. Live in the Kingdom. Don’t do it for future reward, do it to be a blessing in the now. Follow me.” To us, Jesus might say, “Give up all your assumptions. Give up all your myths, your culturally conditioned ideas and assumptions about what is success, what is to be valued, what our priorities ought to be. Give up all of those and follow me.”

Live in the Kingdom. If you want eternal life, then start living it now. The Kingdom that is here. The Kingdom we have already been received into. It’s not about belief. Or believing our way into heaven. To almost every question that Jesus is ever asked, his reply or answer to almost any question boils down to version of “Follow me. Do what I do. I’m not here to tell you what to believe, which is inward and selfish, I am here to show you how to live.” That’s what God wants. Not so much about belief trying to get some future reward, but how to live in the present and how to live with the people around us.

“I am here to show you how to live. Follow me. Follow me.”

Share |

Rev. David Huber's Facebook profile

Return to previous page.

Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

Webpastor: Pastor David