The Uncomfortable Way
A sermon based on Mark 10:17-31
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 11, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Once upon a time a pastor started a new diet and rerouted his drive to work to avoid passing any bakeries. Then one day when he drove to a big city and the traffic was busy and snarled and “stop-start,” suddenly a block away he a detected bakery. Even from a distance he could see in the storefront window cookies, donuts, and cakes. He even caught a whiff of the smell of something sweet baking. He sensed that this was no accident and I thought “What the heck.” And prayed … “Lord, it’s up to You. If You want me to have any of those delicious goodies, create a parking place for me directly in front of the bakery.” And sure enough a parking space opened up . . . on only his ninth time around that block! As he pulled in he exclaimed “God is so good!”
To move from poor physical health to better physical health most of us have to change our diets and our exercise . . . effectively changing our lives. Good health that will transform our bodies requires a sacrifice of things such as foods we like to eat or time we need to workout – or like in the joke I told, maybe even a rerouting our path.
None of it is really that easy to do. It takes education, discipline and commitment. And it takes forgiveness of our self when we slip back to an old way, so that we can slide back into the new healthier way and try and try again if need be.
This sacrifice for health stuff also applies to Spiritual health. Sacrifice of our Sunday mornings and a few hours to do God’s work the rest of the week is just the tip of the iceberg. Spiritual health takes education, discipline and commitment. It’s about learning to reroute life from the worldly ways, to the Heavenly ways, to what we call Jesus’ Way.
And it’s not easy for Christians. And make no mistake about it, we will slip and need to be forgiving of ourselves and others as we slide back to trying.
Like I said, it’s not easy. A pastor friend of mine recently posted a quote on Facebook from C.S. Lewis that sums it up pretty well “If you want a religion to make you feel comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
I don’t want to scare anyone away from our faith, but following Jesus is not about finding a church or a televangelist on TV that simply makes us individually feel good and comfortable for an hour on Sundays. It may be hard to hear, but Christianity is not about individual salvation from the unpleasant and the uncomfortable. And it’s not primarily about doing what needs to be done to personally get an eternal life. That may sound strange . . . maybe even heretical . . . given all the stuff many modern Christians insist Christianity is about, but, it’s not meant to be about self preservation and personal inheritance in an afterlife.
You don’t have to believe ME– Jesus makes it clear. In our reading today when Jesus’ is asked by a man, point blank, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What does Jesus do? He instantly turns the focus away from salvation of “the one” who asked. And also quite notably Jesus turns the focus away from afterlife toward this life, now, and relationship within this life to others in it.
Jesus cites commandments that pertain to how to treat others, honor your mother and father, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness . . . don’t defraud. He asks the fellow who wants to know how to inherit eternal life if he knows those fundamental relationship duties of how to treat his mom and dad well and to not intentionally act wrongly toward others . . .
And, like I think most – or all– of us, the fellow can say he follows those rules. But then Jesus adds a zinger. He makes being on His Way, following Him, about action. For all the talk we hear – and maybe ourselves believe– that the most important thing about Jesus’ Way is personal salvation, Jesus in this story steers clear of that idea.
When the man in the story asks how an individual can inherit eternal life Jesus talks of a transformation so profound that the man’s very way of being is to be altered for the sake of others. From an earthly way of doing things it sounds like sacrifice to the detriment of self and for the benefit of strangers, those others beyond family that we don’t know and even for those society cares little about or even loathes.
There ought to be no doubt about it, with His zinger Jesus makes things, as CS Lewis might put it, uncomfortable. The man who has come to Jesus on his knees asking about himself has to get up and do something for people he does not even know: “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” Jesus says.
Today’s Lectionary text is a pretty famous one. It’s often called the story of “The Rich Young Ruler” because Luke says he’s a ruler and Matthew says he’s young. But Mark who first records the story–as we heard- refers to him as just a man. We only learn at the end of that reading from that the man has many possessions–and while that’s usually heard as meaning the man is wealthy, it might describe any one of us. In our culture, in this day and age, possessions in even the most modest of American homes can fairly be described as many. Material possessions can be a sign, a symptom, like they were back in Jesus’ day, of self oriented-ness.
If we think about it, the story about this man who knelt before Jesus seeking answers about Spiritual health seems to unfold a bit like a modern health exam, with Jesus looking for symptoms. We can almost hear Jesus as physician asking initial questions, the easy Spiritual health inquires, that are basically “Do you behave?” And the man’s answer – like I’m pretty sure most of ours would be– is “Yes. Yes, I do!” But then Jesus – the Spiritual health doctor– from what he has seen and what he has heard diagnoses a source of blockage, a hindrance, to the man’s Spiritual Health.
And actually if WE carefully look and listen to the story WE too can see and hear what ails the fellow. He comes to Jesus concerned about his own salvation. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And even his answers to Jesus’ “Are you behaving well?” questions can be heard as self-oriented. The man uses “me” and “I” language not once addressing others outside himself. Nothing in this man’s question or answers demonstrates any concern for others. And certainly nothing he says indicates he acts for the benefit or well being of others. The Spiritual health record of this man’s life lacks any sign of doing anything for others’ well being.
He’s not a bad man, in fact he appears loveable since Jesus we are told “looked at him [and] loved him.” But anyone who wants to follow Jesus has to act toward –has to relate to– others as Jesus would act and relate to them. Jesus prescribes for this person who seems to only be taking care of himself a remedy for his poor Spiritual health. Jesus’ prescription is meant to pull the man out of his self-orientation and into relationship with others for good Spiritual health. He learns that for him to follow Jesus to Spiritual health it’s going to require an entire change in his life and re-orienting. Jesus tells him he must sell all his possessions and give the proceeds of the sale to the poor. The cure to help himself, it seems, is he must begin to look to the well being of others. He’s got to give up what ails his Spiritual health, what’s keeping him from bringing heaven to earth is not tending to others.
In fairness, that is more than a little counter-intuitive. And it is certainly counter-culture still today in our “me-centered” society where individual acquisition of personally desired objectives is placed well above what might be best for community, to the say nothing of what is best for our neighbors, let alone those who are less fortunate. Rome and First Century Palestine had even more self-centered mores. So the man in the story has reason to be taken aback by a request that he tend to more than his own well being. We are told that “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
Most of us who’ve heard this story before have been taught that the man is shocked and grieving because the cost is too great and so he cannot join Jesus. In other words we’ve been told in one form or another that the man sadly cannot part with his possessions and so cannot join the movement. That’s a fair reading, but the text doesn’t say that. “Another possibility is that he went away sorrowful precisely because he had decided to sell all he had and follow Jesus.” 1. Again, this is what CS Lewis was talking about . . . “If you want a religion to make you feel comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
Even setting aside secular mores, comfort is what many people want in a church. And in a number of churches it seems to be offered. Big mega-churches cater to the gathered telling them what they are comfortable hearing. The only apparent prohibitions seem to be easy cheery-picked verses against others’ conduct . . . rarely their own. The gathered are often even kept safe from others, and usually comfortable by lack of requests that they change and start helping others. The difficult Way of love that Jesus taught is sometimes hard to find in church.
As we’ve learned in the Wednesday book study one mega-church even inscribed on its door “The Word of God is the Way to Wealth.” 2. That’s not in line with today’s text, let alone the entire teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, to say nothing of CS Lewis’ comment. Jesus’ Way is not set up to cater to those of us who want to stay in our comfort zone. It’s not about individuals kicking back and inheriting eternal rewards.
Lots of people don’t want drastic change, they want to be like the man at the start of the story behaving well enough, but focused on a “me” oriented path, they are only interested in how they personally can inherit eternal life. That is not good Spiritual health.
Being willing to kneel before Christ for our own reward, being willing to follow rules of good behavior while not desiring and acting toward the well being of others in this life, is not Jesus’ Way. It’s not. Jesus’ Way is about desiring and acting for the well being of all our neighbors living in the neighborhood of this planet . . . whether we like those neighbors or not.
Tending to others, we don’t even know or don’t like is discomforting. Giving up comfort is very hard to do. It’s not that we can’t have fun or joy or love or possessions or even material wealth; it’s that we cannot feel –and should not feel– comfortable when others do not have well being. As long as any of our global neighbors remain in want of justice, equal treatment, food, medicine, shelter, respect or love—we have to do something about it.
The Word of God is not the way to wealth. The Word of God is the uncomfortable way of bringing heaven to earth for everyone, you, me, family, neighbors, enemies, strangers . . . everyone. Jesus’ Way is about salvation from lesser ways, all of our lesser ways of living self oriented-ly. It’s not a comfortable way. But it is the heavenly way. It is Jesus’ Way.
1. Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 4, p 166
2. Borg, Marcus, Convictions, p 11.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2015 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED