The Twenty-Frist Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23), Year B.
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”Mark 10:17-31
Can you feel it in the air? The weather getting colder, the leaves starting to turn. The vague hint of pumpkin spice trickling out of every grocery store, restaurant and coffee shop? The brutal heat and stale humidity that has made everywhere feel like a damp musty towel has finally broken and given way to crisp cool air inviting a warm drink and a soft blanket. It’s finally the magical season we have all been waiting for before the oppressive winter. It’s Stewardship Season.
Yes it’s everyone’s favorite time of year again, a magical few months before advent that clergy write awkward sermons asking for money, using this story about the young rich man to chastise, plead, and beg to the congregation. In many congregations the discomfort about money causes many rectors to ask a vestry member to preach on this reading. The reasoning for this is obvious: we have been trained to not talk about money. Because when we start talking about money it takes us to uncomfortable places, mainly the realization that the world is profoundly unfair. Especially in America with our peculiar hang ups about it. We hold so dear to the idea that everyone starts at an equal playing field, equal wages for equal work right? We want to believe that we have an egalitarian society, where hard work is rewarded equally and appropriately. Only it’s not. At the present time work and merit is not always judged by its importance to the common good, but by the fickle demands of the market. Yet despite the faith people put in it, the market is not God. It is not wise, just, and omnipotent, rather it is manipulated, fickle, and so weak it can collapse by the slightest shock. Worst of all, unlike God, the market does not care about people, especially not those who do not neatly fit into its whims.
To have any truly honest conversation about money, especially the stewardship of this congregation there is something you all need to hear: Thank you. I am continually humbled by the tremendous generosity of this congregation. This community is generous not only in material wealth, but in talent, in time, and most importantly of all, in love. Because of your sharing of time, talent, and funding, in this moment of profound crisis, we have been able to maintain our facilities, help many people in need, and above all be a community who loves and welcomes all. In a world where people are valued only by their supposed productivity, the love and generosity that this community demonstrates daily is a profound rebuttal. The Holy Spirit of generosity and gratitude working through you has made the impossible possible. Of course, one of the most direct and profound means I am honored with is the discretionary fund, where I share your generosity with those who need it. When we pay off those bills you aren’t giving them money, you have given that person peace and just a little more freedom. So on behalf of all those who come through our door and we can help, I thank you.
Though along this profound feeling of joy and gratitude there is always a tinge of sadness. In my relatively short time in ordained ministry I seen people from all walks of life in crisis, but I always see the same crisis. An injury, a death in the family, even a small car accident, or simply trying to get an education to improve oneself, in an instant they go from self-sufficient to calling church to church trying to scrape enough together to avoid the fees that keep digging that hole deeper. Many of the people that have come to see me for assistance have jobs, some have had two simultaneously. Yet they have trouble making it to the end of the month. We see it again and again, so many people living on the knife edge of society.
But what can we do? We aren’t the market. We don’t hold in our hands the levers of governance and fiscal policy. And as much as we would want to, we can’t give everyone everything they need. It can be overwhelming and depressing. It can feel hopeless and pointless. There’s a name for this feeling in the nonprofit sector: Giving fatigue.
There is so much wonderful charitable work being done, in this congregation, in the countless local organizations, and in our private lives when we help a friend or a family member, or save for our children’s school to minimize their debt. But the need just keeps growing. This is the other reason why we as a society, and even the church, shy away from talking about money. A profound sense of fatigue and embarrassment that after all this time it feels like we haven’t accomplished anything.
This is where we want to disagree with Jesus. He tells that young man to give up everything he has and give it to the poor. What is that going to do? Is that young man giving up everything really going to help anyone more than it is going to hurt him? This demand is so shocking to him that he cannot even remain there. I’d go so far to say that Mark isn’t being very fair to the young man by saying that he was grieving for his possessions. Wealth is more than possessions, it is security, freedom, social status, the ability flourish beyond biological necessities. Jesus even goes on to tell a small joke at the expense of the rich man, citing an old peasant phrase that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Especially following the equally difficult teaching on divorce, this is a fairly traumatic chapter of Mark for wealthy and middle-class Episcopalians. You just want to shake the book and say, “but you don’t understand all the economic underpinnings of poverty! We do so much already how can you possibly ask for more?” We want to write Jesus off as irrelevant, naive, or simply unrealistic. It’s where we make the same mistake that the rich young man makes, we leave and stop listening.
The disciples have that same anxiety written on their faces. They’ve already given up everything, and in this moment even they give into despair: “Then who can be saved?”… who can be saved? If we all gave up everything, put on sackcloth and gave it away, would we be saving everyone? Would we be saving anyone? Would we inherit eternal life?
It’s easier to walk away from it, say it’s all pointless and go back to what the market says. Just look out for no. 1. If you give, it should be ultimately because a healthier society benefits me.
It’s this moment of despair that Jesus finishes the lesson he began teaching before the rich young man left.“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible”.
We have already seen this kind of miracle. I’ll use the Church as an example because it’s what I know best. As many of you know, the Episcopal Church, alongside other mainline Protestant Church is losing about 1% of its membership every year. That’s about 22,000 people. It’s been going on for a while, but it got worse in 2008 when the financial crisis hit. Then in this moment of profound crisis, all logic would point to shrinking budgets and cuts. Instead giving has increased and continues to increase. This giving to the mission of God’s church in the world is nothing short of a miracle. And it’s so much more than setting and staying within a reasonable budget. It’s about what we as a community expect of our selves, and what we expect the Heavenly kingdom to be. This parish is a place where those who market seems unworthy of a good life are seen for what they really are: God’s people. This is a community for all, where we look out for one another not because it serves our interests, or has a payoff down the road, or because God told us to do it! We do it because this is what it means to be Christians, that we are known by our love. And yes, it’s expensive, difficult, and sometimes thankless. But that’s what it takes when we have standards. We invest in the mission of this parish not because we expect financial returns but because together we are building toward something greater than ourselves. What should be impossible, the generous spirit of God has made possible.
When we get lost in the sheer magnitude of the work to be done, especially in the case of poverty, faithful people can very quickly show little faith. Will that food donation save someone who can’t afford their rent? No, but it means that they had one less meal to worry about. Will those old clothes you gave away pay off that crippling medical debt? No, but it might help them get a job, or at least keep warm tonight now that the weather is turning. It is impossible for us to end world hunger, but with solidarity, God’s grace, and feeding as many as we can, we share hope. When we give we are sharing God’s love. Every time we ease just a little of the pain that is so deeply a part of the world, we are laying a foundation for God’s kingdom. We are building a kingdom where there will be no war, poverty, or pain. When we trust in God we will learn to beat our swords into plows, and our spears into pruning hooks so we can feed the world.* And when our Savior comes again He will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. In God’s kingdom all these things have will have passed away.*
*Isaiah 2:24, *Revelation 21:4