17 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?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 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.’ ” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 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.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 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!” 24 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! 25 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.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 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, 30 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. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
A hand went up toward the back of the room, and a man asked a very reasonable and straightforward question. He and the rest of us had just heard a remarkable presentation by Jack Nelson Pallmeyer about Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on creation and our planet’s ecological crisis. Jack had affirmed the Pope’s urgent and prophetic call to repentance and to live more responsibly with the earth. We cannot ignore the problems.
Then the man in back of the room, a guest here at Holy Trinity, asked his question that probably many of us might have asked. He said, “All of this news about global climate change is overwhelming. What is one thing that each of us here can do in response?”
Jack said he couldn’t suggest only one thing but would offer two things. First, simplify. Every one of us could live a little more simply and sustainably, reducing our waste, consuming less. Some of you have worked hard at that already, but there’s room for more, I’m sure. So I took it as good news, actually. There is something I can do to ease the problem of global climate change, even if very small. Eat less meat. Change some light bulbs. Buy fewer plastic toys for the kids. I started making a mental list of goals to privately work on in my own life.
But Jack’s second recommendation wouldn’t allow me to keep my response to all he had laid out as merely a private affair. “Second,” he said, “Be civically engaged.” We’re in this together, after all. We need collective decisions, along with our individual ones. We need to be involved with community networks who can work together toward new economic and political systems. We need to join up with other concerned communities—other groups, other churches, other faiths and learn to find meaning in places other than consumption, waste, and unsustainable growth. The fact is that there are many of us who seriously want to live more sustainably on this planet. But I question our readiness to work together for the kind of change that is required. Cutting down a little on personal energy use is one thing, but how much of the rest of life are we willing to disrupt?
One day, a man had been listening to Jesus and raised his hand. He had a question about what was required of him. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asked, and I believe he was sincere in his asking. I haven’t always believed that. You see, there’s a heading in my Bible right before this passage that says “A Rich Man,” and somehow I’ve developed this assumption that because he was a rich man I should not like him. He must have been sneaky, mean, self-absorbed, only interested in tricking Jesus and earning another profit for himself. But there’s nothing here that says that. Now, maybe he earned his wealth on the backs of the oppressed; he was surely complicit in a system that did. But maybe he was also deeply dissatisfied with that system. Maybe he wanted to help other people and even sought a kind of “eternal life” that was about much more than just his own personal salvation. Maybe he was a good man. It’s my Bible’s editor, not the Gospel writer, who identifies him as rich at the outset. Mark simply calls him “a man.” He was a good and religious person like you and me who tried to obey God’s commands and wanted to know what else he might be missing. What else could he do?
Then Jesus looked at him and loved him. He loved him. He loved this man who was rich and had many possessions. Love was his first response and what informed everything else he said to him. With nothing but love in his eyes, Jesus told him, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then come and follow me.”
It’s a call story. Jesus called him to be a disciple just like he had called Simon and Andrew while they were fishing and Levi while sitting at his tax booth. But this passage, as far as I know, is the only call story in all the gospels in which someone refuses to follow Jesus. A good and concerned person, a person like us, with bills and a job and a retirement account and other people depending on him, chose to walk away in the opposite direction. And the reason, to be clear, was money.
Former St. Paul bishop Peter Rogness tells a story about a time that he and some other bishops were in Washington DC meeting with lawmakers about issues of hunger and poverty. They were waiting in a conference room in the Senate Office Building, when a Senator stopped in to greet them. He said, “Thank you all for the great work you do. You take care of people’s souls, and we’ll take care of the rest.”
Well, in direct opposition to that Senator’s assumptions, Jesus seems to be saying today that “the rest” is a matter of the soul as well. We fool ourselves about that from time to time. We might think that Christian faith is just one aspect of life and has nothing to do with “secular” matters such as how we spend our money. Or we imagine faith only deals with the portion of money that we choose to give to others in need. We might seek our spiritual meaning in little acts of charity that we mistake for the commonwealth of God, while Jesus is still looking at us lovingly and asking us to follow with all that we have. But too often, many of us walk away, sad and grieving, because we think the call of Christ asks just too much.
This is a passage of scripture that has challenged me all week. To be honest, I’m still not sure what exactly it is saying to me, and so I don’t know exactly what it will say to you, either. But wouldn’t it be great if we could try to figure it out together? Could it be one of the gifts of Christian community that we would be honest together about our financial decisions and other life challenges and learn from each other about how faith can inform them?
Some of you visited the Iona Christian community in Scotland a few years ago. They are a community based on a Scottish island but also dispersed throughout the world. Its members, wherever they live, commit to just a few basic rules of community: daily prayer, regular worship and Bible reading, working for justice and peace and wholeness in the world, and meeting with others to account with one another for the use of gifts, money, and time. That last part seems to be the scariest, doesn’t it? Checking in with others about the personal financial and life decisions we’ve made? It does seem scary, but what a gift it could be also. The fact is that there’s no reason we should have to live these important aspects of life all alone. We’re in this together. It could really help to have a community of nonjudgmental trust—that is, a community of love—where we could be free of the shame, embarrassment, and isolation so often caused by money.
As I read it, it’s for the sake of community that Jesus lovingly invited the man with many possessions to follow him. Jesus could have just said, “Get rid of your stuff,” as there is certainly freedom in carrying a lighter load. But he also said, “Give the money to the poor,” so that new relationships with some other beloved children of God could have been formed. And he said, “Come and follow me,” where the commonwealth of God was being glimpsed along the way. Now, it’s true that the man couldn’t do it. Even those who did follow Jesus stumbled pretty significantly along the way. But the invitation is always open, and with God, who knows what’s possible?
Today is a celebration of Christian community. Every Sunday is, but with the baptism of Josef Francis and the welcome of new members, we have even more reason to give thanks for God’s calling us together to share our lives and faith together. No, we’re not a perfect group of disciples, either. But when we make our promises at the font, we are saying again that the task of raising a child is too important a responsibility for only one family. We are going to be family together and are pledging today to support you and to help you however we can. We’re in this together. And lest we sound too altruistic about all of this, we’re also saying that this kid of yours is too incredible a gift to keep to yourselves. We want to share in the joy, too.
The same goes for new members. We want you to share your gifts and strengths and celebrations with us, and we also want you to share your burdens and weaknesses and challenges with us. We pledge to do the same. We are travelers on the way together, and we can’t live our lives of faith alone.
Last week, I heard a friend and colleague in ministry, Grant Stevenson, say to a room full of clergy, “It’s not correct to say, ‘we are our brother’s keeper.’ We need to say, ‘we are our brother’s brother. We are our sister’s sister, and so on. We are family. If we suspect that we’re not, then all hell can break loose,” he said. “On the other hand, the most dangerous thing to systems of injustice in the world is for us to look at one another and say, ‘that’s my brother; that’s my sister.’”
I looked around the room of pastors—Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic, UCC, male and female, black, white, Latino, gay, straight—and I wondered, could we really share our joys and burdens as siblings? Could I ever really have the courage to share such things with them, despite our significant theological and sociological differences, despite my embarrassment about my own privilege and comfort? Could they be open to sharing such deeply personal matters with me? Could we really start to become family together, or would I walk away feeling sad and grieving? I don’t know for sure. But with God, such a wonderful gift just might be possible.