A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 11, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 10:17-31 and Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It didn’t take Sheila long to notice the large rock on the hand of the woman sitting next to her on the flight.  It was big enough that Sheila wondered how much bigger this woman’s left bicep was than her right.  It was big.  It also looked very pure.  Being a gemologist, Sheila really wanted to take a closer look, so she asked her neighbor if she could.

“Why certainly,” the woman crowed.

“That’s quite a diamond.  Would you tell me about it?”

“Oh this is the famous Klimpson diamond,” she said.

“The Klimpson diamond?  I don’t think I’ve every heard of it,” Sheila said.

“Yes.  Yes.  It’s one of the larger diamonds in this cut, but it comes with a curse, you know.”

“Really?  What’s the curse?”

“Mr. Klimpson.”
Today’s gospel lesson is about money and wealth and material possessions – and their curses.  And I don’t know about you, but it makes me uncomfortable.  Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me.  It’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the kin-dom of God.  My annual income may be below the median household income in Fremont, but compared to the rest of the world I’m rich.  So, I would really, really like an escape clause.

There is some good news.  The percentage of people in the world living in extreme poverty has “fallen by more than half, from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures are available from the World Bank).”[1]  But that’s still one billion people living on less than $1.25 per day.  In three days, I earn more than one billion people on earth earn in a year.  I would really like an escape clause.  So I’ve been looking this past week.

We have this Gospel lesson and we have a reading from Job.  You remember the story of Job, I hope.  Job was a righteous and wealthy man.  And then he lost it all – house, wealth, children, health.  All gone.  His so-called ‘friends’ come and try to comfort him.  They tell him that he must have done something wrong.  He must have sinned in some way and offended God.  He should repent and be healed.

But Job has lived a virtuous life.  And we get to today’s reading and Job is yelling about wanting to come before God and have it out.  Job wants to make his case before God because he’s convinced that God would judge him fairly and end his suffering.  Job thinks that God is reasonable.

In our Gospel lesson, we have a righteous and wealthy man who wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life.  We know he’s righteous because Jesus rattles off half of the ten commandments – and he adds one, don’t defraud – and the man says that he has obeyed these commandments since he understood them.  And we know he’s wealthy because Mark tell us “he had many possessions.”

The biggest difference between Job and this rich man is that Job had his wealth taken away and the rich man in the gospel lesson is invited to divest of his wealth as a choice.  Like Job, the rich man thinks this is unreasonable.  Michaela Bruzzese compares the two:  “The rich young man, like Job, has … followed the law, and therefore expects to be commended for his piety and to reap his reward.  Jesus, moved by the man’s earnestness, invites him to go beyond such ‘utilitarian religion’ to a life devoted to others.  Freed from his possessions, he can know the freedom of dependence only on God.  But the man cannot fathom Jesus’ assertion that, in [Latin American Liberation Theology’s founder, Gustavo] Gutiérrez’s words, ‘the kingdom of God isn’t a right to be won …; it is always a freely given gift,’ and he ‘went away grieving.’”[2]

And there may be the beginning of an escape clause in here.  Bruzzese continues:  “Both Job’s friends [and, I would add Job] and the rich young man assumed that faith was quantifiable and livable in the tidy parcels afforded by following rules and gaining rewards.  But today, Job and Jesus expose the danger of such self-serving religion, in which ‘there is no true encounter with God but rather the construction of an idol,’ Gutiérrez writes.  Jesus’ invitation still stands:  The God who gave us the gift of life also invites us to true encounter.”[3]

The reason a rich person can’t get into the “kingdom of God” is that you can’t buy your way in.  The only way to become part of the kin-dom is to receive that citizenship as a gift.  The thing is, when you receive this gift and center your life on God, you can’t center it on money any more.  In many ways, this comes down to idol worship.

I have, this past week, tried to think of the times Jesus is quoted as naming a specific idol we love that gets in our way of loving God.  I have only been able to think of one.  It’s in Matthew 6:24.  In the King James Version, the verse reads, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”  More contemporary translations, like the NRSV, translate the verse, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Mammon, wealth is an idol we worship that diverts us from the worship of God, and it may be the only idol Jesus specifically names.  Why do we worship mammon?  David Janzen writes, “Mammon has the power of deluding slaves into thinking they are free.  We are kings of the supermarket; we can choose among ten brands all leading the same affluent life style.  We are king-puppets manipulated by advertising and built-in obsolescence to consume and produce more and more for corporations’ rising profits.  We ravage and pollute the earth, believing that Mammon’s arch-angel ‘technology’ will save us.”[4]

He goes on, “Jesus declared war on Mammon, on everything the present age holds dear.  He came in God’s power, the power that gives everything away, and to follow him we must overthrow all our perceptions.  Jesus gathered his disciples, calling them to leave possessions, families, and careers in order to form a new society living out the good news of God’s kingdom in their fellowship and service.”[5]

Janzen goes on to write about how the early church banished the idol Mammon by living in community where everything was shared in common.  “Some say,” he writes, “the church eventually abandoned this sharing because ‘it didn’t work.’  That is like saying, ‘It doesn’t always pay to tell the truth.’  We live Christ’s way because it reveals the nature of the Father, because it is the only way peace will come on earth.  To say ‘it doesn’t work’ ignores the fact that in every age there have been communities and individuals who have followed Christ’s teachings of voluntary poverty and radical sharing.”[6]

At this point, I was looking for an escape clause, again.  I was asking myself if I could live a life of voluntary poverty and radical sharing and my first thought was, “Don’t take away my MacBook.”  Then I thought, “I need an internet connection.”  And early this morning Unvirtuous Abbey posted on Facebook, “He asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus replied, ‘Go, sell your iPhone, then come, follow me.’”[7]  And I winced.

Unvirtuous Abbey's Facebook profile picture.

Unvirtuous Abbey’s Facebook profile picture.

There is something different about this story from the other’s we’ve been reading from Mark’s gospel.  I think the biggest difference is that this guy isn’t trying to trap Jesus.  He’s not asking Jesus a question because he thinks he can back Jesus into a political or theological corner.  He runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks, “What do I need to do?”  He senses that something is missing in his life, that he is incomplete.  He has plenty of material things.  He knows his role and he knows the rules, but there’s something missing.  “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And maybe that’s why I see myself in this character in Mark’s gospel and why I find Jesus’ response so personal.  “Jesus, I have kept these commandments since my youth.”  And Jesus looked at him and loved him.

Jesus looked at him and loved him.

And he said, “Go, sell what you own, and give it to the poor; then come, follow me.”  And the man walks away, grieving.  Grieving not just because he had many possessions, but because deep down, he knew that Jesus was right.

Maybe Jesus is “looking at us with love and, perceiving the deep heart sickness in each of us, actually asking something of us, giving us something to do, something to give up or away, somewhere to go.”[8]  Not because we need to do this to “earn” grace – that’s a gift – but because he loves us and because he cares about the life we enjoy here and now, with each other in God’s creation.

“Of course that’s hard.  Deep down we’re too scared (and often as a result too selfish) to do that for long, too scared and selfish and insecure and competitive and controlling and judgmental … and so many other things to boot.  Because when push comes to shove, I have to admit that despite all the theology I’ve learned over the years I haven’t changed much since I was a kid.  I mean, I still don’t feel like giving up all I have.…  “Which is why Jesus comes and makes these demands, naming [this] idol we’ve created and asking us to give it up, throw it away, for the sake of our neighbor and ourselves.”[9]

David Lose points out that this scene can be interpreted as a healing story.  “Did you ever notice … that all the people in Mark’s gospel who kneel to Jesus and ask for a blessing either have some dread disease or are demon possessed.   And almost every time Jesus orders someone to go, like he does this guy, it’s in relation to a healing.”[10]

This guy doesn’t need to wash himself in some pool to be healed.  He doesn’t need to show himself for examination by a priest at the Temple to be healed.  He needs to go and sell and give and follow.  He is possessed by a demon of sorts.  He worships an idol called Mammon.  And he can’t serve two masters.

May we be healed of whatever it is that possesses us – even if that requires of us going and selling and giving and following.

Amen.

[1] Nicholas Kristof, “The Most Important Thing, and It’s Almost a Secret,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/01/opinion/nicholas-kristof-the-most-important-thing-and-its-almost-a-secret.html (posted 1 October 2015, accessed 2 October 2015).

[2] Michaela Bruzzese, “True Encounter,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/true-encounter (accessed 6 October 2015).

[3] Ibid.

[4] David H. Janzen, “The Empire of Mammon and the Joyous Fellowship,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/empire-mammon-and-joyous-fellowship (accessed 6 October 2015).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Unvirtuous Abbey is a tongue-in-cheek Facebook page that describes itself as “Digital monks praying for people with first world problems. From our keyboard to God’s ears.”  They are at https://www.facebook.com/Unvirtuous-Abbey-184277211606988/timeline/

[8] David Lose, “Pentecost 20 B: Curing Our Heartsickness,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/10/pentecost-20-b-curing-our-heartsickness/ (posted 5 October 2015; accessed 6 October 2015).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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