The Compassion-Killer

(sermon 7/16/17)

piano

Mark 10:17-27

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?”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.”

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I have a piano. It was made in Chicago in 1911. It’s five feet tall, five feet wide, 28 1/2 inches deep, and weighs about 754 pounds. It bears a lot of scars earned over the last hundred and six years, but all things considered, it looks better at 106 than I suppose I would. It didn’t cost me anything, at least not up front; the people who owned it said we could have it if we just paid to take it away. Once we got it home, I painstakingly refinished its beautiful book-matched walnut veneer, removing a fair amount of both pink and mint green paint left in crevices from two different paint jobs it endured over the course of its long life. After that, I had a piano technician install new key covers to replace the old chipped ivories; level the key bed, repair and regulate the action, and give it a good tuning; and after all that, it still wasn’t a great piano, but it wasn’t a bad one – definitely a good one for the two girls and I to take lessons on. After a while, all three of us gave up on the lessons. But after all these years, I’m still lugging this thing around with me wherever I go; it’s been through three moves in three different states now. I almost got rid of it before I moved here, but when I said something about that around my older daughter, she said with a pained tone in her voice, “Oh, no, you can’t get rid of the piano!” So I still have it. In this most recent move, the movers ended up giving it a few new scuffs, they bent my storm door, made a hole in a wall, and broke a caster off of it – but they did finally get it into the house, ending about a year of it being in storage in two different garages. As you might guess, all that has had an effect on its feel, its touch, its playability, but then again, as I’d mentioned, there really isn’t anyone around to play it regularly anyway. So it sits there, silent for the most part, holding up the television, and gathering dust,  and taking up way too much room in my already snug living room.

I have a piano.

Well, since the piano wasn’t invented until 1700, it’s pretty safe to say that the rich young man who struck up a conversation with Jesus in today’s gospel lesson didn’t own one, but apparently, he did have a lot of other possessions. This is one of those passages that can make us squirm a bit when we hear it. Even if we don’t ordinarily think of ourselves as rich, we know in our hearts that by the world’s standards, even the least well-off among us is wealthy beyond imagination. As I mentioned in the Thursday email, there are 3.8 billion people in the world who live on about $1,300 per year. So when we hear what Jesus tells this young man, somewhere deep down, we wonder if Jesus might give us the same advice = and we worry that the answer to that question might be yes, and we aren’t comfortable with what our response to that might be.

We want to follow Jesus, and we want to help others out of gratitude for God’s grace and love that’s been showered on us. But we don’t want to give up our stuff. Seriously. We’ve worked hard for it, to be able to enjoy it. And really, Jesus doesn’t expect us all to be poor, does he? I mean sure, there are scriptural passages, from Amos, and Hosea, and Ezekiel, and a number of other places, and even Jesus’ own words here, that don’t have very favorable things to say about wealth and the wealthy; but there are also lots of other passages that say that having wealth is a sign of God’s favor; it’s a blessing. And truth be told, that’s been a common theme in a lot of our own Reformed, Calvinistic history, too. So Jesus wouldn’t really want us to get rid of all of our possessions, would he? Maybe that was just a comment specifically for this young man, not a universal commandment for all of his followers, right?

Well, I can’t speak to that part of what Jesus might have had in mind. But I do think that he’s addressing something related to wealth and money and possessions, but which goes far beyond that. I think he’s really teaching the man – and by extension, us – about the dangers of fear.

I believe that in one way or another, fear is at the root of almost all of the problems in the world. People don’t hoard money, or other possessions out of an abstract greed; they do it out of fear of an unknown and uncertain future, and that money, those things, make it possible to be insulated from that uncertainty and, theoretically at least, to be able to control it. We fear other people, especially people who aren’t like us, because we worry that they pose a risk, a threat, to what’s familiar, fixed, predictable – controllable – in our own lives. We fear real honesty in our relationships and friendships, setting up barriers and facades and projecting false images of who we really are and what we really think and feel, because honesty and openness makes us vulnerable to injury, rejection, hurt. And when we are hurt, we fear letting go of that hurt, because as much as me may even know that holding onto the hurt is harmful, at least it’s familiar to us, comfortable, predictable. We fear letting go, and trusting God.

I own a piano because my daughter seemed so upset at the thought of my getting rid of it, and I feared what that might do to her. There’s been a lot of brokenness and hurt and sadness in our family life in the past, and I thought that maybe for her, the piano, this big, stupid, hulking thing that weighs more than a boat anchor, actually does anchor her to some of the good times and happy memories. And I suppose if I’m completely honest with myself, I want it to do the same thing for me, too. So despite all the good, and the hope, and the promise that I have for the future; despite all the love and compassion that I feel from God, the piano still sits there – a constant, scratched, slightly out of tune reminder of my fear of letting go of things in my life that deep down I know I should let go of, for my own spiritual and emotional well-being.

Fear, in any of its manifestations, handicaps us. It blinds us. It ties our hands, and clouds our brains. Fear is the ultimate compassion-killer that paralyzes us by keeping our focus excessively on ourselves. It’s the compassion-killer that keeps us from doing and being so much of what we know God would want of us. It’s what causes us to build walls around us, to protect us, to insulate us, to isolate us. So in fear we build those walls, whether the bricks that we use to build them are dollars, or possessions, or opinions, or even pianos; and then we sit behind our walls, less and less able to show compassion to others.

In this passage, Jesus has compassion on the young man by addressing the particular way his fear was holding him back, keeping him from a deeper experience of God and God’s love for him. It wasn’t a particularly reassuring message for him, or for us.

For the reassuring part of the message, we have to hear all the other times that Jesus told us, and the many times that God tells us throughout the scriptures, to not be afraid. To be at peace. To have the assurance that God really does love us, and has compassion for us, and will always have our backs, through whatever is causing us fear and uncertainty. To trust God, with more and more of our lives, unlike the rich young man in the story.

So today, and throughout this coming week, let’s try to do that. Let’s ask God for the strength to let go of the fear and anxiety that surpasses all reason, and instead, to allow ourselves to accept the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. That promise of God’s unfailing compassion for us should be music to our ears; whether that music is played on a beat-up old piano, or otherwise.

Thanks be to God.

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.