Mark 10:17-31 – Sermon for Special Vestry
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight O Lord, our rock and our redeemer…
Well, what a gospel reading to have on the day I’m preaching about our special vestry. Sell what you own and give the money to the poor and come and follow me. This sermon should write itself. But unfortunately for me, and maybe you, it didn’t, and that’s not where we’re going to leave this.
This piece of text is quite an interesting one, because it’s one of the oft-quoted texts of the Bible, with the camel going through the eye of the needle; and there have been lots of ways people have interpreted this text. From pseudo-historical tales of the eye of the needle being a small door in a larger gate into Jerusalem where the camels would have to be unpacked before entering in, a testament to the idea that we must divest ourselves of material goods before entering the kingdom of heaven. To a completely metaphorical approach that states Jesus didn’t really mean what he said at all. This wasn’t about wealth, but about the inability of the human person to merit salvation and our dependence on God’s mercy alone. Now both the more tangible and the more philosophical approaches have appeal, and not least for some people because they are easily manipulated.
But I think the problem with taking such a narrow view is that we miss a lot of what Jesus is trying to say. This is not about parsing our strictures against material goods, nor is it an exercise in metaphor. Mark, and Jesus, are telling a story. And a story is so much more than those interpretations. Because this story is, yes, metaphorical, but it is also very real and tangible. Jesus is never speaking only in parable and imagery because he wants to make it interesting for us thousands of years later to find the symbolism. He’s speaking this way because a story has the power to explain real theological and socio-political issues in ways that are easier to understand and memorable enough to pass on.
Because what Jesus is talking about here isn’t this one individual man, he’s talking about how we build the kingdom.
See, it’s very easy to interpret this passage as about us as individuals. This is exactly what the rich man himself is doing. Good teacher, he says, what must I do to inherit eternal life? But what he’s really asking is what am I owed? And I say that because I know this rich man very well. I am him a lot of the time. There have been many prayers I’ve sent up to God saying, okay, I’ve done all this work, now how do we make this happen? Give me these things I want because I’ve been good. I want God to acknowledge me and give me a gold star and maybe speed up the Bishop on her decision and make more people like me and whatever else I’m feeling insecure about.
But that’s all about me. I, like the rich man, am following these commandments in the hopes that I’ll win some sort of bargaining match with God. And what does Jesus do when presented with the rich man’s assertion that he has followed all the commandments since his youth? He tells him, but that’s not enough. You must give up everything you own, and come and follow me, and the man walks away, lamenting his possessions.
Our individual wealth, our individual salvation, that’s the message we often get from this. But I don’t think that is what is going on here. I think that this text fits into a much larger story that
Jesus is telling about the kingdom. And that kingdom is not about me, it’s about us. This passage isn’t about individuals, it’s about community. It’s about what we think we’re owed versus what we are willing to give.
We’re going into special vestry in a couple of weeks, and we’re going to be asked to have a conversation about the future of St James Westminster. And that conversation is going to be hard, because there is a lot at stake here. But this is the question we must ask ourselves before we have that conversation: are we owed this community? Or is it our gift to the building of the kingdom?
We can be the rich man and we can talk about the wonderful, storied history of this church and this faith community. We can speak about all the ways in which we have enriched and developed Wortley Village and the London area. We can talk about the decline in membership and the deepening chasm between faithful Sunday worshippers and the spiritual but not religious, the old guard and the new generations. And we can ask ourselves, what does this neighbourhood, what does this community owe us? What do the future generations of Anglicans owe us? How can we get them to give us what we need to support this beautiful church and this faithful community in continuing to worship the way we always have?
And that’s the way a lot of churches will have this conversation. How can we get new people to buy into our way of life? How can we get them to appreciate our hard work, our long-standing traditions?
And, please, hear what I am saying, I am a cradle Anglican, the third generation of Anglicans in my family. I love our church, our prayer books, our hymns, our theology, our way of being church with all my heart. So I understand the need for it to be appreciated, to be passed along. I want this church to be here for my own future children.
But my children, your children and grandchildren, they aren’t shaped by the same narratives as we are. They are made for their own time. They are the gift of the future, not the property of the past.
Society is changing, yes that is true. And the church can no longer hold back the tides. But this is not a shift of preferences. This isn’t about changing up the instrumentation to guitars and drums or creating more contemporary aesthetics. The changes of society are ideological, and they are important to how we engage with new seekers, young families, and our youth.
The ways in which younger generations participate in community, how they shape their identities, how they interact with tradition and knowledge and wisdom, these are all changing. Technology is one way this is happening, and it’s not just that we’re all on our phones ignoring each other. Our phones are changing the way we think of connection and relationship, the ways in which we gather and interpret information, and how we find and relate to mentors and teachers. And that’s just one example among many of the differences we have to recognize.
What Jesus is asking of the rich man, what he’s asking of us, is what can we give to the building of the kingdom? What are we willing to let go, not for the sake of letting go, but for others to pick up? What are we willing to gift to the future generations? How can we love this church so much that we can hold it lightly, gently, and joyfully pass it on to new stewards who will find new ways of expressing the gospel, new interpretations of liturgy, and new ways of connecting to God and each other.