17As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Lutherans are Stingy with the Amens…
Give us your grace today
…because we so often fail to notice it.
…because we so often fail to make the mark
…because we need it, now.
Give us your grace today
And we will respond with grace.
Let’s sing today, ok?
Now, not all of you will know how to respond to these songs, but let’s see who does, ok?
And, Lutherans, this is not a time to be reserved, alright? Sing. Our own Blessed Martin Luther said that when you sing it’s like praying twice, so let’s sing, ok?
Easy one first. “Sing us a song, you’re the piano man, sing us a song tonight….”
So here’s a bet I’m willing to make. I’m willing to make that at most any restaurant, or any social club, if you start singing that song people will respond. They’ll gladly join in. And there are like a million key changes in that song, so no one except for St. Billy of the Joels sounds great singing that song, but they’ll sing it anyway.
How about this one, “Nibblin’ on sponge cake, watchin’ the sun bake. All of those tourists…”
St. Jimmy of the Buffetts, right. You responded. I heard once that Margaritaville is playing somewhere in the world at every moment. I don’t know if that’s verifiable, but I heard it’s true. And since we just sang some of it, it was absolutely true on a Sunday morning, which I think takes out the most unusual time bloc for that statistic.
One more song, ok? A little harder this time. “I see a little siloetto of a man…”
The new movie on Queen is about to come out, so I thought it’d be appropriate to throw some St. Freddy of the Mercury’s in there. That man was born to sing, and you agree, because you responded.
In The Empire Strikes Back Han Solo and Princess Leia have this whole scene at the end where he’s about to be frozen in carbonite and at the last minute she says to him, “I love you.” To which he says…anyone?
A line that Harrison Ford snuck in there because he felt that the line written for him didn’t sound like Han Solo.
Sometimes it’s all about how you respond. And there are some things that we are really good at giving a response to. Like music. We respond to music. Or how about, “The Lord be with you!” See, Lutherans love that. But I can tell not many of us are Episcopalians by heritage, because you’d have probably said, “And with thy spirit” there.
And there are some denominations who will pepper a church service with Amen! everywhere, right?
And then…there are Lutherans. I’ve mentioned this before, of course, but most Lutherans prefer the approving stare to the verbal Amen…we’re a bit stingy with our Amens.
Sometimes it’s all in how you respond, Beloved. Responses make or break things sometimes.
How you respond sets the scene, and it does in this Gospel reading for today, too, Beloved, though you may not have picked up on it.
See, Jesus is setting out on a journey, and the man comes up to him and says, “Good teacher…” which totally sounds like just a nice thing to say to our ears, right? But here’s the thing: you didn’t offer a greeting like that and not expect a similar greeting. He expected Jesus to say something complimentary about him, too.
But instead Jesus says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa…why are you calling me good? Only God is good.”
And in that response, friends, the scene is set, because Jesus makes something very clear to him, to anyone within ear shot, to us: Jesus isn’t going to play our little games of call and response, of quid pro quo, of mutual back scratching.
Because God doesn’t play those games, Beloved.
Then the man, undeterred, goes on to prove to Jesus how good he is: he follows all the commandments to the letter, and has his whole life.
Wait, let me rephrase that a bit because I’m not sure you heard me quite right. See, the man goes on to make an account to Jesus just how much he deserves praise, how much he deserves God’s good graces, how much he deserves this inheritance of eternal life.
And the scripture says, “Jesus looked at the man and loved him.” He loved him.
And because he loved him, get this please, because he loved him, Jesus gave the man a task that he could not do: “Go sell everything you have, and give the money to the poor, and then you will prove your worthiness…”
Oh friends, what a scene. Because I bet half of you are thinking, “Well, the man certainly could do that. He just chooses not to. Jesus told him what to do and he just can’t do it.” And the other half of you, if you’re like me, are kind of like, “Oh…that hits a bit too close to home…”
And I’m not sure, friends, if the man is grieved because he didn’t want to sell his things, or because he didn’t want to give the money he got from selling his things to the poor. See, I’ve heard this played out and preached on dozens of times, and each time, including the times I’ve done so, the focus is usually on the man’s attachment to his things.
But I wonder, friends, if perhaps we might not entertain the notion just a bit that the man’s problem isn’t his love for his things, but maybe his dislike for giving things to the poor.
Because, remember, this man has earned his way through life. He deserves it. But the poor…?
I notice a lack of Amens in here with that interpretation. I just wonder if it kind of hits close to home for us, me included, because we have been raised in and live in a meritocracy, friends. It’s what you taught your children. It’s what you’ve been taught.
And a meritocracy is all about getting, earning, what you deserve. The response to hard work, to good work, to right living, is, well, what this wealthy man lays out before Jesus.
But here’s the thing, Beloved. God does not work in a meritocracy. Grace has no place in a meritocracy, at least not for long, and in God’s economy the only currency is grace, Beloved.
Which is why Jesus gives the man something that he cannot do: so he will realize (and this is totally Lutheran) so he will realize that everything is God’s gift, even eternal life, even grace, and cannot be earned.
Earning God’s grace is about as possible as sticking a camel through the eye of a needle.
But here’s the thing, folks, for any of us holy rollers out there who smirk at the wealthy man’s answer because we’re like, “Oh, please…God doesn’t like people who brag. God likes the humble.”
By the way, I saw a meme the other day that said, “It’s not bragging if it’s true” which is absolutely wrong, people. And look, people tell me I brag all the time. In fact, someone not long ago was like, “You’re arrogant, you talk too much, and you’re not funny” and I was like, “Hold on a second…I’m very funny…” But it is totally bragging even if it’s true. If it’s not true it’s called “lying…”
But for all of us holy rollers out here who think that humility will earn God’s good graces, that somehow we have to be the most pious, that we have to be obedient but not talk about it, that we have to put other people in their places, but do it quietly, well…you’re not going to like Jesus’ response to Peter, then.
Because this little scene is a lovely little grace sandwich, friends. Peter, who can’t just leave well-enough-alone to borrow a phrase from my grandmother when I was talking too much or trying to be too funny, has to pipe up and say, “Hey Jesus, you know that whole sell everything and give the money to the poor thing? Well, we’ve totally done that to follow you! What that guy couldn’t do, we can! We deserve this abundant life thing.”
To which Jesus, who loves Peter too, I imagine pats him on the shoulder and says, “You’re so right, buddy. Except, you must know, that the last will be first, and the first need to be last my friend…”
Because if there’s one thing we know about Peter, he can’t not be first. So, because he loves him, Jesus gives him something he can’t do, either.
So he’ll know what it is to live off of a diet of grace.
See, friends, this is all good news for us, because we like to have the right responses in life. We like to know how to answer the question, totally in type. But this gets really tricky for us sometimes because things will come up in our lives that don’t fit the script, that don’t follow the notes, that don’t make any kind of sense.
Because sometimes the marriage ends in divorce. Because sometimes our kids get addicted. Sometimes we get addicted. Sometimes we do everything right, and still get the short end of the stick. Laid-off. Broken-heart. Sometimes that friend we thought would stick by us cuts us out. And sometimes we’re that friend.
Because sometimes we shove needles in our veins to stop feeling anymore, and sometimes we cut our veins just to feel something, by God. When I sit down with our Confirmands for coffee at the end of the year and ask them what youth their age are struggling with, the top answer for the last two years running has been feeling the unending pressure to succeed and be the best and…and…
And into that tortured reality where the right response doesn’t seem to come, God speaks a word of grace today to you. No matter where you fall on the spectrum: totally think you deserve it because of what you’ve accomplished, or totally think you deserve it for what you’ve sacrificed.
And that word of grace is, well, grace. Because we are loved.
Because in a world where we get all sorts of responses, God’s response to us is, again and again, grace. Grace we can’t earn, even though we try. Grace we can’t do enough to get, even though we secretly think we can.
Because while Lutherans are stingy with our Amens, which, by the way, literally means, “Let it be so,” God is not stingy with grace, Beloved.
And in the end, the first-born of all creation, Jesus, will end up at the end of the line standing between two criminals with his arms stretched out to them, inviting them into that eternal life. The cross is that final sign that God will not play our little games. Not our games of violence. Not our games of quid pro quo. Not our games of earning the good life.
God will die before God let’s us die thinking that we are anything but loved just for who we are. That’s God’s response.
And that, Beloved, is grace. And to that, whether your Lutheran or not, I think we can all say, “Amen.”