Scripture: Mark 10:17-31
Given on October 13, 2013 at UPC at Amsterdam, NY
The disciples have a problem. The reality of everything that they have given up in following this Jesus guy has started to set in on them. Perhaps it was the long walks, going town to town not knowing where they would stay or what they would eat when they got there. For many of them it was leaving behind friends and family, maybe significant others and children, it was a a minimum leaving behind parents while “letting the dead bury the dead.” It was living on the razor’s edge, a group of outlaw zealots, outside the bounds of both the religious culture of the day and the civic culture. Neither the Jewish leadership nor the Roman authorities seemed to care much for what they were trying to accomplish. And so maybe they were feeling more vulnerable to the temptation to leave on that day when the young man who comes to Jesus seeking to have eternal life. Here this man was, having lived a life that was admirable. Having followed all the laws of Moses since the whole of his life he still comes to Jesus feeling unfulfilled. I suppose it is not because of the faith tradition from which he has come. Jesus was a Jew. The disciples were all Jews. This man was a Jew and yet. And yet he comes to Jesus feeling completely adrift in life. As if his whole existence has not yet produced that which he seeks. And having heard this man come to Jesus and tell his life story, having seen him slink away unfulfilled and unhappy, it begins to dawn on the disciples the position in which following Jesus has put them. And maybe, seeing this man, who from all appearances is a good and decent kind of guy, maybe seeing him leave Jesus presence makes them begin to question their own goodness. Like they are clinging to a version of reality that is slipping through their hands. Like they are looking into a mirror and for the first time seeing themselves as they really are. Broken. Destitute. Without hope. Having left everyone they know and everything they have in hopes of finding the peace that Jesus was offering. But that peace, that calm required faith, and maybe faith was beginning to wane just a bit. And Jesus sensed that. Watching the man leave his presence, sad and still alone.
Watching the reaction of crowd. Jesus starts talking about how hard it is for folks who are distracted by their wealth to see the kingdom of heaven. How hard it is for folks who are distracted by their wealth to find peace, a lasting peace. How hard it is for folks who are distracted by their stuff to see the stuff that matters. “Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” This made the way no less clear for the disciples. They might have given up everything to follow Jesus but this new pronouncement made them feel like it was all for naught. “If this was the case,” they all collectively reasoned, “then who can possibly be saved from this broken world.” And Jesus quickly reassures, “You are thinking about this in human terms and you are right, within the earthly realm there is no way to bring about your own salvation. The brokenness of the world, the brokenness of yourselves, the devastation wrought on all of creation, there isn’t salvation to be found here. But it’s not about what you can do. It’s never been about what you can do. It’s what God can do, and with God, all things are possible.” And it would seem that with that the disciples are satisfied and prepared to move on to what comes next, until Peter, God love Peter, until Peter, like the guy who gets the punchlines to jokes a little later than everyone else offers a final retort, “Look, Jesus, we have left everything and followed you.” And in his declaration is really a deep longing. “We have left everything to follow you, how can we know that it is going to be worth it in the end?” And Jesus, always the patient one, offers a final assurance, “The truth is, there is no one who has left home, sisters or brothers, mother or father, children or fields for me and for the sake of the Gospel who won’t receive a hundred times as much in this present age—as many homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children and property, though not without persecution—and, in the age to come, everlasting life.” And they continued on.
With our eyes today, it is equally difficult to be comforted by the words Jesus offered his disciples in order to quell their doubts. It is difficult because we know how the rest of the story goes. The lives of the disciples and Jesus get no easier and in a lot of ways grow harder with each step towards the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. We all know how it goes for Jesus on that final week or turning over tables in the temple, of running back out of the city to the Mount of Olives each night to escape the watchful eye of the Jewish authority and the Roman occupiers. After his death and resurrection, tradition holds that each of the disciples were ultimately martyred in the most gruesome of ways and so when Jesus reassures the disciples that they will receive “a hundred times as much in this present age” we either have to conclude that Jesus was wrong or that there was more going on in this story and in this utterance than meets the eye.
Each of us, each day, finds ourselves trapped between the two realities, the two orders of the day. We feel ourselves pulled in two different directions. Do I serve God and be thought a fool in the eyes of the greater world? or Do I serve myself and remain restless throughout my whole life, always placing my trust in things to bring me comfort and when one thing passes away we just move on to the next one. A never ending cycle of needs and wants never being fully satiated, never being fully met. When I read this passage about camels passing through needles followed by assurance from Jesus that whoever loses what they have for the sake of the good news will be repaid one hundred times over, I am more and more convinced that Jesus was calling the disciples in that moment to want, to desire, things that are deeper and more fulfilling than the stuff of this world. To want, to desire water from the well that is never found wanting. To want, to desire the peace that surpasses all understanding. To want, to desire the presence of God and nothing else. And we also, often find ourselves in that position within this world. We all often find ourselves struggling against the forces of brokenness that tell us that in order to be happy we must retain our youth, we must possess all that we can, we must be in constant competition with our brothers and our sisters for the dwindling resources of our planet until we end up with a few people possessing everything, most people struggling to get by paycheck to paycheck and close to a billion people who do not know from whence their next meal will come. Are these really the people within whom we wish to be in competition in our efforts to find sustenance? Are we not called to live in a more holistic way with our neighbors, both here and around the world? The old way, the old order guarantees a life of constant hunger and dis-ease. The old way, the old order guarantees that you will search and search in vain for peace and comfort. The old order guarantees that many will go hungry unable to find when they search. We are called to something better.
Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible—but not for God. With God all things are possible.” In the old order of the world, the challenges of the world seem daunting and scary. They seem impossible and not worth even bothering with. But in the new way, the new order, the new being, we know that with God all things are possible if we are willing to step out just a bit, just an inch in faith and see what can grow out of that faith. In the new order we see the brokenness of the world that has left far too many folks on the outside looking in and we ask ourselves, how can we bring those brothers and sisters in? In the new order, we see the brokenness of the world that demands that we take a militaristic posture against countries around the world and we respond with reaching out with open arms that people know that in God is found a bottomless fount of love that can never, ever be exhausted. Don’t hear me say that it is always easy, it virtually never is. There is going to be cost. Don’t hear me say that we will be normal, we won’t. There is always something counter-cultural about following Jesus wherever he goes. Don’t hear me say that we will always succeed. We might not. For every success there is an endless road of failures by people who stood up and tried before someone got it right. But this is what it looks like to live into the new order of the day. It is always just a breath away, erupting in our midst, can you not see it?
I was reminded of a story of from the life of Martin Luther King that I encountered in a book I was reading earlier this week and it made me think of the folks who came before us, who came before all of us to bring us to the place in which we find ourselves today. It was soon after his house had been bombed while he was out giving a speech and while his wife and daughter had not been injured, in the immediate aftermath, it had King questioning whether he was strong enough to see this call to its completion. By now it was clear that it could cost him his life but this new threat to his family was more than he could handle and in the middle of a particularly sleepless night in a final plea he bowed his head over an untouched cup of coffee and cried out his frustrations to God. It was at that point that a strange calm came over him and he heard the voice of God deep in his soul pressing King to work for justice in the world. King would later call that a mountain top experience and as he returned to work the next day he was inspired by it press forth knowing all along that it could cost him everything.
I think about that as I think about all those martyrs of the faith that have come before us to bring us to this point. I think about those in my life who have passed on. I think about those in the tradition who believed in the new order so strongly that they were willing to risk everything they had in order to advance the cause of love and justice and peace just one inch knowing that if they took it an inch, God would eventually take it a mile. What do we owe those who have come before us? What have they bequeathed to us that we want to pass on to the next generation of followers who will next stand on our shoulders? What are we willing to do today for the sake of the good news? Because I don’t have to tell you, there is a world out there starving to hear some good news, starving to know that someone still cares, starving for just a morsel of food in their distended bellies. You see it every time you turn on the news. You see it every time you drive to the church. You see it every time you open your eyes. A whole world out there desperate to know that at the center of the universe, at the center of creation, is a wellspring of love that flows out to all people and that we are blessed to share. And we see that wellspring here. With every stitch of a prayer blanket, with every cup of coffee poured after worship, with every person who comes in these doors in the middle of the week to find a warm and inviting space in which to learn and grow and seek to better their lives in a place of affirmation. We see that wellspring here. What comes next?
I’ve been here a year. It is hard for me to imagine being able to cast my mind back to the first day that I came into my office. The first day that I pulled into Amsterdam on my way to that little cabin we had on the lake. The first day I got totally lost in the midst of one-way streets. I can’t tell you the number of times I crossed over that bridge because I had missed some turn and had to loop around back to the church. Over the year we have had a chance to laugh some, to cry some. To say goodbye to old friends and to welcome new ones. Births and deaths. Happiness and sadness. Ice cream socials and deacon sales and chicken dinners and coffee. And yet, this is only the beginning of what God has in store for you and for me and for us. This is only a taste of the amazing things that this church has in store for this community. This is one the beginning. What comes next? Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.