First Lutheran Church
October 11, 2015
I recently told my daughter, Sarah, that when I was her age I never imagined what I was her age that my life would turn out the way it has. Life was full of possibilities back then. I was a wife with two young children, owning our first home in a city I love. I was involved in marvelous church and had good friends and was active in school and community. Now I find that I will soon be unemployed again—the 3rd time in seven years. I am grateful to God for you and this church, and the privilege of being your pastor for a year. But I am also discouraged, wondering yet again what comes next. So when I approach this text, For God all things are possible, I struggle with it. Like the Psalmist I cry out, How long O Lord?
So it is good for me to hear the hope and reassurance in this text again. And it is good for you as you are weathering the rocky in-between time of Doug’s departure and Richard’s arrival. It is a reminder that people can accomplish very little on their own, but with God all things are possible. The wealthy young man is an archetype, one who searches for truth and meaning in life, one who asks the ultimate question, What must I do to inherit eternal life? Having honestly and to the best of his ability, fulfilled the requirements of Jewish law, he realized that something was still missing, that doing is not getting him there. He asks Jesus about his relationship to God beyond the bounds of this life: Who am I? Who is God? What is our relationship to one another? And what difference does it make to me? These are the questions that continually surface in Mark’s telling of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus answers him, as was his custom, with a metaphor. His metaphor for eternal life, the image of a camel going through the eye of a needle, is astonishing because of its extreme impossibility. Camels are enormous, needle eyes are quite small. It is a grotesque and bizarre image, one that we easily dismiss precisely because it is impossible. And yet, Jesus uses it to speak about entrance into the Kingdom of God, which we cannot so easily dismiss.
On first reading, this text sounds like a condemnation of wealth, but that is not the case This is a parable of anything that human nature treasures above the Kingdom of God, things that prevent us from being true disciples, things which hinder us from receiving eternal life. For this particular young man, the problem was not his accumulation of stuff. He was not evil or morally bankrupt. He lived a decent, religiously correct life. But he failed to understand what Jesus was teaching him because he focused on rules and regulations rather than relationships.
Wealth, prestige, position, our families, our addictions, our power—these are the things that become our idols. How can we obey God and follow Jesus when we are so busy protecting and preserving our idols? Like the man in the story, we turn away with great sorrow, because we also believe that salvation is found in the rituals of our faith. Having thought we are doing what is required of us, we discover that these can be are our biggest stumbling blocks. I wonder what I cling to that obstructs my encounters with the divine. Four years ago when I was living with my mom in Missouri I asked God to send me back to Houston, with a job and a home of my own. God granted me those prayers, but I still am living the gypsy life wondering what comes next. I hear of friends and classmates already retired, playing with their grandchildren and I ask God what I can’t have that life too.
The key to inheriting eternal life is obedience to God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. But what does that mean? As Christians it is easy to say we believe that but it is much more difficult to live as though we believe it. How can we follow Jesus today? He gives us a clue when he says with mortals it is impossible, but not for God, for God all things are possible. There is nothing we can do to chalk up points on our salvation scorecards and earn our ways into heaven. We cannot bribe God into opening the gate for us by being nice and staying out of trouble. The young man found out that keeping the 10 Commandments rigidly is not sufficient. We cannot earn salvation through church attendance, memorizing Scripture, tithing or selling everything we have and giving it to the poor. We also fail because we believe that obedience lies in following the law. But Jesus tells us that following the law for its own sake is not the way to eternal life. Eternal life comes from believing that we are saved by grace through faith. The doing follows the believing, not the other way around.
Eternal life is a gift from God, given to us out of God’s boundless love. We do not store up our treasures in heaven by our actions, but by our faith, by our obedience to God. And it is only through grace by faith that we find the strength to respond to the invitation to follow me. When we are enabled to receive God’s gift of grace, we are freed from our personal stumbling blocks. We don’t follow Jesus by selling our stuff and giving it away. We sell our stuff and give it away because we follow Jesus.
My children used to fight over their toys, yelling mine! mine! whether the toys were theirs or not. As they got older, they fought over who got the prize in the cereal box or whose turn it was to sit in the front seat of the car. I remember being at the front of the gigantic Sam’s Club in West Houston. They were fussing that the one was taking up the space of the other. I had them turn around and look into the vastness of the store, telling them that there was room for all of us. We all know children act that way. But adults act that way too, metaphorically jumping up and down, silently yelling mine! mine! if they feel that someone else is moving in on their territory. You know these people, and sometimes we are those people. Many years ago, I worked in an office where I was the only one who knew how to use the word processor. When our supervisor began sending others to computer class, I became somewhat resentful. I liked having the computer all to myself and I liked being the only one who possessed the ‘secret knowledge’. It was hard to share. It was mine, all mine! We tend to forget that all of life is a gift from our Creator—our things, our skills, our abilities. And if God asks us to share or (Heaven forbid!) give up something we have for the benefit of others, would we do it or would we see God asking us to send our camels through the eye of a needle?
So who then can be saved? Jesus recognizes the difficulty, the human impossibility of complying with his invitation to follow him. Apart from God, we cannot put aside our idols. Without God we cannot even work up the desire to try. But with God, all things are possible. All of us have brought our idols and stumbling blocks into church this morning. What are your idols that cause you to refuse God’s offer of salvation? Here, before the throne of God and before this fellowship of believers, we are invited once again to put aside those things. We are invited once again to take up our crosses and follow Christ and receive eternal life, even as we live out our lives right here in Galveston. For with mortals this is impossible, but all things are possible with God, to whom we give all honor and glory. Amen.