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Are You Kidding- Be Nice?

This year, our sermon scripture passages will be (and have been) guided by the Narrative Lectionary. The Narrative Lectionary cycles through scripture to help us get a full variety of stories from the Bible each year. And this year, the Narrative Lectionary focuses on the stories from Mark. So even though we’ve been in Gospel of Mark for several weeks already, I wanted to give you some background information on the book.

At first glance, you may think Mark is the least substantial of the four Gospels. It’s the oldest of the four Gospels and the shortest and, if we could read it in Greek, you’d see that its language is informal. My Greek professor called it “taxicab Greek.” It doesn’t offer us any kind of birth story for Jesus- instead, it jumps right into the action, beginning with John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus. However, despite all of its seeming simplicity, there is much more going on here.

Clues throughout the text tell us that Mark was written by a Jewish author for a Jewish audience. This is someone who understands their customs and life, and the book is full of references to the Old Testament, connecting Jesus to the prophesied Messiah. The tone of the book is urgent. The action happens quickly (again, taxicab). The word “immediately” is used 42 times in 16 chapters. Mark is definitely creating a mood. I’ve heard it said that it’s like a Hitchcock film where the tension is building, and we know more about what’s going to happen than the characters, so we want to yell at them to not pick up the phone (or in this case, don’t go to Jerusalem). Another feature of Mark is that there are really three kinds of characters- the authorities (both Jewish and Roman) who almost always oppose Jesus, the crowds who seem to only be interested in Jesus for the miracles and magic they see in him, and the disciples. The disciples understand that there is something else going on here, but they don’t understand. As I mentioned last week, they’re always confused.

And perhaps so are we. Mark’s gospel is tough to swallow in a lot of ways. Pastor Sarah Hinlicky Wilson writes, “Mark’s is a relentless Gospel, which seems not so much to invite to faith as to prove again and again the impossibility of faith.”[1] And today’s story- one that is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is one of the most impossible. This one makes us squirm. And I guess I’ve avoided talking about it for long enough now.

The story of the wealthy man who asks Jesus about eternal life and leaves in disappointment and grief after Jesus tells him to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor is in all three Gospels. In fact, the musician and writer Rich Mullins noted that Jesus tells one man one time in one Gospel in the dark of night that he must be born again and we take it pretty seriously. Jesus tells one man one time in three Gospels to sell everything he owns, and we ignore it completely. And actually, this teaching isn’t just present in this story; we also read in Luke 14:33 “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” I know what you’re all thinking- “You first, Jenny!”

Over the centuries, there have been quite a lot of mental gymnastics done to let us off the hook for actually doing this, for selling what we own. One of the most popular is to say that this man was not the saintly lover of God he portrays himself to be. One potential signal of his guilt is in Jesus’ words in verse 18- “No one is good but God alone.” Perhaps Jesus is calling this man back to reality- he thinks he has kept all of the laws, but he is not, in fact, good. It’s also interesting to note that when Jesus lists commandments in v. 19, he slips a command in that is not one of the 10 commandments- “you shall not defraud.” Could it be that Jesus is gently telling this man that while he had kept other commandments, he was guilty of defrauding people? Finally, an alternate translation of the word “possessions” is “property.” It is well-known that many landowners in Jesus’ time profited off unjust land-grabbing practices. So maybe this teaching is just for this one man who was not good. He defrauded people and became wealthy on the backs of other people. Maybe. But the reality is that we don’t know this man’s heart. These are clues, but not hard facts. We don’t know him. But we do know about ourselves. We do know the way that our wealth lulls us into security. We do know how we prize our possessions and define ourselves and others by monetary value.

And it is for that reason that I think we have to take this story seriously. I think we have to believe that Jesus’ directive to this man could be for all of us. And again, you’re all thinking “You first, Jenny!” Theologian Ched Meyers looks at all of Jesus’ teachings through a lens of reordering the world. He writes, ““This Jesus’ call to discipleship is identified in the gospel with “release” from our captivity to the dominant [money loving] system. This is indicated by the fact that the verb used to describe the fishermen “leaving” their nets to follow Jesus is the same verb used to describe the forgiveness of sin/debt, the liberation of captives and the unbinding of the demon-possessed. This Jubilee release takes many forms: writing off debt, practicing solidarity with the poorest, making sure that everyone is included at the social table, sharing our assets with each other – and resisting the tyranny of Caesar’s coin! I believe Jesus invites us to do the same today. Our task is not to rationalize why we can’t follow, or to equivocate where Jesus was clear, but to figure out what his call means in concrete terms today, in a world quite different (but probably no more complex and ambiguous) than that of the gospels.”[2]

So then, what does this mean for us today? You may have heard of the pseudoscientific term “affluenza.” It’s not a real diagnosis, but it is the observable phenomenon that for many, wealth leads to unhappiness, feelings of guilt and entitlement, and overall dissatisfaction. Some of us probably already know and have experienced that money can’t make you happy, and others among us would like the opportunity to try. But Linda and Millard Fuller’s story can show us. Hear this selection from their biography:

While Linda Fuller was earning her Bachelor of Science degree at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, her husband and a fellow attorney began a marketing firm. Their business expertise and drive made them millionaires while still in their twenties. But as the business prospered, the Fullers’ marriage suffered. This crisis prompted the Fullers to reevaluate their values and direction. Their “soul-searching” led to reconciliation with each other and to a renewal of their Christian commitment.

Fuller and her husband then took a drastic step: they decided to sell all of their possessions, give the money to the poor and begin searching for a new focus for their lives. This search led them to Koinonia Farm, a Christian community located near Americus, Georgia, where people looked for practical ways to apply Christ’s teachings.

With Koinonia founder Clarence Jordan and a few others, the Fullers initiated several partnership enterprises, including a ministry in housing. This housing ministry was based on several unique features, such as issuing no-profit, no-interest mortgages and requiring homeowners to invest their own labor (“sweat equity”) into building their homes and the homes of others….

In 1973, the Fullers moved to Zaire, Africa, with their four young children to test their housing ministry model internationally. The housing project was a solid success and became a working reality in that developing nation.

The Fullers became convinced that this model could be expanded and applied all over the world. Upon their return to the United States in 1976, they met with several interested individuals and decided to create a new, independent organization: Habitat for Humanity International. Since then, the Fullers have devoted their energies to the expansion of HFHI throughout the world.[3]

You see, it’s possible. It’s possible to take Jesus seriously. We don’t have to walk away from Jesus in grief. We could practice true discipleship. (You first, Jenny!)

I learned this week of an element of Lakota and other Native American cultures called “Giveaway.” During important life moments, the Lakota gather what they have, not junk, but things that are important, meaningful, beautiful, costly- they gather what they have, and they lay it out to give away. Other community members come, and they take what is laid out in the Giveaway. For example, one Arapaho family I read about had a son who joined the military and was deployed into combat. When he left, his family began collecting costly items- star quilts, Pendleton blankets, and other valuable and meaningful items. They planned a Giveaway to be held at the time when their son returned home. And when he did, they gave away everything they had set aside. But then “they gave away their radio, their television, their personal computer, and their truck. Finally, they gave away their house. Everyone was moved by this proof of how much they loved their son, how much they honored the Creator and the community through this giving. And though they had nothing material at the end, they had the satisfaction of having done something truly sacred. And they were cared for by others in the community, as the gift “moved in their direction” in the months that followed, and things were given to them that replaced what they had given” writes author Joseph Bruchac.[4]  They say “please” to one another, and “thank you” always to the Creator. They give it all away, and in so doing, they receive from their community, they receive from the Creator.

In holding tightly to what we have, we believe we are self-sufficient. We believe that we can rely on ourselves and on our own planning. We believe that we can control what happens to us and in the world. And we are wrong. In giving it all away, we learn to live as a family. We learn about our interdependence. We learn to live again as children, relying on God and on our communities to provide for us.

It’s a hard teaching. I don’t know what it looks like in reality for me or for any of you. There are no easy answers. I take comfort in two parts of the story. First, Mark 10:21 tells us that Jesus looks on the man with love. This is the only time in the whole book of Mark that we read of Jesus loving a person. Whatever else this man is, whatever else his failures, his sins, he is loved by Jesus. And in Mark 10:27 we are reminded that while it is impossible for us to be saved on our own, for God all things are possible.

The theologian John Dominic Crossan writes about an imagined conversation he has with Jesus in the preface of his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. Jesus says, "I've read your book, Dominic, and it's quite good. So now you're ready to live by my vision and join me in my program?”

Dominic: "I don't think I have the courage, Jesus, but I did describe it quite well, didn't I, and the method was especially good, wasn't it?”

Jesus: "Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suit your own incapacity. That at least is something.”

Dominic: "Is it enough, Jesus?”

Jesus: "No, Dominic, it is not."


There, in the tension of “not enough” and God’s unending love and grace, may we live. You first, Jenny. 

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