The All Souls Window, (c) 2010 Ron Ross
A sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 14, 2012. The lectionary readings are
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15, Psalm 90:12-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, and Mark 10:17-31.
Who, indeed, can be saved?
Though we may not always use that kind of language, and though we may even be a little embarrassed by the vocabulary of “the saved,” and the “not saved,” we should be also be honest, I think. We do want to be saved. Salvation is the goal. That’s why we’re here.
Salvation looks like many different things, depending on our perspective.
For some, salvation looks like eternal life;
for others, it looks like healthy children.
For one or two, salvation might be like a day without pain, given a chronic condition that seems not to respond to medicine, or careful living, or even prayer.
For others, salvation has more communal characteristics, it is saving on a more global scale. Salvation may look like equal rights, regardless of race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or income, or physical or intellectual ability, or anything else.
And for still yet others, “being saved” might be as simple as the moment or two that are worry and burden-free—not worried (for the minute) about the aging parent, no longer worried about the child who can’t quite fit in, no longer worried about the spouse who is looking for work, just no longer anxious, or preoccupied, but alive.
We do want salvation. And so, there’s a part of us that perhaps can relate to person in today’s gospel. He runs up to Jesus, excited, asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus has him reflect on the commandments, the basics. The man says, “oh yes, well, I’m pretty good with all of those.” “I haven’t killed anyone, I honor my parents, I don’t steal.” But then, Jesus says to the man, “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.” The man hears this and is shocked. He goes away, grieving.
But that’s not the real point of the story. The story continues.
The disciples see this and they’re confused. Here is this very good guy, who keeps all the commandments. He does exactly what the whole tradition has taught. He keeps the Sabbath day, he doesn’t lie, he certainly doesn’t murder. But then Jesus seems to reinterpret everything. He changes the rules. He broadens the perspective. In some ways he blows apart the whole idea of what it meant to follow God.
It’s almost like another story in scripture, the story of the Prodigal Son. You remember it’s where there’s an older brother who has done all the right things, followed all the rules, stayed at home and worked hard, dedicated his life to the father and the farm, and then there’s this younger brother. The younger brother is the cut-up who goes out, plays hard, and squanders his inheritance. He returns home humble, like a beggar. But it’s for the younger brother that the father throws the big party, gives all the attention, and makes the special feast. The older brother feels like the rules have been changed on him. He’s angry, he’s bitter, and (I bet) he’s more than a little bit jealous.
Both the older brother in the Prodigal Son story and the rich man in today’s story hear what should be good news from Jesus: that one cannot buy or earn the love of God. And they, these characters are so invested (and I use that word on purpose)—they are invested in all that they have imagined they are doing for and giving to God, and so they want their return. Jesus shows that the economics of God’s love work very differently.
The disciples ask Jesus, “Ok, then, who can be saved?” But as someone has pointed out, Jesus doesn’t answer this question. Instead, he poses the real question: Not, “who can be saved,” but “Who can do the saving.” And that’s the question that Jesus DOES answer.
It is God and God alone who does the saving. In God’s own way, in God’s own time, in God’s lavish self-giving, self-offering, overflowing love.
God saves us. God saves us from ourselves. God saves us from becoming too attached to our possessions, to our ideas, to our friends, to our family, even to our own sense of ourselves.
In both our readings from the Prophet Amos and our Gospel, there’s an aspect of the reading that follows an expected pattern, but then there’s some ambiguity at the end. There’s some room within what some might see as a forgone conclusion. There’s room for us to move toward God. There’s room for God’s grace to move in us.
Amos thunders about injustice and oppression. His words often indict the people, and he predicts the culture’s crumbling in, upon itself, because of its greed, because of its selfishness, because it ignores the way of God. But then Amos has these words,
and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate;[and] it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
“It may be,” says Amos. In other words, the future of those who seek God is not set in stone. It is open for change, for growth, for repentance, for (dare I say it) salvation.
Likewise, in the Gospel, one reading can have the story of the rich man and Jesus end in a pretty sad way. Jesus says to the man, “You lack one thing, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and follow me.” And we’re told that “when [the man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” It’s not that he was rich, that was the problem. The rich are not better or worse than the poor. The problem is that this man is reluctant to follow Jesus, to let loose of the things that weigh him down, and to move toward salvation. He goes away grieving. But I don’t think the story really ends.
We don’t know if the man turned around and met up with Jesus the next day. We don’t know if later, after hearing about the amazing events in Jerusalem: Jesus’ crucifixion, his death on the cross, his rising again in glory… that the man may have yet had a change of heart and decided to follow Jesus. The story leaves room for us to imagine. It leaves room for grace, just as our own lives—no matter where we might be in our own calling to follow Jesus, no matter what might currently stand in the way of our being more faithful disciples of Jesus, not matter what might seem to be in our way of living freely— there is room for us to respond to God. There is room for God’s justice to smash the barriers, God’s mercy to forget all sin, and God’s grace to break through and bring us closer.
The good news of Jesus Christ is that God is eager to take away whatever burdens us, whatever makes us sluggish to follow him, whatever keeps us from love. God offers to empty our hands, to take whatever we cling to, and gently lay it aside, so that our hands may be empty—our hands and our hearts, so that we might receive the love of God for this live and the next.
With God, all things are possible. Who can be saved? Every single one of us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.