United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds October 14, 2018

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23)

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Lectionary citations:
Job 23:1-9, 16-17 with Psalm 22:1-15
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 with Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

Worship resources for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B, 21st Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23) are at Worship Ways


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Mark 10:17-31
Additional reflection on Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Focus Theme:
Finding Our Way

Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews

In Franco Zeffirelli's beautiful film, "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," a turning point in the story comes when Francis of Assisi, born and raised in a wealthy and privileged (and religiously observant) family, stands before the entire town, including the local bishop and his parents, strips off his clothes, and walks off into the mountains to live among the poor as a beggar. Francis is responding to a call that has troubled him since he returned, ill with fever, from the adventure of fighting in a war between petty nobles.

His life before the war no longer makes sense, and he feels his soul being pulled toward a different way of living, a radical giving up of everything that would have been easily his, a turning away from the comfortable path that has been laid out before him. Francis was not just ill; his heart was hungry and thirsty and lost. His conversion experience came in the midst of suffering and uncertainty.

An inner sense of something not right

The rich man in this week's passage from Mark does not appear to be similarly afflicted, although he too is apparently nagged by a deep inner sense that something isn't quite right, not quite complete, about his life. This is no adversary questioning Jesus; the religious authorities aren't in the scene, expressing their opinions or trying to trap Jesus.

(In a way, perhaps, they're present in the background, in the man's claim to have always followed the commandments. He's taken their advice, their teaching, to heart.)

A sincere inquiry

I used to think this man was arrogant because he so easily claimed to have followed all the commandments since childhood. Where was his humility? And who can possibly follow all the commandments and not make a few major mistakes along the way?

But that's not the point: rather, this man is saying that he has done what was expected of him as a faithful and observant Jew, and that is a good thing. However, he is struggling with a deep hunger that tells him that there is even more to life than just doing what is expected of him.

The Law as gift, and then the next step

The laws of any (true) religion are a gift, a path laid out for us, a set of guideposts when we're not sure of the way. Jesus, in his response, isn't quoting a law, judging the man or laying a mandate on him. He's opening a door to the next stage, the next step, on the man's journey of faith.

Again, Zeffirelli provides a magnificent visual for this kind of experience, as Francis walks away from the town and out toward the countryside and the mountains. There's so much more ahead for him, not all of it pleasant or easy, and yet so rich and so full of power.

A breath of fresh air

At a point in history when the church was at a particularly low place in terms of integrity in its practice, when wealth and worldly power had led it away from its core values, Francis was the breath of fresh air who led to a time of renewal and rediscovery of the church's basic call to faithfulness.

"Rebuild my church, Francis," was the call he heard, and while he labored with stone (literally) to rebuild the crumbled sanctuary of San Damiano, his passionate response to the call to give everything away and follow Jesus was an inspiration that sparked a renewal of the whole church.

(A few years ago, we were told that the present pope has a similar sense of call as he chose the name of Francis upon his election to the papacy. Many people experience a kind of power in him to be a breath of fresh air in the church. I think many people around the world instantly felt the significance of his choice of a name, and keep him in prayer as he follows this path.)

Seekers right in our midst

Today we might call the rich man in Mark's story, our Gospel text, a "seeker," although we assume that most seekers have not necessarily been paying much attention to religious laws and requirements. (I find the lectionary pairing of this story with that of Job intriguing; Job was maybe the ultimate seeker with the ultimate questions.)

In fact, we tend to think of seekers as "unchurched," and we may be tempted to think that we need to teach them, these "outsiders," how to live as faithful disciples of Jesus.

What if?

But what if there are many seekers already in our congregations? What if there are many people in our pews, and even among our church leaders, who sense that there is something "more," and just doing what's expected of them isn't enough?

What if, even within the church, we are still hungering for grace? What if church-going Christians still feel a deep need for transformation in their lives?

Lessons for us today

Of course, it's always risky to move between two very different economic and cultural settings, and it's important to acknowledge the differences between the time of Jesus and our own. However, there are certainly lessons here for us today.

For example, Dianne Bergant notes that Jesus includes a commandment ("do not defraud") in his list that isn't in the Ten Commandments we know so well. Perhaps this is especially significant because it emphasizes that this man has gotten his wealth in ways that are proper and not "ill-gained" (Preaching the New Lectionary Year B).

Wealth at the expense of others

Indeed, David Watson argues that in a world where there were only two classes, the super-rich and the impoverished, those who had wealth enjoyed it at the expense of those who went without. Watson sees the rich man as benefitting, intentionally or not, from the suffering of others, and this suffering deeply wounded, and continues to wound, the heart of God.

We know that care of the poor and a just sharing of resources is at the heart of the prophets' proclamations throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and yet we so easily slip into the same assumptions about wealth and possessions being a sign of God's favor that our ancestors held. (Prosperity theology, anyone?)

Watson, then, claims that the rich man must make amends for the way his wealth has come at the expense of others (New Proclamation Year B 2009). And that lesson is still applicable today, even in very different economic and cultural conditions, because those who enjoy an excess of material things surely have a responsibility toward the millions of people who go hungry and homeless.

A difficult passage, and not just for camels

Preachers on this Gospel story have tried to work with its difficult teaching in a way that makes it more accessible, if not more palatable. If the "eye of the needle" (in the wall of the city) is reduced to an uncomfortable maneuver by a camel (as I was taught), "getting into" the kingdom of God (or heaven, as I was taught) may be difficult but certainly not impossible.

We'll just have to work a little harder at it (spiritual over-achievers will surely succeed?); it's easy to miss the part about God making seemingly impossible things possible. Is it any wonder that we have so little understanding of grace?

Possessed by possessions

Most commentators describe our possessions as things that can provide security, or distract us from God, though it's fair to say that those without the necessities of life are justified in being preoccupied by them. If a parent and their children go to bed hungry at night, that basic human need may actually draw one closer to God, rather than serving as a distraction.

Still, Charles Cousar recognizes that we can be "owned" not just by money but by everything that possesses, or perhaps consumes, us and our "ultimate concern," including "ambition, education, religion and the like. But he cautions us from shying away from a focus on material things, because they hold such power in our lives, and in the eyes and workings of the world. 

Cousar reminds us that the followers of Jesus live in "a critical tension" with the world in which we minister and strive to live faithfully, a world that values wealth and power and may find the gospel most offensive. And yet, Cousar writes, this same world "needs the constant reminder that the first will be last and the last first" (Texts for Preaching Year B).

Jesus speaks with love

When the rich man waits for Jesus' answer to his question, he receives a response that is unusual in the Gospels, one of the most beautiful lines in Scripture (and one of my favorites): "Jesus, looking at him, loved him…" (10:21). Fred Craddock writes, "The man asked a big question and he got a big answer; small answers to ultimate questions are insulting" (Preaching through the Christian Year B).

Craddock's insightful use of the word "ultimate" suggests that this is no complex or nuanced or obscure teaching for specialists in theology. This is the big question, the heart of the matter, the path for us to follow. Its simplicity, however, does not make it any easier to swallow, for the rich man or for us, his descendants in faith today.

A tender lesson

Perhaps that is why the story is particularly poignant, because Jesus does not deliver this instruction in a way that is harsh or oppressive. As he looks tenderly at the man, seeing into his heart and knowing him at his deepest level, we sense that his teaching is meant to free the man from everything that holds him bound, all the possessions that possess him.

Megan McKenna sees the teaching as both an invitation "to join the inner circles of his family" and as a challenge to do the difficult thing that will restore his relationship to those on the margins of his life, those most in need of justice and generosity (On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross).

Jesus asks us that same question today, in a time when a few still have too much and too many have not enough. What is our response to the invitation of Jesus?

Insiders and outsiders, again

We have been accompanying Jesus on his way to Jerusalem as he encounters and engages the religious "insiders" who come up short each time, missing the main point and often going away angry, even plotting to kill Jesus. Or perhaps the insiders are Jesus' own followers, who also miss the point and fail to grasp who Jesus is and what he is about.

The Syrophoenician woman, for example, a pagan foreign woman, of all people, could see the power of Jesus and the heart of his mission more clearly than the disciples could. (They were too busy fretting over the feeding of crowds and the nuisance of children.)

For once, the disciples get it

However, Andre Resner, Jr. observes that this story is different from those accounts. Here the insiders get it, and the outsider who appears to have it all together is the one who misses the mark. This time, for once, the disciples get it right, and have left everything behind to follow Jesus. Instead of frustration, Jesus' words to the disciples are full of promise and reassurance that they will receive an abundance of good things in return.

Resner observes that Jesus "draws a line in the sand" for this man, because this is a matter of ultimate concern for him, and for everyone who is too comfortable, in any age. However, it's not about getting to heaven but living the abundant life now: "Take care of where your heart, where your life, is now" (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

I remember how affected I was by the words of a speaker at the first stewardship conference I attended years ago: "Make sure that what you give you heart to, is worthy of it."

What do our hearts need most?

Paul Wadell wrote a lovely reflection on this text in the October 6, 2009, issue of The Christian Century. He focuses on our hearts, and the "perplexing mysteries" within that make us "most afraid of what we most need." This man, Wadell writes, runs to Jesus, illustrating the urgency of his quest.

The man is restless, and unsatisfied, and in spite of his riches, he is needy, for he stands in need of what matters most, the thing that he can't count or accumulate or achieve or take credit for. And yet the treasure he needs and hungers for is the one thing that matters most, the one thing that is secure in this life: God's grace.

Walking away, sad

Along with the line about Jesus looking at the man and loving him is the poignant account of his walking away "grieving, for he had many possessions." Wadell observes that the young man knows in his heart that Jesus is right, and that makes him sad and grieving as he walks back to what he has not found satisfying all along.

However, Wadell claims that "Love is a way of seeing, and those who love us best see us best," so "Jesus sees him as he truly is, but in a way that the young man is not yet capable of seeing himself" (Christian Century October 6 2009).

Perhaps, in the days that followed, the man re-thought his decision, just as we might re-think our own lives, and listen to that same call to come, follow Jesus. Will we respond with joy, or will we walk away, grieving?

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The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Oscar Wilde, 19th century
"Ordinary riches can be stolen, real riches cannot. In your soul are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you."

Ernest Hemingway, 20th century
"Fear of death increases in exact proportion to increase in wealth."

Princess Diana, 20th century
"They say it is better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable, but how about a compromise like moderately rich and just moody?"

Ernesto Tinajero, 21st century
"If you read the Bible and it does not challenge you, then you are reading yourself and not the Bible."

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 19th century
"Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least."

Daisy Goodwin, 21st century
"[A]nyone can acquire wealth, the real art is giving it away."

Epictetus, 2nd century
"Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants."

Stephen Richards, 21st century
"Minds are like flowers, they only open when the time is right."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"Money often costs too much."

Additional reflection on Job 23:1-9, 16-17:

There certainly are many voices in Scripture. Sometimes, these different voices are within the same book of the Bible, as we hear in the speeches given by Job's friends, who recite for him the conventional theological wisdom that might be summed up in three words: Life is fair. If you do bad things, bad things will happen to you. (Conversely, if good things happen to you, then you must have done something good.)

It's a nice system, very neat and logical: there's payback for sin, and reward for virtue. In Job's case, the punishment is so great, losing everything and all his children and then his health, that his companions assume that his offense must have been unusually heinous.

A compassionate presence?

Job is not alone in disagreeing with his "friends." In fact, if they had indeed been friends, perhaps they would have done better at active listening or at being a compassionate presence, just sitting with Job in his pain and suffering.

Still, Job is not alone, because we are with Job, aren't we? Don't we watch the innocent suffer and wonder at how just, how fair the universe is?

Don't we have questions?

When we see our children and grandchildren--or someone else's children or grandchildren--suffer from illness or hunger or war, don't we ask where God is in all that? How much more innocent could one get than being a child?

And what about the prospering of those who have gone undetected in their cheating and stealing, so graphically illustrated by the calamitous fall of companies whose leaders have left widows and retirees impoverished? No, Job isn't alone in this story. We sit with him sometimes, too, and ask where we can find God in it all.

Making sense of the universe

And then there are the different voices not only within but between books of the Bible, too. One can hardly read today's text, "If I go forward, God is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive God" (23:8), without hearing the echo of Psalm 139: "Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?...If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast" (verses 7, 9).

Two ancient voices express different moments in the human condition, times of loss and questioning, times of utter assurance of God's presence and love. We experience both in our lifetimes, and "faith" becomes at such moments a very different kind of word than just right belief in the correct doctrines (although, in our anxiety, we might find a measure of security in absolutes).

Faith becomes trust that centers us in the mysterious One whose power and wisdom are so far beyond our own feeble but often noble attempts to make sense of the universe.

No good news to share, no comfort

Job's friends are like preachers who have no good news and no comforting presence to share, only harsh judgment and a kind of logic that violates Job's integrity. Even though Job says that he can't feel God's presence, that he can't find God so he can ask why these disasters have befallen him, he still holds to a stubborn kind of faith, a trust that God is just even if life is not.

And so he longs to find God, to stand before God and make his case, like an attorney in a court before a judge, but right then, scraping his sores and surrounded by well-intentioned but misguided friends, Job feels that God is far, far away. When things are really bad, it may not be that God has left us but that we are blocked by pain from perceiving the God from whom we cannot flee.

A book with questions as well as answers

Some people see the Bible as a book of answers; others see in it both answers and unanswered questions. The Book of Job is best read in its entirety, as one passage gives us only a glimpse into this poetic and powerful reflection on undeserved suffering. But scholars provide an intriguing take on the final verses of today's passage: the NRSV suggests Job is terminally depressed and despondent, longing for death and oblivion.

But the Hebrew, according to James Newsome, "expresses Job's continued and hopeful persistence" in believing that God is good and he, Job, is innocent (Texts for Preaching Year B). Translation can certainly make a huge difference.

"At the point of his anguish"

Walter Brueggemann has preached a beautiful sermon on Job, saying that Job was like Adam in his need for a conversation partner who is adequate to the challenge, "who will address him at the point of his anguish," rather than "rebuke" him as his friends did. Job needs someone who is "worthy of his life, elusive enough to interest, hidden enough to attract, severe enough to detain, awesome enough to encounter. He must find one or he is left with only his integrity."

However, according to Brueggemann, while this integrity is real and important, it is "not adequate for the living of his life" ("A Bilingual Life" in The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power and Weakness).

Looking at the questions in our own sorrow

How might we apply these reflections to our lives and to the life we share? Thinking of the desolation after national disasters, for example, and the ungenerous, inadequate human response to that suffering; or the horror of many different forms of violence, from terrorism and drugs and crime, whether at Ground Zero or in Afghanistan or Syria, or on the sidewalks of New York City and the classrooms in our schools; and the "slow-motion violence" of economic injustice in our cities while we destroy the earth that holds us, do we feel the ashes around us as we sit and wonder why?

When the cancer diagnosis is delivered, can we absorb it without losing our trust in God? In our modern understanding of depression, where is the theology of Job? How do these readings from Job resonate with our "stages of grief"?

Is Job angry in this text, or is he bargaining, or is he in denial? When have you tried to find security in your integrity, and yet found yourself surrounded by loss anyway? What does that tell us then about our security, and our best comfort?

For further reflection:

Rumi, 13th century
"The wound is the place where the Light enters you."

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 19th century
"Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but--I hope--into a better shape."

Kahlil Gibran, 20th century
"Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars."

John Keats, Letters of John Keats, 19th century
"Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?"

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, 20th century
"Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings."

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 19th century
"Nobody can tell what I suffer! But it is always so. Those who do not complain are never pitied."

Libba Bray, The Sweet Far Thing, 21st century
"There is an ancient tribal proverb I once heard in India. It says that before we can see properly we must first shed our tears to clear the way."


Lectionary texts

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Then Job answered:
   "Today also my complaint is bitter;
        his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
    O that I knew where I might find him,
        that I might come even to his dwelling!
    I would lay my case before him,
        and fill my mouth with arguments.
    I would learn what he would answer me,
        and understand what he would say to me.
    Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
        No; but he would give heed to me.
    There an upright person could reason with him,
        and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge.

    "If I go forward, he is not there;
        or backward, I cannot perceive him;
     on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
        I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.

     "God has made my heart faint;
         the Almighty has terrified me;
      If only I could vanish in darkness,
         and thick darkness would cover my face!"

Psalm 22:1-15

My God, my God,
   why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
   from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day,
   but you do not answer;
and by night,
   but find no rest.

Yet you are holy,
   enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
   they trusted,
and you delivered them.

To you they cried,
   and were saved;
in you they trusted,
   and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm,
   and not human;
scorned by others,
   and despised by the people.

All who see me mock at me;
   they make mouths at me,
they shake their heads;

"Commit your cause to God;
   let God deliver--
let God rescue the one
   in whom God delights!"

Yet it was you
   who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe
   on my mother's breast.

On you I was cast
   from my birth,
and since my mother bore me
   you have been my God.

Do not be far from me,
   for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

Many bulls encircle me,
   strong bulls of Bashan
surround me;

they open wide their mouths
   at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.

I am poured out like water,
   and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
   it is melted within my breast;

my mouth is dried up
   like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks
   to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust
   of death.

or

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Seek the Lord and live, or he will break out
   against the house of Joseph like fire,
   and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.
Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
   and bring righteousness to the ground!

They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
   and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
Therefore, because you trample on the poor
   and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
   but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
   but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
   and how great are your sins —
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
   and push aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
   for it is an evil time.

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;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
   will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

Psalm 90:12-17

So teach us to count our days
   that we may gain a wise heart.

Turn, O God! How long?
   Have compassion on your servants!

Satisfy us in the morning
   with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice
   and be glad all our days.

Make us glad for as many days
   as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years
   as we have seen evil.

Let your work be manifest
   to your servants,
and your glorious power
   to their children.

Let the favor of the Sovereign
   our God
be upon us,
and prosper for us the work
   of our hands —
O prosper the work of our hands!

and

Hebrews 4:12-16

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Mark 10:17-31

As he 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."


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
    
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday"--not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."