Saturday, October 17, 2009

Through the Needle's Eye

Zion Lutheran Church, Thief River Falls
October 11, 2009
Mark 9:17-31

In verse 22 of this morning’s gospel lesson we read: “When [the man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving…”

A fellow came up to Jesus, engaged him in pastoral conversation about deep matters of faith—and based on what Jesus told him, the man was shocked, went away grieving…

And apparently, Jesus just let him go.

Isn’t that striking?

As a pastor I try never to let that sort of thing happen. If someone comes to me, asking honest questions and seeking truthful answers, I try not to dismay them so badly that they’re overcome by grief and walk away from me.

If I were Jesus, I would have gone after this man. I would have caught up with him and said: “You know, maybe I was a little hasty. Perhaps I overstated things just a bit—can’t we just talk about this? I really don’t want you to go off in a huff.”

But Jesus just lets the man go—and he does that, in spite of the fact that Jesus liked this guy—verse 21 says that Jesus even loved him.

And still, Jesus was willing to let the man go.

Why? Why doesn’t Jesus run after him, try to reason with him, turn him around?

I think it’s because Jesus isn’t like most pastors. Jesus isn’t a “recovering people pleaser.” Jesus doesn’t shy away from speaking hard truths—exercising tough love.

Why did the rich man leave—why didn’t he stick around longer?

I think it’s because Jesus struck a nerve. Jesus located the man’s Achille’s heel. Jesus focused on the one and only thing standing between this man and the Kingdom of God.

Think of Jesus as if he were your family physician.

You’re in your doctor’s office, lying down on the exam table, and she’s probing your abdomen. Things are going fine until she finds a spot that makes you jump. And rather than going back over all the parts of you that are OK--your doctor keeps going back to that one painful spot, asking you to hold your breath and then let your breath out, listening with her stethoscope—asking you silly questions like: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad’s the pain when I press right HERE?”

Jesus, in this gospel lesson, is like such a physician. He probes the man’s life, searching relentlessly for what ails him.

And at first, it doesn’t seem like there’s much wrong with this man. He’s kept all the commandments since he was a wee little lad—no murder rap, no extra-marital affair, no “dissing” of his parents, no petty theft—nothing like that. Jesus probes and prods, and the man is feeling no pain.

Until—until Jesus discovers one touchy area. And when Dr. Jesus finds that vulnerable spot, he announces his diagnosis: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

And all at once, things turn south for this man—he hurts like the dickens, his pain (on a scale of 1 to 10) is at about 17, “for he had many possessions.”

But instead of taking the medicine, pursuing the remedy that would cure him—the man just got out of there. Jesus got too close for comfort. So the man departs, shocked and grieving…

And Jesus lets him go.

Jesus apparently loves the guy enough—takes him seriously enough--to trust that the truth Jesus had just spoken would still work on him—would soften him up and finally bring him to that day when--pray God!--the man would become small enough, poor enough, empty enough to enter God’s Kingdom.

Gaining entry into God’s Kingdom, you see, is about reducing, losing, emptying.

Jesus recommended an astonishing weight loss program--a divine reducing plan. Entering God’s Kingdom means jettisoning all the extra baggage of our lives so that we become small enough to pass through the entrance to God’s Kingdom.

And just how small is that entrance?

Well, says Jesus, it’s about this small—about as tiny as the eye of a needle.

The great British writer, C.S. Lewis, once declared that nothing’s really impossible—that a camel can even get through the eye of a needle, although it’s rather hard on the camel!

So also, you and I wince when we hear Dr. Jesus’ prescription here. For, truth be told, we also have many possessions. Compared to how most poor people on the face of the earth live, you and I are robber barons—we’re the super-rich. We’ve got more stuff than we know what to do with. No wonder we hold annual garage sales and fill up our landfills!

We’ve got too much stuff. It’s choking us—clogging up our lives!

Dr. Jesus offers a prescription for this deadly disease of affluenza, getting all bogged down in our possessions….being possessed by our possessions.

Jesus looks at us, loves us, and says—get rid of it. Take the weight off. Go on my guaranteed reducing plan—gain life by giving it all away.

When Jesus has his way with us, prying us loose from the stranglehold of our money, the tyranny of our possessions…..Jesus opens up life—for us and for our neighbors.

It’s a two-for-one deal, you see! Jesus’ gift of generosity saves our lives and the lives of others.

Giving away the stuff, the money, that threatens to possess us….cutting that all loose saves us from idolatry, worshipping the gift rather than the Giver. It saves our lives, opening us up to the source of True Life, Jesus.

But there is more. Giving our stuff away aves the lives of our neighbors as well, especially our neediest neighbors—who long for food, hunger for good news, are thirsty for God.

Do you see how Jesus works a “double-whammy salvation” when he leads us into lives of generous giving? First Jesus saves us from ourselves—saves us from the long, slow death that comes over us as we turn inward on our possessions, become obsessed with money, get addicted to “acquiring.”

Second, Jesus saves our neighbors by transforming our generosity into the fruits of God’s mission in the world. The stuff we most need to get rid of is the stuff our neighbors most need to receive!

• So we hold a garage sale with all the proceeds going to Lutheran World Relief. Our junk brings irrigation water to a small farm in Tanzania.

• We bite the bullet and take steps toward tithing to Zion Lutheran and its ministries. Our dollars fund education and youth ministries right here, and our generosity spills over to help Luther Seminary keep turning out new pastors.

• We get a bonus at work or an investment windfall, and rather than spending it on some stuff we’ll have to sell at a garage sale in a few years….we send the money to Lutheran Disaster Response or the ELCA Hunger Appeal, or we designate a gift for healthy snacks for students at a Lutheran school in Honduras.

• We revise our wills, realizing that we can keep giving our stuff away even after we die…and so we leave a bequest for our favorite Bible camp, or campus ministry, or church college, or other Christian ministry that matters to us.

That’s how it works, dear friends. Jesus infects us with his gift of generosity and it saves us, even as it saves our needy neighbors. That’s what getting caught up in God’s mission looks like!

But have I made it all sound too easy? It’s not easy, really! Living into God’s way, practicing generosity kills us before it makes us alive. It kills our acquisitiveness, kills our greed, kills all our me-first tendencies.

But the death of all that isn’t the end for us. This is a death that leads to life!

Look again at vv. 26 and 27: [Jesus’ disciples] were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

God loves impossible cases. God gets a kick out of helping you and me become small enough, empty enough to follow Jesus through the narrow passageway into God’s Kingdom.

God loves to pry our hands loose from the security of a fat bank account or a house-full of stuff. God delights in saving us from ourselves, and simultaneously saving our neighbors to boot!

God’s aim is simple: that we follow Jesus--who for our sake became small!—that we follow Jesus right through the eye of the needle….bringing us and our neighbors out on the other side--into that wide, open, liberating space called the Kingdom of God. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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