Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sermon, "How to Pack for Summer Vacation: On the Road," Mark 10:17-31

Sermon 6/30/13
Mark 10:17-31

How to Pack for Summer Vacation: On the Road

            Last Sunday, we went with Jesus to the beach, as he called disciples to follow him. We talked about the immediate nature of Jesus’ call, and how we listen, and respond, and hear his voice. Today, we’re on the road with Jesus, and we encounter another of Jesus’ more challenging teachings: “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.” Of course, this verse comes in the context of a whole story, but this one sentence is so dramatic that it is hard for us to focus on anything else. “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.” Some months ago I talked to you about that fancy biblical term “hermeneutics,” which means the lens through which we look at and interpret scripture. I told you that it was ok to have different lenses from each other, as long as we were consistent with our own lens – we don’t interpret passages differently suddenly when we don’t like what they say. “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.” This if one of those passages that seems to test our hermeneutical lens. As I shared with our Mark Bible Study a couple weeks ago, this is a passage that has produced 1000 interpretations where you can make the passage not say what it says.
A man came to see Jesus just as Jesus was about to set out on a journey. He knelt before Jesus, the action of a slave before a master, and called Jesus, “Good Rabbi,” a description – goodness – reserved for God alone. His actions express his commitment to getting some answers from Jesus. He’s serious. He really wants some guidance, really wants to do what God wants. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by listing several of what we call the Ten Commandments – specifically, all the ones relating to how we treat one another. “These I’ve kept since childhood,” the man responds.
Jesus looks at him and loves him. Loves him enough to say some hard things: “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.” The man is shocked, and leaves, grieving, because he had many possessions. The man was great at keeping all the commandments that had to do with how we treat neighbors. But those ones about our relationship with God: About there being just one God, and about putting nothing else before God – it seems Jesus got to the heart of the matter and pinpointed the very thing that would come between this man and God, between this man’s desire to follow Jesus, and his commitment to actually doing it.
We’re not told what the man did when he left Jesus, only that he was shocked, and left grieving. He would be grieving either way. He could decide that discipleship had too high a price, and grieve because he couldn’t do what Jesus asked. But he could also grieve because he was about to give up what he so carefully had accumulated for himself. His possessions. His stuff. The work of his hands. Jesus tells the disciples that it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than it is for a camel to make it through the eye of a needle. But when the disciples wonder if there is any hope, Jesus, we read, “looks at them,” a phrase I think add Jesus’ emphasis to his words, and says, “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” We end in that hopeful place. But we have to get through that eye of the needle verse first.
As soon as Jesus says it, we try to unsay it for him. Here are some of the interpretations I’ve heard. One pastor aptly writes, “Nearly irresistible is the urge to soften this passage’s demands.” [2] Another [3] writes that he had come across two ways to interpret the metaphor of the camel and the eye of the needle that might make Jesus’ metaphor more bearable. First, he shares, “some interpreters of the Bible suggest that apart from the large gates into Jerusalem, there may have also been one small gate. This narrow gate, [easier to use than opening the big city gates, and] just high enough for human entry, was called the “Needle’s Eye.” Maybe a camel might be able to squeeze through if the beast hobbled in on its knees. As you can see,” he explains, “this tames the words of Jesus a little, and would suggest that a rich [person] humbly on [his or her] knees might be able to enter the kingdom of God.” However, there’s simply no evidence for the existence of such a gate. It’s totally speculation.
So he shares a second possible interpretation: “A second interpretation hangs on the undisputed fact that in the Greek of the New Testament the words for camel and thick rope cable are similar. Camel is “camelos” and rope cable is “camilos”. Maybe the later copiers of the New Testament got the words mixed up. This is a plausible theory. But it does once more blunt the words of Jesus.” Of course, a thick rope cable might be easier to fit through a needle eye than a camel – but I guarantee that that thick rope cable isn’t going to actually make it through either.
Even if we take Jesus’ words at face value, some of us still don’t feel worried by this text, because we figure Jesus isn’t talking to us. He’s talking to someone else – someone who is tied to their possessions. Someone rich. We’re not rich are we? I’ve served four very different congregations now, and I have yet to run into anyone who actually considers themselves rich. The way I figure, as long as we know of someone who has more than we do, we figure that they may be rich, but we sure aren’t. It’s understandable. It’s hard to think of ourselves as rich if we occasionally – or often – struggle to make ends meet. But consider this – in my family, between me, my three brothers, my mother, my sister-in-law, and my nephew – that’s 7 people – we have 6 televisions, 5 computers, 6 telephones, 6 cars, three houses with 9 bedrooms total, a swimming pool, probably 1000 DVDs and 3000 CDs, thousands of dollars’ worth of musical instruments including guitars, a piano, violins, and drums, some gaming systems, 2 well-fed and pampered pets, at least a hundred stuffed animals, and at least 25 bins of “storage.” This comes from a family of workers that would consider themselves thoroughly middle class. But if we’re not rich, what’s rich? What’s the standard?
A good rule to follow when reading the scriptures is this: If Jesus is talking, he’s talking to us – to you, and to me. He’s not talking to someone else, about someone else. He’s talking about us. Jesus was really emphatic about tending to your own struggles rather than pointing out the sins of others. So if he’s talking, he’s talking to us. Somehow, in the end, we have to come to terms with that – Jesus is talking to us. We don’t have to like it. We don’t have to follow him, to listen to him. But if we do decide to follow, then Jesus is talking to us.
So what is Jesus telling us? Are we all supposed to leave here and sell all our stuff and give it to the poor and become nomadic disciples, preaching on the street corners? Well, maybe. I won’t rule it out. But as I watch the man who approaches Jesus, I go back to this: I think God, who created us and loves, also can look into our hearts and pinpoint the very thing that is getting in between us and God, between our desire to follow after God, and our commitment to actually doing it. Maybe for you, it is indeed your comfortable lifestyle. I think we all need to take a hard look at that before we dismiss that possibility. But maybe it is your need to be in control rather than letting God be in control. Maybe it is holding a certain position of prestige or status or your own ambition to succeed. Maybe it is worrying about what other people think of you. But whatever is between us and God is an idol. Something that we’ve made, in essence, more important than God. And any idol, no matter how shiny and bright, or no matter how seemingly benign and innocuous – any idol is something that puts distance in between God and us. What is the thing in your life that Jesus would pinpoint, would tell you to give up, let go of, the thing that would cause you to walk away grieving, trying to decide if you could give it up or not? Be honest with yourself, with God. What is getting in your way of following Jesus with everything you’ve got?
            Jesus says it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle. It is harder for you to enter the kingdom when you won’t move things out of the way of your path to God than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. No wonder the disciples ask, distress in their voice, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus knows, friends, that a camel can never make it through the eye of a needle. Not by human efforts. And by our own efforts, by our own hard work, by our own devices, we’ll never make it either. Jesus reminds us, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Alone, we’re in trouble. With God, we have grace, unconditional love, unlimited second chances. We spend too much time hoping God will lower the expectations placed on us. In doing so, we diminish the perfection of what God offers us. Instead of lowering the standards so we can meet them, God offers grace and forgiveness, and the help to do what we never dreamed we could. So let’s admit to whatever Jesus is really asking of us, whatever obstacles in our path he’s pointing out. And despite the difficult road ahead, we can give thanks: With God, it’s possible to change our lives, change the world, and to fit a camel through the eye of the needle. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[2] Skinner, Matthew.

[3] Prewer, Bruce.
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