This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Howell, Michigan and was focused upon the story that is told in Mark 10:17-31. The sermon also references Isaiah 49:8-23. The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
Once, while Jesus was teaching the people, a lawyer asked him a question: “Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest?” And Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Love of God,
Love of neighbor — loving our neighbors as ourselves —
These two always go together.
We see this in the Gospel of Mark.
In fact, we see this quite a bit in the last two chapters of the Gospel of Mark — chapters 9 and 10.
Again and again, Jesus calls our attention to neighbors. Jesus calls our attention to the vulnerability of neighbors — inviting our own vulnerability. There, we find God in our midst; there, we find kinship in the midst of relationship with one another.
Perhaps you remember some of these stories from the last two chapters:
Jesus brings Peter, James, and John to a mountain by themselves, and while they’re there, something incredible happens. Jesus is transfigured before them, and they see Elijah and Moses speaking with him. Then they hear the voice of God, proclaiming that Jesus is the Beloved One to whom they should listen. They are amazed and afraid by this. It was a very sacred moment.
But then, coming down that mountain, they are immediately brought into a situation of great vulnerability. They meet the other disciples, and there is a crowd around them with some controversy. The scribes are arguing with the disciples, and when Jesus inquires about this, he learns that a father has come and presented his son, a boy who is struggling frequently with violent, convulsive seizures. Try as they might, the disciples cannot seem to heal the situation, and this is where they keep placing their focus — How do we heal this kind of situation? How do we cast it out? Jesus, puts his focus on the child himself, and in entering that vulnerability, and he brings healing.
But the disciples don’t understand.
As soon as they leave that place, they begin arguing with one another along the road about who is the greatest. When they arrive at a house in Capernaum, Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” and they are silent in response, knowing that they had turned their inquiry into a power play among themselves. That’s when Jesus calls their attention once more to vulnerability and love of their their most vulnerable neighbors. He places another child before them — again, a child — and he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
But the disciples still don’t understand.
In response to this, John immediately says, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” Jesus has invited them to relinquish dominance and hierarchy — who is the greatest? —toward vulnerability and love of neighbors. But again, John is interested in the hierarchy and a clear delineation of who is in the community and who is out.
Jesus says, “Do not stop him. . . whoever is not against us is for us.” Then Jesus draws their attention once more to the child before them, telling them not to put a stumbling-block “before these little ones who believe in me.”
But the disciples still don’t understand.
They leave that place and Jesus engages the crowds in some challenging teachings. Then people begin to bring children to Jesus so that he might bless them. But the disciples speak sternly, refusing their request. Yet once more, Jesus opens himself up to the vulnerability and worth of children, some of our most vulnerable neighbors. He says, “Let the children come to me; do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Jesus took these children up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Then we come to our passage today. This is the very next moment that follows. Will we, also disciples, get it? Or do we still not understand? Do we need Jesus to call our attention to vulnerability and our neighbors once more?
While Jesus and the disciples set out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him. And he asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” That’s a good question. Jesus places the commandments before this man. Perhaps he expected that, because he said, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” But then Jesus says the thing he might not have expected. The story says that Jesus loved him. Jesus loved him with these words: “You lack one thing. Go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” — your neighbors — “and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Jesus must have known that these possessions were a stumbling block before him and his neighbors. Maybe they kept them walled off and separated from his neighbors. Maybe they kept him in a place of believing he had more worth and value than his neighbors, or more of a right to power than his neighbors.
I wonder if Jesus was grieved by this too. He said to the disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” This can indeed be a stumbling block… love of wealth standing between us and a fuller love of God… love of wealth standing between us and a fuller love of neighbors, with neighbors, among neighbors, for neighbors. And now, Jesus calls his disciples ‘children.’ “Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God! It 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.”
The disciples are astounded by what Jesus says. Who knows? Maybe they are still thinking about the pathway of power and dominance. If a rich person who has kept the commandments struggles to enter the Kingdom of God, who can?
“Who then can be saved?” they asked Jesus, likely out of concern.
“For mortals it is impossible,” Jesus says, “but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Thank goodness. Thank God.
It’s interesting that Jesus says it will be hard to enter the Kingdom of God. He doesn’t say, it will be hard for people to attain the Kingdom of God, or earn the Kingdom of God, or possess the Kingdom of God.
It will be hard to enter the Kingdom of God. That involves movement on our part from one way of being to another — to enter this realm of God, this way of God, this community of God. We are challenged to enter a reality where the vulnerable are lifted up… to the point that we are called relinquish the pathway of power and dominance… to the point that we are called to welcome the vulnerable too — our vulnerable neighbors and the vulnerable parts of ourselves.
But thank goodness. Thank God. God often brings the Kingdom to us and us to the Kingdom.
After hearing all of this, the disciples realized that they had left everything. In fact, Peter says this. “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”
And here’s where Jesus says something powerful for them, and I hope it is powerful for us. I hope it is an invitation for us.
Jesus says, “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, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—” (those sometimes, come as well)
Jesus is not talking about possessions. He is talking about entering this Kingdom — that we are invited to give up particular ways of viewing our lives and viewing our relationships. Thank goodness, thank God, we are able to enter the Kingdom of God which is always also a Kin-dom of God, a way of living and a way of relating in which our neighbors are not possessions, and our possessions are not separating us from the needs of our neighbors.
But instead, in this Kin-dom, the most vulnerable among us become our fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers. Instead, in this Kin-dom, all vulnerable children — not just our own — become children of our concern. They become our very kin — those to whom we are related and no longer separated. They are indeed are never separated from us or what we have because everything belongs to God. Therefore, all things are for the building up of God’s people, our neighbors.
We talk a great deal of stewardship in church, and when we do, we talk about how we use our wealth. How are we good stewards of this? At those times, we say that none of this belongs to us. It all belongs to God.
Do we believe that? That’s challenging. I’m challenged by it.
But when we think about stewardship, how often do we think about stewardship of our relationships, or stewardship of being neighbors with one another — not only with those who are in this sanctuary but also those beyond the sanctuary?
Do we believe that we are in kinship with those who are vulnerable? Those who experience poverty and homelessness? Those whose families are torn apart? Those who are incarcerated? Those experience violence, including violence in their homes, violence in their neighborhoods, and violence by the state? Those who are abused? Those who have disabilities? Those who have challenging diagnoses? Those who are stigmatized? Those who are kept out of view, yet human among us?
Do we believe that we are called into kinship with these vulnerable neighbors, or perhaps those vulnerable parts of ourselves that are hard to name? Can we allow people to be in kinship with those parts of ourselves?
I wonder what would happen if stewardship were about building down the church — not destroying the church, but building it down — away from power, dominance, and hierarchy toward kinship in vulnerability.
I wonder what would happen if stewardship were about building the church outward — expanding what our faith community looks like, not only about a building and membership, but a larger since of kinship and family with neighbors beyond this place.
What would that look like?
I remember this: Nothing is impossible with God. And perhaps it is God calling us into this way of life — love of God, love of neighbor — calling us, thank goodness, thank God, to enter this Kingdom, which is always a Kin-dom.