Story/Sermon on Mark 10:17-27

I want to try something different this morning. This sermon will be in the form of a story I’ve written based on this text from Mark’s Gospel. In particular the story deals with the rather shocking response that Jesus gives to the man who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. We expect Jesus’ questions about keeping the commandments, but after the man assures Jesus that he’s done what the law requires all his life we come to verse 21. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

So here’s my story:

“I’m afraid I won’t live to tell this tale; so I’m going to write it down.” So begins a journal entry by Marion Browner. I found his journal, a small spiral notebook, sealed in a zip lock bag as I was walking along a Martha’s Vineyard beach. It had apparently been washed ashore by the tide.

The entry dated March 23 continues: “My bed banged into the wall and jolted me awake this morning—seems like a year ago. My first thought was, “Oh, no, an earthquake!” But then as sleep cleared from my head I remembered where I was. I’m still not sure what happened. Our ship must have hit an iceberg or another ship. I don’t know and probably never will.

Obnoxious fog-horn alarms started blaring and mass confusion erupted all over the ship. My stateroom was three levels below the evacuation deck and it was difficult to get up there. Everyone was jamming the passage ways in a state of near panic and the ship was listing rather badly to port. I started out of my room once and heard someone yell that we were taking on water. Fearing we might have to abandon ship I pushed my way back against the flow of the crowd to my room and tried to decide what to take with me. I began throwing some things into a duffle bag—extra clothes, this journal, and a novel I’m writing. Part of the novel was in my laptop, and I hated to lose it. I had just broken through my writer’s block and had done some good writing on this cruise. So I decided to take the computer and put it and my duffle into a carryon suitcase. It was a bit heavy but I couldn’t bear to lose that good work.

I struggled through the crowd of passengers and found pandemonium on deck. It was still dark and cold and the early morning fog made it even harder for crew members to organize the evacuation of the ship. There was a lot of pushing and shoving as everyone jockeyed for position, trying to get to the lifeboats. I’m not sure what happened in the next few minutes, but I finally found myself in a small life raft with several other people and we were quickly lowered over the side into the water.

The cold north Atlantic sloshed over us as we struggled to keep ourselves upright. One man was washed out of the lifeboat, but someone else (I later learned her name was Susan) was able to grab his hand and hold on till the rest of us could pull him back in.
By the time we stabilized ourselves and got our cold wet lifejackets on I realized I could no longer hear other voice. We had drifted away from the ship and the other lifeboats. An hour or two later when the fog lifted there was nothing to see but water—water all around us and ankle deep in our boat.

We are a bedraggled crew: Susan, the lifesaver when John went overboard, is a strong, athletic-looking woman. It turns out she really was a lifeguard in her college days at Duke, and although it wasn’t obvious in the soggy sweat suit she was wearing she is now a professional body builder. Lucky for John—she was probably the only one in the boat strong enough to save him.
John is a CPA for a Madison Ave. conglomerate, an uptight, obsessive-compulsive type. If exposure or thirst doesn’t kill him, having his Brooks Brothers suit ruined probably will.

There are three others in our boat: Brandi, a beautician and wannabe model from New Jersey; Phil, an art museum curator from Montreal, and Carlos, who turned out to be a Roman Catholic priest from Philly—but you would never have guessed it from seeing him in his dripping bathrobe and pjs.

That makes six of us altogether, and the lifeboat could accommodate up to 8 normally, but we are far from a normal crew. In the first few minutes after we realized we had drifted away from the others I knew we had a serious problem. I’m sure most of the others did too, but no one wanted to talk about it.
The lifeboat was still taking on water—in part from the waves washing over the sides, but mostly because we are overloaded—not with people, but with baggage.
I wasn’t the only one who packed before jumping ship. All of my fellow refugees were clutching bags of odd shapes and sizes; and when I pointed out that we really had to lighten our load or we were going to sink, I met with great resistance.
Susan, the body builder, had brought several of her smaller weights with her and was already beginning a limited version of her regular morning workout. The weights are obviously expendable, but after one look at the ease with which she did one-handed curls with a 20-lb. weight, no one was going to tell her so.

John the CPA had a brief case full of important business contracts he was working on, and from the way he was clutching it to his chest like a security blanket, it was obvious he wasn’t going to part with it without a fight.

Brandi had a large suitcase and a matching makeup bag. When I asked her what was in them, she said her make-up, jewelry, clothes, and her portfolio of modelling portraits. She was just beginning to explain why she couldn’t afford to replace any of it because she was only working part-time and none of it was insured when Phil yelled something about what a waste that crap was and lunged across the boat at Brandi. He managed to throw the make-up bag overboard because Brandi couldn’t hold onto both pieces of luggage at once. She would have gone in after it, but Susan grabbed her. So instead Brandi went after Phil and tried to get even by throwing his baggage overboard too.

Phil had a large rectangular package, obviously some kind of painting. He told us later, after the scuffle, that it was a Renoir that had been in his family for generations. But Brandi couldn’t have cared less about art or family heirlooms at that point! She was furious and did her very best to give Phil and his priceless painting a salt-water bath. I thought they were going to capsize us all before order was restored, once again enforced by Susan. We were all relieved when everyone was seated again, but what we failed to notice at the time was that in the struggle the corner of Phil’s picture frame had made a small puncture in the skin of our life raft.

When everyone calmed down a bit I tried again to initiate a rational discussion of which baggage was expendable (hoping no one would notice the suitcase I was sitting on). Everyone of course thought their own prized possessions were more valuable than anyone else’s. Compromise seemed hopeless. Everyone was simply banking on our being rescued before the lifeboat sank of its excessive cargo weight. The best suggestion anyone came up with was to take turns bailing the water out of the boat.

When we started looking for something to bail with we realized that we hadn’t heard a word from one member of our crew. Nobody much cared, except we didn’t know what Carlos had in the small, worn leather bag he had brought with him. We didn’t know yet he was a priest either, but that became very obvious when he showed us the rosary, chalice, Bible and bottle of holy water in his bag.
Phil said sarcastically, “Well, at least he can give us last rites, but this cup will work great for bailing.” Brandi objected and grabbed the chalice from Phil. “You can’t use that, it’s holy!” she said.

Father Carlos smiled and spoke for the first time, “I can’t think of anything holier than saving life. It’s OK Brandi,” he said, making the sign of the cross and handing the chalice to Phil, who started bailing immediately. Carlos continued, “And if we ration this holy water very carefully for drinking it may keep us all alive for a day or two. These other things won’t lighten our load very much, but every little bit will help,” he added as he tossed his rosary and Bible overboard.

“Father! You can’t do that,” screamed Phil as he jumped in after them. Susan did her lifeguard routine once more and fished Phil out, sputtering but empty-handed. While he shivered, John took up the theological debate questioning how Father Carlos could possibly risk doing anything to alienate God at a time like this?
Carlos was still amazingly calm. “At a time like this,” he said, “unless the word of God is in your heart the Bible won’t do you much good anyway. I’m scared too, John, but our situation reminds me of the time someone put a life and death question to Jesus. The six of us are like the man in this story – we want more than anything to be saved. You see, this man asked Jesus, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He was a very good man, but Jesus told him he lacked one thing. Jesus told the man he needed to sell what he had and give to the poor.

The man had a lot because he was very rich. But Jesus knew he needed to let go of what was keeping him from really giving his life to God.

There was a deafening silence in the boat, except for the sloshing and scraping of Phil bailing water with the communion chalice. Finally Susan said, “You mean we need to throw this junk overboard, don’t you Father?” But before Carlos could answer John declared, “I’m not giving up contracts until these two broads give up their weights and make up and Marion gives up that suitcase he’s been sitting on! Those things can be replaced, and what good is a stupid painting when your life’s at stake?
Everyone was ready to gang up on John and throw him overboard, but Fr. Carlos intervened again, quietly. He said, “You know, the person in that Bible story goes away full of sorrow. He wasn’t able to let go of his possessions either, and then Jesus says, “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The last page of the journal was scribbled, like Marion wrote it very quickly. As best as I can tell it says: “I think Fr. Carlos was beginning to get through to some of us, but Susan screamed just then because she noticed the tear in the lifeboat. It must have just gotten bigger and the air is rushing out pretty fast. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Everyone’s throwing their stuff overboard now. I just hope it’s not too late…”


Let us pray: O God, what must we do to be saved? Remind us it’s never too late to give ourselves to you. Speak to us the assurance that grace is a free gift, and that there is nothing we can do to earn it. It is difficult to enter your kingdom because it is so hard for us to let go of our security blankets.

In this moment God, help us to honestly confront the idols we worship:
Be they idols of pride in our looks, or in our strength, ability, portfolios, education, status or power.
Help us throw overboard the material possessions – the new cars, X Boxes and fancy toys, our designer clothes and ever-present electronic devices. Unburden us of whatever holds us back or slows us down on our walk with you, O Lord.

Give us strength to win the battle with the demons of coveting, of our pursuit of houses that are bigger and nicer than our neighbor’s, goals that consume us and keep us from seeing the Gospel truth of how we need to live as Jesus followers.
Let us put away the idols of faith in our own achievements or self-righteousness as ways to save ourselves, ideologies and doctrines that divide instead of unite us.

Help us to see clearly Lord how those idols threaten our relationship with you, and our way to eternal life itself. Please give us strength to let go of those idols before it’s too late. We don’t want to be like the person who came to Jesus. We don’t want to go away full of sorrow because of possessions that posses us, but may we go away rejoicing, like camels, who freed of their burdens can slip through the eye of a needle.

We offer these prayers because we know that with you all things are truly possible. Amen

Northwest UMC, October 14, 2018

Preaching to the Choir

What’s wrong with preaching to the choir? Someone commented recently that she thought most political ads at this point in the campaign are just “preaching to the choir.” Whoever the intended targets are most political ads are a terrible waste of money that could be used to actually do some good, and I just want them to stop! I plan to vote early this week and how I wish that would somehow trigger a magic switch somewhere in cyber space that would exempt me from hearing or seeing any more hateful negative ads.

But my friend’s comment got me wondering about “preaching to the choir.” We all know it means unnecessarily trying to persuade people of something when they are already convinced. Anyone can sell a product or an idea to those who have already decided to buy, I get that. But consider “preaching to the choir” more literally. With all due respect to musicians who faithfully give of their time and talent in church or elsewhere, I would argue that choir members need to hear the Gospel just as much as anyone else, preachers included. In fact I’ve known both choir members and preachers who need to hear God’s Word more than other folks.

That understanding of what preaching to the choir or those already converted reminds me of something Dr. Everett Tilson, one of my seminary mentors often told us many years ago. He said, “You can’t understand the Scriptures until you are willing to stand under them.” Both the judgment and grace of God are for all of us, saints and sinners alike and we need to hear it early and often, especially in campaign season. As St. Paul put it, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And “all” means all, no exceptions, no deferments. Christ died for all of us fallible human beings, and we are in great danger if we ever forget that. When we are tempted to judge others as more sinful or less worthy of God’s love, we are treading on very thin ice.

Humility is a very basic requirement of faith. As any regular reader of mine knows, Micah 6:8 is my default summary of what is required of a faithful follower of God, and the final item in that verse is “to walk humbly with your God.” (See my 10/4/15 post “Finding Our Way Back to God: The Search for Meaning” for a discussion of that text in more depth.) The same advice from a negative perspective is given in the familiar adage that “pride goes before a fall.” But if you check out the biblical source of that proverb, the consequences of pride are much worse than a just a fall. What Proverbs 16:18 says in full is “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Pride is such a serious problem that it comes in at number 4 on the Roman Catholic list of seven deadly sins.

Wouldn’t you think with all those dire warnings there would be less ego and more humility around? But just the opposite seems to be the case in our selfie-crazed society. Dare I say especially in campaign season there is a plethora of hubris in the air? One of the big problems with pride is that it often gets expressed not by building ourselves up but by putting others down so we look better by comparison. If truth be told most of our visits to eye doctors would include a reminder that part of the trouble with our vision is that we can’t see the logs in our own eyes because we are too busy criticizing others for the tiny specks in theirs. (Matthew 7:3-5 and Luke 6:42).

I could go on showing off my biblical prowess by proof texting many other references to pride, but that doesn’t seem wise at this point. An image of stones and a glass house comes to mind! And yes, in this age of digital transparency where all of our actions can be captured on cell phone video and all of our tweets are fair game for public exposure, we all live in glass houses, including the choir. The prescribed antidote for pride is a regular reminder for all of us that the peace of mind and heart we crave never comes from the fame and recognition worldly values tempt us to pursue. It comes only to the humble who know that “the greatest of all is servant of all.” (Mark 10:44).

By the way, that bit about the glass houses isn’t biblical, but it’s close to Jesus’ daring those of us who are without sin to cast the first stone. (John 8:7).

Humbly yours, as one who can’t sing a lick, but I know I belong in that chorus who need to stand under the Scripture.