It’s been a hectic and full past month, in both my personal life and in the life of our church. Between Andrew’s resignation and Kimberly’s surgery, the already typically busy period of September and early October has only gotten crazier. I am grateful for the congregation’s support for our family, before, during, and after the surgery. We celebrate the good news of Kimberly being cancer free this week, and it was so powerful, mostly because it was not surprising to feel the love and support from the congregation. As I said to Kimberly’s parents on her surgery day, it felt like a cloud of witnesses was uplifting us. We felt your presence and your peace that day.
These types of life moments offer opportunities to clarify what is really important and what is not. That’s humbling. Whether it’s simplifying our possessions or taking news fasts or connecting more with friends or less with the annoying little parts of life, a moment like this provides clarity for who we are and who and what we surround ourselves with. I’ve heard that clarity from some of you as well, especially those who had a health scare or are bravely in the midst of or survived a journey with cancer or some other serious disease. It’s not that the details and debates of life aren’t important any longer. Those will always be there. It’s just that some things become more important. And it’s often those things that remind of who and whose we are, and what we value most.
I think of that lesson in the context of this text from the Gospel of Mark. So often when we hear this text and series of stories, we make the primary lesson about money. And fair enough, Jesus has his say on the dangers of money in the context of faith. So it’s clear that money is an important part of how we reflect on our relationship with God and with one another. But I also think there’s a bit of what we would today call ‘shock value’ in Jesus’ words and example here. That shock value is directed towards money in these texts, but in reality, it’s more about priority. What do we prioritize in our lives? What do we put ahead of the things that are most important? What do we put ahead of God?
All of this is relevant because in today’s gospel reading, a would-be disciple — identified only as a rich man — approaches Jesus. He’s interviewing to join Jesus’ group of 12. He has an impressive resume. Jesus looks at this guy – let’s call him Jake -and likes him — a lot. In fact, the text says Jesus loved him. Jesus would love to have him join the team. And why not? Jesus would be smart to add this discipleship candidate. He’s young. He’s reverential (he knelt before Jesus). A background check reveals that he has no rap sheet and is an upstanding citizen. He follows the Law of Moses, so he’s religiously observant.
And — best of all — he’s a potential angel investor, a man with standing in the community and financial resources to fund Jesus’ mission for a long time!
So Jesus gives Jake the good news: he can be a disciple. But first, Jake must give 100 percent of his possessions to the poor. Not 10 percent or 20 percent, but 100 percent.
After Jake has disposed of his possessions, he can then, and only then, return and follow Jesus. The Jesus team will then be known as the Thirteen instead of the Twelve. But Jake is “shocked.” He felt he had done enough to be a disciple already. He wasn’t prepared to do it all. He’s genuinely disappointed. But he can’t do it. He turns away and we never hear of Jake again.
So what do we see here? Is the issue Jake’s money or is it his priorities? He’s willing to do a lot, but is money still the most important thing to him? Six things jump off the page:
1. Jake wants to inherit eternal life.
2. Jesus gets a little touchy about being called “good.” Why?
3. “Entering” the kin-dom of God is all about what we do — not what we believe.
4. Jesus says it is difficult for the wealthy to get into the kingdom of God.
5. Jesus doesn’t really explain this comment, but only says that “for God all things are possible.”
6. Jesus says that “many” (not all?) who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
This sounds pretty stark for anyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus, whether then or now. Our American affluence makes us understandable unsure and uncomfortable about how to apply this type of teaching to our lives and to our faith. If we were to take this text literally, there would be few of us in Fort Wayne who live up to the standard Jesus sets here. That’s why it’s important for us to view this text in the context of other teachings of Jesus.
Jesus offers a similar shock value statement when the disciples bring his mother and siblings to him while he’s teaching. He tells the crowd that his biological family does not receive any favorable treatment or perks. In fact, his true family is those who embody the type of discipleship he describes in today’s text. Pick up your cross and follow me, says Jesus.
So what is Jesus saying in these two examples? Many of the teachings of Jesus, these two included, point towards spiritual wholeness. Not spiritual holiness. Spiritual wholeness. So what does that mean? To Jesus, it means living a life with God at the center. Often, humanity falls into the same trap as Jake, and makes that quest into a ‘to-do’ list to check off, rather than a way of simply being in the world. I don’t think Jesus wants us to do any of these things he cites in this text in a formulaic, ‘check the boxes and you’re on the way’ to spiritual wholeness type of discipleship.
It’s much deeper than that. It’s about how we live, even more than what we do or even what we believe. In these texts, Jesus encourages us to examine our lives. Our very lives. What are our priorities? What is most important? And once we discern and name what is most important, the follow up question is equally challenging. Do our priorities point us towards a life of spiritual wholeness with God?
I found an unattributed quote that captures this sentiment well. ‘Perhaps the most ‘spiritual’ thing that any of us can do is to look through our own eyes, see with eyes of wholeness, and act with integrity and kindness. Perhaps ultimately, spiritual simply means experiencing wholeness and interconnectedness directly. It’s not something we achieve. It’s something we must simply become.’
Next weekend, I’ll be traveling to Elgin, IL on Saturday and Sunday to participate in a presentation to the denominational Mission and Ministry Board on behalf of the Supportive Communities Network of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests. In talking with Carol Wise of BMC in preparation for our presentation, we noted that one of the often overlooked and unexpected blessings of the journey towards inclusion is that it is also a journey towards authenticity and wholeness. Loving a neighbor as ourselves means something differently when our definition of neighbor expands. As we have resided with those whom society has pushed to the margins, we surprisingly or perhaps unsurprisingly, find ourselves at the heart of the Gospel, exactly where Jesus himself resided, exactly where we are called to be. Our congregation sought to be more inclusive, but we have discovered so much more – what it means to be authentic people of faith, offering a spiritual place for everyone, seeking to make our lives filled with wholeness and meaning.
That’s what Jesus is demanding of the rich young man. That’s the core of the lessons he offers his disciples. And that’s at the core of what he invites and challenges us to embody today as his followers. Nothing more or less than being authentic people of faith sharing lives of spiritual wholeness together. Amen.