Sunday, October 10, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Twentienth Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 21:05; sermon starts around 28:05)
Several weeks into my Peace Corps service, I was still waking up every morning and having to actively remind myself that I wasn’t in Nebraska anymore. By this point, I was living in our community-based training site on the eastern side of the island – we weren’t even done with training yet! – and I was already feeling ready to come home.
Don’t get me wrong – the Dominican Republic is a beautiful country, and at first I was really excited to be there. I remember riding in on the bus from the airport for the first time; I stared out the windows with my mouth hanging open, taking in the palm trees and the ocean and the brightly painted buildings and the merengue and bachata blasting from the radio. I was excited to try Dominican food, and to try out my Spanish skills talking with Dominican people, and just generally to immerse myself as much as I could in Dominican culture.
But a month or so in, the newness of everything I was experiencing had started to wear off – and I was tired. I was tired of speaking in Spanish all the time – it was exhausting! I was tired of eating beans and rice every day. I was tired of people always staring at me or standing too close to me. I was tired of it always being too hot or too wet or too loud. I was tired of constantly feeling out of step with the people around me. Sometimes I would even imagine to myself that this whole thing would turn out to be one huge prank: like a game show host would step out from behind a curtain and be like, “Surprise! You’re on Candid Camera!” and everyone would suddenly start speaking English and acting like “normal” people.
This struggle I was experiencing was culture shock. I knew going in that it was something I should expect, but I had no idea that this is what it would actually be like. “Shock” to me sounded like something quick and immediate – the surprise of different food and music and clothing, that sort of thing. But what I experienced instead was this sustained, stubborn, unrelenting differentness between what I expected and what I was experiencing. And it was differentness that went deeper than surface things like food or clothing.
Some of you may be familiar with this image of the iceberg – it’s often used as a metaphor for talking about cross-cultural interactions. Only a small part of the iceberg sticks out above the water; the rest of it is under the surface where you can’t see it. Similarly, with people, you can see many things on the surface: how they wear their hair, what language they speak, how they dance (badly, in my case); but there’s a lot more that you don’t see underneath – things they themselves might not even be aware of: their attitudes and assumptions about the world, their values and prejudices and experiences, their priorities and the things that are most important to them. And it’s down there, under the surface, that we often experience conflict.
In our gospel reading for today, I hear a couple of these icebergs crashing into one another. Jesus and his disciples are going about their business when a wealthy man runs up and kneels before Jesus and asks him a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It seems like a sincere question. The man assumes a humble position before Jesus and he’s already familiar with the commandments, since he has done his best to keep them for most of his life.
I don’t know what sort of thing this man expected Jesus to say – maybe he thought Jesus would tell him to go bathe in the Jordan, or to give up eating red meat, or just simply to follow him. Whatever he might have thought, he clearly wasn’t expecting Jesus to say to him: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor… and then come follow me.” Mark himself says that this man is “shocked.” It’s a kind of culture shock; this man is being confronted with the sustained, stubborn, unrelenting difference between his expectations about following Jesus and what following Jesus is actually like. He is realizing that, even though he’s tried to keep the letter of the law, under the surface, his deep values and priorities are still in conflict with those of Jesus.
At the end of the day, this story isn’t about how much or how little stuff this guy has. This story is about what he has given his heart to. Even when Jesus remarks how difficult it will be for rich people to enter the kingdom of God, he‘s not saying that rich people are inherently evil – or even that riches themselves are inherently evil – but wealth tempts our hearts away from God, and the more riches you’ve got, the harder it tends to be.
And that’s why, even though most of us probably don’t think of ourselves as being all that rich, this story is for us too. And that includes Jesus’ uncompromising advice about what to do with the stuff we own. It’s a warning to us and a wakeup call about where our loyalties lie, about what we give our hearts to. Jesus knows the “thoughts and intentions of our hearts” as the writer of Hebrews phrases it. Jesus sees our whole iceberg – above and below the water – and as with the wealthy man in the story, he sees where our priorities are in conflict with God’s priorities. And his response to the wealthy man cuts us to the heart and lays that conflict bare:
“Go. Sell what you own and give the money to the poor. And then come follow me.”
This is one of Jesus’ most difficult and discomforting teachings. We’re reluctant to even talk about money or wealth in the church, let alone in such a radical way as this. But I want you to notice this feeling of discomfort deep within yourself – to notice what’s happening below the surface for you – and stay with it for a moment. (It doesn’t feel great, does it?) This is that same culture shock that we were just talking about – the deep clash between our priorities and God’s priorities. And this feeling is important because it’s a sign of the struggle within us for our loyalty: our loyalty to God vs our loyalty to Mammon, or wealth/stuff. It is a very, very hard battle.
You’ve already heard the words of Jesus today – that for mortals this battle is impossible to win, but not for God – and I’ll remind you again of this good news in just a second (I promise!) – but first, I want us to sit with this discomfort, and not move on from it too quickly. I want you to feel it down there in the pit of your guts and know that this is not a battle any of us can opt out of. It’s a battle we need to fight, with whatever weapons we’ve got. Our weapons are the things that build us up in the life of discipleship, things like: prayer, worship, service to our neighbor, and other spiritual disciplines. But I think you can already guess what is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal for fighting this battle: letting go of your stuff. Giving away your money. It is the most effective tool we have in fighting this battle for our hearts, and yet it’s also the one that’s often hardest for us to use.
And in some ways, I think that this is an especially challenging teaching for those of us who are here; we’re already at least somewhat active in giving of our money and time and energy to the church. Yet it feels like more and more is demanded of us – and we might find ourselves crying out with the disciples, “Then who can be saved?” Then who has this figured out?? When is it enough?
But Jesus looks at us – with love – and says to us, “For mortals, it is impossible. But not for God; for God, all things are possible.” As hard as our struggle may be to keep God first in our hearts, it’s not a battle we have to fight on our own. Christ has suffered through the same trials – he knows the struggles we are facing even better than we do, and he is always there for us with boundless compassion and empathy. Christ wants us to choose him because he has already chosen us, once and forever. And he won’t stop fighting for us until our hearts belong to him completely.
Christ has our back. He doesn’t leave us stuck in that place of culture shock; instead he is continually calling us to work on our hearts, calling us to keep moving forward, so that little by little, we may find our way past the icebergs and into the kingdom of God.