“Priorities” Colchester Federated Church, October 14, 2018, (Mark 10:17-31) Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus is setting out on a journey and a man comes to him with an important question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus lists the commandments that deal with human beings relating to each other—don’t murder or commit adultery or steal or bear false witness or defraud anyone, and honor your parents.  The man earnestly responds, “Teacher I have kept all these since my youth.”  Mark writes in response, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”[1]

Many times Jesus had to go up against those who opposed his teachings.  Jesus was challenged by those who sought to test him and even tried to make him look foolish.  This man seems to be honestly seeking and searching.  He has his heart on a question of ultimate concern: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus loves him for it and loves him for who he is as a child of God.  But then issues a challenge: “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.”[2]

The man is shocked by Jesus’ answer and goes away grieving, for he had many possessions.  Here’s the thing, this rich man is the only person in the entire New Testament who doesn’t answer Jesus’ direct call to follow him with a yes.  This man is the only person who essentially says no when Jesus invites him to, “Come, follow me.”  Instead, he goes away grieving because he has so much stuff holding him back from Jesus.

It’s a story about wealth and privilege.  It’s a story about questions of ultimate concern and seeking meaning in our lives.  It’s a story that serves as a cautionary tale for us too.  Jesus loves this rich man.  That is explicitly stated in the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus even offers him new life and being part of the Kingdom of God that Jesus is trying to create on earth.  The man just wasn’t ready to receive any of that yet.

Now money can be used for good or for ill.  There are many examples of people using their resources to help others and make a difference in the world.  Money can also isolate us and put blinders on us from what’s happening out there.  Gated communities and skyboxes in stadiums and first class seating and private jets—some of these perks that come with wealth prevent people from literally being together anymore.  Privilege prevents people from even sharing the same space with one another.  Meanwhile, Jesus was all about breaking down barriers that separated people from one another and from God.

Harvard Economist Michael Sandel addresses the concept of wealth separating us in his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.  Sandel writes, “Great wealth creates a world so insulated, so protected, so luxurious that the rest of humanity is easily forgotten.”[3]  One of Sandel’s illustrations deals with sports and new stadiums with elite seating for the wealthy.  He calls it the “skyboxification” of American life.  Sports used to be democratic—we were all on the same level.  We could witness people from many walks of life gathered together to watch their favorite team.  Sure, seats may have varied by price.  But the difference wasn’t as stark as it is today.  Now club seats or skyboxes separate the wealthy to such an extent that there may be no interaction with other fans, with separate entrances and parking lots to have access to these exclusive areas.

Now my family had season tickets to the Cleveland Browns for 34 years, so I frequently attended games with my dad and grandpa.  They tried their best to direct my attention to the field exclusively so I wouldn’t see people around us getting drunk or fighting or yelling obscenities at the referees or the chaos that was the Dawg Pound.  Even though we had season tickets, we sat in our seats next to all sorts of people who came to see games in Cleveland from all over Northeast Ohio.  And interacting with and observing all these colorful fellow fans was part of the experience of a Cleveland Browns game (much to my dad and grandpa’s chagrin at times) and I loved every second of it.

It makes me think of a letter that was sent to the Browns in 1974.  A season ticket holder and his attorney complained that some of the fans near him were sailing paper airplanes made from the game programs and that this practice could cause serious eye injury.  The letter closed by stating, “Please be advised that since you are in a position to control or terminate such action on the part of fans, I will hold you responsible for any injury sustained by any person in my party attending one of your sporting events. It is hoped that this disrespectful and possibly dangerous activity will be terminated.”[4]

The response from the Browns is priceless.  Editing to not curse from the pulpit (even though cursing goes with the territory with Cleveland Browns football!)  One of the attorneys for the Browns organization responded to this complaint about paper airplanes by writing back to the attorney included on the original letter.  He wrote, “Attached is a letter that we received on November 19, 1974.  I feel that you should be aware that some [moron] is signing your name to stupid letters.  Very truly yours, James N. Bailey, General Counsel for the Cleveland Stadium Corporation.”

What this letter illustrates is the democratic nature of football, at least in the 1970s in Cleveland it would seem.  The message is get over the paper airplanes.  We’re glad that you’re a season ticket holder, but that doesn’t make you more special than anyone else attending the game.  Basically, get over yourself!  Wealth and privilege can separate us from one another and create a sense of entitlement.  Entitlement isn’t a great way of being in the world.  We especially can’t excuse these attitudes given the immoral business practices we’ve seen in our financial sector in recent years and the elitism represented by the “skyboxification” of American life in general.

Wealth can create a sense of entitlement and isolate us from one another and that’s when it gets dangerous.  Because then we can all too easily ignore human suffering.  Out of sight, out of mind.  That’s why Jesus challenged the rich man that he encountered.  Questioning are you or will you use your money to help those in need or are you keeping it all for yourself?  Maybe that’s the question Jesus is posing to all of us.  It’s like the scenario we often hear during stewardship season in churches: if someone were to look at our checkbooks or online bank accounts, would they be able to tell that we’re Christians?  How we spend our money matters.  And how we spend our money says something about who we are and what we prioritize in our lives.

When Jesus and the rich man have this conversation in Mark’s Gospel, it ends abruptly.  It’s uncomfortable to talk about money!  The rich man is shocked by what Jesus says to him—sell all my hard-earned possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow you?  He goes away grieving.  He doesn’t like what Jesus has to say, so he kinda takes his ball and goes home.  What if he had stayed and continued to engage with Jesus?  What if he had said, “Jesus, I don’t know that I can do what you’re asking because I’ve got lots of money.  But I want to follow you because your teachings, and well, you, are touching my life.  Can you help me understand what it is about my wealth that’s preventing me from connecting with other people and holding me back from this relationship with you?”

The great Quaker teacher Parker Palmer once wrote, “When the going gets rough, turn to wonder.”  When we encounter something that’s uncomfortable or brings up some strong feelings inside of us, it’s helpful to ask: why am I reacting this way?  What’s this reaction teaching me about how I work?   Why does this person see the world so differently?  Instead of getting judgmental or defensive or taking that ball and going home, we can turn to wonder and deeply listen to the experiences of others.

The hopeful note in Mark’s Gospel is that we’re not in this alone.  After the rich man goes away grieving, the disciples ask Jesus, “Then who can be saved?”  Jesus reminds them, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”[5]  We get ourselves into trouble when we think that we can go it alone.  If there are problems in our lives, we can single handedly fix everything.  There’s an underlying message in this story about wealth and priorities found in Mark’s Gospel that we can’t forget about God.  We can’t forget that God is at work within us and among us.  Without God we’re not going to easily deal with the weight of the world, doesn’t even matter if we’re rich or poor or somewhere in the middle.

God calls us to meaningful lives.  To a life of examining our priorities and what actually matters.  Because can anyone inherit eternal life?  This isn’t like a beloved family member’s set of silver or curio cabinet or china that gets passed down generations.  Maybe our job is to receive the grace that is freely given because there isn’t a way to inherit the Kingdom of God no matter how much we try.  When we live into this freedom that we can’t build up our own accomplishments and somehow earn rewards from God, then we feel gratitude.  Because it’s not about us, it’s about God.

God knows that we separate ourselves from God, from one another, and from our best selves.  God forgives us.  God loves us back into wholeness and helps us examine our priorities to live lives of meaning and purpose.  And when we feel genuine gratitude for God loving us into new life, we can’t help but see people as God sees us.  With eyes full of compassion: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”  Can’t we do that too?  Can’t we respond by giving away some of our resources, not because we’re guilt tripped into it but because we’re grateful?  May it be so with us.  And thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 10: 17 and 20-21, NRSV.
[2] Mark 10:21.
[3] Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, 164.
[4] “Absolutely Epic 1974 from Cleveland Browns to a Fan,” http://www.clevescene.com/64-and-counting/archives/2010/12/22/absolutely-epic-1974-letter-from-cleveland-browns-to-a-fan
[5] Mark 10:26-27.