Putting God FirstA sermon preached for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost on Mark 10:17-31 on October 14, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

I have to confess that I am not qualified to preach on this text today, because I have not followed Jesus’s instruction to sell all I have, give it to the poor, and follow him. But as soon as I say that I’m not qualified to preach this text, I have to admit that I’m not qualified to preach any text. How could a sinner such as I, have any way of speaking truth to God’s people?

How do we all not feel like we’re flunking our faith when we hear passages like this? When we hear Jesus’ words, we all have to admit up front that we’re just not there. We’re not ready to give away everything we have and join the Benedictines or the Franciscans in taking a vow of poverty. Perhaps none of us are qualified, but Jesus’s words are unavoidable, so I invite you to lean into the discomfort of this text with me, trusting that God doesn’t call the qualified, God qualifies the called—and that’s you, me, all of us—called into a relationship with God in Jesus Christ, who looks at us as he does the rich man—with love—inviting us to see ourselves and our life differently.

The rich mean asks what he must do to gain eternal life. First-century Jews did not have the same concept of life after death that Christians developed after Jesus’s resurrection, so what was the rich man really asking? The Jewish tradition made a contrast between two kinds of life—Fleeting Life and Lasting or Eternal Life. Fleeting life, “chayei sha’ah” is living a life that is only focused on everyday things—working, making money, eating, and sleeping. A Fleeting Life is self-focused on survival, but doesn’t carry deep meaning.

By contrast, a Lasting Life, a Life of Eternity “chayei olam” refers to living a life focused on matters of eternal importance—things that last—such as love, relationships, prayer, compassion, doing good, and being good in the world. A Lasting Life or Life of Eternity here and now expends energy outward in service and generosity that gives us meaning, and has a lasting positive impact on others.

So the rich man was asking not so much about the afterlife as we think of it, as he was about a lasting, meaningful life here and now—like Jesus had. He essentially said, “I want what you have, Jesus.” Jesus responded to the man’s question with the 10 Commandments, and the rich man immediately assured Jesus that he followed the law. But for Jesus, the Lasting Life, the eternal life, the meaningful life is about even more than living by the 10 Commandments. “You lack one thing” Jesus said.

It’s an ironic statement, isn’t it? How can the man who is wealthy lack anything? Isn’t that the point of being rich—to lack nothing? But Jesus wasn’t referring to a material possession; Jesus was talking about his state of being. A better translation would be, “you are lacking in one thing.” The rich man’s way of being, his orientation toward life, his understanding of Lasting Life, and Eternal Life is lacking.

“Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man may have kept the 10 Commandments, but he was not looking beyond that, to the community at large, to those in need. Jesus looked at him and loved him. Jesus wanted the rich man to do the same—to look beyond himself, beyond of the law and daily tasks, and love the poor with compassion, helping them have at least a Fleeting Life—a life of survival. Jesus invited the rich man to love God enough to put others’ needs before his wants, others’ hunger before his comfort, others’ brokenness before his pleasure, others’ shelter before his luxuries.

To live a Lasting Life with an enduring impact means trusting that your deepest meaning comes from your relationship with the living God who is standing before the rich man in Jesus.

Why is it so difficult for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God, that is, to live a Lasting Life, a life of eternity here and now—one that is rooted in our relationship with God, filled with meaning, generosity, compassion and abiding impact? Because money is the easiest thing for us to revere more than God. It gives us power, choices, status, opportunities, comfort, enjoyment, access, education, travel, massages and facials (two things I’d like more of), and the list goes on. A spiritual relationship with God can feel pretty abstract next to all the things that money can do for us.

I read recently that 16 of the 38 parables of Jesus are concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing 1 out of 10 verses (288 in all) deal directly with the subject of money. The Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, fewer than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions. It’s our #1 temptation.

Jesus still loved the rich man, he just made it clear to him, how easy it is to love our possessions more than God. Jesus made clear how easy it is for us to pretend if we’re a good person who follows the commandments, that that’s all Jesus asks of us, and that’s good enough. But God doesn’t want to be second best in our life. God doesn’t want to be runner-up, the bridesmaid and never the bride, the consolation prize, the wild card, or the pennant-winner instead of the World Series champion. God wants to be #1—that’s why he sent Jesus to live with us and be like us. God sent his very best, his #1, so that we can give God our very best and make God our #1—the very first place in our heart above all else. 

This is why spirituality, and spiritual practices have become more and more important to me as I’ve gotten older and continued to work in ministry. I know how sinful and broken I am, how easy and quickly my own ego, my wants, fears, attachments, comforts, and issues can dominate my thoughts and actions. I need practices and tools every day to remind me that God is first, that Jesus is my #1.

There are also ways to manage our resources to keep God #1 in our life, and one of them is tithing, that is, giving 10% of your income back to God through the church. I didn’t know a lot about tithing until I attended a workshop my last year of seminary. This pastor was so excited about what a blessing it was to tithe—that you give your first offering to God, and you trust that God will provide for what you need.

I figured it was part of my job description as a pastor, so I thought I’d better try it. It was 1989 and my first congregation in Detroit paid me $17,000 and I lived in the parsonage next door. After I received my paycheck, I would write my first check back to the church, but the issue was the math wasn’t really adding up. It turns out $17,000 wasn’t a lot to live on when I had student loans to repay, I bought my first car and so on. But tithing was a practice I wanted to try to consciously put God first in my life, so I thought I had better stick with it. In truth, I was motivated more by perfectionism than trust in God.

A month or two after I started this new call, I was out visiting a homebound member who lived the furthest away from the church—I still remember her name, Gladys Steinheiser. It was a Tuesday, and I looked at my gas gauge which was below a ¼ tank. I thought to myself, “this will be my last visit this week because I’m almost out of gas, and I’m out of money, and I don’t get paid until Friday.” Gladys and I had a lovely visit, shared Communion, and then she walked me to the door. I gave her hug and before I could leave, she handed me an envelope and said, “here, this is for gas.”

I got in the car, looked up to heaven and said, “ok, I get it!” It’s just as the pastor said: you trust God with your tithe first, and God will make sure you somehow get what you need. And it’s been true ever since. We’re not perfect at it, it still doesn’t qualify me to preach this passage, and we need to improve--our growing edge financially and spiritually is to increase the percentage and grow in our giving.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, who was the founder of the Jesuit order in the 16th Century, wrote a brief Principal and Foundation for living a spiritual, lasting, eternal life. It focuses on not being attached to the stuff, comforts and outcomes in this life, but instead, on being attached to God. A spiritual mentor gave me a version that’s re-written as if it’s a letter from God. As you hear this, imagine this is what Jesus is saying to the rich man and to all of us:

The goal of your life is to live with me forever. I gave you life because I love you. Your own response of love allows my life to flow into you without limit.

All things in this world are my gifts, presented to you so that you can know Me more easily and make a return of love to me more readily.

As a result, appreciate and use all these gifts of Mine insofar as they help you develop into a loving person. But if any of these gifts become the center of your life, they displace Me and so hinder your growth towards your goal.

In everyday life then hold yourself in balance before all of these created gifts insofar as you have a choice and are not bound by some obligation. Do not fix your desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in you a deeper response to your life in Me.

Make this your only desire and your one choice: Want and choose what better leads to my deepening My life in you.

When Jesus offered this kind of deep abiding relationship, the rich man wasn’t ready, and he walked away. We don’t hear the end of the story. Did he return? Was he at the foot of the cross? Did he hear of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and believe, sharing his wealth for the sake of the good news?

Mark doesn’t tell us because he wants us to finish the story with our own choices. As we do so, remember that "for mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for with God all things are possible!"

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