All Things Are Possible
At my previous church we planned a surprise for the ninth graders for their final confirmation retreat. The schedule was to spend the day and have dinner at Camp Iduhapi, then, we told them, we would return to Mt Olivet for a big surprise. The surprise was a dance, complete with DJ, strobe lights, refreshments that the parents were hosting.
After dinner, before we got into the bus, I told them what the surprise was. But, using my best poker face, I told them we were going to have a special two-hour worship service consisting of long periods of silence, prayer and reading entire books of the Bible. “I know, it doesn’t sound great,” I told them, “but you guys have to give this a chance. It’s going to be awesome!”
Right away, you could see the panic on their faces. “Is he serious?” they were asking themselves. “I hope not.” But they bought it – completely. Doesn’t mean they were sold on the idea. It kind of depressed them actually. That’s not a knock on worship or prayer or ninth graders. Few people after a full day of religious education would have wanted to do what I described.
When we arrived at Mt Olivet, we ushered them into Fellowship Hall and immediately there were lights and music. Now I’ve been a part of many dances over the years with youth groups, and my prediction for this was the same as always: the girls would be up there dancing with each other, and the guys would be sitting in chairs trying to be cool. But I’ve never seen anything like what I saw that night. Every single ninth grader – boys and girls alike – were up dancing immediately. And they stayed dancing! It was as though they were somehow so…thankful, so relieved.
When we hear the story from Mark this morning, we may have had the same reactions to what Jesus said to the rich young ruler as the ninth graders did to me that evening: He can’t be serious.
A man comes up to Jesus and asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus says, “You know the commandments.”
The man says, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
To which Jesus responds, “You lack one thing. Sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and come follow me.”
Then it says the man was shocked. Like my ninth graders, he must have said under his breath, “Is he serious about that? I hope not!” Concluding he was serious, though, he walked away very sad, because he had many possessions.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were perplexed. They were well aware of traditional Jewish piety at that time which held that wealth was a sign of God’s favor. Some people believe that today, too.
But here Jesus seems to be saying that wealth was more of a curse, really. Obeying the commandments isn’t enough? Sell everything and give it to the poor? Even when you are an admired, respectable, good person?
Is he serious?
Then Jesus drives the point home a bit further by reminding his listeners how hard it is for anyone to enter kingdom of God, but for a rich person, well, “It would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
“Then who can be saved?” asked the disciples, now sensing they would fall short, too.
Is he serious about this? I hope not!
And as listeners today in middle class America – rich by almost any global standard – aren’t we asking the same question: “Is he serious? It would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for me to get into the kingdom of God? But wait a minute…I’m a pretty good person.”
“Who can be saved then, Jesus?” they asked.
Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Aha! It’s God and God alone who can get us through the eye of the needle. None of us can make it on our own. Point number 1: It is only by the grace of God that the rich man, you, me, and everyone can enter God’s Kingdom.
So, all that other stuff was just a setup, right? Jesus was just making a point to show how impossible it is for us to get into the kingdom on our own. He didn’t expect anyone to do that, right? So, like the confirmation students, we can all breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Thank goodness, Jesus wasn’t serious about that other stuff!” and then head to the dance!
Guess again. Jesus was serious about that other stuff. Point no. 2: Jesus really did want the rich man to give it all up and follow him. That’s what following Jesus is about, total commitment. The elephant in the room, of course: does Jesus ask all of us to do the same?
Now, many commentators over the years have wondered about this and attempted to soften it. “Well,” the reasoning goes, “Jesus only asked the rich man to do that because he needed that kind of challenge, because he was really messed up. You and me? We already have our priorities straight.”
Right. And we all know that there’s nothing you or me need to let go of, is there?
And some commentators have also pointed out that what the “eye of a needle” really means is an actual gate that a camel had to pass through when it entered a town. It was low, and the camel had to stoop to pass through, but it was passable – you know if the camel was humble and had the right spirit. Ever heard that explanation? There’s only one thing wrong with this theory: there never was such a thing as a low gate for a camel called a needle. It’s made up so that economically blessed people don’t have to worry about this passage. Put it in the category of: Jesus didn’t drink wine but Welch’s grape juice.
The truth is, the eye of the needle, selling everything story does apply to us; it teaches us what it means to follow Jesus.
But wait. Let’s get this straight. If God is our only hope for salvation, what difference does it make what we do in this life? Why sell everything and give to the poor or some such sacrifice?
Here’s why. Points one and two are essentially the same point: trust God and God alone. For eternal life and for this life. For ultimate destiny and for how we live on Monday and Tuesday. Jesus loved the rich man, so he offered him true life right now. This meant putting his trust in Jesus, embarking on a journey with him, and letting go of the false gods which were the real object of his trust – in his case, wealth, and his own self.
What do you trust? Your money? Your accomplishments? Yourself?
Jesus loves us enough to tell us the truth. To shake us loose from the pale imitations of life that deceive us. Instead, Jesus invites us to join him and experience the real thing. He may not ask you to give everything away, but he does ask you to give up the things that take you away from God. Jesus invites us to a profound re-imagining and re-ordering of our lives. Learning to trust God means taking yourself out of the center, and letting Jesus be at the center. The rich man couldn’t do that.
Robert Bellah, a noted sociologist, has extensively studied the beliefs and values of Americans. One thing he observed is how individualistic and self-sufficient the faith of Americans is – not unlike the rich young man. We come by it honestly. Long ago, Thomas Jefferson declared, “I am a sect myself,” and Thomas Paine said, “My mind is my church.” With all due respect to Jefferson and Paine, it’s hard to avoid making yourself God when your self is at the center.
A very telling example of this is found in a woman named Sheila, who was interviewed in Bellah’s research. Sheila describes her faith and gives it a very interesting name. I quote: “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheila-ism. Just my own little voice.”
Sheilaism. Have you ever heard anyone like that? It’s pretty hard to follow anyone but yourself with a religion like Sheilaism. We each have many gifts, but lord and savior aren’t two of them.
To Sheila – and to the rich man – Jesus says, “Let go of yourself, and follow me.” What does that mean for you?
But while trust means letting go of yourself, it also means re-engaging yourself with love. And no, the commandments aren’t a prescription for love, necessarily, as Jesus showed us. The rich man obeyed the commandments, which meant he hadn’t done bad things – murder, adultery, thievery, and the like. Most people think being a good Christian means not doing certain things. But Jesus correctly notes that he lacks one thing – basically love. Using your resources to help people live. Love is more than merely avoiding bad things, it’s positively engaging with others to help their lives flourish. Family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, maybe even strangers! And no, this doesn’t necessarily mean adding a bunch of new things to your life. It means adding a new perspective and adding value to what you’re already doing. Right where you are!
Let us give thanks that all things are possible with God – including the salvation of the likes of you and me. Let us also give thanks that in this world and life we are called by the same God to live a life marked by trust in God and love of neighbor. Amen.