Sunday, October 14, 2012

Eye of the Needle (Mark 10:17-31)

There are two important strands to pull from the last part of this pasage for folks who live here in the United States.

The first is that when Jesus talks about it being hard for the rich to get into heaven, he means most of us. Not many people will admit they're rich or even think of themselves as rich. Partly that's because of some of the people who do admit they're rich. Who wants to be identified with Paris Hilton or Donald Trump? They bring to mind the old Jewish saying that if you want to know what God thinks of money, look who He gives it to.

And partly because we don't really understand how good we've got it in the USA. More than 60 percent of the homes in the US where the annual income was under $20,000 owned more than one television. Almost a third of the poor families in America own two or more vehicles. Compare that with most of the rest of the world, where owning a car or even a single television set is beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest in the country.

Or put it in historical terms. I see people who come into the local food bank where our church serves each month who have smart-phones and bluetooth headsets. That doesn't mean they're not really poor; who knows what their circumstances are? But they own things that Howard Hughes, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford could never buy, because they hadn't been invented yet. The reality is that living in America in the 21st century almost automatically makes us rich, which means Jesus is talking about us when he says it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to get to heaven.

The reason's not hard to see. Wealth is a tool for getting things done or getting things we want. People who have more wealth can do more things. They can move. They can upgrade their cars. They can hire lawyers or doctors who help them if they make mistakes. A wealthy young woman who has a baby out of wedlock can hire nannies to help her care for her child while she finishes school or goes to work. A nanny who has a baby out of wedlock probably has to quit her job and may have to go on public assistance or drop out of school.

But the more we rely on our own abilities and qualities such as wealth, or maybe fame or power or intelligence, the less we will tend to rely on God's grace. It's not so much conscious as it is a way of thinking that infiltrates much of our lives. Very few wealthy people would say they could buy God's grace. But their unconscious assumption is that their sin is something they can handle, because they've been able to handle anything else that's come their way. It takes a lot of prayer and discipline and effort -- and maybe even more grace than usual -- to depend on God for salvation.

The other strand to pull from this part of the story is this. We, having read this story many times, understand that rich folks have a problem with entering heaven, according to Jesus' words. During his time, though, wealth was seen as a sign of God's favor. If you had money and good health, that meant that you were a good person and God liked you. If you were poor and sick or handicapped, that meant God was punishing you for your sin. In other words, the rich were considered more or less a lock for heaven. God already liked them!

Not so, Jesus, says. They're not a lock at all! In fact, camels can go through needles more easily than rich people can get to heaven! Some folks suggest that Jesus was referring to a particular small gate in Jerusalem's wall called the Needle that you could only get your camel through if you were willing to leave some of the animal scraped off along the sides. Maybe, but it seems more likely to me that Jesus was using a figure of speech designed to show something impossible.

Look at the reaction of the people: Who then can be saved? If the folks who are supposed to have the inside track don't make it, who does?

Reframe his words. Think of the people you believe are locks for heaven. It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for Billy Graham to get into heaven. It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for Mother Teresa to get into heaven. The idea is that we can't get to heaven based on any of our own abilities, qualities or good works. Graham and Mother Teresa would probably agree they couldn't get in on their own. Their good works weren't their path to heaven. They're a part of a lifetime of thanks that God's grace is available to do what they can't.

But remember how Jesus closes the saying: What is impossible for people is possible for God. So if God wants to thread his needle, he can tell the camel to hold the thread in its mouth. And if he wants us to be with him in the life to come, he will use the immensity of his loving grace to make it possible. In spite of our efforts to the contrary.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Faith Like a Child (Mark 10:13-16)

Jesus says important words here, and not just about how much he loves and values children. But if we are not careful, we will miss the full impact of his message in a rush to make a sentimental and sappy greeting card moment out of it.

You've probably heard, like I have, that Jesus' words mean we should come with the kind of unquestioning and simple faith that children have. Now, my only prolonged exposure to childhood was my own, so those of you who know more than me can snicker quietly if you like. But my experience with kids is that they are anything but unquestioning. Preschoolers say "why?" almost as much as they say "mine!" As they age, their sentence length may expand, but they still question many more things than we do as adults. So I don't think that works.

But here's something that occurred to me when I was trying to figure out what kind of faith children had that Jesus might be talking about. Think if some times when children show their trust.

One of the earliest is when they learn to walk. We've all forgotten how utterly mind-blowing that little skill can be. Walking is actually a controlled fall repeated over and over again. We tip our center of gravity forward so that it moves forward and we move with it. But the ultimate end of tipping our center of gravity forward is falling on our faces. Unless, of course, we catch ourselves. Which we do, by putting our leg out in front. But we then use that leg as a lever to keep moving forward in yet another fall, until we catch ourselves with the other leg, and so on and so on. It works for the Winter Warlock, it works for us.

Even though we're short when we learn this, we still don't like falling, so we're apprehensive about it. So mom or dad or grandma or grandpa has to hold out their hands, saying, "Come on, come to mama" to encourage us, and we see their outstretched arms and smiling faces as a reassurance they will catch us if we do overbalance and start to fall. We trust them and their presence in front of us.

The same thing happens when we learn to jump off the side of the pool into their arms. The pool is of course the size of every ocean combined and waiting to slurp up little kids as soon as they get in and get water in their noses. But again, someone is there assuring us we will be caught and safe when we jump in.

I know many folks had rotten experiences with their parents and what I'm describing didn't happen for them, but I think we can recognize the ideal that I'm describing. Little children take their steps or make their leaps because there is a presence they can see and hear that they trust.

But then comes another kind of trust. I learned to ride my bike without training wheels in the back yard. It was softer than the driveway. And this was about 1971 or thereabouts, so helmet schmelmet. My dad ran along behind me, holding the bike upright and telling me I could do it, and then at one point  turned around and he wasn't there and I was indeed riding my bike without wheels or any other help. I unbalanced because I turned around and immediately I crashed, but I had done it just as he said. He didn't explain anything about the laws of momentum and physics that made it possible, but he gave me his promise that I could do it. Even though he wasn't present like he was when I walked or when I was on the side of the pool, I still had his promise.

Now later on we don't trust our parents so much, but that's just because they get so dumb about when we turn 15 and they don't smarten back up until we're about 25 or so. As little children, we trust their presence and their promise.

Of course we can trust God when we feel his presence. At a recent continuing education event, I was in worship with 2,000 people and a 150-voice choir and a full orchestra, and when we sang the hymn, you can be darn sure I felt the presence of God.

But in tragedy or in sorrow, we might not feel that presence. We may feel depression, or despair, or anger or any on of a thousand other things, but we don't feel God. It's then we have to trust his promise that he has not abandoned us and is always with us. He doesn't explain what happened or elaborate on all the whys, but he promises he is still with us.

That's not easy. But the more I live a life of faith, the more I come to realize I not only believe that promise, I've come to depend on it. No one, Christians least of all, can look at this world and say it's what it should be, and because there are so many places where it seems God is absent, I lean back more and more on that promise that he made to us in the bread and the cup -- that he is always with us, even to death and what comes after.