Sermons That Work

Being A Prophet…, Proper 23 (B) – 2003

October 12, 2003

Being a prophet has never been an easy job, but Amos had some particular challenges. As a shepherd he lacked the automatic authority and credibility a man of more education, property, and social standing might have expected from his fellow citizens. He also lived in a time of prosperity and a strong sense of well-being. In such times, it is difficult to convince people that they should think of changing, not even when it involves their own souls.

Amos was faced with the unenviable task of telling a very comfortable people that they were laboring under a dreadful illusion about the source of their present well-being. What they trusted was their own financial comfort, the might of their army, the political and military success of their king. Times were good and they were fairly certain that the good times were their own doing, the result of their own cleverness and hard work. When they thought about it, they probably thought that being God’s chosen people contributed to their sense of comfort. In fact, they seem to have thought it likely that these good times were outward and visible signs of God’s favor.

There are many themes woven throughout the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, if you prefer. Perhaps the central theme is that of God’s covenant with His chosen people. Beginning with creation, Adam and Eve, and continuing with Noah, Abraham, and Jacob, God repeats his covenant offer. He will care for his people, protect them and provide an abundant life. They are to be God’s witness to the world of God’s presence. Further, they are evidence of God’s role in creation. They will be evidence not just of God’s creation of the physical world, but of a way of life, one based on generosity, justice and righteousness. God repeats numerous times that his covenant is unconditional. He WILL follow through on his promises until they have been completed.

A covenant is not a contract. In a contract, the actions of one party are a condition of the actions of the other. In other words, if you do this, I will do that in return. If you do not do your part, I am absolved from doing mine. In His covenant, God says, I will do this. His offer remains constant, not dependent on humanity. This does not mean humanity escapes the consequences of ungodly behavior. Time after time, Israel turned away from God but God continued to work to maintain the relationship. He sent a succession of prophets to show them the error of their ways and invite them back into the covenant. Ultimately, he sent his son.

Israel developed its own contractual interpretation of God’s covenant. Over centuries, a complex set of rules evolved, along with the understanding that if one followed these, not only a prosperity based well-being would be the result, but eventual absorption into God’s eternal whole as well

Over and over again, They misunderstood. Thus we hear Amos, reminding Israel that they cannot depend on their stone houses and vineyards to sustain the comfort of their lives. God alone is the one who provides, protects, and sustains. The true well-being is based on the righteousness and justice of God’s kingdom.

This brings us to Mark’s gospel for today. This story can also be found in Matthew and Luke. All three accounts begin with a man asking Jesus what more he must do to be saved or have eternal life. Matthew identifies the man as young. Mark tells us he is rich or has many possessions. Luke describes him as a ruler. Thus we have come to call this the story of the rich young ruler.

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life,” he asks. Jesus first admonishes him that no one is good but God alone. He reminds him of the commandments. You can almost hear the relief in the man’s voice as he declares, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”

Some of the most endearing aspects of this story are the words that Jesus looked at him and loved him. It leaves us with the clear impression that the lesson which follows is rooted in that love. “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.”

There are many ways to interpret this but, in the light of Amos’ prophetic words, let us consider the following. Our rich, young ruler had the outward and visible signs of God’s favor that his culture recognized. As a man of money, position, and power whose observance of the commandments should have been visible to others, what reason did he have to be concerned about his eternal inheritance? Either he had some doubt lurking in his heart, or he simply wanted to call himself to Jesus’ attention in this way.

Whatever his motivation, he obviously was shocked by the response. To give up all his possessions was to surrender the tangible evidence of his goodness and virtue in God’s eyes, not to mention in the eyes of his family, friends, and strangers in the street.

What he could not understand was that Jesus was inviting him to live in the truth of God’s covenant. Here was his opportunity to step beyond the boundaries of the contract Israel has interpreted for itself. To risk this new idea was to glimpse what life might be like if God actually kept the promise to care for him. It would be to accept the covenant promises as Jacob understood them in Genesis 28, to trust God to see that he had clothing to wear, food to eat, and protection on his journeys in life. For someone who possessed so many of his community’s symbols of security, it must have been terrifying.

One wonders if he understood that Jesus was also inviting him into a new understanding of justice. Giving all that he had to the poor would have been a redistribution of his wealth that went far beyond even generous alms-giving. It recalls God’s instructions about Jubilee. Israel had long since abandoned God’s economic system in which every fiftieth year property would be returned to the family of original owners. This radical periodic restoration of the land, the source of a family’s financial support, gave every family hope that they might be mired in poverty for no more than part of seven times seven years.

As the man walks away, Jesus makes it clear that his answer was more than a single answer to a specific individual. He turns to the disciples to say, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” As the disciples look puzzled and confused, Jesus goes further, saying “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” Their dismay at this pronouncement is clear. If those who possess the good things of the world cannot be saved, then who can? Again, is not my wealth a sign of God’s favor?

We live in times where we are actively confronting this disconnect between the messages of the culture in which we live and the kingdom of God to which we aspire. Since September 2001 we have seen the sense of well-being we thought we had purchased with our prosperity and power vanish in moments. We have been appalled at the spectacle of greed on the part of executives who, while they built lavish homes for themselves betrayed their stockholders and their employees. In the process they wrecked the hope of a secure retirement for thousands.

The silver lining in the current cloud of our lives is that as we have watched wealth, and the power it can purchase, betray our trust, we may be able to find ourselves in a time and place when this story offers us reason to hope. In order to grasp that hope, however, we will need to be honest with ourselves. We are the world’s richest nation. And we have used that wealth to gather more wealth. The size of the average home in the 1950s has become the size of the average two-car garage in the year 2000. In fact, as we build these larger homes, we are having smaller families to live in them. That is just one example of how rich we have become.

What Jesus asks is even more radical than it was the day he spoke it. How can we do what he asks? He asks nothing less that to create a world where we can surrender the equity in our homes, savings, our net worth, the 401k plans and Roth IRAs. Exchange them to follow Jesus into an world where only God is certain. Jesus challenges us to live in a kingdom where we believe that family and community will care for us when we cannot care for ourselves. He envisions a life in which we share what we have with the least members of our community. He encourages us to imagine a global economy in which no longer do 11,000 children under the age of five die each day of preventable causes – starvation, lack of routine immunization, and basic medical care.

Yes, it is a lot to ask. We share the disciples’ confusion and dismay. But the truth is that this dilemma is the center of the Christian life. Will we trust the security of the culture or choose to risk accepting God’s covenant. With the disciples we find ourselves asking, “how is this possible?”

Jesus response is the simple and only answer. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” On that hope hangs our only salvation. It is the reason we gather for worship. It is what gathers us in communities trying to reconcile God’s way to the world we confront each day. It is the reality we celebrate with the bread and the wine in the Eucharist.

In the end, our choice is simple – we either make the effort to accomplish our frequent prayer that God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven or turn with the rich young ruler and walk away sorrowing.

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Christopher Sikkema


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