On Sunday, October 14 the fine folks of Good Shepherd in Asheboro held church as usual. What made the day different, however, was that they did so without any electricity at all. There may have been a time when we would've simply canceled our liturgies, given that our church building gets very little natural light, so both the chapel and the sanctuary are ridiculously dark, even in the daylight. Still, we gathered as our ancestors did in the catacombs, in the dark, huddled together by the light of candles. Say what you will about how a church with carpet everywhere shouldn't use hand-held candles, but on this day it was perfect! With the light of Christ in our hands we gathered to worship, to sing in the ancient call-and-response style, and to break bread. And wouldn't you know it, but Jesus showed up!
Good Shepherd, Asheboro worshipping in the dark this past Sunday morning.
I found it poetic and lovely that THIS was our Gospel text that day. As Episcopalians, we are often held captive by a lectionary that sometimes does not give us much with which to work. Not so on this day! As if by divine providence, on a day when we were sitting in the dark with no electricity, no air conditioner, and no organ, we heard a Gospel proclaimed that called us to let go of all of our stuff. As I said to our folks that day, we may not have had electricity, but thanks to this Gospel, we were reminded that we definitely had power!
'As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”'
Mark 10: 17-31
As most of y'all know I am a big comic book fan, and one of my favorite stories is a graphic novel called Marked by Steve Ross. There are a lot of comic book versions of the Bible out there, but what makes this one different is that it is focused on one specific book, the Gospel of Mark, and rather than a bunch of bright colors and your usual, run of the mill images of a caucasian, blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, Marked is done in black and white and features a Jesus that is not quite black, not quite white,and just a tad androgynous. It's a great read, and I highly recommend it.
You can order a copy of Marked here.
One of my favorite moments in Marked is its version of this story of Jesus and a man whom later gospels will describe as both rich and young. The graphic novel version plays out the same way with the man asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, to which Jesus responds that all he lacks is to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. At this point the image in the book pans out and up, and the reader sees that the man has been carrying all of his possessions on his back. As the weight of Jesus' words hit him, the weight of all those possessions gets greater, until it all finally collapses on top of him.
Our culture tells us we need more and more stuff: more power, more prestige, and more possessions. It was true in Jesus' day as much as it is for us now, and then, as now, the culture preaches a gospel that tells us all of those things will fix our problems and make us happy. What the culture does not tell us is that there is a tremendous burden that comes with all of those things, a burden that weighs us down like the man in the graphic novel version of this story, until one day it all collapses on us. This man has become so attached to his stuff that it has become his master, resulting in him walking away grieving when Jesus presents him with the opportunity to follow him. Sadly, he is the only person in the Gospels to reject Jesus' call to follow along the way because he is held in the grip of true master.
It's worth pointing out just how perplexing this moment is for the disciples. For weeks now we have seen them struggle with this notion that what Jesus offers is nothing like the power and greatness of the world. They, like many folks today, saw wealth as a sign of God's providence and favor. No one used the term back then, but nowadays we would call this the Prosperity Gospel, the idea that our money and possessions are a sign that God has blessed us, and if we are poor, well then, that means God's not happy with the lives we've been living. Wealth is the measuring stick for how much God loves us, says the Prosperity Gospel, and truth be told, the disciples and most of the people in Jesus' time believed this as well. Times haven't changed that much. This is why Peter, having finally lost all patience with Jesus, asks point blank: What's in it for us?! We've given up everything to follow you? So what do we get in return if it's not power, prestige, or possessions?
Human culture has been preaching such a message as long as there has been human culture. What power, prestige, and possessions allow us to do is take control of our lives. We wield our power over others, yes, but even if we are simple, poor folks this message tells us that we can have power over our own lives, if nothing else. Prestige then becomes important in order that others may know who we are and validate our worth, while our possessions become signs and symbols of our importance and the level of power and prestige we wield. Our culture tells us we need these things because if we place all our trust and hope in God then we will be let down. Jesus, on the other hand, comes along and preaches something completely different. True life, he says, is not found in any of these things, but in God alone. God is the one with the power, true, but God is also the one that gave up all power, prestige, and possessions when coming into the world. In doing so, God (in the person of Jesus) has come to redefine what a kingdom really looks like.
We talk a lot about the Kingdom of God, but do we really understand that God's Kingdom, the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed was both coming and already here, is not a kingdom like Rome or even a republic like the United States? In those contexts, the rich are the ones wielding their power of others, thus in order to be somebody we must adhere to the culture's message of accumulating all of that stuff. Yet the Kingdom of God, as Saint Jerome said, is a kingdom which desires for its citizens a soul that soars aloft, free from all ties and hindrances, including our power, prestige, and possessions. What's more, Jesus' command to the rich young man is to sell, not part, but all of his possessions, and then give the money, not to his wife or his children or his friends, but to the poor. If we are to inherit the Kingdom we must be willing to let go of everything we fear to lose, especially our possessions; after all, ain't a one of us leaving this world with any of them! Another of those ancient church teachers, Saint Augustine, put it this way: "Riches," he said, "are gained with toil and kept with fear. They are enjoyed with danger and lost with grief. It is hard to be saved if we have them, and impossible if we love them."
Augustine of Hippo (left) and Jerome (right).
The rich young man did not know he was being held in such bondage. He comes to Jesus humbly on his knees and raises a serious existential question about eternal life. Furthermore, Jesus in no way challenges or mocks this man's integrity in doing so. He's a good guy, but he is held captive by his wealth, and he doesn't even know it. So many of us who follow Jesus are held captive and don't even know it. He thought it was enough to keep the commandments. We often think it's enough to come to church on Sunday, say our communal confession, get our Eucharist, and head home. When Jesus invited him to see things differently and challenged his thinking by pointing out that no, in fact, that wasn't enough, his response is grief. I'd be willing to bet that if I asked each of you if you would give up all of your possessions were Jesus to ask you to do so right here and now, I'd wager each of you would say yes. I know I would. But who among you and your friends has ever willingly done that? Nobody that I know of, save for a few monks and nuns. It's a nice thought, but actually doing it is nearly impossible, so long as the culture preaches such a message to us that if we gave all of that stuff up we would be lost, hopeless, and terrified. Nevertheless, Jesus is still there inviting us into a relationship with him that tears through that false gospel.
Perhaps Jesus is not literally inviting you to sell all that you have and give the money to the poor, but it's worth asking: would you be willing to do it if he did ask? Would any of us? Sitting in a church in the dark, worshipping as our ancestors did, we were reminded that we don't need all of the stuff that we think we need. Jesus continues to invite us all daily to consider what the things are that we think we need but which we really don't. The culture may still shout to us that we really do need the stuff, but we Christians can be the ones that model something different for the culture until, very slowly, we shift the whole paradigm. We can and we will, with God's help! Until that day, let us ponder what it is that Jesus is calling us to let go of, and let us be willing to surrender completely and utterly to the majesty and love of God in Jesus. Do that, my brothers and sisters, and you will truly have treasure in heaven!