When I was a kid, I could be sort of a dramatic child, and I remember, at the end of 5th grade, feeling very mournful about the fact that I would be soon leaving my elementary school behind forever to go to middle school. I wanted to swing on all the swings one last time and stand at the top of the play structure and nostalgically survey the playground, stuff like that. I tried to involve my friends in various rituals and observances to mourn this fact, which they gamely participated in to some extent, but I think by the fourth or fifth day of me solemnly proclaiming, “We only have 15 more days of playing on this playground… forever,” they were like, “how about if we just go… play?” And we did.
So, I’m going to try to use the wisdom of that lesson and other goodbyes of my intervening years, and not make this last sermon with you all about goodbyes, when we still have the opportunity to play around in the Scriptures together for a little while. I’m not even leaving for a few weeks!
This is a doozy of a passage to get for your last sermon, right? The author of the Gospel of Mark, characteristically, doesn’t provide much cushion or detail- it’s a quick, blunt story with some strong words. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to unpack here.
So if you remember from a couple weeks ago, this section of Mark is about Jesus bringing the disciples with him to Jerusalem. They’re closer now than they were a couple weeks ago. The disciples are failing, over and over again, to understand what Jesus is telling them about what this journey is all about- that they’re headed not to some glorious battle and power and might, but to humiliation, crucifixion, death, and somehow, resurrection. They aren’t getting it. Fair enough.
And so this new follower of Jesus enters dramatically. Jesus is headed out for the day and this person rushes up and kneels before him with an urgent question- what must I do to inherit eternal life? And as his conversation with Jesus ensues, it becomes clear that he’s an earnest fellow- he’s trying to follow the commandments and live in God’s way. He really wants to know, and he’s really trying.
And then, the passage says, Jesus loves him. And so Jesus tells him the truth, as only Jesus can. Sell your possessions, and give your money to the poor, and follow me.
Jesus loves him, and so Jesus tells him the truth. The passage doesn’t give us any more detail than that, which leaves it open to us casting ourselves inside of it a little bit. When I read it, I wonder if it’s the seeker’s earnestness that captures Jesus’ heart. This rich guy really wants to know the truth- he throws himself on his knees before Jesus. And so Jesus tells him what’s in the way of him going deeper in his life as a seeker, a follower- it’s all the things he owns, all this wealth that he’s holding onto, for whatever reason. Jesus knows that, for his story and life of faith to progress, he needs to let go of those things, and the status and situation they create for him, so that he can follow Jesus.
This is not an easy truth for him. He feels shocked, the text says, and goes away grieving. One biblical commentator, Luis Menéndez-Antuña, wrote this week that the word shocked, as it’s used in the original Greek, doesn’t so much mean an emotional mood, as it does convey a moral state. This man’s world is turned upside down by this truth that Jesus gives him- his whole life, his way of being is rendered into a state of shock, upheaval, upside-down-ness by this truth that Jesus gives him.
And, as the author of Mark is liable to do, we don’t get an ending to the story. We don’t know what he does when he walks away. It’s possible he goes back to his big house and all his possessions and lives there, unchanged, by this encounter, and some other disciples remember it later.
Or maybe, his life was changed by this truth. Maybe he’s the one that let his world be shaken up, and maybe he did give it all away and follow Jesus, and tell that story over and over again, until his community, decades later, wrote it down, as one of the key stories in understanding Jesus.
We don’t know. But it’s an awfully human story, because certainly we know that, when confronted by difficult, life-changing truth, some people hear it and are changed, and some are not.
The other thing I hear in this story, though, is the grief. It says that the rich man goes away shocked- his world turned upside down- but also grieving. His way of going about life, his possessions, probably much of what made him feel secure- those things have just been upended by Jesus’s words. And so he grieves. And the disciples seem to feel this loss too. Jesus points out to them, next, how much holding onto, hoarding wealth can get in the way of life with God, so much so that it seems impossible. And this perplexes them too, and they ask, basically, how can anyone be saved?
For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.
So in other words, it is God working in the loving words of truth that makes the change. That is where repentance and change comes from- God working in loving words of truth. We have some choice in there too- we can choose to go home and shut our ears to it, for sure. But God’s work, God’s love, God’s truth gives us the power to change, to be converted, to repent, to heal, to move more deeply into a life of following Jesus.
Each one of us is both seeker and speaker of the truth, I think, and loving each other and the rest of the world well enough that we want to hear and speak the truth is our work, always, probably, but I think especially right now. I’ve tried, in these last years, to be a part of building up a loving community here that can both hear and speak the truth. I know that I’ve done that work imperfectly and as best I can, and I ask your forgiveness for the times it’s been incomplete and not enough. And I share the hope that the work of loving truth-telling and truth-hearing will continue, with God’s help, and God’s love, to grow in this place, in new ways that none of us can yet imagine.
I’ve been thinking, as I’ve been describing my new church to lots of people in 2 sentences or less, what I said 3 years ago as I was describing Grace to other people. And I often said some version of this. “You know, they could be just a little social club church- St. Helena’s a small town, and a wealthy one, and they could be a tight knit little group who like to worship and do a few other things together. But for some reason that isn’t their identity. They seem to have transformation and growth at their heart. It seems like it’s this earnest group of people who are really trying to listen to God.”
I was right then, but it’s still true, and I know it’s true now more because I love you more than I did then, and because we’ve lived together for 3 years and I’d know if you were faking by this point. This is a church full of people who are trying their best to listen to God, who are willing to kneel down before Jesus and ask to hear the truth. You’re willing to get quiet, through prayer, through meditation, through study, through community life, in order to really listen to where Jesus is speaking in your midst. At your best as a community, you know how to do that well, and you’ve had the experience of being upended and changed by the truth you’ve heard.
And I think God is speaking now, speaking the truth with great love. This is a moment of great change and transformation in our world and in our church. There is a lot of truth that is being revealed right now, that God is speaking to us. Truth about how we structure our economy and political system, truth about race, truth about our climate, truth about how our church operates, and about leadership, about what is sustainable in the world we’re going to live in going forward.
And so I think the world, this town, this precious congregation needs each of you to be seekers of the truth right now. Seekers who want to kneel before Jesus and hear what he has to say, even when those words turn things upside down, even when those words lead to giving up something we really want to hold onto, even when the truth of those words is something you need to grieve, and then let go of, because it’s time to follow Jesus. And when you do that, you will be changed, and you will have a story of truth to tell. Because the world needs that truth right now. It needs to know that God is speaking, that God has sent Jesus to show us the way to new life, because the world seems all about death right now. The world needs you, and you need each other.
And for whatever reason, God has called me to do that, with you, as part of the body of Christ, but far away, with a different community trying to do the same thing. God spoke, pretty clearly, and it’s time for me to go follow God there. But I trust, because it was God who spoke, that new life, new truth, new beginnings will be born in that loss, a loss that I mourn. I’ll be cheering you on from afar, and I know you will be cheering me on too.
So today, and in the days ahead of us, in this time of great change, let’s show up and ask Jesus for the truth together. Let’s listen, with hearts ready to be changed, with hearts ready to let go of whatever is keeping us from walking more closely with Jesus. And let’s trust that Jesus will tell us the truth with great love, that in following we will find our salvation, that in following Jesus we learn that even the greatest loss, even death is no match for new life. Amen.