Monday, October 5, 2015

What Jesus Said

If you want to make sweeping categorical statements about who does and does not get into heaven, it helps to be Jesus. He's pretty well accepted as an authority on the subject. For some reason, though, preachers who quote Jesus and give their congregations the exact same message that Jesus delivered to his audience are often chastised for overstepping their bounds. Imagine that! If Jesus says it, we have two thousand years of interpretation to filter out the parts we don't really want to hear (e.g., Jesus' teaching on divorce in yesterday's gospel lesson). If the preacher says it, however, he or she is often labeled as a "radical" or a "liberal" and, before long, is asked to pack up and move on.

In the end, Jesus wasn't very popular with the powers that be either, so maybe the preacher who declares this Sunday that "[it] is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" will feel some level of comfort when she or he is being nailed to a proverbial cross. Of course, the preacher could hide behind a claim of analogy or metaphor or hyperbole. After all, if you boil it all down, the point behind many sermons is basically, "Jesus didn't really mean that." Or maybe the preacher could point a rhetorical finger at the "truly rich," of whom perhaps only one or two calls the congregation a spiritual home (perhaps not for long). Or maybe it's time for the preacher to let Jesus say what Jesus says and be the prophet who shares in his message instead of the pastor who softens the blow.

Truthfully, I've been waiting for months--literally for months--for Mark 10:17-31 to come along. Back in the spring, I searched through all of the gospel texts in September and October, looking for one that offered a clear message of stewardship for our fall focus, and this one is perfect. There are so many beautiful pieces in this passage. The man kneels down before Jesus and calls him "good teacher" as a sign of true, deep, hopeful obedience. The man really, really wants to get it right. Isn't that true of most of our congregations? Jesus outlines the big commandments, to which the man responds, "I've kept all of those since my youth," which is the response that most of us would give, too. Jesus looked at the man and loved him--the only time in Mark's account that Jesus is said to have loved someone--and only then gave him the painful teaching that follows. This is the chance for the preacher to love his/her congregation while sharing with them a tough teaching.

The truth is that our wealth gets in the way. We are rich. All of us who have a place to sleep and food to eat and enough money left over to buy our kid a Christmas present are, by the world's standards, rich. You can argue with me about that, but, call it what you will, if you fit into that category, Jesus is talking to you. Our possessions get in the way. We must become radically self-dispossessed. You cannot enter the kingdom of God if you are clutching onto anything other than the cross. What will it take to let go of everything else?

Stop trying to figure out a way around Jesus' tough teaching. There are no loopholes here. If you want to be a part of God's kingdom, you must let everything else go. The only question is how you can do that. This Sunday's sermon is about finding a way to let go of everything except the cross. It's about stewardship. It's about living lightly. It's about trust and faith and spiritual growth. It's about discipline and sacrifice. It's about learning that the only thing that can get you into heaven is Jesus and that the only way to truly learn that is to stop depending on yourself and cling only to him. It's about selling everything you have, giving it to the poor, and following Jesus. But don't blame me. I didn't make it up. Jesus said it first.

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