a sermon on Mark 10:17-31
preached on October 14, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Growing up in Mississippi, even as a Presbyterian, I heard more than my fair share of “altar calls.” For those who are not familiar with this tradition, an altar call is a moment in a worship service, brief talk, or even at a concert when the speaker invites the audience to make a commitment to Jesus, usually with a time of prayer where the leader guides those who wish to participate to offer a prayer in their hearts to admit their sins and commit themselves to Christ. Now let me be clear: there is absolutely a time and a place for these sorts of moments where we commit or recommit our lives to the journey of faith— our Presbyterian Book of Order even has a special section in its instructions for worship that outlines the purpose and structure of these services! But too often these altar calls made the Christian life seem so simple and easy. As a child, it seemed to me that all that was really required to be faithful was praying this brief prayer just once. After someone prayed it, God would almost magically rescue the pray-er from eternal damnation. You could go forward—the “altar” part of this “altar call”—but that was optional, really. The rest of the Christian life seemed to just happen and flow from that moment of decision, and all the specifics of what needed to follow did not really need to factor into that decision. I suspect that my memories now of those moments then are colored much by what I have experienced and learned and discovered about my faith in the years since, but as an impressionable boy, all I saw demanded of me in those moments was a brief moment of prayer to make an eternity of difference.
Our story from Mark’s gospel this morning paints a far more demanding picture of the Christian life. Another impressionable man approaches Jesus with a very specific question:
Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Jesus doesn’t give him a prayer to pray but instead asks him about his obedience to the commandments.
Have you loved your parents?
Have you treated everyone fairly?
Have you borne false witness?
The man responds well:
Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.
Then Jesus looked him over, through and through, and spoke to him with the deepest honesty and love:
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.
Jesus could tell from his dress, his presence, maybe even his speech that this man was not in need of anything, yet he lacked something far greater than a simple prayer or even more complete obedience to the commandments could offer. To make room for what he really wanted in the midst of all the other things of his life, this man had to give up everything that he had. In order to take up a new and different way of life, this rich man had to stop pretending that he could take care of himself and instead focus on taking care of others. To make an eternity of difference, this man had to radically change the course of his life in such a way that would not only deepen the lives of others but more importantly open him to a deeper and fuller trust in God that would come only when he gave up all hopes of saving himself by any action of his own. The man didn’t seem to like Jesus’ words—who would? Who welcomes being told that they need to give up everything that they have worked so hard for in order to get something that really mattered to them? So Mark tells us that he went away grieving.
After the rich man left, Jesus told his disciples that this challenge is the norm for those who are wealthy.
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.
They were so deeply confused. “Then who can be saved?” they asked. His answer was simple:
For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.
If it wasn’t clear to the disciples by now, Jesus made it clear yet again that following him is not easy. Shortcuts just aren’t gonna cut it. Following Jesus means going all in, offering more than just a little prayer but in fact everything that we have, giving from our great abundance to care for others and to make us more ready to receive the gift that God is offering. There’s no way to argue your way out of this one with Jesus, and the rich man knew it and didn’t even try. Jesus isn’t going to tell us that we aren’t really rich enough to give up everything—he simply reminds us that until we are poor enough to depend only on God, we are still very rich. Jesus isn’t going to say that we can go and make a nice nest egg for ourselves and then start taking care of the poor—he demands that we change our ways now, once and for all. Jesus doesn’t accept our excuses for why we can’t follow him with all our hearts, all our minds, all our strength, and even all our money—he simply reminds us that all things are possible with God, and that our trust and hope should be nowhere else and in no one else other than God, for that is the only way to make an eternity of difference.
This text hits a bit close to home sometimes. As you might know, we as a congregation have come into a bit of cash lately! In selling the manse just some ten days ago, we cashed in an asset that had provided a home for our pastors for about fifteen years in hopes that it would now provide us with a cash reserve to support the ministry of a full-time pastor in this congregation for many years to come. This cash infusion certainly does not make us rich by any standard of this world, and the reality is that we have simply received cash for something that has been ours for a long time. But I wonder how Jesus would respond to us in our thinking about this wealth that is now ours in a new way. The $420,000 or so that we will have remaining after our bills are settled, transitional expenses paid, and obligations met is no small sum for us as a congregation—we could cover our entire budget with no other income for about three years! Comparatively, is it as much as the rich man had? Probably not—but I still think Jesus would challenge us to consider it as great wealth that can get in the way of our trust in God.
I don’t know if Jesus would call us to give it all away right away as he suggested the rich man do, but in light of this story, I must wonder if we are doing the right thing by simply trying to keep up what we’ve been doing and hoping that it might one day bring us the new life we desire. Is our call to discipleship really to preserve the life we have together in this place as long as possible? Does Jesus tell us that we should keep doing everything we’ve always been doing and receive the kind of life we long for? Or does Jesus demand more of us than we are willing to give and challenge us to give up everything that we hold dear so that we can have more than we ever imagined as we look to God alone to give us life?
These words are not easy to proclaim or to hear. As I consider these words for us together, I cannot miss that even my own way of life is challenged by Jesus here. It is tough enough to be good stewards of the wealth that is ours, but then Jesus comes along and demands that we give it all up so that our trust can be in God alone. It is not as easy to follow Jesus as it seemed to be when I first heard those altar calls as a boy. It takes more than praying a little prayer to make Jesus’ way of life our own. It takes more than showing up to a little building with a few other people for an hour on Sunday to be faithful followers of Christ. It takes more than giving up a few pennies a day to make an eternity of difference. Indeed, those who follow Jesus give up everything and so gain everything, by putting our trust not in ourselves or our own abilities but in God alone to transform our world and make us and all things new.
So may the Spirit strengthen us for this way of life in this time and place, to give up what we must so that we can follow Jesus in all that we say and do and to trust that the God who creates us has redeemed us and will sustain us forever as we seek to make an eternity of difference. May it be so for us, now and always. Amen.