The Eye of a Needle (sermon 10/11/15)

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As [Jesus] 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?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 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; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, 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.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

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!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is 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.” They 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.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  – Mark 10:17-35

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It happened all the time as they went from town to town. He’d make an appearance in the synagogue, or the town square, and the people he encountered were amazed at him, some for the better and some for the worse. And eventually, he’d end up catching the eye of someone in the upper class, someone in the power structure, who would need to meet him in person. It seemed to play out like this in every town. Sometimes it was a religious leader, who wanted to test him for his religious orthodoxy. Other times, it was some toady of the Romans, who wanted to trick him into saying something treasonous against the government. Sometimes they just wanted to get up close to him because he was famous, because of the youTube video of him sending a Legion of demons into a herd of pigs that had gone viral. And other times, it was someone from an important family who’d gone to an Ivy League school who wanted to have some fun putting this uneducated hillbilly in his place. Every once in a while, though, they came to see him honestly, sincerely, wanting to hear him and learn from him. As he looked at this one, kneeling in front of him in this moment, he could see that this one was coming to him with questions from the heart. This one was for real.

“What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” “What do I have to do to be saved?” There it was, the same thing that so many people asked, and each time they did, he’d turn their question upside down – making the point that a person’s salvation is like something that’s only visible out of the corner of your eye, but you can’t see if you try to focus directly on it. Rather than thinking about your own personal salvation, you need to concern yourself with extending gracious behavior to others.

That’s what he’d said in the past, and that was what he’d do here, too. So he told the man, you know what’s important; listing off half of the Ten Commandments – interestingly, all the ones that dealt with treating others with compassion and justice, and none of the ones dealing with honoring God. But even the man himself knew that wasn’t the whole story; there had to be more than just that. And of course, there was. Sell all your stuff. Give the money to the poor. Come follow me.

If the man were like so many of the others that had come to see him he’d have just left at that point and written Jesus off as an imbecile, a lunatic. So much for this one being the messiah; he’s just a garden-variety kook. But this man wasn’t like them. These words sunk in; they hit home. He left, dejected, upset, grieving over the thought of giving up all the perks, the comfort, the security, the power and prestige that came along with all of his possessions.

This story shows up in three of the four gospels in different variations, but none of them really tell us what the man did – did he reject Jesus’ words as being too hard to live up to, or did he actually follow through with it and become one of the nameless, faceless crowd of people following him wherever he went? We’ll never know, but either way, it’s clear that stepping into a new future, a way of living life more deeply shaped by faith can be painful. The emotional letting go that’s necessary to use whatever God has entrusted to us in ways that benefit others more, and ourselves less – that’s very hard.

Of course, it isn’t any accident that we get a Lectionary text like this now, in the time of year when many churches, including ours, are about to kick off their annual stewardship campaigns. It’s a time when we all have to wrestle with Jesus’ words. Surely, he didn’t mean that everyone who followed him had to sell all their possessions, did he? Surely, Jesus doesn’t want us all to be poor; he isn’t saying there’s anything inherently great or noble about living in poverty. So how is this supposed to work?

Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t have any insights into how we’re supposed to understand this story in our own lives. I’m sure that there’s some line, and up to that line God wants us to benefit from the financial blessings we have; and beyond that line, we’re supposed to use those resources for the benefit of others. I don’t know where that line is exactly, not for you and not for me – but I admit that the whole question gives me a knot in the stomach, because in a world where half the world’s population – 3.5 billion people – live on less than $1,200 per year, and where an income of $32,000 per year puts you in the wealthiest 1% of the world – richer than 6.3 billion of the world’s seven billion people – wherever that line is, I suspect God has drawn it in a very different place from where I have. This time of year, as we’re about to enter our stewardship campaign, we all need to deal with this admittedly unsettling question of whether we’re using our finances in the way God intended us to when we were given them. Are we using our financial resources in a way that pleases God?

Jesus’ words are unsettling for us when we try to apply them to our lives as individuals. Could another child be fed if the next time you buy a car, you go for the cloth seats instead of the heated leather ones, and gave the savings to the church? I know I could adopt a child at Montana de Luz through their “God’s Gift” program if I’d just go to Moondog’s Cafe one time fewer per month. Where’s the right balance? It’s the same when we ask this question together as the church. As an architect, I always admired the wonder and beauty of the world’s great cathedrals. I marveled at the work of the minds and hands of these artists, who were dedicating the very best of their talents to the honor and glory of God. But when I’d stand in those cathedrals, I could never totally shake the nagging question, how many children went to bed hungry, or even worse, how many people starved to death, that the church could have saved if it hadn’t diverted the money to the building of the beautiful cathedral? Was it a trade-off worthy of the Kingdom of God? We can feel the rich young man’s pain when we put ourselves in his place in the story.

Let’s look at things from that level for a moment. How would we respond if Jesus walked in here today, this morning – I’m up here blathering on and on, just like every Sunday, and Jesus comes walking through the back door and strides up here to the front. It’s amazing, a miracle. And everyone forgets they’re Presbyterians and crowds up to the front of the church to get close to Jesus, and the love and the compassion are incredible; it’s a big love-fest among us all. And Jesus smiles and he sits there and and speaks with us, and he says: “You’re a great congregation. You do so many wonderful things, reaching out to people in need. You provide a voice for social justice in the community in ways that most congregations don’t. But you lack one thing. This building is holding you back. It’s way too big for you, and it’s costing you a fortune to maintain. Sell it. Sell the Tiffany window, sell the Skinner organ, sell the real estate. Then take the money, and buy the vacant bank building over on Genesee Street as your home. It’s plenty big enough for more than all your needs, the main banking hall would seat more than twice your typical Sunday attendance, it’s energy efficient, much cheaper to maintain, handicapped accessible, has its own parking lot and a great central location. Then, take the rest of the proceeds from selling this place and use it for targeted mission outreach to the community downtown – serving the needs of the elderly in the apartment towers, the students at Lattimore Hall, the homeless and the poor living around downtown – be a real “downtown church.” Do all that, in order to serve others around you, and do it gladly, and then – then, you will have eternal life.”

What would we do if Jesus said that to us? Would Jesus ever say something like that? I don’t know. One thing for certain, even if he did say it, and even if we did it, there would be a whole lot of grief to process, just like with the rich young man. On the other hand, what if Jesus just said to increase our annual pledge by five or ten percent? Would we do that?

Is God calling us to give more of our individual finances to the kingdom of God? Collectively, are we being called in this generation to use the church’s resources with a different understanding of being missional than we’ve had in past generations? Do past mindsets and practices still hold true today? Those are questions that you and I both have to consider, and pray about as we try to be faithful to Christ – who can make us uncomfortable just as often as we’re comforted.

Thanks be to God.

Listless

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I just saw yet another blog post, written by yet another Millennial – the demographic Holy Grail du jour of aging, declining church congregations. It was the latest of a seemingly endless supply of lists titled “___ [Some Magical Number of] Things the Church Must Do to Attract Millennials”. Just do these things, these essays always say, and Millennials will flock through your doors.

Allow me to just say – bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong, Millennials. I agree with virtually every criticism you lodge against the institutional church. Overall, the church absolutely has to be more of all the things you want more of, and less of all the things you hate about it. It must be more committed to issues of social justice. It must be more authentically spiritual. It must do more to be truly missional – working to directly, positively bring real betterment in people’s lives. It must be far less inward-focused and self-serving.

But here’s a little secret: there are already, even in your absence from the pews, a lot of people who think the exact same way you do (mind you, I’m speaking particularly of Mainline, progressive denominations here in the U.S., such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), where I find myself). And these people who agree with you aren’t all running around in large-print gingham shirts and sporting lumberjack beards or man buns. That man with the thinning grey hair, the little pot belly, and the out-of-fashion sweater vest? He was a Freedom Rider in the 60s. That grandmotherly looking woman laughing and chatting with the person sitting next to her? The original organizer of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women. The guy sitting over there who looks like an insurance salesman? He leads a Spiritual Formation and Meditation group, after an extended residence at Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky. The couple sitting beside you? They met while spending a year working together at an orphanage in Honduras and got married when they returned. The man sitting alone up front? He was arrested after he dumped his partner’s ashes on the White House lawn as part of an ACT UP protest.

I’m not exaggerating here. Scratch the surface of virtually any Mainline congregation and you’ll likely find people who have walked the walk in countless ways before you appeared on the scene. There are a lot more of them here than you probably think. And pretty much all of them share your attitudes about the institutional church and how it needs to change.

The difference between them and you is that they’re actually here, trying to make the changes needed, and you aren’t. If you’d just join forces with us, you’d find a lot of willing allies in seeing the church become what it needs to become.

I’m sorry Millennials, as a progressive, recent “Missional Church”/”Emerging Church”/”Altermative Church”-savvy seminary graduate (despite my grey hair) who really is on your side, I have to say that the continual barrage of these kinds of essays just starts to come across as a self-absorbed whinefest – a list of demands for some imaginary, pristine version of church that you insist has to be in place before you’ll grace us all with your presence. Remember, I say this as an ally, someone who’s working in the trenches, within the system, trying to accomplish precisely the things you point out – but really, grow up a bit.

*I need to be very clear: I’m not talking about all Millennials here. We’ve all heard the old cliche, “Some of my best friends are (fill in the blank).” In this case, more than half of my friends and colleagues in ministry are themselves Millennials. I am genuinely blessed and humbled to know them, to minister with them, and to call them my friends, and I’m a better person and minister because they’re such an important part of my life. As a group, they are perhaps the greatest strength in the institutional church today. But that’s just the point – they’re in the church, actively a part of what the church needs to be and do. My thoughts here are directed toward those Millennials who won’t be part of the church just because it doesn’t perfectly fit their idea of what it should be like – to which, I say, join the club.

The reality is that the church is never going to be perfect – it wasn’t for anyone who came before you, and it won’t be for anyone coming along afterward – and it’s unrealistic to expect it to be so. So you have a choice: you can follow the lead of those people sitting in the pews, many of whom worked to set the stage for all the progressive aspects of this society that you currently enjoy and who even now are trying to affect change in the church from within; or you can come up with another list of five, or seven, or ten things that the church has to do in order to be worthy of your being part of it. Perhaps the answer is to blog less, and actually get off your asses and be part of the solution instead of just bitching and moaning. We don’t need another list telling us what needs to be done. Many of us already know that; what we need is the strength in numbers to actually accomplish it.

There’s a lot that the church needs to do in order to reform itself – to correct its past abuses and problems, and to make it more truly an institution reflective of the Kingdom of God that Jesus both taught about and personified. As a pastor, I try to work within the system as it is, in order to help steer it, and its members, in that direction – the direction that so many of your lists describe. Frankly, it would be a hell of a lot easier if you’d show up and help. But I’m going to continue trying to do it, with your help or without it.

*This paragraph was added to the original post, after a few readers pointed out – correctly – that, as originally written, it negatively painted all Millennials with the same broad brush. This was definitely never my intention, as I hope that the added paragraph makes clear.