October 11, 2009

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Mark 10:17-31

I have an image in my mind of an elderly man standing beside the grave of his 90 year old sister. Most of the other mourners have started to make their way back to their cars, perhaps to find shelter from the cold, Saskatchewan, winter wind. But this man seems stuck in his position beside his older sister. He is bent low, with his hand on the casket, and he’s praying and crying quietly.

I can see that he is a man of faith. His lips are moving with the words of a prayer he has repeated many times, and every once in a while he makes the sign of the cross and straightens up, as if he is ready to leave. But then he bends again, as if he can’t bear to leave her there. Some younger family members come over to comfort him, and he quietly cries “why? why?” as the tears begin to stream down. He’s the last of his generation still living, and this loss seems too much for him.

“It was her time,” “She’s at peace now,” he hears from those around him. But their words are too easy. Perhaps letting go of her means letting go of his childhood, of his history, of his memories of what once was good. Whatever this letting go means for this man, what is obvious to me, as I observe the scene at the graveside, is that letting go is hard.

For the man who came looking for Jesus’ advice in our Gospel reading today, letting go was just too hard. It’s not that he was an evil man, or a selfish man, or someone who just didn’t care much about what God wanted him to do. From what we can tell, he was a good man. Well… as Jesus says, “no one is good but God alone”… but this man was trying. He knew the commandments, and he was trying to follow them. He tells Jesus, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”

He’s off to a good start when it comes to loving God and following Jesus. I figure he’s kind of like your average committed Christian… someone who’s been going to church their whole life. They’ve done the church school program, they’ve learned the bible stories, they come to worship on a regular basis, faithfully bring in their offering, and maybe even volunteer on a committee or two.

But somehow, it just doesn’t seem like enough. If we had to earn our salvation, that couldn’t be enough to guarantee us a place in heaven. And if we’re supposed to be building the kingdom of God on earth, then our little church activities hardly seem likely to make the difference that is needed in our world.

No matter how well we are doing at them, our work is not enough. And there are times when we, like the man in our Gospel, suddenly realize that our faith is not enough, and we come running to Jesus to ask him what we’re missing. What else are we supposed to be doing? What can we start doing, or stop doing, or do a little differently, that will assure us of our salvation… that will make the difference in our world?

So the man ran to Jesus and asked him what he must do. And Jesus looked at him. Actually, the Greek phrase could be translated as Jesus looked INTO him. Jesus didn’t just see the man’s face, but he saw into his heart. Jesus looked INTO him, and LOVED him. And then he said, “You lack [only] one thing; [You have to get rid of all your stuff!] Go, and sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, and follow me.” He lacked only one thing, but it was a big thing. Jesus was asking him to let go of everything in his life, so that following Jesus would be the one and only purpose of his whole life.

The incident shouldn’t be too surprising. I mean, Jesus had challenged others to leave their lives behind and follow. But Jesus began by calling fishermen. They didn’t have houses and servants and treasures to leave behind. Somehow it seemed simpler for them. They just dropped their nets and followed.

In an online discussion on this text, someone described the incident as “one of Jesus’ more public failures”. He was supposed to be building the kingdom, convincing people of his connection to God, and gathering more and more followers as he went. But Jesus is not willing to bend the rules, or to lighten the demands for those who find his way of life more difficult. Jesus had never had great riches himself, so I wonder if this conversation is when he first realizes how difficult it will be for those who are rich to follow his way of being in the world.

It’s not that money and possessions are terrible and evil. We can obviously use the things we own and the money we have to do good work in the world. Most of the ministries of the church rely on funding from people’s generous gifts. And we can choose to use our homes, our vehicles, and many of our other possessions for welcoming, caring, and loving our neighbours and those in need around us. But our things can often get in the way. We can get too used to having all this stuff. We can come to depend on it, and to rely on it for peace and security and happiness. Just imagine if Jesus asked you to give it all up, to give it all away! Could you do it? Or would it be too much?

Someone might suggest that Jesus didn’t get it because he had never owned much of anything. He couldn’t understand how hard it would be to let all that go. But I’m reminded of another story from Mark’s Gospel. It takes place early in Jesus’ ministry, just after he appoints the twelve apostles. Jesus goes back to his home town. He goes home, to the place that he had left behind when he was baptized and the Spirit came and anointed him and sent him out on his special mission from God. And it’s here that we see what Jesus has left behind: His reputation, for one thing. Many of the people in his town think that he’s lost his mind, and some of the others think that he has a demon in him.

And then, as Jesus is teaching in a house, his mother and his brothers show up outside the door. They’re calling out to their brother, asking for him to come out and see them, but Jesus does not give them special treatment. He says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus has given up his home, his profession, his reputation in the community, and even his family. He’s left it all behind… not because those things were bad. They were probably pretty good. But he’s left them behind because God has called him to give them up so that he can be the one who inaugurates the new kingdom of God on earth.

And those who work with him, those who follow his way, are called to that same kind of giving up. We are called to put Jesus and his mission before everything else that we hold dear… before our possessions and our interests, before our families and our homes, before our own agendas and desires.

As I think about “giving up” today, I can’t help but think about some of the struggling churches in our presbytery. I think of the way that the members of Parkview Church gave up their building and congregation one year ago. Instead of hanging on to a building that was getting harder and harder to maintain… instead of clinging to their identity as a church with such a small group of members… the folks at Parkview decided to “give up”.

I don’t mean “give up” as in “they failed”. I mean they decided to “give up” the things they had, to “give away” all they had gathered. Special things like their communion table and baptismal font and piano were given to the Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry. Many other items were given away, and some things were sold. The building was sold to another Christian Church that needed a larger space. And the proceeds of all that will soon be distributed to a variety of ministries within our presbytery and beyond.

Today, there are two more congregations in our city that will be closing within the next few months. Circle West will be dissolved, and the members of McKercher Drive have decided to amalgamate with our church, coming together to join our worshipping community. And I can’t help but think that as sad as it is to see these churches closing, the willingness to give up all that we have and all that we are has got to be the first step before we’re able to do what Jesus is calling us to do with and for him.

I have seen that the giving up can feel pretty terrible. That’s why the rich man went away grieving, because he had many possessions, and it was going to be too hard for him to give them up. But Jesus knows what that feels like too. I think of Jesus, near the end of his life. Mark’s Gospel tells us that after Jesus shared the Passover meal with his disciples, he took them to a place called Gethsemane so that he could pray. Jesus spoke to Peter and James and John, his dearest friends, and he began to be distressed and agitated. He said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.”

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Giving up is hard, even for Jesus. When God asks us to give up our “everything” it is very hard, indeed. And that is what Jesus did. He gave up everything for our sake, and for the sake of the world, so that everyone would come to know the love and grace of God, so that God’s kingdom would grow and God’s kingdom would come.

I wonder what I am being called to give up. I wonder what we are being called to give up, so that God’s kingdom will grow, so that God’s kingdom will come in and through us. I am pretty sure that we are going to be called to do a lot of giving up over the coming years. The demographic changes over the next 20 years or so alone, are going to dramatically change the face of the church, and that dramatic change is going to require us to change. In fact, it is already starting to demand that change… that giving up.

Like the disciples who were confused and perplexed, we may be wondering how the church will survive all that change. How will we be able to keep on preaching the Gospel and sharing the good news when there is so much uncertainty and struggle in our future? Let’s just remember Jesus’ response to his friends. Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Thanks be to God for this hope.

As we seek to follow the way of Jesus, may God do the impossible in and through us, and may God’s kingdom come. Amen.