A sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, October 14, 2018. The scripture readings are Amos 5:6-7,10-15, Psalm 90:12-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, and Mark 10:17-31.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
The disciples ask Jesus a good question. “Who 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 “un-saved”— it’s probably a question we ask, even if we don’t put it in those exact words. Who doesn’t want to be “saved,” if “salvation” means heaven, or peace, or serenity? It’s because we want to be “saved” in one way or another that many of us are here today.
Of course, “salvation” can look like a lot of different things, depending on our perspective.
For some, salvation looks like eternal life; for others, it might look healthy children or a healthy spouse. For one or two, salvation might be like a day without pain, given a chronic condition that seems not to respond to medicine. Salvation might look like sober, thoughtful living, it might even look like prayer.
For others, salvation has more communal characteristics, it is saving on a more global scale. Salvation might look like equal rights and opportunities for all, regardless of race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or income, or physical or intellectual ability, or anything else. Salvation might look like everyone fed, and sheltered, able to call some place, somewhere “home.”
And for still yet others, “being saved” might be as simple as a 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 just alive.
Most of us 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 as caught up on this part as we can be, I don’t think that’s 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. But these characters are so invested (and I use that word on purpose)—they are invested in what they think God wants, that now they want the return on their investment. Jesus shows that the economics of God’s love work very differently.
The disciples ask Jesus, “Ok, then, who can be saved?” And while Jesus doesn’t answer this question, he instead, poses the real question: Not, “who can be saved,” but “Who can do the saving.” And it’s that question, that Jesus answers:
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 scripture that follows an expected pattern, but then ends in ambiguity. There’s wiggle room. 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,
Seek good and not evil, that you may live; 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 interpretation can have 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.” Notice that it’s not his being rich that was the problem. The rich are neither better nor worse than the poor. The problem is that this man is reluctant to follow Jesus, he’s hesitant to let loose of the things that weigh him down, and to move toward salvation. The Bible story says he went away grieving. But I don’t think the story really ends.
I wonder 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 might then have 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.
From time to time, in train stations and in public places, sometimes at family reunions, we come across those earnest believers who look at us and ask, “Have you been saved?” I have a friend who has a great answer. He looks these people dead in the eye, smiles, and says, “Every day, friend. Every day, I’m saved.”
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 might be free and open—our hands and our hearts, so that we can receive the love of God and share it with others. 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 Spirit. Amen.