Last week, we began by asking ourselves some big picture questions as a congregation: who are we? And where are we going? Following the lead of Micah 6:8, we answered by remembering that our first calling as a community is to do justice by simply opening our eyes and seeing people that we might otherwise overlook. Justice begins with opening our eyes to see. But this morning, let’s take the conversation one step further—asking again, who are we?
If you are like most, you probably would answer this question based on where you find yourself in this moment of your life. I am a grandmother. I am retired. I live in Reston. I work in Tysons. I live in a brick house. I drive a Honda hybrid.
Though we know intellectually that we are more than our jobs or more than our titles or even more than what we own, it is very easy to talk about who we are by the stuff around us. It very easy to be people who are always out for the hunt for something more—just as a recent survey of American reported than a large majority feel that they deserve right now a 20% increase in pay or that if they made at least 20% more money than they made right now then they’d be happier.
But Micah’s exhortation encourages us today—that our second call as congregation is to be a people who “love mercy.” People who not only see the needs of those around them, but begin to use their resources they have—whether they be time, talent or even finances to come to the aid of others.
And in this calling, as we consider living it out, can come in direct assault to the ways and the stuff around us that we normally define ourselves by. What if we didn’t buy the new I Phone 5 and instead sponsored a child monthly through a relief organization in lieu of that extra special data cell phone plan? What if we waited to purchase a vacation home and instead agreed to assist our grandchildren for paying for college? What if we left our high paying job (and thus guarantee for an early retirement) for a career in the non-profit sector where we knew we could use our talents for the great good of our community?
Ouch! This “love mercy” stuff is no easy calling . . .
However, as we take a closer look at our gospel lesson for this morning, we know that we are in good company. The earliest disciples suffered from the same struggle too. The cost of discipleship was in fact harder than their check-list faith paradigm from the past might have otherwise imagined.
As recorded in Mark 10, Jesus has had a hectic day of ministry but a man comes running toward him after the blessing of the children. This man was a courageous young fellow as he risked ridicule by humbly approaching this Teacher everyone was talking about. Clues from other gospels help identify him by the title of Rich Young Ruler.
And because of his wealth, this was also a guy who we can imagine got everything his heart desired—only the best social status, the best camel his dinari could buy, and handsome garments to wear to prove to the world that he was somebody. Basically, his life was on a direct path where everything was as it should be. (Though I’m sure he still thought he needed 20% more!)
Furthermore, from this passage, we gather that even in the religious realm, the Rich Young Ruler was the kind of guy with every t crossed and i dotted— he followed the commandments of his faith doing everything that was expected of him.
However, one huge unanswered question mark remained. Was he completing the right to-do list? The Rich Young Ruler wanted to know if his efforts to be a godly person were enough to get him on the “Who’s Who of God’s People” yearbook.
Thus, we hear him uttering this question to Christ: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” in verse 17.
And this question is not just one that 1st century Jews were asking themselves—it still lingers as one of the most pondered questions in the modern-day.
Answer the question in a book of 150 pages or less with good marketing and you’ll be a bestselling author. Speak prophetically about the nature of salvation with specific dates about Jesus’ second coming and you’ll be the founder of a new branch of Christianity. Preach a five step salvation plan and you might just be a pastor of a growing mega church.
But why? I believe it’s because there is something in all of us that craves a checklist faith: we want concrete answers. We want a rubric that leaves us with a chart full of gold stars from God at the end of our lives. And we want all of these achievements in a package we can easily understand, so we’ll have time left where we can cram in everything else in our lives that we think is important.
In the same way, the Rich Young Ruler truly got this desire of ours. In his craving to know what Jesus’ bottom line was for salvation, he was just asking to see the black and white meaning of eternal salvation. So, why couldn’t Jesus, this good teacher, just tell him? He knew whatever it was, he could do it.
In typical Jesus fashion, he steers clear of an easy answer and adds an impossible addendum to the commandments he was already keeping in verse 21: “Go, sell everything that you have and give it to the poor.”
“What, are you crazy?” the man must have thought, “This is NOT what I expected to hear!”
For, he knew he could not give up everything as Jesus said. Jesus was asking for ownership of ALL of his life, not just the part he could easily give him.
Having a conversation about money and faith . . . Oh, this would be too hard. Impossible in fact, for a guy like him, as everything in his life was tied in some way to physical possessions.
Asking this man to give up his stuff was more than just a call to poverty (as this passage is not just about money), but it was a call to complete surrender of his life. It was a call to acts of mercy, to a lifestyle of mercy.
Thus, we read in verse 22 that the man’s “face fell” upon hearing Jesus’ exhortation. He journeys away saddened by the proposal. For, he could do nothing.
And, the Rich Young Ruler was not the only one for whom to love mercy would be difficult.
The disciples found themselves confused too. Was there any possibility of salvation for them either? Peter (as always) quickly speaks: “We have left everything to follow you!” Peter wants to make it clear that if anyone had made great sacrifices, they certainly had. Wouldn’t that certainly be enough for his kingdom? And while Jesus says their efforts will be recognized, he doesn’t directly answer the question. Because to love mercy was not something that could be translated into a black and white spread sheet or action that could be qualified by human standards . . .
Because perhaps because Jesus’ life provided a completely new paradigm of loving neighbors that would not be dependent on human ability to follow the law . . .
Perhaps because salvation would take its cues from the cross— a place of self-emptying, a place of unselfish love, a place where the mercy of our Lord the gift given for us all!
You see, the type of kingdom the Rich Young Ruler, the disciples and even you and I are often looking for is one where we don’t have to suffer. A kingdom where we can be sure of our salvation we had the right answers or a kingdom where our faith does not have to change our daily to-day lifestyle, vacation plans or shopping trips to the mall. Many of us live on fixed incomes after all. We’ve made decisions about what to do with our finances years before we retired. There is no way we could change now!
I feel I would remiss if I didn’t interject here that I totally understand how hard this is, to open up a conversation on acts of mercy that flow out of our pocketbook.
Not even pastor types, with a Revs in front of their names are experts at mercy. We too like our stuff as much as the next person. (It is true, that I have been accused on many occasions of having a love obsession with my IPad or my purse collection).
Maybe this is why Jesus said in verse 25, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Did you know that in Jerusalem there is an eye in the needle gate? Kevin and I saw it ourselves a couple years ago on a trip to the region.
In ancient times, the needle of the eye gate was purposely built with a very small entry way so to prohibit invaders from coming into the city. However, this safety feature was not without its disadvantages. What if they wanted to get necessary goods into the city?
When traders wanted to come into the city of David with their camels (or other animals) loaded with goods, they could not fit in the gate. The only way for the camels to get in “the eye of the needle” gate was for the owners to unload their goods and leave it outside until someone else was able to bring it in through another way.
So, to is our work if we are going to be people who enter the kingdom of God as lovers of mercy. If we are going to be people who live in the city of God, then we are going to have unload on a regular basis, so to make room for of God’s ways in our lives.
But, why? Really, why mercy? Could that just be left to someone else?
Biblical commentator, David Lose, answers the question in this way—we love mercy because:
The way we spend our money (and I would add here time and talents) “has a great impact on the welfare of our neighbor. Notice that Jesus doen’t just tell the man simply to give his wealth away, but rather he tells him to give it to the poor. . . . Jesus invites not just the rich man but all of us to imagine that we are, indeed, stewards of our wealth, charged to use all that we have to best care of all the people God has given us as companions along the way.”
We love mercy because there are those whom we need to assist that will not otherwise have what they need unless we give. Simple as that.
He also adds that we are to love mercy because:
The way we spent our money (or our time and talents) has a great impact on our own welfare as well. Consider [how our relationship with what we earn ourselves] can mask our dependence on God and each other by creating a sense not just of independence, but actually of not needing each other. . . . Jesus knows there are few things more important than for us to do than to share our abundance.”
We love mercy because it is good for us. We remember who our Creator. We remember to whom we belong which is to ALL our human brothers and sisters. We remember that just as we give, we receive.
How did this passage end? Look with me at verse 31. It’s a favorite of mine: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
This my friends, is THE radical message of the teachings of Jesus. Our life is found loving mercy. For as we give we might just find that no matter how much money is or is not in our bank accounts, retirement funds, or how much our savings bonds are worth, we’d rather love mercy than be in love with our new car, dream vacation or even season tickets to our favorite sporting team.
Hear me not say today that Jesus is not anti-stuff or anti fun. God, I believe wants to us to enjoy what brings us delight and what we’ve been blessed with. What good is it to have anything if we walk around feeling guilty about it all the time?
But, in the end, we are to love the most is mercy. Our lives as Christians are to overflow with mercy. Or church is to overflow with mercy—not just when we have enough in savings or our building suddenly stops aging or when our pledges get over a certain amount for the year ahead or even when we have a certain number of people in worship, when we think we can afford it. Nope. Mercy is never about cost and benefit analysis. Nope. Jesus says, “Be merciful now. Be merciful now. It’s what I’ve asked you to do if you want to follow me.”