This weekend we continued our sermon series, Enough, with Jesus’ uncompromising challenge to the rich, young ruler: Go, Sell, Give, Follow.
Evidently it’s a text with much attraction for me because I’ve got quite a few old sermons in the files. Here’s one from 3 years ago:
Last June I had the dubious honor of being invited to serve as the guest preacher for West Potomac High School’s Baccalaureate service.
There’s nothing quite like preaching to a congregation full of teenagers who are all there because their parents made them. It’s kind of like being a comedian in front of a completely sober crowd.
When the invitation came, I tried to pass it off to Dennis, but I was told that he is much too old to relate to high school students.
Because it was an interfaith ceremony the program didn’t even refer to me as a preacher. Instead it called me an ‘inspirational speaker.’ Now I warned them how I felt about that title; I told them how ‘inspirational speaker’ makes me think of guys on TV with capped teeth, hair plugs and seven steps to something.
So I tried to pass it off on Dennis, but Sue McConville is even more persuasive than her husband and eventually she beat me into submission.
This scripture about Jesus and the rich man- this is the passage I chose to preach on for the Baccalaureate.
Now, I admit it’s possible I was in a contrary mood. It’s possible I wanted to subvert people’s expectations of sentimentality. It’s possible I didn’t anyone confusing me for an inspirational speaker.
But it’s also true that in Matthew’s version of this scripture the rich man is said to be ‘young,’ which makes this rich man the only young person mentioned in all of the Gospels. So it was more than just me feeling contrary, I thought it was an appropriate scripture given my audience.
To all of those seniors setting off for college and the American dream, to all of their parents who had just as many ambitions for their children if not more- I told them about this rich, young, religious high-achiever who asks Jesus about eternal life.
And in telling them about the rich young man, I also told them about a young woman I knew in my previous church. A young woman who was a straight-A student at an Ivy league school, who was nearing graduation, whose parents were anticipating her career and six-figure salary.
I told them how Ann, that young woman, threw them all for a loop one day and announced that rather than doing anything they had hoped she was going to work in a clinic in some poor village in South America.
All because Jesus ‘loved’ her.
I thought the sermon went alright. I got a few laughs, mostly at Dennis’ expense. I saw a couple of heads nodding in affirmation. I didn’t notice any one sleeping or scowling. All in all, it seemed like it went okay.
Then I made the mistake of walking into Wesley Hall for the reception.
All I wanted was a cup of lemonade.
At first, I didn’t even make it through the double doors.
‘Do you always preach like that?’
The question was barked at me in a hushed, let’s-not-a-make-a-scene tone of voice. He was wearing an expensive-looking suit with an American flag pinned to his lapel, and his bald head was flushed red with bulging out everywhere.
‘Do you always preach like that?’ he questioned me.
‘I guess you don’t go to church here?’ I said.
‘No, and we never will.’
‘I guess I don’t understand.’
‘My daughter has worked hard and I’ve saved so she can go to the best college and law school. And you’re telling her she should just throw all her ambition away to go help the poor? That’s irresponsible. You call yourself inspirational speaker?’
And, okay, maybe I was in a contrary mood that day.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘it sounds like your problem’s with Jesus not with me. Maybe you should take it up with him.’
He stormed off with his family in tow.
Next, I tiptoed up to the punchbowl hoping nobody would notice me, and thought I was in the clear. But then a different Dad, this one in a yellow polo shirt and khakis came up to me.
He had a gold chain and cross around his neck. He smiled and shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus didn’t really mean sell EVERYTHING and give it to the poor.’
‘He didn’t?’ I asked.
And he smiled at me like I was no older than the high schoolers and he said: ‘Of course not. Don’t you see he just meant we should keep things in their proper perspective? That money and possessions aren’t problems so long as we put God first in our lives?’
And like I told you- it’s possible I was just feeling contrary.
I took a sip of lemonade and replied: ‘Proper perspective, huh? I like that. That sounds good. That sounds a lot more manageable. I don’t know why Jesus didn’t say that, but I like that a lot better.’
I left him there at the punch bowl not sure whether I’d just agreed with me or not.
I almost escaped Wesley Hall. I made it to the door by the kitchen, when a Dad, a church member here, stopped me.
He shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus just told that one man to sell everything and give it to the poor, right?’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘Jesus didn’t ask anyone else to do that did he?’
And I thought about it and replied: ‘Well, the disciples weren’t rich but, yeah, they gave up everything too when Jesus called.’
I didn’t wait for a follow-up question.
I walked down to my office to take off my robe and go home but lingering outside my office door was a mother with three embarrassed-looking kids loitering near her.
‘Can I help you? The ladies’ room is right there if that’s what you’re looking for.’
She blushed but didn’t smile.
‘I was just confused by your message’ she said.
‘Oh, well, don’t worry. That’s how my congregation feels most of the time.’
She shot me a perplexed look and motioned to her tallest girl standing to her left: ‘My daughter invited Jesus into her heart when she was fifteen. She’s saved. She doesn’t have to change her plans, give up her dreams or DO anything.’
‘You must be baptist,’ I said.
She nodded but she didn’t laugh.
And I might’ve mentioned I was kind of feeling contrary that day.
‘Lady, I’m a Methodist. We’re the ones who notice how whenever Jesus talks about salvation he seems to want a lot more from us than just our hearts.’
‘Good Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?’
Jesus is on his way to the nation’s capital when this rich guy from the suburbs comes up to him with a question.
And Jesus doesn’t appear all that interested in the spiritual questions of these well-to-do, upwardly mobile types. Jesus just tries to blow him off with a conventional answer about obeying the commandments.
‘I do all those things already. What else? What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’
Then St Mark says: ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him…’
This is the only place in all of the Gospels where it says Jesus ‘loved’ somebody. Jesus talks about love but this is the only place in the Gospels where Jesus loved an individual.
‘Teacher, I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a kid. What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’
And Jesus looks at him. And Jesus says: ‘Because I love you…there is one thing you can do…just because I love you…go, sell everything you possess, give it to the poor and then come follow me.’
He’s the only one Jesus loved, and Jesus asks everything from him.
They watch the rich man walk away, depressed and grieving.
And Jesus looks at the disciples and says: ‘You know- you just can’t save rich people. It’s hard. It’s just about impossible.’
Near as I can tell, this is the only place in the bible where Jesus invites someone to become a disciple and the person refuses.
And yet we call this story Gospel, good news.
I left that baptist mother looking confused outside my office. I actually made it to the parking lot. I’d almost made it to my car when this student with floppy hair and a wrinkled dress shirt said to me: ‘Did you choose that bible story yourself?‘
I turned around, took a deep breath and said, in love: Look, I might have to take that crap off your parents but I don’t need to take it from you.
‘Yeah, I chose it. Why?’
‘I thought it was inspiring,’ he said.
And I did a double-take and squinted at him: ‘Are you jerking me around?’
‘No seriously. It’s inspiring to think that Jesus believed in that rich man enough to ask him to give up everything. Jesus wouldn’t have asked if he couldn’t do it, right? Jesus must’ve thought he was capable of great things.‘
He was about to get in his car when I said: ‘Hey, would you mind going back inside? There’s an angry looking bald guy in there. He’s wearing a nice suit and he’s got his boxers in a twist. He didn’t get that scripture. But you did. Why don’t you explain it to him.’
We hear this story as bad news.
We feel the need to explain it, excuse ourselves from it, suck the urgency out of it with a thousand qualifications. As a preacher, I know I’ve thought it’s my job to clean up after Jesus, to say things more delicately than he said them.
But maybe this scripture really is good news.
Maybe Jesus has more faith in you than you have in yourself.
Maybe Jesus believes in you enough to say to you that you were made for more than just checking-off the boxes of religious obligation.
Maybe Jesus loves you enough not to leave you as you are right now.
Maybe Jesus thinks you’re capable of more than just a successful life.
Maybe he thinks your life can be significant.
Maybe- maybe the point of this story isn’t that Jesus asks EVERYTHING from you. Maybe the point of this story is that Jesus believes you’re CAPABLE of giving him everything.
I mean- isn’t interesting how the rich man asks about his eternal life, but Jesus responds instead by talking about the Kingdom? As in…thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.
Isn’t interesting that we speak in the passive voice of ‘being saved’ but Jesus speaks of salvation with active verbs: GO, SELL, GIVE, COME, FOLLOW.
Let me make it plain.
There is no salvation apart from following Jesus.
The Gospel is not ‘Jesus died for me now I might think about following Jesus.’
Following Jesus isn’t an afterthought.
Following Jesus is salvation.
Giving him your whole life, this life, in this life, is salvation.
Following him now is participating now in the salvation God is working for the world.
Because God’s plan wasn’t just to come in the flesh and die on a cross.
God’s plan was to change the world, to remake the world.
And he chose his followers to be that change.
That’s what it means to be loved by Jesus.
Two Sundays ago, I told you about Anna Lucia, the girl on the cover of your program. I met her a few days before Christmas. She lives in Guatemala in poverty it’s hard for us to comprehend.
And I told you how Anna Lucia’s mother, Maria, herself just a teenager, thanked me the wood-stove I built her by giving me a basket of tomatoes because that’s all she had to give me.
Well, inside the basket, tucked underneath the tomatoes, was a torn half-sheet of notebook paper. Written on it with a dull pencil was a letter. To you all. ‘To your church’ it said on the outside below the fold.
And on the inside:
Dear brothers and sisters. To each of you I wish that the love and Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ would fill your hearts. The families here in Guatemala are so very happy to be a part of Christ’s Body with you so that, together, we may help change the world and bring it closer to his Kingdom.
Feliz Navidad, Maria.
In his book, The Hole in Our Gospel Richard Stearns says: ‘….In a broken, fallen world, in a world of poverty and injustice, as followers of Jesus you and I are God’s plan A….he doesn’t have a plan B.’
This wouldn’t be my plan. This isn’t how I would do things.
I wouldn’t have this much riding on you. I wouldn’t ask so much of you.
Frankly, I know a lot of you and I’d never imagine you’d be capable of giving your whole lives to the Kingdom.
I mean that just sounds… impossible.
But I suppose nothing’s impossible with God.