The Eye of the Needle

The story of the rich man and Jesus is pretty well known as far as Bible passages go. It’s in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Matthew calls the man young, and Luke calls him a ruler; so sometimes he is referred to as the rich young ruler). As I say in the sermon below, it’s not a story we love to hear. But Jesus’ speaks an important word about the way our relationship with wealth can get in the way of our relationships with our neighbors. Let me know what you think. (And if you’ve ever moved, how much did it weigh?)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When Tim and I moved last year, I got an uncomfortable look at just how much stuff I own. It was just a cross-town move, so we paid for everything based on how long it took, not how much it weighed. But when the truck pulled up, I couldn’t believe how big it was! No way that we needed that big of truck for our stuff. It wouldn’t even be halfway full.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. The truck was way more than halfway full. I asked one of the movers what he thought it all weighed. “Not that much,” was his reply. “Probably a ton and half.” Not that much. Just 3,000 pounds of stuff. And that didn’t even include the bedroom and dining room sets we’d bought and had delivered straight to the parsonage. We were probably looking at owning over two tons of stuff.

“Sell all that you have,” says Jesus, “and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me.” And the man went away shocked and grieving, for he had many possessions. I am sure, without a doubt in my mind, that I have more than he did. I am sure that you have more possessions than that man did, too.

We don’t like this parable much, do we? It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. That’s not exactly what we wanted to hear. We’re not the only ones. Over the years, people have tried to soften the blow of Jesus’ words.

What does it mean to be rich anyway? Unless you’re Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, there’s always someone richer than you. So maybe Jesus isn’t really talking about you and me. But, in the grand scheme of the world, everyone in this room is rich. Some more than others of course, but we cannot avoid the fact that when Jesus says “someone who is rich,” he’s not talking about other people, he’s talking about us. We are all this rich man.

Others have tried to say that Jesus’ command to “sell all your possessions” was just a command to this particular person, and he didn’t mean for everyone to do it. That might have some truth in it. After all, this man is clearly looking to go above and beyond normal understandings of righteousness. But that doesn’t change the second half of our story, where Jesus talks about rich people having such a difficult time getting into the kingdom of God.

And then there’s the most famous explanation of all: Jesus didn’t mean an actual needle! You see, there’s a very narrow gate in Jerusalem called the Eye of the Needle, and a camel could fit through, but first you have to take everything off the camel. So we must unburden ourselves before God. That’s a neat little explanation, except for the fact that there isn’t any such gate. There never was. It was invented by someone who was uncomfortable with this story, to make it easier on us.

But when we get down to it, this story should make us uncomfortable. It made the disciples uncomfortable. It says they were perplexed and astounded. After all, everyone knows that being rich, that having a lot of stuff means you have many blessings, right? It’s a sign of what a good person you are. But Jesus seems to be saying something very different. That having many possessions is not necessarily a blessing, but instead something that can hinder our relationship with God.

It is not so much wealth or possessions themselves that are dangerous, but what these things do to us and just how much we value them and seek them out that is dangerous. We idolize wealth and there is always the temptation to value it above all else. We see it as the solution to all of our problems. It makes us feel secure, and safe, and protected. We turn wealth and possessions into an idol.

Martin Luther, writing in the sixteenth century saw this problem, too: “There are some who think that they have God and everything they need when they have money and property; they trust in them and boast in them so stubbornly and securely that they care for no one else. They, too, have a god—that is money and property—on which they set their whole heart. This is the most common idol on earth.”

Something becomes an idol for us when we would rather depend upon it than upon God. When we put our trust in it, instead of trusting in God. The most common idol on earth in the sixteenth century remains the most common idol on earth today. We depend upon our wealth and our possessions instead of depending upon God and instead of depending on each other.

Oh, it might not be so obvious as it was with this rich man, but we do it all the same. It is so easy to think that things will make us happy. A new gadget or device, better clothes, a nicer car. And we certainly look to the number in the retirement fund to decide if we feel safe and secure.

It is as infectious as any disease. This man who runs up to Jesus kneels before him and beseeches him, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He kneels before him. It’s a small detail, but an important one. Every other person in the story who has knelt before Jesus is seeking healing, healing for themselves or for a loved one, or seeking to be free of their demons. This man is in need of healing, too, whether he realizes it or not.

Jesus’ pronouncement that he must sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor is less a command than it is a cure. When we are able to freely give away the thing that is controlling us, we take away its power. When we give away our money, when we lead generous lives, we chip away at the hold that money has on us. In giving up the very thing that we have come to depend on, we place our trust in God and place our wealth in care of neighbor.

I said earlier that we all are this rich man who has many possessions. It is true that we like him often fall prey to this idolatry of wealth. But we are like him in another way, too. It says that Jesus, looking at him, loved him. He loved him. Before he has any chance to give away his things or not, before he has done much more than ask a question, Jesus loves him. In that, too, we are all this rich man. Because when Jesus looks upon us, in need of healing in our souls, in need of release from our own selfish desires, Jesus loves us, too.

This all started with a question. The man runs to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Perhaps he has the question wrong. After all, what does anyone do to inherit anything? Inheritances are things that are given. They come, not because of any action on our part, but because of our belonging to a family. They can only be received, not earned.

“Children,” says Jesus, “how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God.” Children. For that is what we are to God, named and claimed as such in our baptisms. Children. Heirs to God’s kingdom. Inheritors of eternal life. Not because we have done anything. But because God loves us. Sell what you own and give the money to the poor. It is a blessing, not just a command. Because God loves you, and God doesn’t want you to be captive to money or things. But instead be captive to God in love. Find your hope and your security and your safety in God, who is our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

 

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Relationships

The Gospel text for yesterday, Mark 10:2-16, deals with some difficult topics. Namely, divorce. It’s a difficult reading for us, because Jesus seems to leave very little wiggle room in talking about divorce. But taking a step back and asking some questions can help. What was divorce like when Jesus lived? And, what is the context for this conversation. The first I answer in my sermon. As for the second, well, we’ve been reading straight through Mark lately. So the context for this conversation is Jesus’ discussions with the disciples about caring for the “little ones”–the vulnerable members of society. That should certainly color how we read Jesus’ comments on divorce.

This is a difficult passage. If you’d like to talk, know that my door is always open.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever asked someone a question, and then they talked for a while in response and maybe said some nice or interesting things, but then eventually you realized that they never answered your question in the first place? Maybe they talked about things that were sort of related, but never actually came to the point?

I wonder if that’s how the Pharisees feel in this Gospel reading. They test Jesus with a question. They’re trying to get him to trip up. They ask if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. And Jesus returns the question to them, and Jesus talks for a while, but he never actually answers the question himself. He reframes it. The Pharisees want to talk about the legality of divorce. Jesus wants to talk about God’s intentions for human relationships. And though these two things are intimately linked together, they’re not the same.

This is an emotionally charged text for us. We need to admit that upfront. You would be hard pressed to find an individual who has not been personally impacted by divorce, either their own, or a family member’s or friend’s. And passages like these in the Bible have been used to add shame to an already immensely difficult situation. Because of that, we’re tempted to rush over these passages, not wanting to bring up the hurt and embarrassment. But, that makes it even more important to take a hard look at this and to try to see what it really says.

I’d like to first look at what this text does have to say about divorce, but then, and more importantly, at what this passage says about relationships. It’s important to know that divorce in Jesus’ time wasn’t exactly like divorce in our time. Marriage wasn’t the same—marriages were usually arranged, and often arranged for economic reasons, rather than romantic ones.

And the Pharisees’ question, “can a man divorce his wife?” is telling, because only men could initiate divorces. If a woman was in an unhappy marriage; if her husband was committing adultery or hurting her, she had no recourse. But if a man was displeased with his wife, he could write her a certificate of dismissal and send her away. The woman and any children they had were left to the mercy of her male relatives. It was an incredibly vulnerable position to be in. Women were seen as expendable, something that could be dismissed and discarded.

And Jesus sees this for what it is and says that it is not good. It is not the way that things are meant to be. People are not meant to be expendable. Jesus speaks honestly about the trauma that divorce causes. It is an example of creation torn asunder from God’s intention for it. It causes immeasurable pain to the people involved. But none of that has to do with whether it’s legal or not. When you get right down to it, Jesus isn’t nearly as concerned with the legal grounds for divorce as he is concerned with our relationships with one another. With how we treat one another. In this time and place, divorce was being used to treat people poorly. It was not at all being used to care for the little ones, to care for the vulnerable. Instead, it was exploiting them.

Jesus turns the conversation to creation, to the purpose for relationships in the first place. In our reading from Genesis we heard that God realized, “it is not good for the man to be alone.” We were created from the very beginning as relational beings. We need each other. While we might like to assert that independence is a virtue, that we can do this on our own, God tells us it’s the opposite.

We are created to be in relationship with one another. Marriage is one of the many ways that we use relationship to build community. These readings are very marriage-centric, but it isn’t the only way that we support and uphold each other. And these words that Jesus speaks about marriage are also important for us to hear concerning other relationships, too.

What is God’s vision for our relationships? For our marriages, for our friendships, for our familial bonds? Respect, mutuality, compassion, companionship. God says that God is going to make the man a helper as his partner. Did you know that that word helper, here used for the woman, is most often used to describe God in the Bible? We hear it in one of the most quoted verses of the Psalms: “I look to the hills, from where is my help to come? My help is from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

To say that the woman is the man’s helper should not imply that the woman is less than the man, although it is often read that way. We are all meant to be helpers for one another. To act in the way of God to one another. To act with love, to act with support, to act with accountability. The way that God intended our relationships, people are not expendable, but valued, respected, encouraged, and loved.

When those things aren’t there, especially when mutual respect is gone, the relationship is no longer what God wants for us. And in married relationships that sometimes means that divorce is the right thing. When the relationship is already torn asunder by selfishness, deception, violence, or disrespect, divorce can be the best thing for everyone involved. It can be a step towards reclaiming self-worth and dignity and respect. And yet we know that even when it is the right decision, it is still a painful decision. It still hurts the people involved.

And so, it grieves the heart of God. Not because some legal standard has been broken, but because of the damage done to God’s beloved children. For Jesus, divorce is not the personal failing of isolated individuals, but rather one example of creation torn asunder from God’s intention for it. And it is certainly not the only way that we as human beings hurt each other and hurt God’s creation.

When we treat each other as things to be used or exploited for our own ends, we tear asunder God’s purposes. When we value certain people or certain abilities over others, we tear asunder God’s purposes. When we look at another’s face and do not see the face of God reflected in them, we tear asunder God’s purposes.

We don’t always live up to our purposes as God’s people. None of us do. And because God cares so deeply for us, and for our well-being, God is grieved. We are not yet the people that God created us to be. But in God’s grace, in our baptisms, we are recreated as children of God. Children. Those to whom Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs. Vulnerable ones. Ones who depend on others. Ones who need others.

Our human promises fail sometimes. But God’s promises never fail. God promises us that we are God’s children. God promises us new starts and new beginnings when we have failed. God promises to be with us in the midst of relationships that are not what they should be, relationships that it might be best to leave.

And God dreams of a day when we all live the way that God intended. In support, in love, in respect for one another. Valuing each other. We’re not there yet. But by the grace of God we can continue trying. And we can trust on that one relationship that will never fail. Our relationship with God, who values, loves, supports, and cares for each of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Stumbling into Grace

What do we do with texts where Jesus is saying some frankly disturbing things? Like, “cut off your hand/tear our your eye or you will burn in hell” kind of disturbing? As I talk about in my sermon below, I don’t take these texts literally. And I think they probably made more immediate sense to Jesus’ first-century audience than they do today. But, we’re not well served by ignoring such statements just because we think they’re metaphor or hyperbole. Because if we don’t engage these difficult texts, the only people talking about them will be those who do take them literally and who use them to do harm to others. So, as always…let me know what you think in the comments.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…and if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.” The Gospel of the Lord.

A few years ago on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, a patient arrived in the emergency room because his roommate had found him trying to saw off his own foot. He was convinced that his foot was causing him to stumble, leading him in sinful ways, and he took this verse from Jesus 100 percent literally and tried to cut it off.

They got the one doctor who knew anything about the Bible to talk to him, and she tried to explain that she didn’t think Jesus meant for this man to hurt himself. It was one of the thousands of times in watching Grey’s Anatomy that I’ve thought, “This hospital needs a chaplain!” That man, in addition to needing medical care and psychiatric care, would have benefited from some spiritual care.

The doctor was right, though. These extreme, graphic words of Jesus aren’t meant to be taken literally. They’re hyperbole, a way of super-exaggeration to make a point. Jesus does not want us to hurt ourselves. But just because these words of Jesus aren’t meant to be taken literally, that does not mean they aren’t meant to be taken seriously. Jesus knew that this would raise some eyebrows. He knew that this was over-the-top speech. He did it because he wanted to get the disciples’ attention. What he was saying was important!

And the context of these hyperbolic statements matter, too. It comes right on the heels of our reading from last week. Jesus is holding a child and teaching the disciples about welcoming vulnerable people. John, seemingly interrupting him, tells Jesus about how he and the other disciples tried to stop someone who was healing others in Jesus’ name because “he wasn’t one of us.”

Jesus’ response leaves no room for misinterpretation: do not put up roadblocks to other peoples’ faith. Do not cause a little one to stumble in the faith. And just to show how seriously he intends this: it would be better for you to cut off your hand, or cut off your foot, or cut out your eye, than to do such a thing. Better to be maimed than to cause another to stumble.

Jesus wants our full attention here. He wants us to take seriously the effect that our actions have on other people. There are worse things than losing a body part, he says. It would be worse to be cut off from God. It would be worse to be responsible for someone else losing their faith. Our actions have consequences in other people’s lives for far longer than we might realize. If you have ever been hurt by another person, it can take years and decades to recover from the trauma. A little trip, a little stumble, can lead to a big fall. And Jesus is calling on his disciples and on us to take those consequences seriously.

So what are the stumbling blocks that we put in others’ paths? Sometimes in our own path, too. Jealousy, competition, a selfish desire for control. The readings this morning are full of it. In Numbers, when Moses and the people are fed up with one another, God decides that Moses will share the spirit of leadership with seventy others. They gather in the tent of meeting and the Holy Spirit comes upon them and they prophesy.

Except for Eldad and Medad. They missed the meeting for some reason. But no matter, because the Spirit found them where they were, and they too prophesied. But Joshua, Moses’ assistant and eventual successor, sees this and runs and tells Moses: stop them! They weren’t with us in the tent, they shouldn’t be prophesying! He can’t handle the idea that God was at work in ways that he didn’t understand. In ways that he wasn’t a part of.

It’s the same with the disciples. John says to Jesus, “We tried to stop someone from casting out demons in your name because he did not follow us.” We tried to stop someone who was relieving pain and suffering, who was giving new life and new opportunities, because he was not one of us.

Moses and Jesus have the same response to these roadblocks being put up. Don’t try to stop people from the good they are doing, just because they aren’t part of your group. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” Moses says.

In a world that is more polarized than ever, along every dimension, can we imagine that God is at work in and through someone who bears the name of Christ but who disagrees with us? Can we accept a cup of cold water from someone who does not follow in our way of thinking? Who is not part of “our” group?

Can we take a step back with Jesus and take seriously the way that our actions have long lasting effects on other people? Even if they’re people we disagree with? Even if they’re people we’re never going to meet? What if, instead of trying to stop others, trying to hinder others, we were able to say this:

“Lord, we saw some people who were casting out demons, or working for justice, or advocating for the homeless, or caring for veterans, and more all in your name. They do not follow us. In fact, we really disagree with them. But we did not stop them.” What if, instead of seeing other people who we don’t agree with, we were able to see the God who is at work in them, despite our differences? Perhaps it could be a starting point to have real dialogue, where we listen to one another. Where we take seriously the ways our actions can hurt one another.

Jesus says to cut off whatever is causing you to sin. You could cut off your hand, or your foot, but your sin would remain. Those are just metaphors. But what if we could cut off what is really causing our sin? Cut off our pride, our prejudices, cut off our fear of change, cut off our need for control. Go in with a surgeon’s scalpel and excise the things that keep us from accepting even a cup of cold water from someone we disagree with? I’m too much of a realist—and too much of a Lutheran—to think that we could ever cut it all out. We are human, and to be human is to have to struggle with our faults and with our selfishness.

But even if we can’t ever get all those stumbling blocks out of us, I know this: God will not be limited by them. God will not be limited by our prejudices, God will not be limited by our fears, God will not be limited by our pride and jealousy. Because the Spirit is at work in people that we think aren’t qualified. The Spirit is at work in people we turn away from. The Spirit is at work in people that don’t look or think or talk or vote like us. And the Spirit is at work in you and me, too.

We don’t have to try to control God’s Holy Spirit, to control grace. No matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to. Grace doesn’t need to be controlled, and neither does God’s Spirit. Because the more they are shared, the more they abound. In places we don’t expect.  In people we don’t expect. In moments we don’t expect. We can try to put a stumbling block in front of grace, but it will not be held down. We can try to contain God’s Spirit to those we think deserve it, but it will not be held back. God’s grace is for all, and God’s Spirit is for all people. And that is the Gospel of the Lord. Amen.