Sunday, October 14, 2012

Homily for Proper 23

Mark 10:17-31 (Redeemer, Cairo and St Stephen's, Harrisburg)

As we hang out with Jesus in Mark’s gospel in his ministry of proclaiming in word and deed the good news of the Kingdom of God, we encounter an interesting young man today. Apparently, he’s one of those fortunate few who are born with the proverbial “silver spoon” in their mouth. He was not only young; he was young and rich. A lot of things had broken his way during his short life. But he had also tried to be wise; that is, to not squander what had been entrusted to him, to see his good fortune in the context of larger and deeper concerns. We might infer from what we’re told about his conversation with Jesus that he wanted to be responsible, to do the right thing, to move beyond a concern for creature comforts that his wealth made available to him, and consider the deeper mysteries of human existence, to find a profound meaning and purpose for his life. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It’s especially easy for anyone who is relatively secure materially—probably nobody here would self-identify as “rich,” though, by the standards of most of the world, we probably are—it’s easy for anyone who is well off and who lives in or around or is familiar with a place like Cairo to identify with this impulse—the impulse of this young man to seek deeper meaning in life—as a place like Cairo confronts us starkly with our own good fortune. Of course, the same might be said by anyone in Harrisburg whose home or workplace or friends and family were left untouched the tornado last February.

So our rich young man who’s trying to seek out higher wisdom hears about a newly famous itinerant teacher who is attracting larger and larger crowds as he moves through the country talking to people. The young man approaches the teacher. He’s certainly curious about what he might yet learn about how not only to do well, which he’s already accomplished, but to also do good. But he was also aware that he wasn’t exactly a beginner in this business of doing good. He had worked pretty hard at doing those things that a good observant Jew would do to put himself in a proper relation to God. So part of what the young man might have been looking for, in addition to advice, was affirmation. “Son, keep on doing what you’re doing. You’re on the right path.” He was fishing for a compliment. Again, if we think about it, we can see ourselves doing this—we want to feel like our lives have some larger meaning and purpose.

So how does Jesus respond to this expression of interest from an earnest young inquirer? Well, first off, Jesus throws him off balance by kind of scolding him, questioning his motives. “Why do you call me good?” And then he states the obvious by naming six of the Ten Commandments. Don’t you hate it when you ask for advice or help from a supposed expert, and they say something like, “Have you tried restarting your computer?” But the young man isn’t going to give up easily; in fact, he’s rather encouraged by what he’s hearing, because he responds along the lines of, “Keep six commandments? That’s it? Well, I’ve done better than that. I’ve kept all ten of them!” And then Jesus turns serious and sincere. We can imagine him putting his arm around the young man; Mark tell us that Jesus, “looking at him, loved him.” And he says, “I’ll tell you what. How would you like to be one of my very own disciples? Here’s what you do: First, go home and liquidate your assets. Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor. Then come and follow me.” The young man is gob smacked. He is strongly attracted to Jesus, and perhaps even flattered that Jesus is inviting him to become a disciple, maybe even part of the inner core. After all, Jesus was asking him to take pretty drastic action—selling everything he owns. It’s an attractive proposition, especially if Jesus turns out to be the long-awaited Messiah. The young man could be getting into a good thing on the ground floor. But there’s a risk. What if he’s wrong? What if he hitches his wagon to Jesus and Jesus just fizzles? He would seriously entertain the invitation to discipleship if he were only allowed to hedge his bet in the form of a modest trust fund he could fall back on if it all goes south. But this was not part of the deal. It was all in or not at all.

We are all consummate bet-hedgers. We do it practically in our sleep: we buy extended warranties on cars and appliances and electronic equipment. We buy travel insurance in case we get sick and can’t use our non-refundable airline tickets. We have lawyers draw up pre-nuptial agreements. We put escape clauses into our contracts, conditions on real estate purchase offers. So it’s not surprising that we hedge our bets in our relationship with Jesus. The young man has an advantage on us in that he could see Jesus face to face, and feel the personal magnetism that attracted so many followers. But we have the young man at a disadvantage, in that we can look back on the inescapable testimony of Jesus risen from the dead, having “delivered the goods” that the rich young man had to take on faith, and we can look at 2000 years of God’s actions in and through the community of the Church.

In any case, the young man decided not to take the risk. He could not overcome his bet-hedging impulse, and Mark tells us that went away sorrowful. We’re not told whether he went completely away, or became part of the “multitude” that followed Jesus at a distance. But you and I have the same choice—to be part of the multitude, or to become a disciple, and be part of the inner core. And the demand that Jesus makes on us is essentially the same as it was for the rich young man. It may not be to literally liquidate and divest of all our material assets, but it certainly involves a transaction in the intention of our hearts, one in which we sign over ownership control of those assets; in other words, to become stewards, to acknowledge that we own nothing and God owns everything and whatever we think is ours is actually only placed in our care by God for us to look after.

So what holds us back from that? What keeps us from that sort of radical discipleship? What tempts us to join the young man in walking away sorrowful? It is, of course, fear—fear of an adverse outcome, fear that our trust will turn out to be misplaced. In this case, fear is the opposite of faith—faith that God is Lord of the future, faith that the cosmic story of creation and redemption—the master story that includes within itself all our personal stories—faith that the master story ends with God’s victory. Jesus invites us to live now in God’s future. This was Jesus’ invitation to the young man, and it is his invitation to us today. The decision to follow Jesus is a decision to live as though we really do believe that we know the end of the story—that God wins, that reconciliation triumphs over alienation, that our prayer “thy kingdom come”—and is there a more constant prayer than that on the lips of Christians?—that our prayer “thy kingdom come” will actually be answered. Our relationship to wealth is a key part of this, and our behavior as Christian stewards of our financial resources is the sacramental sign of our faith.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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