Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, October 10, 2021

YEAR B 2021 pentecost 20

Pentecost 20, 2021
Amos 5:6-7,10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I want to start this morning by talking about something we don’t often talk about in the Episcopal Church.  That is, Prosperity Theology, or as it’s sometimes called, the Prosperity Gospel.  If you know what that is, feel free to zone out for a minute.  Basically, prosperity theology says that God financially blesses those who vigorously claim blessings and healings as part of a binding contract with God.  Most televangelists fall into this category.  Think Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, Oral Roberts, and so on.

In my younger days, I remember being home sick from school and watching some of these TV preachers, and a common refrain was that if you give them money, God will give you even more money in return.  It’s like a pyramid scheme right out in the open, with no effort to hide it.  But the most dangerous problem with prosperity theology—other than taking money from people who can’t afford to give it—is the implied connection between financial success and God’s blessing.  That is, you can tell God loves you if you have a lot of money.  And if you’re poor, well, that’s a sign that God doesn’t really care very much about you.

Now I’ve described all this in such a way that it sounds foreign to us, right?  I mean we don’t believe this kind of wacky stuff, do we?  Well . . . maybe not in so many words, but you can see it from here.  We all carry parts of this way of thinking, because we live in a country that is so profoundly influenced by the Protestant Work Ethic.  You know, the Lord helps those who help themselves, and all that.  It is part of our culture to think that when we are successful it is because God approves of us.  And the reverse of that is the deep dark secret of our times.  That people are unsuccessful and poor because God does not approve of them.

But we can tell all this isn’t true just by looking around.  Rich people don’t get rich because they have God’s approval.  Just think of Martin Shkreli who jacked up the price of HIV medications, or Bernie Madoff who stole people’s retirement money.  Or, on the other end, think of Mother Teresa, or the faithful poor people around the world.  Being rich does not imply God’s blessing, as though God controlled all the world’s money and doles it out to worthy recipients.  And being poor does not mean that God has somehow withheld blessings in your life as a punishment for not living up to God’s expectations.

We all naturally assume a correlation between financial success and God’s approval.  But if we step back a minute, we can see that this is not how life works.  And then we also have the upstanding law-abiding citizen side of things, which might include how often I go to church, or help out the local charities.  How many of the Commandments I keep or break.  Here again, we are thinking that we can earn God’s approval by our own efforts and actions.  If we behave, God will reward us.

The man who comes to Jesus in this gospel reading is a self-made man.  He has his money, and he follows the law.  He is doing everything just right, all on his own, and expects that he will also be able to earn his way into eternal life.  He thinks that God clearly approves of him because he has followed all the commandments, and you can tell God approves of him because of the fact that he is so wealthy, right?  He exemplifies prosperity theology long before the invention of the television.

But look at how he asks the question: What must I do to inherit eternal life?  What must I DO to INHERIT eternal life?  He’s got everything all backwards here.  What must I do?  It assumes there is some action I can perform that will get me the one thing I lack.  Gaining God’s love and acceptance is just a matter of finding out the thing God wants me to do so that God can reward me for doing it.  By my own efforts, and by keeping my nose to the grindstone, I can earn my way into eternal life.

And also, how about that word “inherit?”  That kind of gives away the game, doesn’t it?  Imagine talking to your parents or grandparents this way.  What must I do to inherit your house, mom?  What must I do to inherit your farm grandpa?  Is this how normal relationships work in our world?  I sure hope not!  To think that there is some action I can do that will twist someone’s will so that I might inherit something?  At its most basic level, this question assumes that my relative doesn’t love me enough just as I am.  That I must somehow become, or do something extraordinary in order to prove myself worthy of their love.

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing.”  And what is that one thing?  Tell me Jesus, what is that ONE THING I lack?  Is it one thing in addition to all the riches I have collected?  Is it one thing in addition to all the rules I have followed in order to make myself acceptable?  No.  It’s instead of all the riches and the rules.  The one thing you lack, man who wants to inherit eternal life, is that you’ve been barking up the wrong tree the whole time.  In collecting and striving and relying on yourself you missed the whole point:  Salvation is a free gift from a loving God.
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.

Just stop with all the doing and collecting things.  Stop thinking you can somehow earn God’s love and approval.  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a self-made person to understand that they cannot save themself.  If you spend your whole life hoarding money and doing for yourself, and following the commandments by your own effort, well . . . good luck trying to accept that you cannot also earn God’s approval.  If you cannot set all that deserving aside and see that you cannot save yourself . . .

And the disciples were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”  Who can possibly do enough to get God to love them?  Who can possibly collect enough possessions to make grandpa include them in his will?  If even the rich folks can’t count on buying their way into heaven, how can anyone possibly be saved?  Well, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

We naturally think that our relationship with God is dependent on us.  On what we do, what we say, how we act, what we do with our money.  But it’s not.  Thank God it’s not!  Jesus loves each one of us unconditionally with no extra conditions.  You cannot earn your way into inheriting eternal life, and you cannot disqualify yourself from inheriting it either.  

If you want to try to inherit eternal life on your own, through your own efforts, by doing something, well . . . okay.  The first thing to do is to sell everything you have and give the money to the poor.  You can’t do that, can you?  Where would you live?  What would you eat?  What would happen to your kids and grandkids?  You can’t do it, can you?

Exactly!  There is just one thing you need to do by your own efforts to inherit eternal life.  And you can’t do it.  Perfect.

And this is where Jesus looks at you, and loves you, and says, you cannot earn what you already have.  You are loved beyond measure, and you have already inherited eternal life.  Stop trying to earn what has been given to you out of love, because you are precious in God’s sight.

And now, come into the banquet hall and share this meal with the saints of every time and every place, the ones who also did not earn their way into inheriting eternal life.  A meal where Jesus comes to us, freely offered with no strings attached, in the body of Christ, and the bread of heaven.  Another free gift from God, and the assurance of our salvation.


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