Sermon for 19th Pentecost -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
I have always been bothered by today’s Gospel text. You know, the part about camels and needles and rich people. It has always been a bit scary for me.
Now, like most of you, I do not consider myself rich. But, if I am honest, I certainly am rich, especially in comparison to the rest of the world. My middle class lifestyle is probably richer than 90 or even 95% of the people of this world!
And that makes this text difficult for me. Look at the illustration on our bulletin cover – a camel and a needle. Even a big needle like the one illustrated – just no way that camel is going to get through it. Just no way a rich person, like me, can get to heaven.
However, some years ago, I experienced first-hand what Jesus really meant by this example. When Kris and I were last in Jerusalem we had a tour guide who took us to a new archaeological site in and under the ancient wall that surrounds the Old City of Jerusalem. There in the wall were two doors – a large door, big enough for a horse or camel to enter and, next to it, a much smaller door, big enough for a man or woman to crawl through. And, the story we were told was this – the Jerusalem city wall had a number of these double entrances. During the day, the large door was open for all to enter. During the night, both doors were closed. But, if you knocked hard enough, a guard would open the small door and might let you in. You might have to crawl a bit, but you could get into the Old City through the small opening.
And what was this small door called? You guessed it, it was called “the eye of the needle!”
Jesus’ listeners would have known this. They would have known that, while Jesus has stated a very challenging possibility for more wealthy folks, he was also not eliminating them from the possibility of heaven.
Our gospel lesson tells the story of a bright young man who met Jesus. This is a story that you will find in three Gospels – Luke, Mark and Matthew. Mark, as you have heard, does not say he is young – Matthew calls him young and Luke says he was a royal, a ruler.
Regardless, this "man" stands there before Jesus and he really represents us all. He had "great possessions," but so do we, when we are compared to the vast majority of the world's inhabitants. We Americans, even in any challenging economic times, we have more stuff than we need.
Here is a story of a man who is met by Jesus. Not only is he met by Jesus, but he is called by Jesus. Jesus tells him that the way to "eternal life" leads through discipleship. Jesus invites him to be a disciple. "Come, follow me," Jesus says.
So many had come and followed Jesus. All of the disciples, standing around witnessing this encounter, had left much and had followed Jesus. The journey had not been easy for them. Read your way through the gospel of Mark, and you will discover how tough it was for them to follow Jesus, a perilous way full of misunderstanding, risk, confusion, and difficulty.
Now, someone else is being met by Jesus, face-to-face; someone else is being asked to become a disciple. And after hearing how much it costs to be a disciple, the man slumps down and walks away sorrowfully.
The story, then, is about someone like us being met by Jesus and asked to follow, but who decides that it is not a way he wants to go. He walks away.
Dr. William Willimon, one of my preaching heroes, and a source for much of this sermon, points out that this is the only call story in all the gospels in which someone refuses to follow Jesus. A person like us is being invited to be a disciple of Jesus, and this person like us walks in the other direction - and let us relatively well-fixed North Americans take note - the reason was money.
Can we not sympathize with this man? We can certainly identify with his materialistic encumbrances. Like him, all of us have many possessions, more than we need to live. We know how concern about all of our stuff tends to chain us to the stuff. Yet more than that, don't we all know how risky a matter it can be to be met by Jesus? Can we blame this man for walking away rather than following?
Willimon tells the story first told to him by Clarence Jordan, best known for his “Cotton Patch” paraphrase of the Bible and as one of the founders of Habitat for Humanity, about a time when Jordan, a true southerner himself, visited an integrated church in the Deep South. Jordan was surprised to find a relatively large church so thoroughly integrated, not only black and white but also rich and poor; and this was in the early sixties, too. Jordan asked the old country preacher, "How did you get the church this way?"
"What way?" the preacher asked. Jordan went on to explain his surprise at finding a church so integrated, and in the South, too.
The preacher said, "Well, when our last preacher left our small church, I went to the deacons and said, 'I'll be the preacher.' The first Sunday as preacher, I opened the book and read, 'As many of you as has been baptized into Jesus has put on Jesus and there is no longer any Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, males or females, because you all is one in Jesus.'
Then I closed the book and I said, 'If you are one with Jesus, you are one with all kind of folks. And if you ain't, well, you ain't.'"
Jordan asked what happened after that. "Well," the preacher said, "the deacons took me into the back room and they told me they didn't want to hear that kind of preaching no more."
Jordan asked what he did then. "I fired them deacons," the preacher roared.
"Then what happened?" asked Jordan.
"Well," said the old southern preacher, "I preached that church down to four. Not long after that, it started growing. And it grew. And I found out that revival sometimes don't mean bringin' people in but gettin' people out that don't dare to love Jesus."
(As told in Hauerwas and Willimon, Where Resident Aliens Live, Nashville: Abingdon, 1996, p. 103).
Willimon goes on to tell another story:
One night, in a college dormitory Bible study Willimon presented this same story of Jesus and the rich man, he then asked the gathered students, "What do you make of this story?"
"Had Jesus ever met this man before?" asked one of the students?
"Why do you ask?" Willimon asked.
The student responded, "Because Jesus seems to have lots of faith in him. He demands something risky, radical of him. I wonder if Jesus knew this man had a gift for risky, radical response. In my experience, a professor only demands the best from students that the professor thinks are the smartest, best students. I wonder what there was about this man that made Jesus have so much faith he could really be a disciple."
Willimon notes that he had not thought of that interpretation and was impressed.
Another student responded thoughtfully, "I wish Jesus would ask something like this of me. My parents totally control my life just because they are paying all my bills. And I complain about them calling the shots, but I am so tied to all this stuff I don't think I could ever break free. But maybe Jesus thinks otherwise."
Willimon says he was astounded. What he had heard in this Gospel lesson as severe, demanding BAD news, these students heard as gracious, GOOD news.
My friends, the simple lesson from all of this is this: Jesus invites people, Jesus invites you and me, to be his disciples. And with this invitation, Jesus invites us to divest, to break free and to let go of our stuff! Jesus is always inviting us to follow him.
And, like those students in Willimon’s example, Jesus has good news for us – we can do this. As the one student suggested, Jesus has faith that we, you and I, CAN be his disciples. Like the young man in today’s Gospel, we might feel that our possessions hold us back from loving Jesus. But, like the other student suggests, Jesus thinks otherwise. Jesus believes that we can break free of possessions and any and everything else that holds us back from loving Jesus and others most fully. Jesus believes in us, Jesus believes we can do this.
This is what it means to follow Jesus, to dare to love Jesus. And we can do this. Today.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Dare to Love Jesus
Sermon for 19th Pentecost
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
October 11/12, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California