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Entering The Kingdom

Sermon - 11/01/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 10:13-27

The text for our reflection this morning, as we continue in the 10th chapter of the gospel of Mark (which we began last week), this morning's reading is verse 13-27:

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You 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; Honor your father and mother.” ’ 20He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘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.’ 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.’ 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 27Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

 

My favorite quote of Mark Twain, that I know I've used before, but seems so applicable to this text:  "It's not the parts of the Bible I don't understand that bother me, it's the parts of the Bible I do understand that bother me".

This is one of those 'bothersome' texts.  Who doesn't get a little nervous when they hear Jesus say "Sell everything you own, give it to the poor, come and follow me"?

I've always wondered why people who read the Bible literally, who believe in 6-day creation, believe in the flood that covered the whole earth, the virgin birth, and everything else, suddenly lose their nerve when they get to this text.  Who, me?  No, Jesus wasn't talking to me.

Well, don't think that just because you don't take it literally that you are off the hook.  It's precisely because we do read the Bible seriously (but not literally) that we see this as a text not directed at one specific individual but as a text that has implications for all of us.  And if we're honest, we'll admit that those implications make us nervous.

Why is that?  If someone asked you if you wanted to have a life of eternal bliss and happiness, are you going to ask 'How much is it going to cost me?'.  Am I going to trade, you know, my car, for eternal life?

Would it be helpful if we simplified the message to two questions:  do you want to have eternal life?  And have you turned in your estimate-of-giving card? :)

Better yet, we might ask how much you've put on those estimate-of-giving cards, right? :)   [this is part of the annual stewardship campaign at First Christian]  70 families, households, that have turned in those cards, hoping for another 20 or so to get us to our budgetary goals for next year.  The range of the gifts is anywhere from $100/year to over $10,000/year.  But no one, not one, put down "everything I own".  I've been preaching for 25 years, not once has someone come to me and said "Pastor, I want to give it all".  Now, maybe that reflects more on my preaching than it does on the audience :).

But I have seen some widows, put in their last 2 cents.  We had a gentleman off the street, just a week ago Sunday, came up with a handful of coins and said "Pastor, is this enough?".  It is.  It is.

This is a tough passage for those of us who live comfortably, have secure jobs and a good income.  As a preacher, I'm always looking for a new way to preach a familiar story, to find some new profound insight that will grab folks, inspire people, but not scare them off.  And it's hard to do with a text like this.  I mean, even Jesus couldn't do it -- he scared off that rich man.  So if Jesus couldn't do it, who am I to think I could do any better?

The truth is, the gospel sometimes demands a lot of us.  And sometimes it just seems unrealistic.  So I went back to this text with a single prayer:  Lord, give me a different message.  Give me a hopeful one, an uplifting message, heaven knows we don't need any more downers in this economy with schools, and governments, and churches, and non-profits, and people on the street, and everybody sticking out their hands and saying "give me more, more more".

Frankly, that's what many sermons on this text sound like, isn't it?  You know, just give more to the church, and then you'll find happiness.

So I pulled out my pew Bible that I keep behind my desk that I keep -- you might want to pull out your pew Bible as well.  I pulled it out, and I usually do my studies in a study Bible, the Oxford Study Bible, as sometimes it helps to look at a different text.  And even though the pew Bible is the same translation (New Revised Standard Version), for some reason I pulled it out.  And I looked at the text, and suddenly, something grabbed me.  When I looked at that text that was in that pew Bible there is something there that is not in my study Bible.  The publisher added something.  Did you know they could do that?  You can't add something to scripture, can you?  The publisher did, they do it all the time, we're not even aware of it.

What did the publisher add?  Look in your pew Bible, what did they add?

Titles!  The sub-titles.  Those aren't in the text, they're not in the Greek.  That's an addition that the publisher makes to make it easier for us to read. 

We're all familiar with Jesus and the little children.  And we're all familiar with the Rich Man sent away very sad.  But we think of those as two different stories because we put in titles (if not literally, then mentally) to break it up into digestible little units by themselves.  When in reality, it's one text. 

And here's the interesting thing:  Matthew and Luke have the exact same stories, together, only Matthew adds the story of the parable of the vineyard before the story of the children, and Luke adds the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (praying) and puts it after the story of the rich man.

In other words, Matthew and Luke look at these two stories as a single unit.  They do not break them up as we do in our minds. 

Now, if you're a literalist, you say 'well, that's because God arranged it so.  God sent the parents with their children, and then God sent the rich man'.  Now, if you're not a literalist, you say 'well, it may have happened that way, it might have been two events months apart that Mark has combined into a single story'.

So whether the arrangement is Mark's gospel or it's God's doing, the point is the same:  it is not a coincidence that this rich man comes immediately after the blessing of the children.  There is a connection between these two stories that either God or Mark or both want us to see.  What's the connection?

It's a connection that reveals the deeper message of this text that applies to all of us regardless of our age or our wealth.  Both stories are about what?  They're about entrance into the Kingdom of God.

In the first story, Jesus says whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.  Now, Luke's version is even stronger yet.  In Luke's version, it's not the children that people bring to Jesus, it's their infants.  Their babies, in swaddling clothes.  It's of these infants that Jesus says "To such belongs the kingdom of God".

Now, think about that for a moment.  Does an infant believe in Jesus as the son of God?  Does a child keep the 10 commandments (you can't even get them to keep their room clean :)?  Do babies feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those who are in prison or sick?  Do little children proclaim the good news to the poor, give sight to the blind, set the oppressed free?  Do they love their neighbors as much as they love themselves, or make disciples of all nations?

You see, all those things that we associate with being a good Christian are meaningless when it comes to small children, to babies.

So, then, what does it mean to receive the kingdom of God like a child?

The second story, the rich man, with his question about eternal life, I'm suggesting is an answer to that question.  And note that Jesus doesn't answer the question directly about what he has to do to have eternal life.  Instead, Jesus changes it from a question of eternal life to a matter of entering the kingdom of God, the realm of God as God would want us to be, to live here on earth.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

So what do small children have in common with someone who gives up their entire wealth?  Complete, utter dependence.

The invitation of Jesus is not 'come with me for a couple weeks on a tour of the holy land', and then go back to your nice comfortable home, it's an invitation to turn over ones life, possessions and all, to follow the way of Jesus.  The way of the kingdom of God.  It's an all-or-nothing offer.

How many of us are ready to take that offer?

Great story of St. Francis.  After living a life of leisure, of wine and women, was moved by the message of Jesus to begin using his personal wealth to aid the poor.  Started giving money away to anyone who needed it.  Only problem was, it was his father's money.  His father seemed to approve more of his life of debauchery than this just giving money away.  So he hauls him into court to account for this money of his that he has given away.  What does St. Francis do?  He takes off all of his clothes, lays them at the feet of his father, and there before God, and the town's witnesses and the judge, and his father and everyone else, says "Everything I have from my father I give back to you.  You are no longer my father, now I only have one Father, God in heaven.  That's the one I will serve".

Goes out of that courtroom buck-naked, just like he came into the world, to serve God by serving especially the poor.

Now, before we take up an offering of clothing here :), literalizing such stories as this story in Mark's gospel as instructions for how we are to live our lives can lead to disastrous results.  Just ask people in our Good Samaritan Ministry, they hear all the stories of these people on these great adventures to get from point A to point B in their 1963 Valiant with 350,000 miles, trusting God will get them there.  And of course, what happens?  They end up stranded in Eugene, need someone to bail them out of their predicament, and they come to us.  And we try.

So how do we take this text seriously?  How do we live with that kind of child-like dependence on God that does not leave us dependent on charity?  Should we renounce our wealth, our pension, sell our homes, quit our jobs, give away our 401k's and IRA's?  Jesus may want it all, but we're only asking for 10% :).  What a bargain :).

Jesus makes it pretty clear, doesn't he?  Forget what you've heard about a small gate in the wall around Jerusalem where a camel might squeeze through if they tried hard enough.  That's just another attempt to explain away a very hard saying of Jesus.  And the point is, it's no more possible for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God than for Trojans to win at Autzen Stadium :) [Ducks beat USC the day before this sermon]. 

The wide of despised former dictator of the Philippines, Marcos, gave the ultimate definition of wealth.  She said "If you know how rich you are, you are not rich.  But me, I'm not aware of the extent of my wealth, that's how rich we are".  And you could add "arrogant".

And of course, you remember when the Marcos regime fell and they entered into the Marcos mansion and went into the closet, what did they find?  How many shoes?  3,000 pairs of shoes!  Well, she denied it.  She said "I didn't own 3,000 pairs of shoes.  I owned 1,060".  Oh, OK :).

You see, by that standard, few of us will have to worry about being confused with the wealthy.  So maybe we're off the hook.

Contrast, though, that foolishness of Imelda Marcos with the wisdom of Plato who wrote "The greatest wealth is to be content with little".  And that of 1 Timothy who writes "Love of money is the root of all evil".  And note that Jesus tells the rich man not to give his wealth to whomever he desires, but specifically to the poor. 

I would suggest that the problem is not wealth per se but the distribution of it.  The real problem is when wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a few, and then it becomes a means to control and openly oppress the poor. 

Wealth, then, ultimately is really nothing more than a tool.  And like all tools, it can be used for good, or it can be used for evil.  Entering the kingdom of God with child-like dependency is to trust God.  That when we use our wealth, regardless of how little or how much we may possess, when we use it in ways that benefit God's world, in ways that support God's way of sharing, God's way of life, showing our love for God and our love of our neighbors, then we will benefit as well.  We will discover that eternal bliss and happiness.

I have time for just one example.  I found it in this month's Disciples World magazine, the publication of our denomination, I commend it to you, excellent publication, well worth receiving.  You can get your subscription from Patty in our office.  In there is an article from the Reverend Nathan Wilson writing about his experience of a global leadership conference at the famed Willow Creek church pastored by Bill Hybels.  At this conference, they lined up all kinds of global stars, people like Prime Minister Tony Blair, and my favorite theologian Bono, from U2.  Bono had the greatest 1-liner in the conference, he said:  "Love thy neighbor is not advice, it's a command".

Well, in the article on leadership, the Reverend Wilson says the gem of the summit was not any of those big names, but a 33 year-old entrepreneur, Jessica Flannery.  And like so many entrepreneurs, the nouveau riche of this time, she co-founded a startup company using the Internet that has literally taken in millions of dollars.  Only none of that has gone to Jessica, or her co-founder.  It's a non-profit that she established which raises money for micro-loans to be given to home-grown businesses in developing countries.

I just want to show you how it works.  It's called KIVA.  KIVA.ORG.  When you sign in, you create an account with a password to protect your stuff.  You then make loans to whoever you choose.  [Dan then gave a demonstration of providing a small loan to people in developing countries -- he has given to a store-owner in Palestine, and an extended family group in Bolivia working to support themselves.  There's a map that shows where all the money has come from, and you can develop a relationship with those you are supporting.  He then demonstrated how to give a loan to a group of women in Afghanistan seeking a loan of $625 in order to help in their business repairing electrical equipment -- Dan loaned $25 toward their goal].

Why would you loan the money instead of just give it?  Because in loaning the money, you are helping someone help themselves, and you are multiplying your gift, because they pay it back.  It's a very low-interest loan, you actually don't get any interest, but they have to pay some interest for the cost of the loan.  When it is paid back, then you have that money to loan out again.  And again.  You may not have $100 you can take out of your account and give away, but you have $100 you could lend if you know you can get it back in whatever time you need it.

And so you can lend it over and over again.  The terms are for 12 months.  Over 5 years, you would have loaned that money out 5 times, to help out these little, small-businesses so that they can support themselves.

It's described a little bit more in Disciples World.  Why did Jessica start this company?  She attended a previous global leadership event at the Willow Creek church while she was in college.  And she dedicated herself to working to alleviate global poverty.  On a trip to Africa, she learned about these kind of micro-credit loans.  And saw how it enabled people to work their own way out of poverty.  And so she and a partner setup the infrastructure (her partner worked at PayPal, knew how all these things functioned), and they began with 7 borrowers in 1 country.  They all repaid their loans, and they grew from there.

Since then, this article just came out, and it says $61 million dollars has gone through this organization.  I checked online right before this service, and it's now up to $100 million dollars.  That's how fast it's growing.  98% of those loans have all been paid back -- better than what you'd get at most banks.

Here is what Jessica says about her work:  "Sacrificial giving is different because it changes the giver and the recipient.  When we truly believe in the potential of each other, actions will be taken to solve problems to make things better".

Now, I don't know if Jesus really wants us all to sell everything and give it to the poor.  I don't even know if in the long run that will make that much difference.  But I do know this:  when we give all we have, when we put our whole selves into loving God and loving our neighbor, it truly does change the world.

 


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