Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sermon for Trinity XVIII – Proper 23B
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
October 11, 2009

I’m not sure if anyone is like me in this regard, but I really don’t like passages of Scripture like the ones appointed for this morning! Blasphemy you might be saying. How can our priest say that he doesn’t like God’s Holy Word written, the basis upon which we have recorded the saving work of God through His Son Jesus Christ? The reason that I make a comment such as this is because I believe that this is one of those instances where I find myself squarely in the crosshairs of Jesus’ message and I know that He’s talking directly to me, asking me to take an inventory of my own life as His disciple. Let me expand on this a bit more.

This Gospel lesson from St. Mark is one that I am sure has troubled many a Christian over the years because of the topic it addresses – our money or finances. Let me put your fears to rest right now, I am NOT delivering a stewardship sermon on my second Sunday morning with you! However, I believe that there is a message here that reaches so much deeper than just finances.

This story, which has come to be known as the Story of the Rich Young Man, appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. This is significant in and of itself because the majority of the Gospel record has parallels in at least two Gospels, but there are far fewer that appear in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in almost identical form. This passage from Mark 10, and almost all of Mark 10 for that matter, is one of those instances.

I always find it interesting whenever I encounter a passage such as this one to look and see if I happen to notice any differences between the three versions that stand out, or might provide an insight that would go missing if it we didn’t have the different accounts. One of the interesting attributes of St. Mark’s Gospel is the fact that it is the shortest, and its action moves rather quickly from one situation to the next. Mark uses a literary technique peculiar to his Gospel through the use of the phrase, και ευθυς in Greek normally translated, “and immediately.” That one word ευθυς appears in the New Testament 60 times, and 41 of those times occur in Mark. Even though it isn’t always translated “immediately” the overwhelming majority of the times it is used in Mark is to signal a change or shift in the situation, and the story is moving toward its next event.

With that in mind, one would think that Mark’s Gospel would be somewhat light on the details in favor of brevity in order to keep things moving. However, there are several instances where Mark gives us some wonderful details that go lacking in either Matthew or Luke’s telling of the same story. In this story of the rich young man, Mark gives us three subtle points that he alone was inspired to record.

The first difference occurs right at the beginning of the narrative. Mark tells us that, “a man ran up and knelt before [Jesus].” Matthew says simply that a man came up to Jesus, and Luke records the story from the perspective of one of the religious rulers. Look at how differently Mark portrays the man in the story. Two things jump out right off the bat – the man runs to Jesus, and kneels in a posture of respect or adoration. Mark gives us these two insights, and thus, we must ask ourselves the question, why?

In one sense, I truly believe that the man here wanted to know if something was amiss in his life, was he doing something that might possibly hinder his soul in the afterlife. Was he missing something that he should have known, and was there something he could correct in his life?

On the other hand was the man doing what we often do, and that is, compare ourselves to others, or make statements such as, “well, I haven’t done anything really bad,” or “I’m not as bad as he is.”

This reminds me of a story I once heard about two brothers who lived in the wild west in the middle of the nineteenth century. The two brothers were known hoodlums and caused trouble wherever they went. Their reputation preceded them, and people often went in the other direction whenever they walked down the street.

One day one of the brothers died and the surviving brother went to the local minister and asked him if he would do his brothers funeral. Just to sweeten the pot, the brother said that he would deposit a check for $5,000 into the church’s bank account if he would do the service and at some time during the eulogy mention that the deceased brother was a saint. The minister thought about it for a minute and told the brother he would be glad to do the service for his brother.

The day of the funeral arrived, and surprisingly the church was packed simply to see and hear what might happen during the service. At the time for the eulogy the minister walked down and stood right in front of the casket and began with the following words:

“The man that lies before you was a crook. He was a liar, a cheat, a swindler, a womanizer, and an all-around sorry excuse for a human being. However, compared to his brother, he was a saint!”

This funny little story is only meant to prove one very important point – comparison to others for our goodness, or rather, our lack of badness, doesn’t work. Our comparison should be toward one standard and one alone. When we compare ourselves to that standard we come up woefully short, and then, and only then are we able to understand the concepts of grace, mercy, compassion, and love, in a new and redemptive light. Then we are able to seek God’s guidance and we seek to conform our lives and our wills toward His which is the only source of life and hope.

After the man responds to Jesus’ words that he had kept all of the commandments since his youth, Mark then gives us a glimpse into Jesus’ heart of compassion when he records in verse 21, “And Jesus looking upon him loved him.”

Two things can be gleaned from this phrase.

First, our Lord takes great joy with those who strive with all their faculties to keep His commandments. As the Psalmist says, “Blessed is the man whose delight is in the Law of the Lord.” God certainly loves anyone who seeks to do his will. There is an important point to note here. We do this as a response to what God, through Christ, has already done for us. It’s certainly not so that we can earn God’s favor. One of the last lines in the Eucharistic canon asks that God not weigh our merits, but rather pardon our offences. We will always come up short, but striving do to God’s will brings delight and joy to our Father.

Second, Jesus loves those who recognize that there is always more to be done, and wish to know his will more and more. Jesus says as recorded in Luke’s Gospel, that there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repenteth (Luke 15:10). He loves those who come with an open and penitent heart to hear what wonderful things He has in store for them and their lives.

However, as we know from the story, coming with an open heart, and heeding what God wishes and desires are two different things. The third difference coming in Mark’s Gospel comes at the end of our passage this morning. After Jesus tells the man that he needed to sell all that he had, give it to the poor, and come and follow him, Mark tells us that the man’s “countenance fell.” That term is used nowhere else in the Bible, and I think we all have a mental picture of what that might have looked like. I’m sure each of us can probably recall an instance when we knew we were caught, or we just heard something that we really didn’t want to hear, and our demeanors change and it spreads all the way across our faces.

The reason the man goes away sad and dejected is due to his large number of possessions, and couldn’t think of parting ways with them. The man was more tied to the things of this world rather than what Jesus had in store for him for all eternity. He could not do what the collect for fourth Sunday after Trinity asks, “that we might so pass through the things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal.” The rich man confused the two, and lost the better portion.

How often do we also place security in our possessions, rather than in our Lord? I opened this sermon by saying I didn’t like passages like this one because I know that I’ve been found guilty, and come up lacking in God’s eyes. I recall any number of occasions that I have placed far too much stock in the things that won’t last instead of what I know in my heart to be the one thing that is most important.

I think it’s critical to truly hear what Jesus is saying here.

He is not saying that possessions are bad.
He is not saying that money is bad.
He’s not saying that being his disciples mean that we no longer use the gifts and talents that he has entrusted to us.

He is saying that we must constantly inventory our hearts and make sure that there is nothing there which hinders our walk with Him. He is saying that he wants to use those good things of this world with us to further the good things He has in store for His creation.

Don’t hear me say that this is easy because it isn’t. G. K. Chesterton once said that that the problem with Christianity is not that it’s been tried and found wanting, but rather it’s been found to be difficult and left untried. The man in our story couldn’t do it. Our Lord asks us is we have the courage to give him everything, trust Him with all that He has given to us, and follow Him wherever He leads us. If we have the courage to do so, the rewards will last forever.

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