The Preaching of the Word
First Presbyterian Church
116 South Loudoun Street, Winchester, Virginia 22601
Charles Marshall Webster, Transitional Pastor
First Sunday in Lent
February 14, 2016
“Not a Stewardship Sermon”
Epistle Reading: Hebrews 4:12-16
Gospel Reading: Mark 10:17-31
Our gospel lesson today is not a story about money so much as it is a story about something much more important than money. At its heart this is not a stewardship sermon. If you can go that far with me, you are already halfway into the kingdom of God.
Jesus was traveling with the twelve disciples when what to his wondering eyes should appear but a rich man. Now Matthew says he was a ruler, and Luke says he was young. All of the synoptic writers (that is, Matthew, Mark and Luke who seem to see Jesus with the same eyes) say he was rich, and that’s probably enough to know about him. He had a question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Now Jesus starts at the very beginning with this man. He cautions him that he, Jesus, is not worthy to be called good. “God alone” is good says Jesus and that comment is a sermon in and of itself. And having said that, Jesus reminds the man that the way to lead a worthy life is to live the law, and Jesus gives him a random sample of the Ten Commandments, including one that is not articulated in the original ten, “You shall not defraud.” (It makes me wonder whether Jesus had been hearing too many political campaign ads.) Anyway, the man tells him that he has done all that. He has kept the commandments.
It is at this point Jesus sees the Sunday School medals down the lapel of the man, twenty years of perfect attendance, the proof of his having never missed synagogue, a model of good behavior. If you knew this fellow you would know him to be the salt of the earth, a great husband and father, he volunteers tutoring youngsters on Saturdays, has a nice home, has a new BMW or Mercedes-Benz every two years, and is always impeccably dressed. He is the kind of person who is admired by all in the community.
And you know, Jesus liked him. No, the text says, “Jesus loved him.” That’s a word Mark uses so sparingly in his gospel that to use it here only underscores how very strongly Jesus was drawn to this man. He had potential. What an asset to Jesus’ ministry and mission if this man were a part of it. What a good heart he had—kind, just, with good instincts. Jesus in no way condemns him. Quite the opposite, his heart goes out to him.
And you have to credit the man for his yearning, for listening to the prompting of his heart. He seemed to have it all. But this man recognized that something was missing and he even had his finger on the pulse of it, so near and yet so far. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Give God a handful of people with that question burning in their hearts and you can have a great church here at First Presbyterian Church in Winchester or anywhere!
How would you describe what he was after, this eternal life that was eluding him? Is this something that you want? Is it that quality of life that death cannot destroy, eternal life, timeless, something here and now as well. A quality of living that raises our everyday lives like a diamond to the light of eternity and lets some of that light shine through to illumine our darkness. It is an assurance about our worth before God that money cannot attain and no earthly accomplishment can secure. It is walking through the valley of the shadow of death and fearing no evil. It is knowing that God knows you through and through and loves you still – and then living in God’s love, finding your whole life energized and secured in a love which comes to us flowing over. That’s eternal life.
It was that the rich man was after. And Jesus loved him. And because Jesus loved him he wanted this man to have what he wanted, and he told him how, in his case, to receive it, because how one receives it varies from case to case. In this man’s situation he would need to follow a prescription, five actions: go, sell, give, come, follow. He could not do one without the other, and no action in and of itself would be complete. The other thing is that once he would go it would have to be a tour de force, like the difference between peeling the bandage off the wound in stages or just ripping it off. It would not be easy or pleasant, and no looking over the shoulder, He had to just do it. Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. And scripture says the rich man’s face fell when he heard this, visibly shaken at this news.
There was one thing this rich man could not do, and that was give away what he possessed. It was his identity. His clothes, his car, his status in the community, his country club membership, his trips to Europe and Asia, his beach cottage and ski condo, everything that he was and had depended on the money. It was whom he was or so he had come to believe. And now he was on the horns of a dilemma because Jesus had identified the one thing that he could not do, the one thing that would open the door to eternal life, the one thing that was needful if this man was ever to have his heart’s desire fulfilled. Question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Answer: “Go, sell, give, come, follow.” And he went away sorrowful, because he had a lot to lose, he had a lot of money. Given the choice between the value of money and the value of eternal life, he chose to take the money, and go away sorrowful.
He said, “no.” And suddenly this is not a story about money, so much as a story about a call to discipleship that was rejected. The rich man said no, and he had his reasons. But you know something, his “no” is important not only for him, but also for us. Jesus accepted his “no.” There comes a moment in some very practical and unexpected way when a choice is before us and without realizing it—something of our soul, our character, our being is at stake—you might say the kingdom of heaven is at stake—and we have to decide—yes or no. Someone has put it this way, “Where there is no room to say no, a yes is meaningless.”
Let me say something very basic here: The real question in this story is not how much you will give of all that you have, but how much you will keep, and why. That was the issue at the heart of the encounter between Jesus and the rich man. There was really no problem with what the man was willing to give; he was generous with his commitment to doing the right thing. “All these things I have done,” he told Jesus. “Do not commit adultery, honor your father and mother, do not steal.” All these things I have honored, he said. One thing he lacked…and ironically it was what he kept that was standing in his way. He needed to keep control, to keep the very thing, which stood in the way of his giving himself completely to God. He needed to keep his security in his money—which kept him from the freedom and the true security he sought.
Stewardship is radical, it’s shocking, it makes your face fall, and your heart miss a beat or two it you really get your head wrapped around it, because it asks you not for a tip or a payment, not a check or a contribution, not membership dues, but to search your heart and soul and then, see what is there, go and sell and give and come and follow. Stewardship is not fund raising for the church. It is thankful, joyful, commitment of gifts from the abundance that we have from God. No one can or will ask you to give what you have not. All any of us can do is give generously of what we have, examining as we give, what it is that we are keeping and why.
I could tell you that there are lots of good reasons why you should give generously to support First Presbyterian Church. But I am not going to say any of those things this morning. For the issue in today’s gospel reading goes far beyond the church’s need and its obvious deserving. The issue here is a matter of the heart, yours and mine. It has to do with where our treasure really is, as we decide what we are going to do about the radical claim that Jesus Christ makes upon our life to let go of the earthly securities we cling to so tightly and trust in God’s providence and love to grant us all we need in this life and in the age to come life everlasting. It is after all not for the sake of the church that we offer our gifts, not even because God can use them, but because we need to give for the sake of our souls, for the health of our salvation, a decision about where our real security lies. We make offerings so that we do not believe the illusion that they are ours, and so that we do not become theirs.
So this is not a stewardship sermon. It is an invitation to discipleship. You don’t necessarily have to sell all that you own and give the proceeds to the poor, although that may be good for your soul, in a case here and there. You don’t necessarily have to live a cloistered life for the rest of your days, although some may find that exactly what they need to do. You do not have to abandon your responsibilities toward others, your promises to help pay for your grandchildren’s education, or close watch over your portfolio for the sake of your family.
What you have to do is give up your trust in all that you think you can do to secure anything in your life, and you can only do that when you realize that everything in life is a gift from God. I know that many of you may not believe that yet, and sometimes I have to remind myself. But that is the truth! All that we have and all that we are can be gone in a moment and will be gone in a moment someday, and nothing we are and nothing we possess can alter that fact. That is precisely what the rich man in the story did not see, would not believe, that no security at all is born of anything on earth. And once you know that, you have inherited eternal life. Once you know that, and you live out that truth, you have already entered the kingdom of God.