Pivot: A Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday
All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, October 10, Thanksgiving
Sunday and the Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost.
Proper 28B: Job 23:1-9,16-17; Ps.
22.1-15; Heb 4.12-16; Mark 10:17-31
When he heard this, he was shocked and went away
grieving, for he had many possessions.
comes to us as a rude shock, especially if we were looking forward to
Thanksgiving Sunday as a time to be grateful for the abundance we enjoy, only
to hear Jesus say “It’s nice that you have good things, now give them all to the
poor and follow me”. Probably not the
message we were expecting to hear today, so we could probably be forgiven for
trying to use the traditional trick of assuming that Jesus isn’t really
speaking to us. I think there’s a
tendency, certainly one I’ll confess to, to assume that when Jesus has pointed
things to say in the gospels, he’s not really speaking to us. Surely Jesus is speaking to someone who
really needs to hear the unvarnished truth – tax collectors, or pharisees, yes,
but not me, not us, not us Anglicans.
as that side-step might be when convenient, I think today’s gospel reading from
Mark is a bullet that we simply can’t dodge.
First, there’s the anonymity of the man who comes to Jesus. Just like us, really, for didn’t we all come
here today to meet Jesus and hear what he has to say? Furthermore, he’s someone who wants to please
God, lead a good life, and be rewarded in heaven. Again, just like us, because it would be odd
if you came to church regularly but didn’t want to lead a good life and didn’t want
to. So this well-intentioned man serves
as a kind of mirror in which we glimpse our own faces, however uncomfortable
that might be.
To make the
rich man even more generic, even more mirror-like, unlike in St. Luke’s version
of this story he is not described as being a ruler. Thus we can’t say “well, this guy’s in a
higher tax bracket than me, so it doesn’t apply” because in looking at him,
Jesus seems to know the man’s one flaw, that his attachment to his “many
possessions” (Mk 10.22) will hold him back.
Sound uncomfortably familiar? Don’t
we have “many possessions”?
Most of us
have boxes, bins, garages and storage units full of possessions. Many of us are sitting in real estate that’s
insanely valued in an insane market, not to mention wealth portfolios and
pensions. Even those of us without these
things, those on fixed incomes, are wealthier and more privileged than most
people on this planet, and certainly we’re wealthier than most people who have ever
lived. As the biblical scholar Matt
Skinner notes, there is no getting out of this gospel lesson, no escape route,
not even wishful claims that there was a gate in Jerusalem called The
Needle that camels could squish through if they dropped some of their load. So, no, there’s no way we can pretend that
Jesus’ words don’t apply to us.
one thing.” This “one thing” that Jesus
focuses on is pulls this man out of the comfortable sphere of his own personal
piety and into the wider sphere of society and community that Jesus later
describes in the gospel reading as “the kingdom of God”. The
kingdom of God us social. To want to enter
the kingdom of God, we must be willing to enter a community of transformed and
transforming people, knowing that the entrance will cost and will change us.
The social values of the kingdom of God make
demands on us. As Christians and disciples,
we know that charity, the care of the poor, is one of the values of this
kingdom that we’re obliged to follow.
Many of Jesus’ teachings (Mt 25.31-46 is perhaps the most dramatic
example) tell us that God will judge us on how we care for the least among us. Most of us are comfortable with the idea of some
tithing, of donating a modest share of our wealth, but here Jesus takes
it to an extreme. His call to “sell what
you own, and give the money to the poor”, seems akin to the vows of poverty
required by monastic organizations. No
wonder the man is “shocked” and “grieving”.
I think that if Jesus fixed us with his gaze and told us to do the same,
we too would be “shocked” and “grieving”.
I think it’s
important for us to sit with this gospel reading for a while and acknowledge
our own shock and grief at our inability to be generous. There’s a word for this kind of
self-examination in our Christian tradition– repentance. Mark’s gospel practically begins with this
word. As soon as he is baptized, Jesus
baldly states what he is about: “The
time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near repent; and believe in the good news” (Mk
1.15). Repent here is used as part of a
pivot, away from the world (repent in Mark’s Greek, as is often said, means a
changing of the mind) and towards the good news of the kingdom of God coming
into being. Jesus here gives the man a
glimpse of what it means to accept this kingdom and the kind of transformation
it offers, but the man turns away in despair, unable to make the pivot, held
back by his old life.
The man isn’t
alone in his depair. Surely there’s
something of despair, mixed in with petulance, in Peter’s words to Jesus, “Look,
we’ve left everything to follow you”.
The disciples feel that they’ve made the necessary sacrifices, and to be
fair, they have walked away from families and livelihoods to follow Jesus, and
now Jesus is telling them that it’s impossible for humans to save themselves by
their own pious efforts. In one breath,
Jesus seems to say “give away all you have”, and in the next, he seems to say, “it
won’t be enough”. If we were there, surely we’d be grumbling
along with Peter and the disciples.
If we’re perplexed at this point, let’s recall
that this gospel story happens on a road, as Jesus is “setting out on a journey”
(Mk 1.17) – the Greek text simply says Jesus is setting out on the way. It’s not a random stroll. We know where this road goes. Three times in this part of Mark, Jesus
tells the disciples that he is going to Jerusalem, where he will be killed (Mk 8.27, 9.33,10.32). Seen in this context, Jesus’ invitation to
the rich man is a variant on “If any want to become my follower, let them take
up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8.34).
Sell your possessions and follow me is the same call to self-sacrifice,
and no wonder that the rich man remains at the side of the road, watching Jesus
go where he cannot go.
quote Matt Skinner, if the rich man is standing at the side of the road, he’s
in good company, because that’s where we are.
As Skinner writes, “You and I are beside the way … We watch. We
evaluate. We take a few steps in the right direction every now and then.
Sometimes we hide in the bushes and hope Jesus has forgotten our pledge to
We know that
Jesus is going to the place where we can’t go, to be the sacrifice that we can’t
be, to give what we can’t give, out of God’s love for us, the same love with
which he looked at the rich man, the same way that he looks at us. We are saved by love and grace, and for that
we are ever grateful.
At the same
time, sacrifice is in our DNA as disciples and as church. Sacrifice is part of the kingdom of God. We know that we are called to give, to care,
to help. We know that the story of the
Good Samaritan is always there to pull us back from our moments of complacent
and self-congratulatory holiness. We
know that we must hold our prosperity and security less tightly if we are to
reach out a hand to those around us. Indeed, how can we help others, if our hands
our firmly clutching out stuff? As Jesus promises his disciples, the way of
self-sacrifice, however timidly we take it, leads to rewards and blessings.
disciples, we never know when this sacrificial giving may be asked of us, but I
think we may recognize these moments when they come, and even be grateful for
them. Near my home in Barrie, a United
Church congregation was dwindling, and after years of struggle and waning
energies, they agreed to close, but in a way that had a profound impact on
their community. After selling the
building, they put the proceeds in a trust, and chose deserving local
charities, such as a women’s shelter, to receive funds from that trust That congregation could have gone on for
a few more years, perhaps, but instead they chose the way of the cross, and as
their final act, brought the kingdom of God a little nearer to those who desperately
churches, may find similar opportunities as we draw near to the end. For many
of us in a greying congregation there may be opportunities to plan our estates
or dispose of assets in such a way that we can be less encumbered as we follow
Jesus. Wherever we are in life, all of us can take a
moment to ask, how much further could we follow Jesus if we were less burdened
with the things we selfishly cling to. This
Thanksgiving weekend, I pray that we may be all more thankful for our call as
disciples, and less mindful of what sacrifices that call might ask of us.