Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty, Senior Pastor
Hammond Street Congregational Church, UCC
October 14, 2018
What Must I Do?
Every now and then, someone asks me: “How do know what to preach about?” While I am always tempted to answer, “God tells me,” the more truthful answer is, “The Lectionary tells me.” If you don’t know about the Revised Common Lectionary, let me tell you a bit about it. I’ll use my UCC calendar as a prop.
If you could stand here with me, you would see that for every Sunday of the Church Year, a series of readings is suggested: Old Testament lessons, psalms, epistle and gospel lesson. These readings are on a three year cycle, and we are now almost at the end of Year B. The first Sunday in Advent will be the start of a new Church Year, and the Lectionary readings will all be from Year C. Each Sunday our UCC calendar has a theme which can also be used as a sermon title—if the pastor chooses to use it. On this the kick off of our stewardship campaign, I was overjoyed not only by the Gospel lesson from Mark—the story of the rich young ruler–but also by the theme, “What must I do?” Which is, of course, the ruler’s question to Jesus. When they put the Revised Common Lectionary together for all the Christian churches around the world, they had no idea that Hammond Street Church was going to select today as our kickoff. The other bonus is, of course, that you have just heard our good committee place its emphasis on the sharing of our gifts and talents. You and I are called upon to give back to HSCC and beyond, so the rich young ruler’s question is also our own, “What must I do?”
Perhaps you saw in the media recently the story about a woman who answered that question for herself. The title of the piece which appeared on the internet was this: “Organist Credits Training After Miraculous Emergency Landing.” The article goes on to say this:
Chicago, IL—local organist Samantha Miller credited her musical training as instrumental after successfully landing Midwest Airlines Flight 742 on Tuesday [September 25].
It was every passenger’s nightmare: both pilot and co-pilot were incapacitated. The plane was running out of fuel…and out of options. The stewardess made a last ditch announcement: Does anyone know how to fly a plane?
“I’d never flown a plane before, but honestly, how much more complicated could it be than playing the organ?” Laughed Samantha.
Skillfully applying her training as an organist, Samantha effortlessly slipped into the role of airplane pilot—adjusting speed, altitude, pitch, and yaw while calmly carrying on a conversation with the air traffic controllers frantically directing her to the runway.
“Hey, cool it, okay?” She was overheard saying to the stressed out airport personnel as she smoothly steered the commercial airliners one handed while on final approach to O’Hare. “Try playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on a five manual pipe organ. Landing this plane is like riding a bicycle compared to that!”
Ignoring the staged emergency vehicles on the runway after executing a flawless landing, Samantha deftly taxied the fully loaded Boeing 757 to the assigned gate, safely delivering all 255 passengers to their destination.
To thunderous applause, she departed the airplane, organ shoes in hand.
“Oh, please!” She said. “Really, it was nothing…nothing at all” (Johannes Bugenhagen, “Organist Credits Training After Miraculous Emergency Landing,” September 28, 2018. Thanks to Rev. Connie Insley for passing on this story.).
How many believe that our own Kathy Jellison could do the very same thing? Jim Van Kirk recently took Kathy up for a ride in his powered parachute, which she loved. Kathy, watch out: a Boeing 757 may just be in your future!
Clearly Samantha Miller answered the question of the rich young ruler to Jesus, “What must I do?” So with that. Let’s get right into our Lectionary reading this morning from Mark, the famous tale of Jesus and the ruler.
The title of the story comes from a composite from the three Gospels. All three say he is rich. Matthew tells us he is young. Luke says he is a ruler (Edward F. Marquart, “The Rich Young Ruler,” Sermons from Seattle).
Mark introduces the story in Chapter 10 by saying that as Jesus is about to depart on a journey, “…a man ran up and knelt before him.” The man’s running to Jesus implies some urgency. Immediately the rich young ruler comes to the point and asks the question, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Then Jesus reviews the commandments for him. To that, the man says: “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” The ruler appears to be genuine–a faithful, observant Jew who is focused on doing what is right. As the ruler kneels at the feet of Jesus, he is humbly asking for spiritual direction: “What must I do?”
It’s been said that the man in the passage is “…apparently nagged by a deep inner sense that something isn’t quite right, not quite complete, about his life.” He is “struggling with a deep hunger that tells him that there is more to life than doing what is expected of him” (Kate Huey, “what must I do?”, Weekly Seeds).
And so he comes to Jesus asking the big question that is on his mind. Walter Wink has written that in the first half of our lives, the seminal question for us is, “What is the meaning of my life?” The question for the second half of life is, “With the time I have left, how can I make a difference?” And so it is that question which leads the ruler to say, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
When the great Arthur Ashe contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion, he knew that he would have to retire from professional tennis. He felt his very life begin to leave him, like sand running through an hour glass. After a short time of feeling sorry for himself, Arthur Ashe knew that he had a limited time to bring change to the world around the subject of HIV and Aids. And so he established a foundation, an association, an institute, and a chair in pediatric Aids research. In a real sense, the story of Arthur Ashe brings the theme of our stewardship campaign to life. Arthur Ashe knew he didn’t have much time to live his life, but what he wanted to do most was to leave a legacy. To share his story with the world. In his memoir, Days of Grace, Arthur Ashe said that despite his diagnosis of AIDS and a heart condition, he was a blessed man who was privileged to give back. “From what we get we make a living,” he said. “What we give, however, makes a life” (Rev. Dr. John Buchanan, “Life’s Second Question”).
The irony of the rich young ruler’s situation is that he was needy–despite all he had accomplished and all he possessed. The ruler was a “seeker” in the truest sense—a person whose life was paradoxically full but empty.
Verse 21 in our scripture lesson has been called one of the most beautiful lines in all of the New Testament: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” In that moment, Jesus looks directly into the rich man’s heart. He knows the ruler is telling him the truth, that he has honestly tried to keep the law. And so Jesus regards the man tenderly, but he also knows the ruler has not come on a social call. Like a patient who has come to a doctor for a diagnosis, so the rich young ruler is awaiting a prescription from Dr. Jesus.
We are told that in the First Century there was essentially no middle class–that basically there were two classes of people: the super rich and the impoverished. Clearly, the rich young ruler had benefited, directly or not, from the sufferings of others, a suffering that “continues to wound the heart of God” (Kate Huey).
That attitude about wealth in the general population in Jerusalem is no different than the attitude in the general population in Bangor today. For most, then and now, wealth is a sign of God’s favor. Jesus sees it differently, however; the ruler will need to make amends for his riches.
And so that is why, Jesus, the great physician, prescribes the most powerful medicine possible. He tells the young man the one thing he doesn’t want to hear: “You lack one thing,” says Jesus. “Go, sell what you own, and give your money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
One commentator in writing on this passage says that “Jesus doesn’t negotiate with the man in the text. He draws a line in the sand. The issue for this man’s soul…is not eternal life but temporal life. Take care of where your heart, where your life, is now” (Andre Resner, Jr.)
It is, of course, as if Jesus has made a stunning spiritual x-ray, because he sees in the man something he cannot see himself. And because of that, the words of Jesus clearly identify the one thing that matters most to the ruler. The man can tell by looking at the disciples that they are men who have done exactly what Jesus has told him to do. But the personal cost for the rich young ruler is too great. Mark tells us that the ruler “went away grieving because he had many possessions.” The stuff of life clearly blocked the man from acting on the invitation of Jesus to join his inner family circle. Ultimately the ruler’s possessions ruled him and prevented him from receiving treasures in heaven.
One of the central problems of this text is the almost universal urge to water it down. People want the preacher to say, now Jesus really didn’t mean that exactly….he really doesn’t intend for you and me to be like Francis of Assisi or St. Mother Theresa and sell our worldly goods and give everything to the poor. Well, maybe he does–at least for some of us. For Jesus goes on to give a famous analogy to the disciples: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!….It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
It’s been said that interpreters in the ninth century concocted a story of a Needle’s Gate in the Wall of Jerusalem which had a low threshold. It was so low, in fact, that the only way a camel could pass through it was to crawl. What is probably more accurate to say is that this passage is simply an example of Aramaic exaggeration. Jesus is engaging in a bit of hyperbole to make his point. A rich man can enter heaven, Jesus is saying, but it won’t be easy.
And then there is the whole matter of God’s grace. Isn’t that what will make the difference? Isn’t grace the commodity which will allow the camel to pass through the needle’s eye? You will note that Jesus didn’t chase after the grieving young ruler, shouting, “Wait! Come back! I have great news for you! Grace will make it all possible to have your possessions and have eternal life at the same time!”
Dr. Jesus doesn’t do that. He has given the man his diagnosis and his recommended course of treatment. The disciples have done what Jesus has asked of them. Now they are waiting for the young man to join them. One scholar has said, “The disciples for once get it right.” Today only rarely do the followers of Jesus put into practice Jesus’ prescription for a total spiritual make-over–by selling all and living totally for others….so where does that leave you and me?
I like what Charles Cousar says about this issue of the things that end up possessing us. He says that the “things that distract us from God” are the things to be given up. “Anything that claims our highest loyalty, our ultimate concerns and prevents an uninhibited following of Jesus–not only wealth, but ambitions, education, religion, and the like….” In the same spirit, a Lutheran seminary professor has said that “being rich is not an unforgivable sin.” Jesus didn’t call on the man to destroy his wealth but to re-distribute it to the poor. This professor has the right of it, it seems to me, when he says that “Jesus’ primary call is a call to a life of discipleship, not a life of poverty” (Matt Skinner).
There have been numerous interpretations of these verses from Mark 10. The way I see it, the most accurate reading of this passage is those scholars who say that Jesus doesn’t really want the ruler’s wealth or power; what he wants most is the man’s own self. Nothing less will do.
Bishop William Willimon remembers a time when he once presented the story of the rich young ruler to a Bible study in a college dorm. What did they think about it? One of the students asked,
“Had Jesus ever met this man before?”
Why do you ask?”
“Because Jesus seems to have lot of faith in him. He demands something risky, radical of him. I wonder if Jesus knew this man had a gift for risky, radical response. In my experience, a professor only demands the best from students that the professor thinks are the smartest, best students. I wonder what there was about this man that made Jesus have so much faith he could really be a disciple.”
To that another student replied,
“I wish Jesus would ask something like this of me. My parents totally control my life just because they are paying all the bills. And I complain about them calling the shots, but I am so tied to all the stuff I don’t think I could ever break free. But maybe Jesus thinks otherwise.”
As he has reflected on the wisdom of those two college students, the good Bishop says they managed to look beyond what he saw as “severe, bad news” and received the story as “gracious, good news.”
For each of us, the question remains: “What must I do?” That, my friends is why we are here this morning. The answer is our story.
Copyright 2018 by the Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty