October 14, 2012

Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

The author of the Book of Hebrews understood the power of God’s Word and the challenge of the call to discipleship. She wrote: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

I wonder… when friends or colleagues ask you about your faith, when they ask you why you come to church, or why you read the bible, what do you say?

Do you tell them that the Word of God is a comfort and encouragement to your soul? Do you tell them that coming to church lifts your spirits and helps you to know that you are loved? Do you tell them that reading the bible brings peace into your heart, especially when you read favourite passages like “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”?

I wonder… have you ever described the Word of God as the author of Hebrews did? The bible is like a two-edged sword piercing my life, separating the bad from the good, the failure from the possibility, the lost opportunities from the mission and ministry in which I am called to participate today. Have you ever explained that the Word of God is like a judge over your life… evaluating, correcting, directing, and re-directing your values and priorities and activities.

I don’t know if that kind of description would encourage many friends to pick up the bible or many colleagues to give life in the Christian community a try. But it would be a little more honest about what the life of faith involves than some of our invitations might be.

Can you imagine Jesus, calling disciples, saying “Come and follow me. It won’t be a big change, not to worry. We’ll learn to pray, and we’ll sing some hymns, and we’ll take care of each other and remember that we are loved. Oh, and when we don’t have a potluck supper, we almost always have coffee and cookies with our gatherings. Come and follow me. You’ll probably make some new friends.”

It sounds strange, doesn’t it? Because Jesus didn’t try to sell the life of discipleship by explaining all the positive benefits. Instead, he was quite clear about what the cost would be to the follower.

You’ll leave your stuff behind. You’ll leave your life behind. Everything will be completely different, and you’ll be led by God’s will, and God’s priorities, and God’s intentions for your life.

One day a man ran up to Jesus and asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said, “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; Honour your father and mother.’”

And the man told Jesus that he was already keeping all these commandments. And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.

I love that part. Jesus, looking at him, loved him. And so, because he loved him, he told the man the one thing that he lacked. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

I think there are at least two important principles that we can learn from this text about what it means to be a disciple of Christ. The first one is pretty simple and straightforward. We need to give from what we have to help the poor.

As Jesus once said, the poor will always be with us, and that is certainly true today with severe poverty, malnutrition, and homeless in many parts of the world, and even terrible poverty and need right here in our own city.

The church has always played an important role in helping the poor, and we must not forget the importance of that continuing ministry. In today’s bulletin, there are some facts about poverty in Canada which I would invite you to read and consider.

One in ten children in Canada, and one in four children in Aboriginal families grows up in poverty. Those living in poverty include new immigrants, single mothers, people who are working but receiving low wages, people with disabilities, the elderly on fixed incomes, and those who must rely on welfare for their income.

The use of food banks increases every year in Canadian cities, and the need for homeless shelters grows each winter. There are more and more children who need food programs at school because their families run out of food for breakfasts and lunches on a regular basis.

October 17 is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, and here in Saskatoon the Anti-Poverty Coalition is marking Poverty Awareness Week with a number of learning opportunities, community meals, and awareness raising gatherings. Participating in events like these not only opens our eyes to the problems and challenges related to poverty in our city, but it also shows our support, encouragement, and prayers for those who are personally affected by poverty and who may feel very isolated and alone.

In a resource from “Citizens for Public Justice” the question is asked “What can we do about poverty in Canada?” and several possibilities are suggested:

  1. We can listen to the experiences of people living in poverty and educate ourselves about its root causes. We can do that this week by taking part in one or more of the Poverty Awareness Week events.
  2. We can partner with groups that are working for systemic change, such as the Presbyterian Church in Canada’s Justice Ministries, Citizens for Public Justice, or Dignity for All: The Campaign for a Poverty-Free Canada.
    Today, in the entranceway of the church, we have cards about “Dignity for All,” including post cards that you can fill in and return to the organization. This is one way to add your voice to their campaign to encourage the federal government to make a plan, and to act on a plan to put an end to poverty in Canada. If you fill in the card and mail it in, you’ll also get updates from the organization about their work and ways that you can continue to support such initiatives.
  3. Another thing we can do is talk to our elected officials (as well as those running for office) and ask them what they intend to do about poverty in our city or our country.
  4. We can encourage each other, as committed Christians, to engage with these issues and get involved.
  5. And, of course, we can pray. We can pray for those who are poor and suffering. We can pray for the wisdom and the will needed to reduce poverty and its negative effects on children, families, and seniors. We can pray for those in positions of setting public policy and advocating for the development of a society where there is dignity for all.

It seems to me that caring for the poor would definitely be high on Jesus’ priority list. He told the rich man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. But I think that Jesus told the man to do it, not so much to help the poor, but to help the man himself.

The man came running to Jesus, looking for the way to eternal life. He wanted to be right with God. He wanted to be saved. He wanted the things that many of us want… the things that we come looking for, that we hope to find in our faith, in the church, in the Scriptures.

And from the urgency of the request, I get the impression that the man was quite sincere. He really wanted to know from the good Teacher what he must do, and he was ready to do a lot. He already followed all the commandments, and that’s quite a tall order. Not many of us manage to do even that very well.

And Jesus, looking at the man… looking at the man who was asking for guidance, looking at the man who needed to know the way… Jesus, looking at the man, loved him, and told him the one thing that he lacked: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

What he lacked was the complete giving up of his life for the life that Jesus was calling him to follow. What he lacked was a complete trust in God, rather than a trust in riches and things for security. This man may have mastered the job of following the rules, but what he hadn’t been ready to do yet was to give himself completely to the will of God.

I know, it’s a lot to ask. And it inevitably raises the question as to whether Jesus is calling us to do something as radical as selling all our possessions. Can we be followers of Jesus if we keep some things and some comforts and some security? I think we can, and I think we are. But we cannot be Christians if we are not willing to hear the call of Jesus day by day, and week by week… the call that is encouraging us to leave our things behind, to give to the poor, to follow Jesus with our lives and let our priorities and our decisions be shaped by his will and his way.

Like the rich man in the story, we probably won’t sprint home to sell all our stuff and give the money to the poor. And the magnitude of what we may be asked to give up may make us sad at times, as he was.

But, you know, I’ve always assumed when reading this story that the rich man did not end up as a follower of Jesus. The Gospel says that first “he was shocked” and then “he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” But we don’t know what happened to him after that. We don’t know if he went back to his house to console himself with good food and the comforts of home. We don’t know if he went home and looked at all his things with completely new eyes. We don’t know the rest of this man’s journey with God, and there is certainly a possibility that his journey continued with Jesus as his Lord and Saviour.

After the man went away that day, Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth 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.”

The disciples were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them (probably with as much love as he had shown for the rich man) and he said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Yes, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account…

God knows us completely. And God judges us strictly. And God calls us to love more, and to give more, and to live more fully for God’s good purposes.

But, as the author of Hebrews also assures us… We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

We may have a long way to go before we are ready to sell all that we own and give the money to the poor, and the idea of such full and complete commitment to Jesus may seem impossible for us. But it’s not impossible for God.