Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23, Year B)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on October 12, 2003. 
Based on Mark 10:17-31 (Proper 23, Year B).

What if he’s serious? What if Jesus really does want us to sell everything and give the money to the poor? We’d all be in for quite a lifestyle change. And our upcoming rummage sale will be much bigger than we thought. Just back the moving van right up to the parish hall. Of course Jesus’ command is probably metaphorical. That’s what we tell ourselves and that’s how this passage tends to be preached in communities where people have a lot of things. It’s about a change of heart, not a change in lifestyle. So we’re safe. We don’t have to give up our car or our house or even our prized baseball card collection.

And certainly Jesus couldn’t have foreseen our complex free market system. Such a transfer of wealth would wreak havoc with the economy. Things would become destabilized. And if we gave all our money to the poor, wouldn’t they then become the rich ones? Would they then have to give the money back to us? It’s all very confusing if we start over-analyzing this passage so maybe we’re safer just ignoring it. But what if he’s serious?

Maybe St. Francis was right. Last week, we remembered Francis at the blessing of the animals out in the courtyard. But Francis stands for more than pet blessings and garden statues – you know, the one with the bird sitting on his shoulder. So maybe we more appropriately honor this remarkable servant of Christ by recalling his radical sacrifice and literal interpretation of this morning’s gospel reading. Francis did take Jesus at his word. He did take him seriously. He sold everything he owned and gave the money to the poor. And it wasn’t as if Francis was born into poverty. His family was wealthy, they were part of the nobility. So this was a major lifestyle change for the young man from Assisi. And again, if Jesus is serious, aren’t we supposed to do likewise? Is putting on the habit of a Franciscan monk or nun and taking a vow of poverty the only way to truly be a disciple of Christ?

This past week I reflected upon this passage over a cup of coffee at The Patio. That’s usually how I approach Scripture in preparation for Sunday’s sermon, armed with a cup of coffee. Preferably at a place with free refills. And as I was thinking about possessions and our relationship with wealth in the context of discipleship, I noticed a man at a table across the restaurant. Actually, first I heard this man and then I noticed him. He was a big guy probably in his forties and he spent most of the morning yakking on his cell phone. Loudly. Of course he was wearing a Yankee shirt. I’m not sure if he was speaking with a soon-to-be ex-wife or a brother but the refrain echoed again and again at increasing volumes: “You can’t touch the Cadillac, it’s in my name.” This didn’t seem like an appropriate time to interrupt him and suggest that he sell the car and give the proceeds to the poor. But I was tempted. Because this is exactly the attitude of possessiveness that Jesus speaks against. And we all have our own Cadillacs in one form or another. We all have possessions we grip tightly and have trouble letting go. This particular Cadillac was clearly being used as a weapon. And this is not what Jesus intends. Which is why he tells us to sell everything.

There are indeed conflicts between wealth and discipleship. Not because wealth is evil. The things we own are not sinful. But the conflict arises when our things distract us from serving God and serving others. Wealth conflicts with discipleship when it distances us from God. And if wealth is a stumbling block keeping us from God, it should be removed. But the first step is an awareness that money and things can come between us and God. And Jesus certainly gets our attention and raises our awareness in this encounter with the rich man.

Some may be called to the radical sacrifice of Francis. Most are not. But we’re all called to a wise and charitable stewardship of our possessions. Sometimes we succeed in this and sometimes we fail. Most of us live somewhere between the approaches of St. Francis and King Midas. We don’t give everything away yet neither do we horde our things at the expense of others.

The rich man in the story grieves as he leaves Jesus because he cannot abandon his comfortable life to follow Jesus. Yet Jesus still loves him and the invitation to discipleship remains extended, just as it is forever extended to you and me. We don’t have to become monks to follow Jesus but we do need to accept the fact that the Christian life is about radical sacrifice. And that when all is stripped away, the only real thing of value in this world is our relationship with the living God who creates us, redeems us, and sustains us.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003

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