Sunday, October 25, 2015

What Delights Jesus

Mark 10:46-52
Ordinary 30
Series: “Discipleship Camp”
October 25, 2015
William G. Carter

We have been on the road with Jesus for a while. Just like the other Gospels, Mark portrays faith as a journey. Jesus appears in the desert, gets baptized, is tested in the wilderness, and then he is off and running. It is a rare occasion in the Gospel of Mark for the Lord to sit still. There is always a leper to be healed, a storm to be silenced, or a parable to be hurled into the crowd. The world is in rough shape, and the Savior has a lot of saving to do.

Mark’s favorite word is “immediately.” Immediately Jesus goes into the village. He says to the paralyzed man, “Get up and walk,” and immediately the man jumps to his feet. Immediately he goes here, immediately he goes there. Mark portrays Jesus as a man of action, the strong man of God who is on the move. Jesus is on the go, and if you wish to follow him, you have to keep up with him.

And if you keep up with him, his words and actions invite you to a deeper faith. Listen to this story:

They came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Finally, somebody sees. This is the second story of a blind person healed by Jesus. The first story was back in chapter eight, and it didn’t go so well. Jesus was up in Bethsaida, a fishing village not far from his home base in Capernaum. They brought to him a blind man. Jesus took him by the hand and led him out of the village. There he performed the traditional folk cure of wetting his fingers and placing them on the man’s eyes. “Can you see anything?”  The man said, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.” So Jesus had to do it again, give him a second whammy, and then the man could see. Jesus said, “Don’t go back into the village.”

It’s an odd story, but pretty soon we understand how hard it is to see. Jesus takes the twelve on a retreat and asks, “Who do people say that I am?” Simon Peter gets it half-right: “You are the Messiah, the Christ,” but he doesn’t understand that the Christ has not come to beat up the Romans or stage a religious revival. No, Jesus has come to give his life in self-giving love.

And then we have one story of somebody after another who does not understand Jesus. Mostly it’s the twelve disciples. They see Jesus glow with the power of heaven, but can’t comprehend that he uses that power to heal a child with epilepsy. He reminds them again how he will go to Jerusalem and give away his life for many, but then he has to interrupt an argument among them about which one of them is the greatest. After the healing of a blind man, the disciples can’t see a thing. They simply don’t get it – and neither do those around them.

Let me briefly recount the stories we have heard this fall.

·         The disciple John, one of the original fishermen, runs up to tattle on a wayward exorcist. “Teacher,” he exclaims, “we saw somebody casting out evil in your name, and we told him to stop because he wasn’t following us.” Jesus said, “Don’t stop him; we are on the same team.” (9:38-42)

·         Parents were bringing their children to Jesus and get them blessed, but the twelve disciples were trying to keep them away. “Adults only,” they said. “Get those kids out of here!” But Jesus said, “Let them come. Let them come! The kingdom is for them, and those who are like them.” (10:13-16)

·         Then a true-blue spiritual seeker comes near and says, “Good Teacher, how can I inherit the life of eternity?” They talk about God’s expectations, and Jesus loves what is in this man. But he lacks something: he lacks a neighborly charity. Jesus says, “Give it all away to the needy, then come with me.” And the man can’t do it. He loves his money and his material belongings more than the life of eternity. (10:17-31)

·         So Jesus says a third time, “I’m going to Jerusalem to give away my life for the benefit of the world.” And James and John, the two brothers, push to the front of the line and say, “Ooh, ooh, when you come into your glory, can we sit next to you?” And then another fight erupts when the other ten find out that James and John got to ask him first.”

They don’t get it, any more than any of us get it. It takes a conversion to follow Jesus. Anybody can tag along as an affiliate member, but to go the whole way . . . whew, that’s difficult. Mark is teaching us that spiritual clarity is an ongoing journey. You have to keep at it, keep stripping away the illusions, keep peeling away the protective layers of vanity, keep pushing your soul beyond self-preservation.

So they go to Jericho, the oasis town by the Dead Sea, and there’s another blind man. This one has a name: Bartimaeus. Most of the people Jesus cures, we don’t know their names. But this one we do. He is the son of Timaeus, Bartimaeus. And he calls out to the Son of David. That causes a stir. Surely there are Roman soldiers near the street in Jericho, and “Son of David” is an explosive phrase - - some say it was code language for a military hero, so the townspeople say, “Shh! Quiet down! Don’t get us in trouble.”

But then Jesus does something remarkable. He calls to Bartimaeus, who jumps up and leaves behind his beggar’s cloak. And the Lord asks the same question that he asked James and John last week: “What do you want me to do for you?” This man does not want power or prestige. He wants mercy. He wants the powers of heaven to show him some kindness.

And he makes it very specific: “My teacher, let me see again.” His prayer is granted. Faith like that makes him well.

I have spent a bit of time this week, thanking God for the gift of vision. When you can see every day, you start to take it for granted. One of my friends developed a detached retina a week or so ago. She had surgery and all went well. For a week, she wore an eye patch and we joked about getting her a parrot so she can be a pirate for Halloween. But losing your sight is no laughing matter.

If we have troubles with our vision, it is hard to get around – my friend was temporarily unable to drive for ten days. She had to depend on others to drive. And unlike those who have adjusted to sightlessness, most of us are not prepared to suddenly have our lights go out. Can’t we all understand why Bartimaeus asked to see again? It sounds like once he had been able until something took it away. He knows what it was like to see the deep colors of the sea or the wrinkles of a familiar face. “Let me see again,” he says.

Just the other day, at the end of a week that had a few bumps, I was feeling a little blue. So was my wife Jamie. An idea came out of the air – “Let’s go for a ride and look at the autumn leaves.” It was just what we needed. We went out to Newton Township and drove along the base of the mountain. We turned right and toodled our way over hill and dale. Somehow we found ourselves in Nicholson, so I took her by the cemetery so we could say hello to friends buried there. We found the back way to Fleetville, and since we were close, we went over to the dairy to say hello to the cows and get ice cream cones.

It was a perfect day, full of color and beauty. We must have been out for a couple of hours, enjoying the scarlet maples, the yellow birches, the auburn oaks. This is a beautiful part of the world, especially if we take the time to see it. And it gave me a glimpse of what Bartimaeus wanted. He didn’t want another donation, he didn’t want to remain a beggar or a fixture by the side of the road. He wanted to participate in the world. The blind man wanted to see.

But the irony is that he already did see. He is different from the other characters that Mark has been parading in front of us. He recognizes who Jesus is and trusts what he can do. Bartimaeus’ lack of visual sight has been a hurt that has defined his life. He’s been the local beggar who sits by the road, but he doesn’t want to be that any more. Sight, for him, is not only the ability to see the leaves and hills and the faces that accompany the voices he hears.

Sight is the clarity to see the truth, to peer through the ways the world pulls the wool over our eyes. It is to perceive what others have missed, to notice what everybody else ignores, and to shed the denial to which we have become accommodated.

Just review with me again what others have in this Gospel have overlooked between the two stories of blind men that Jesus restored. We see the other exorcists who are out there doing Christ’s work, even if they are not part of our particular tribe. We see the children that the disciples think they should chase away. We see the affluent man who wants to “inherit eternal life” but cannot give what he has to his neighbors in need. We see the longtime insiders, James and John, who think their persistence has earned them a higher rank than those who empty themselves for others as Jesus does.

Jesus says to Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus says, “Let me see.” And when he sees, he leaves the old life behind and, in the very next verse, follows Jesus who goes into Jerusalem to carry his cross.

Finally somebody sees… not merely the beauty of God’s earth which restores our souls, but the invitation of God’s Christ to give our lives for the service of others. As Mark describes Jesus, he is constantly doing whatever he can to repair the world and tend to the souls upon it. That is the tactical work of God’s kingdom. It is to confront everything that demeans and demolishes life, and work for healing with the mercy of God.

I hope when you reflect on your life with this church, you perceive there is more here than meets the eye. There are so many people in this church family who are committed to doing Christ’s ministry. Some are quiet, some we wish were a little more quiet, but all of them wishing to be part of God’s saving and salvaging work in Jesus Christ. We send funds to support mission work around the world, but we send people too, for if we merely write a check and don’t show up, we cannot see what God is doing.

We are so blessed with people in this church who look in on one another, who offer rides and deliver meals, who visit the sick and sit with the dying, who listen with a loving heart and a box of Kleenex, who testify with their skin and bones and souls that God is stronger than the powers of destruction and Jesus is risen from the dead. I hope you see this, because if you can see it, you can take part in it.

And if you take part in it, I promise you will see Jesus. When we join him in his work of repairing the world, he walks with us. Maybe he is a half-step ahead, beckoning us to follow. Or maybe he is right behind us, giving us the proper nudge to get moving and keep moving. But this is what delights the Lord: a company of unfinished people who join him in his unfinished work.

They are the ones who decide they are not going to sit by the side of the road anymore; they are going to get in step. They are the ones who believe they live by God’s mercy, and now they will show that mercy to others.

They are the ones, when asked, “What would you like the Lord to do for you?” will say, “My teacher, let me see again. I want to see where you are going, so I can go too. I want to see what you are doing, so I can do my part. Open my eyes, Lord, so I can see your presence in all that you have set before me.”

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

What Annoys Jesus

Mark 10:35-45
Series: “Discipleship Camp”
October 18, 2015

This is our fourth week in Discipleship Camp. As Jesus moves from his success in Galilee to his sacrifice on the cross, he has a number of conversations with his disciples along the way. What does it mean to follow him?  What does it mean to be his disciple? Today we have one more conversation in chapter 10 of the Gospel of Mark:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Well, let’s give them a little bit of credit. James and John have walked with Jesus from the beginning. They left their fishing nets and their father at Sea of Galilee, and they have gone wherever Jesus has gone.

James and John have seen it all. They saw him cast out the demon at their synagogue at Capernaum, and they went next door to watch him cure a woman’s headache. He scared them when he touched a leper and made him well. They were in the boat when he shouted away a terrible storm. They heard him preach about the kingdom and saw him raise a little girl from the dead. They watched him turn as bright as the sun and heard God say, “This is my Son.”

Now they come forward from the others and lay on him the title, “Teacher.” James and John are his students - his disciples – and he is their Teacher. His words and his works have instructed them. They believe God is real, that God is present in him. They call him “Teacher.”

And they already know what he is going to teach them in very chapter of this Gospel. He’s going to say, “Ask whatever you wish, believe that you are receiving it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). They believe in the power of asking God for whatever you wish . . . but that’s when the conversation quickly takes a bad turn.

Jesus the Teacher says, in effect, you don’t know what you’re talking about. They request something that seems to be above his pay grade to approve. He gets kind of snarly with them. It sounds like he is annoyed. And whatever they ask ignites the anger of the other ten disciples, who are furious with James and John.

So what’s the problem? My friend Mark Davis says it this way: James and John want to “ride shotgun” with Jesus.[1] Have you heard that phrase? When you see a vehicle that somebody else is driving, and you want a good seat next to the driver, you call out “shotgun.” That allows you to sit right up front. You can watch everything that is happening and you can be ahead of the guys who are behind you.

Of course, James and John “call shotgun” before the other ten can speak up. Most of the Bible scholars say that’s why the other disciples get so upset. They are slow on the uptake, and James and John step in to scramble ahead. The two brothers must figure they have put in their time. They have seen the hidden secrets. They are part of the inner circle, along with Simon Peter - - and we all know what a blowhard he can be.

“So put us right up front, Lord, close by your side. Lift us to the top of the heap. Empower us to get ahead of everybody else. Grant us to sit by you when you come into your glory.”

And the Lord says, “You don’t have a clue what you are saying.”

We can question their motives. These were humble fishermen from the north country. When Jesus walked by the sea and said, “Follow me,” they were ready to go. Mark says they left their father Zebedee standing in the boat, and off they went. They didn’t know where they were going, but we can assume they were glad to go somewhere else. Moving on up . . .

When Jesus was up north, he was really successful. Everything he did was wonderful. They wanted to be part of that. He took on the powers of evil, and he won every battle. James and John were on the winning team. They were glad to be part of his “glory” – the Greek word is “doxa,” as in “doxology.” It’s a big, powerful, extraordinary word. They could be famous, just like Jesus. Some of his power could rub off on them.

The lure of power, privilege, and status is still an attraction for those who would follow Jesus. I see the preachers who build big glass churches and talk about God as if they were best of friends. They learn to speak in dulcet tones and write uplifting books, all so they might expand their reach. The cable channels ask their advice on the latest issues of the day, and then pay an appropriate consultant fee.  Oh, Lord, give us some of your glory!

Stop by on a Monday and see the Christian junk mail that crosses my desk. You, too, can have a bigger ministry, a better website, a wider reach, a deeper impact. You can be so good that the Lord will grant you a good seat on his right or his left. Let’s have some of that glory!

And Jesus says, “You don’t even know what you are asking.”

Of course they don’t. Immediately before they make this bold request, Jesus says, “I’m going to Jerusalem and I’m going to die.” And Mark describes their response as “amazed” and “afraid” (10:32-34). These are the same words Mark uses to describe the people who find the tomb of Jesus is empty on Easter: they are "amazed" and "afraid."

Just as they were disturbed to hear on Easter that Jesus was once again on the loose, James and John were disturbed to hear that he was first going to die. So maybe their desire for status and power is an expression of their fear. After all, if we sense our importance is slipping away, if we fear that we are out of control, one response is to grab hold, and do whatever we can to advance ourselves.

This happens. You know it happens. I remember Christmas message of Pope France gave last year to the inner circle of the Vatican. They were expecting to hear, as they always have, how wonderful it is to be the leaders of the Roman church. And the Pope said, “Like any body, we are exposed to sickness, malfunction and infirmity. I would like to mention some of these illnesses and temptations that weaken our service to the Lord.”

With that, he began his diagnosis: excessive industriousness, the sickness of mental and spiritual hardening, the ailment of rivalry and vainglory, deifying leaders, spiritual Alzheimers, indifference to others, and (my favorite) Funereal Face.[2] When he was done, a couple of people clapped, probably out of habit. The rest, I think, were “amazed” and “afraid.” I mean, who does the Pope think he is, calling church leaders on the carpet for their arrogance?

Self-importance seeps into our life in all kinds of ways. It’s in our culture. It’s in the air we breathe. A friend in New York told me about going to a “recital” of vocal students in his town. They didn’t sing very well, he said, but they had worked on their stage presence. These were ten year olds, who had memorized the moves of “The Voice,” “Dancing with the Stars,” “America’s Got Talent,” and all the rest. It was glory, glory, glory, with all the requisite red sequin shimmy. The message was clear: these kids weren’t only aiming for the stars; they were aiming to be stars.

What is the appeal of glory? Is it the hunger to be better than the people around us? Do we want external affirmation because of some internal deficit? Do we believe that if we get a bit of glory, we can be exempt from any suffering?

Jesus is pretty clear with James and John: you will suffer, just like me, just like anybody else. You will drink the cup that I drink, his blood shed for us. You will be baptized as he was baptized, with the sign of the cross. Nobody gets a pass on such things, especially if they are following Jesus.

Here is the secret, the great open secret: as we follow Jesus, and claim him as our Teacher and Lord, the get-ahead values of the world are not going to matter. The abundant life of God is not about more money, a bigger job, or more prestige and power. It’s not about getting a fast new car so you can zoom by the ordinary people and get ahead. No, it’s about finding our life’s purpose by serving others and setting them free from whatever enslaves them.

Here, at the end of this passage, Jesus talks about the purpose of his self-giving death on the cross. It’s the only time he says it in the Gospel of Mark. He gives his life as a “ransom” payment. He comes to set people free from the powers of evil that want to kidnap us, from the powers of destruction that hold us hostage. He gives his life to liberate people from the Devil and from themselves. Jesus is a Servant, and that is his service.

And for those who are invited to follow him – and those who choose to follow him – our greatest purpose comes in serving others. We follow Christ by setting others free from the ignorance and the suffering and the sickness that enslaves them. The truly Christian life is never about us and our own advancement. It’s about loving God so much that we then love our neighbors, and do what is best for their well-being.

One of the people who reflects on this is the late Dutch priest, Henri Nouwen. He wrote a book called “The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life.” Here’s what he says:

“The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which the world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross… It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerless and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.”[3]

For Father Nouwen, downward mobility was not merely an idea. It was a life-giving practice of faith. After a career of teaching at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, he sensed the calling to become a chaplain at Daybreak, a community of adults with mental and developmental disabilities in Toronto. He struggled with his Ivy League ideas as he worked with people who were unable to spell their own names, but their joyful spirits reflected the joy of Jesus Christ.

He tells about an invitation to give three lectures at an institute in Washington, D.C. His community at Daybreak believed he should take along a resident for the event. After all, Jesus sent out his disciples two by two. So, they said, “take Bill Van Buren. He can be your assistant.” Henri was sensitive to Bill and his rather profound needs, but he wondered how this was going to work.

They flew down to Washington, checked into the hotel, and then went to the hall where Henri would speak. As the host introduced Father Nouwen in glowing and effusive terms, Henri wondered how Bill Van Buren would be able to assist. When Henri stood to the applause, his first speech in a leather folder, Bill stood up with him, and stood behind Henri at the podium.

Then something extraordinary happened. As Henri finished page one of his speech, Bill stepped up, lifted the page, and put it face down on a side table. Henri went on to page two, and then Bill took the page when he was finished and put it face down on page one. He was the assistant! Henri relaxed and the speech went on.

When he was done, people applauded, and Bill said, “Can I say something too?” Henri froze and thought, “What’s he going to say?” Bill stepped up and said, “I am very glad to be with you. Thank you very much.”

There was more applause, and as they returned to their speech, he turned to the priest and said, “How did you like my speech?” Henri said, “Bill, it was very good.” Bill beamed and said, “We did it together, didn’t we!”  Yes they did.[4]

All of us are in this together. When it comes to living the love of God, none of us need to get ahead, and all of us are called to serve. Jesus says, “I came to serve; not to be served, but to serve.” 

Anybody who would follow him will do the same.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[2]  The Washington Post, 22 December 2014.
[3] Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life, Orbis Press, 2011
[4] Henri Nouwen tells the story in his book, In theName of Jesus (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1989) 95-101. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

What Jesus Asks

Mark 10:17-31
Series: Discipleship Camp
October 11, 2015
Ordinary 28
William G. Carter

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?” 

We are in Week Three of Discipleship Camp. And as it often happens, when you go to camp for a while, there are some who drop out. The food in the mess hall becomes a routine. The bug spray loses its power. There’s a little too much rain. And somebody may say, “I want to go home. I don’t want to be here, I want to go home.” So we hear about somebody like that in today’s text.

He begins eagerly enough. He runs toward Jesus: he is enthusiastic. He kneels before Jesus: he is respectful, even worshipful. He calls Jesus the “Good Teacher.” And he wants to know – how I gain the life that you alone can offer? How do I participate in the joy of God’s eternity? What must I do?”

Jesus chortles a bit, and says, “Why do you call me good?” Then he knuckles down to affirm the man knows the Torah, the instruction of God. Most of it is about behavior, not belief: no murder, no adultery, no stealing, and all the rest. And the man says, “I have done these things since I was a child.” This guy is real impressive. He is living right, and he has a clear conscience. So for the first time in the Gospel of Mark – the only time in the Gospel of Mark – it says, “Jesus loved him.” He loved him!

That’s remarkable. There’s not the quibbling with the religious authorities that Jesus has contended since chapter two. The would-be disciple does not have a visible illness to be healed, nor a demon that be cast out. On the surface, he is an easy convert. And then Jesus lowers the boom: “sell what you have, give the cash to the poor, and come follow me.” This wonderful prospect is shocked. This is not what he expected, not what he hoped. Enough of this! He turned around and went home.

It’s the only time in Mark where it says Jesus loved somebody. It’s the only time in Mark where a possible disciple refuses the invitation.

Now, this is the Gospel of Mark, where none of the disciples of Jesus smell very good. Later on, Judas Iscariot turns in Jesus for the promise of money. Peter denies that he knows the Lord, and at the end all twelve abandon him when he is arrested. All of them are imperfect followers of the Christ, which is something that you and I can relate to. But the young seeker doesn’t even get that far. The story tells us why: “he had many possessions.” He couldn’t give up his stuff and trust in Jesus alone. He couldn’t walk away from what he had, so he walked away from Jesus, the Jesus who loved him. That is sobering.

This story always hits me pretty hard. Over the years, I have preached five different sermons on this passage. This is number six, and it raises the same general concern: to what extent do our possessions possess us? It’s a really good question, and any serious desire to follow Jesus must contend with the ways that our wealth gets in the way of the promise of his eternal joy.

Some of this may simply be inevitable. Back in chapter four, the Lord offers his teaching as a sower throws seed in a field. Consider the generosity of the sower, says Jesus. He is so generous that he throws his seed just everywhere. Everywhere! Some of that seed feeds the birds. Some of that seed falls on rocks and hard soil. And some of that seed begins to grow, but it is choked by thorns.

What are these “thorns”? The Good Teacher says it plainly: “The cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.” (4:19).

Certainly that is the truth of the young man. He has heard God’s Word. The Word takes root in his life. He lives by the commandments, especially in how he treats other people. He is trying hard to be a good man. But that does not make him a follower of Jesus. When Jesus calls him to “leave good and kindred go,” he doesn’t even try. He doesn’t even pause to say, “Wow, Lord, you are asking a lot – you want me to unload everything that I have? That’s really demanding. Let me get started on that, take some first steps, and begin to lighten my cargo.”

Some of you know how liberating that can be. If you have downsized to a smaller place to live, have you ever had a yard sale? Get rid of those size 32 waist pants that haven’t fit for thirty years. Give away those golf clubs that you never used. How about the forty-seven cookbooks that you picked up but never used? Doesn’t it feel good to pare down and simplify? Of course it does. We live in an acquisitive society that pushes us to buy more stuff. It is a blessed relief

And most of the things we own come with strings attached. It’s nice to sever those ties, too. When my younger daughter went off to college, we parked her car in the driveway. It sat there for a while. She didn’t want to drive a car in Washington DC, and we couldn’t blame her. At one point, she said, “Go ahead and get rid of my car.” It was a 1998 Honda Civic. It ran fine and it didn’t owe us anything. We agreed it was time for the car to go.

My brother was looking for a car for his son who turns sixteen this month, and offered to take it off our hands. He offered to pay the very amount that we had put into it. That sounded like a deal, and he drove the car away. I saw the car recently and it looks great. “Of course it does,” he said. “I’ve put $1500 dollars of repairs into it.” Let the buyer beware. I’m glad he has taken that burden off my shoulders. Lord knows, I have enough burdens remaining.

But there is more at stake than merely cleaning out the garage and giving away the things we don’t need. Ched Myers is a theologian who has listened closely to this Bible story. The rich man is in pretty deeply. Ched says, “Listen to the question he asks: ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”

At the first level, you don’t do anything to inherit. Either you are written into the will or you are not. Then as now, inheritance is something you receive through no effort of your own. If your beloved uncle dies and leave your three thousand dollars and a college ring, you didn’t earn that. At best, you kept in his good graces and did get your name deleted from the will. The man’s question is skewed.

Ched Myers says it goes even deeper than that (see   In the first century, there were a few landowners who possessed huge amounts of land (land was the primary possession of the extremely rich) and everybody else lived a hand-to-mouth life. And how did you acquire enormous amounts of land? You inherited it. Can you see how this extremely wealthy man understood eternal life? Just like he understood wealth – it’s something that you have coming to you.

Not only that, when Jesus first asks if he knows the commandments, Ched points out that Jesus alters one of the commandments. Did you notice that? “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness” . . . and then “don’t defraud.” You probably thought he was going to say, “Don’t covet.” But the man is loaded with wealth. He doesn’t have to covet – he has everything he can buy.

So Jesus adds a commandment from Leviticus: “Don’t defraud,” which in its original form says, “Don’t defraud your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:13). That’s a stinker, if you think about it. Some of those who are at the pinnacle of the economic food chain have done so at the expense of all those below them. And what word does the Bible use to describe all of them? The word is “neighbor.”

Jesus sees this man – he really sees him – and he loves him. And because he loves him, he says, “Give it all up. Give up your inherited prestige. Give up your inherited superiority. Give up your inherited position over your neighbors. Give up your inherited identity as the pious rich guy in the village. Give it all away to the poor who are also your neighbors. Then you will be free to follow me, and I love you enough that I invite you to come.”

The problem with the request of Jesus is that it is crystal clear. The problem with preachers like me is that we soften it and declare, “It doesn’t say what it says.” We try to explain it, and therefore explain it away. And if an honest person seeks after God, and overhears what Jesus asks of the wealthy wanna-be disciple, she or he is due to ask, “What must I do?”

What must I do? I don’t know.

Maybe it’s the sort of thing that we see in an extraordinary human being. When Pope Francis came to America a few weeks ago, he met with a lot of people, most of whom he did not know. He spoke to Congress. Afterwards, the lawmakers invited him to dinner. “No thanks,” he replied, “I have other plans,” and he went to the homeless shelter to eat with the people there.

“Sure,” says the cynics, “he works for one of the wealthiest enterprises on earth. All his needs are taken care of.” Maybe so. But for the moment, he gave all that up and gave himself to the poor.

“OK,” you say, “that’s the Pope. He’s somebody special. What about people like me? I’ve got a mortgage, some commitments, some debts, and a lot of people to take care of.” Good question.

What about you? What must you do?

I take refuge in the knowledge that Jesus wasn’t talking to me or you. He was talking to a man so loaded down by his stuff that he was not free to follow, much less free to share any of it with his neighbors in need. And it seems to me that one of the primary tasks of following Jesus is to get free from anything that holds us back, and that would include all that nice stuff we have stashed in our closets, our basements, our barns, and our banks. All of us can hang on to all of our stuff as tightly as we want – we have the freedom to do that. But for those who grasp and grab, there won’t be not enough freedom to set them free.

So what must we do?

For some of us, this may the defining question. We have worked hard and we have done pretty well. We enjoy our comfort and take delight in our security. We have the freedom to travel wherever we want, whenever we want to go. We have treasures on earth, but the nagging question is “Do we have treasures in heaven?” And late at night, after we’ve paid off the American Express bill, we wonder, “How much is enough, if I don’t have any satisfaction in my life, if I don’t have any sense that God is present in my heart, mind, or soul?”  What must I do?

For others of us, this is the lingering question. We work hard, and we struggle, and it’s still hard to make ends meet. Sometimes it is impossible to keep up with our neighbors. The cable bill is high, the cell phone bills demand more than we can afford, and there is never enough to do what we would like to do.

And we hear him tell the rich man, “Give it all away,” and we say, “Jesus, do you think he can give a little to me? I mean, I know it’s complicated to be rich, but I wouldn’t mind struggling with that, at least for a while.” But secretly we know better. The rich aren’t any better off than anybody else. Maybe a bit more cushioned, but not necessarily any happier or more humane. 

What must we do? Here’s my answer: follow Jesus. Pay attention to what he notices. Love the people that he loves. Give up the things that he gives up. Go where he goes. The specifics will be different for all of us, but the directions are always the same: to live more simply, to love more deeply, to offer ourselves to provide basic needs of the people around you who are most vulnerable, and to do all these thing to the glory of God.

This is how you inherit eternal life: you follow Jesus so closely that he will recast your priorities. When you do this, you will know what it most important. All of his blessings will flow through you to become blessings for others. That’s what it means to be “rich in heaven.”

What must we do? When he calls, you will know what to do.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Whom Jesus Blesses

Mark 10:13-16
Series: “Discipleship Camp”
World Communion, October 4, 2015
William G. Carter

This is our second week of Discipleship Camp. For a while this fall, we are listening in to the conversations between Jesus and those who want to follow him, and they are learning from their bad example. And the brief passage for today goes like this:

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

“Let the little children come to me.” That’s what he said to the twelve disciples who acted as bouncers to keep the under-aged ones away. As far as they were concerned, you have to be an adult – just like them. You have to understand the Lord’s deep wisdom; an elementary comprehension won’t do. The unspoken rule in that first century culture may sound familiar: keep the kids out of sight, don’t let them interrupt the Teacher, put them down the hall where nobody will hear them.

And Jesus looked at this and thought it was stupid. “Allow the children to come to me.” Get out of their way. Don’t stop them. God’s kingdom belongs to them. This is what he said. For the moment, he prevailed.

“Let the children come.” But that’s easier said than done

A couple of weeks ago, I left this pulpit for the pew. I went over the mountain to the church where my wife plays the organ and I sat in the back of that congregation. Pretty soon, I saw one of the church’s celebrities. She had to be about three years old. I never caught her name, but I’ll call her “Alice.” Alice with the cute blond curls.

She and her mother walked down the aisle. Everybody seemed to move out of the way. Nobody was going to keep her from coming. The organ music began. I leaned forward for a quiet prayer, and there was a “thunk.” Looking up, still in a spirit of prayer, there was Alice with the cute blond curls. She had dropped the Bible on the floor and now she was standing on the chair, looking at me. She laughed and dipped down to hide in the seat. Peaked over the seat to make sure I was looking, and then she giggled loudly. My prayer had pretty much evaporated.

The mother of Alice with the cute blond curls was paying very close attention to the service. Her parents sat on the other side of the mother, just out of reach. Every once in a while, Grandpa would shoot a dangerous look at Alice with the cute blond curls, but she didn’t care. She was having fun in church.

She had a big pink bottle of water. We stood to sing a hymn, and she stood on the seat of the chair. Then she dropped the water bottle behind the chair. I think she did it “accidentally on purpose.” Maybe she was hoping for a baptism. But no problem. She climbed over the back of her seat and jumped to the floor. Retrieving the pink water bottle, Alice with the cute blond curls crawled under the seat, and climbed back up. That was fun, so much fun, she dropped the pink water bottle and did the whole thing again.

This continued, until her Mom pulled a ring of keys out of her purse. Alice with the cute blond curls shook the keys, shook them hard, and they went flying into the hands of a kindly man named Irv. He smiled at Alice with the cute blond curls, and handed the keys back to her. His wife murmured, “What did you do that for?” But he said, “Shhh … isn’t it great to have kids here?”

When the preacher began her sermon, it was the text from two weeks ago, where Jesus says “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me” (Mark 9:30-37). That was my cue to settle down and listen. But not for Alice with the little blond curls. She had a baby doll. As the preacher talked to us, Alice chattered to her doll.

When we stood to sing another hymn, Alice with the little blond curls stood on her seat and moved the arms and legs of her doll to make it dance. The baby doll dove down behind the seat, so Alice climbed again over the back of the seat, dropped to the floor, retrieved the doll, and commando-crawled back under the seat.

I’ll bet when she got home, she was tired out from church.

After the service, I said to the preacher, “I had a hard time concentrating on your sermon about welcoming the child, because I was too busy pondering how to welcome the child.” The preacher was my friend Virginia. She smiled and said, “Yes, she was pretty good today, better behaved than some days. Isn’t it good to see her?”  

“Let the children come,” says Jesus. “Don’t stop them.”

The people who study such things are telling us why our twenty and thirty-year-olds don’t go to church. You know what they discovered? The number one reason is that when we brought to church, we didn’t let them stay with us. We sent them to another room. The research is sobering. We thought maybe if we had separate programming for different ages, if we gave the stressed-out parents an hour of peace and quiet, we could keep the parents here. That’s one of the reasons why we lost a lot of kids.[1]

Do you know how many times I’ve had a kid in confirmation class who had hardly ever been in a worship service? So we tell him he has to come, as a class assignment. He has to come and collect a dozen different worship bulletins to prove he has been here. But that’s really hard for him – he’s twelve, thirteen years old, his parents have kept him over-programmed, he never has to sit still anywhere, and here, to appease his parents who have made him a deal that if he endures confirmation class and joins the church, he won’t ever have to go back.

“Let the children come,” says Jesus. “Don’t get in their way.”

An Australian educator named Stan Stewart came to Allentown. He led a workshop called, “How to get children into your church.” Here’s what he said: bring them. Bring them every week. Don’t keep them away. If they see their parents in church, they learn by the time they are eighteen months old that church is important to their parents. It leaves an impression.

In fact, said Stan Stewart, if you really want to welcome children into the church, get rid of the nursery, or at least use it only the most extreme of situations. Teach the congregation that they have to welcome kids - - or they will die. If a baby cries, let them be a child. If they keep crying and you are the caregiver, step out for a breather if you must, and then come back in. You won’t bother the rest of us. We will treat it as joyful noise and an interruption of the Holy Spirit.

The children are not the future of the church. They are the church. Take a look at the children’s bulletin in your pew rack. It is our worship service for our children. The worship bags are full of ways for children to take part in what the rest of us are doing. They are part of us. We will baptize two little ones next week, and announce that they belong to God.

“Let the children come,” says Jesus. “For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God comes.” Ahh – God comes for the little ones. Like that man I loved more than life itself; as his memory diminished and his reasoning slipped away, he became like a little child. At the end of his days, he couldn’t spell his name or dip a spoon in a bowl of yogurt. But he knew how to love and he let people take care of him. Just like a child! The kingdom of God is for him.

Fifteen years ago, a search committee said to me, “Would you like to come to our church? We have a wealthy and important church. It’s right next to a major university. Our people are sharp and capable. Would you like to find out more about us?” We were sitting downtown in a booth at Cooper’s. I said, “Yes, I’d like to more about your church.” They smiled and leaned forward.

I said, “Here's what I would like to know. Tell me if your congregation has a place for teenagers with learning disabilities, children with cognitive differences, adults who are recovering from strokes, and people who, for one reason or another, cannot be overachievers.” It got kind of quiet. The interview pretty much fizzled out right then. That’s OK; I didn’t want to go there anyway.

But I guess I felt a holy obligation to mention that God’s kingdom comes for the little ones, for those who have daily needs, for those who are hungry to know that Someone loves them in heaven – and on earth. It’s just as Jesus says: the blessing of God is for the poor in spirit, not the prestigious and the capable. The Christian community does not live by its expertise. It lives by its hospitality.

So we welcome the little ones, the children of God. We don’t hire experts to welcome them for us. We welcome them ourselves. If they wiggle, we respond with words and gestures of welcome. If they can’t find the right hymn, we find it with them – and then show them the words that we are singing with them. If the parents are struggling to manage the kids, you are all hereby commissioned as Honorary Grandparents. Step in and help out. As Jesus said in the text last week, all of us are in this together.

So we welcome the little ones, the children of God. Let them come. Get them here where they can hear about Jesus, and let them come. Let them come and hear that the blessing of God is for them, and for those who began like them, and those who will end their lives like them. The blessing of God is for the children and all who wish to be like them.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] See, for instance, “Sunday Schooling Our Kids Out of Church,”