Wednesday, October 8, 1997

Sell All You Have

Sermon Preached at Trinity Chapel
October 8, 1997

Psalm 90
Amos 5:6-16
Hebrews 3:1-6
Mark 10: 17-31

One evening two weeks ago, I had the privilege to sitting beside Archbishop Benjamin Yugusuk of the Sudan. He is a grizzled older man, who walks with a cane and a limp. While he did not volunteer to speak often at the conference, I found when I sat beside him that he was quite open and friendly. I asked him about his diocese, and he mentioned in a matter of fact way, that the Christians in his region had been forced to leave their homes and live in camps. Many had been killed, he said, including his own family. Yet here he was, sitting affably in a comfortable conference center in the safety of mid-America, with the wealth and power of Dallas all around him. How did he cope with such extremes of life and death, wealth and poverty, in the one compass of life experience? How was I to enter into his world of experience when I have never suffered from any of the particular wants that are his daily life?

Our Gospel lesson this morning gives us an example of a man in the middle, a man who is coming out of the world of relative security and facing the challenge of radical change. When we first meet this man, we find him attractive. He runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. Although his clearly from the upper class, a ruler, he does not carry himself like a self-satisfied “elder” of the community, nor is he a religious partisan like the Pharisees. In fact, one might say he is a great “prospect,” good “disciple” material. Jesus ought to offer him an apostle contract with a signing bonus! Better yet, since Jesus was clearly running a seminary, maybe he should have invited this man to join the Board of Trustees!

“Good Teacher,” the young man asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The question is respectful. Jesus was undoubtedly known as a good teacher, a fine interpreter of Scripture, a charismatic healer. This young man was probably a lot like Nicodemus, who as an elder came by night saying: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” As we well know, Jesus turned Nicodemus’ inquiry into a demand to be born again. Similarly, in this case he turns a natural question into a challenge.

The first part of the challenge is theological. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone,” Jesus says. What a strange reply! But also what a deep reply. Jesus raises a question that divided two of the greatest philosophers of all history: Plato and his student Aristotle. Aristotle argued that goodness could be parceled out into discrete dispositions (virtues) and actions so that one could call someone good based on his accumulated goodness and good deeds. Plato, on the other hand, demanded that there was only one virtue, knowledge of the truth, and that without that center, all other actions could not be rightly called good.

Here Jesus seems to take Plato’s part. Only for him the one good thing needed is God. Again, like Plato, Jesus chooses being over doing. The young man asked, “What must I do?” Jesus answers: “The question is not about what you must do. The question is about who God is. And this question about who God is is a much more difficult than the young man thinks. Who God is is the voice that spoke from the glory cloud on Mt. Sinai, the voice that spoke from the whirlwind to Job. This is the God who can be called good. It is not a matter that Good is God, or that love is God. No, it is a matter that God is good, he defines goodness by his every word and act. His love is the love of the self-denying love of the Cross.

Let’s notice something truly remarkable in this passage. Here stands Jesus, who earlier had not hesitated to say to a man “your sins are forgiven.” Nor to say to the demonized man, “Come out of him.” This same Jesus says simply, like a simple Jew of his day: “Who am I? God alone is good.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, comments: “Jesus points away from himself to God and at once proves himself thereby to be the perfect Son of God.” But at this point the man does not realize the profundity of the reply or who it is who is speaking to him.

Knowing his ignorance, Jesus extends the conversation, now playing the very role of Good Teacher that the man had asked for. “You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” There are several things we should note about Jesus’ words. First of all, he goes to the Ten Commandments as the moral heart of the Law. Jesus has come not to abolish the commandments but to fulfill them. I began my ministry in a pseudo-colonial church where the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer were set in plaques over the altar. It was a constant reminder to me as a priest when I celebrated and my people when they approached the Lord’s table that he expected true faith, true morality, and true piety from his disciples. I do not think God’s will has changed on this matter.

But secondly, Jesus strangely omits the first four commandments, the duties to God and focuses on the duties to one’s neighbor. Why? Perhaps he is saying to the young man: “You have been living your life as a conventional Jew. Yes, your neighbors say, he is a God-fearing man. How do they know he is God-fearing? Because he does not murder or commit adultery or steal or bear false witness. What other evidence do you need? Perhaps the man himself felt a hollowness in such a conventional life. “What more must I do?” he says in Matthew’s version of this story.

Finally, when Jesus cites the tenth commandment “Thou shalt not covet,” he uses a different word (in Greek at least) from the OT. He uses the word “defraud” rather than “lust after.” One can see the specific nuance of the word “defraud” from a passage in the prophet Malachi “So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me," says the LORD Almighty” (Mal 3:5). Perhaps Jesus is sending a shot across this man’s bow. He is saying: “I know your heart.” Your besetting sin is not sins of the spirit like sorcery, or sins of the flesh like adultery. No, your sins are sins of possessions, of holding back your money from the poor and needy.

The young man does not get it. “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” There is a kind of innocence or naivete about this remark. I do not think he is lying. I think he did keep the letter of the law. Maybe he kept all 613 specific commands the rabbis had located in the Old Testament. This young man is the best the Law has to offer, operating on its own devices. He has a right of sorts to boast in the Law. But something is lacking. He knows it or he would not have come to Jesus.

“And Jesus looking upon him loved him...” Mark alone mentions this, and it is this man is the only one Jesus is said to have loved. Why would this be? Well, I don’t know, but I’ll guess that something in this man reminds Jesus of the whole nation of the Jews, at least after the exile. They were not, on the whole, idolaters. They were certainly sexually more restrained than their pagan neighbors. They showed respect for elders and the traditions of the elders. But money seemed to be a sticking point for them. Jesus goes on in this very passage to warn about the love of money: "How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were amazed at his words.

Evangelicals, it seems to me, are the most like the Jews of the Gospels. We are not noted for blasphemy. We are not known about town as criminals. Despite the occasional Elmer Gantry, Evangelicals can’t keep up with the sexual exploits of Catholics - and we won’t even get into the Episcopalians. But money is another matter. Was it purely accidental that the TV evangelists were offensive in their constant pandering for money long before they crossed the law. The problem for Evangelicals, like the Jews, is that God honors a certain kind of industriousness and carefulness with money. The Protestant work ethic, not surprisingly, led men like Andrew Carnegie to build his fortune. But it is not just the multi-millionaires that are the problem. Many of us, over the years, become quite content with our modest fortunes. And we are not about to give them up.

At the Dallas Conference two weeks ago, I was struck and ashamed to realize that we here in the American Episcopal Church are so absorbed with the problems surrounding sexuality that we have not noticed the serious concerns of our Third World brothers and sisters. For them the overwhelming challenge of daily life is economic, specifically living under a cycle of debt and poverty. I found myself at first discounting this concern in comparison with our crisis, but gradually I came to admit that all of us in the West hold assumptions about what the “good life” should involve, assumptions that are blinders to the call of Jesus. The African bishops mentioned the idea of the biblical Jubilee, the year of forgiving all debt. “That’s impossible,” I thought. “How would you ever work that?” Maybe so, but if Americans, and American Christians in particular, had the will to sacrifice, who knows what creative solutions they might come up with.

Perhaps Jesus loved this young man because he was a bellwether, the lead sheep who, if he would only turn, could bring others to the gate of the kingdom. But he could do that only by passing the sternest test. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Jesus words, “You lack one thing return us to the philosophical question of goodness. It is not enough to do a random series of good things. One must do one thing out of the fullness or perfection of the heart. Kierkegaard wrote a book: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to the man: “If you would be perfect, sell all that you have.”

There may be one thing that Jesus will ask each of us to do. And it may well be to give up the security that prosperity brings. When I came to Trinity almost twenty years ago, we were typical graduate students, living out of a U-haul. The seminary was also living day to day on the little contributions that came in. Things have changed. We’re better off now. I even began looking to the fact that I could cash in my pension in just a few years if I wanted to do something else.

Then this disturbing thing happened last spring. I got a phone call that the Archbishop of Uganda was making a stop at the airport in Pittsburgh and wanted to see me again. So I went out, hoping to be of help in his project to start an Anglican University in Uganda. Well, he wanted more than help. “Dr. Noll,” he said. “We are beginning our university in October.” He showed me a one-page prospectus of the program. I looked please. “We want you to be the vice-chancellor,” he then went on to say. “Who is the chancellor,” I idly asked. “The President of the country,” was his reply. “Well, I’ll need to think about it,” I said. “We need you by October,” he repeated. I was truly shocked. How could I give that kind of a sudden, irresponsible acceptance that he wanted? I am not sure that Jesus was speaking to me through the Archbishop. In fact, he may have been speaking without the immediacy that the Archbishop felt for this project of his. Nevertheless, woe to me or to anyone when they lose the willingness to hear Jesus speak the word and to come follow him.

“At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.” Have you ever been talking to someone, perhaps witnessing to them, or perhaps challenging them to do something, and when you get to the punch line, the call to commitment, something happens and you realize you have lost them. I suspect that it what is meant by the phrase “his countenance fell.” Maybe he smiled at Jesus and said, “Thank you very much, sir, for this enlightening conversation. I’ll go home and think over what you said.” But the subliminal message is: “It’s too much. I just can’t do it. I would have done many things for you, Jesus. I would have made a very handsome gift to your cause. I would have identified myself with you publicly. I would have sponsored a missionary. But you’ve touched something too precious. I cannot trust my fortune to you.”

The story of the rich young man is about vocation. The first vocation that we all have is our relationship to Jesus. This young man was at the gate of eternal life and turned away. I would hope that you here have all heard the call to follow Jesus and have answered Yes. But let’s notice that Jesus’ call, while it always involves faith and obedience, is personally directed to every person. Jesus did not call the centurion to sell all he had. Nor Nicodemus.

Jesus’ call is often related to who we are, what gifts and talents we have, and what relationships and experiences we have. Often he uses them and enhances them. He will call someone with a beautiful voice to sing for him, someone with computing skills to compute for him, someone with a broken heart to minister to those who mourn. But the story this morning should warn us not to think we can figure out the reasons for Jesus’ call. There may be times Jesus’ call is irrational by our lights, demanding us to give up things we thought we were “called” to do.

Let me add one special proviso here. There is a special dynamic for those of us who are married. We have entered into a physical-spiritual union with another person. We are not our own, literally. Jesus does not call us merely individually. When I was a very young Christian, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship avidly (it is still, I think, a classic), in which he states “If any man would follow Christ, let him come forth and die.” I remember going to my wife of several months and saying, “You know, Peggy, if Christ calls me to leave you, I’ll have to obey… Why are you crying?” Many of you are pursuing calls to the ministry here at Trinity. I hope that you have responded to this call as husband and wife. And if you have, that you recognize the cost that your spouse may have made in order to respond to that call.

One of our collects reads: “Help us, Lord, readily to answer the call of our Savior Christ.” The story of the rich young ruler is a vivid reminder of cost of following Jesus and also the deep love of Jesus to form a new people “ready to do his will.” This is, finally, what I had in common with Archbishop Yugusuk and the impoverished persecuted Christians in Sudan. Are we ready to answer the call today?

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