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October 15, 2000
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

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

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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Just Looking

Have you ever go to a store to look around or get a few ideas? If you go to some department stores, you can plan on being ignored. But there are some stores where a clerk will very quickly find you and ask, "May I help you?" And you reply, "No thank you, just looking." Or perhaps you have ventured out just to get an idea of what was available in automobiles. No sooner do you begin looking around the lot when a sales person will be at you side asking, "May / help you. " Once again, your reply is, "No thank you, I'm just looking. "

We do a lot of looking in our society. We like the parade of homes, Mail of America, or the one stop super stores. It's fun to look.

"Just looking," means you are not ready to commit. You just want to look it, over, think it over, check it out, look into it... but it isn't time to make a decision. When you are in the "just looking" mode, you don't want people bugging you to commit. There are some stores where you can tell the clerk that you are just looking and they won't leave you alone. Know what I mean? You know those triangular "cheese head" Green Bay Packer football fans wear? I want one something like that only mine will say, 'Just looking!"

As I look around at contemporary Western Christianity, I see a lot of this 'just looking" attitude. Sometimes it isn't even intentional, it's just something we've taught and passed on generation after generation. A couple of examples:

// It never fails that in every church I've ever served, sooner or later something like this will happen. I am introduced to someone with words like this, "Have you met Pastor Jewell?" And the answer comes, "Why no, I haven't. Nice to meet you Pastor. I'm a member of your church!" Amazing! I had been at one church for six years and had never seen the guy who told me he was a "member" of the church. //

* Some years ago while working as a youth pastor, I became involved

with a bright, creative young man who had gotten involved in the drug scene. His parents were devastated. Eventually this kid wound up in juvenile detention where I went to visit him. Though he had been confirmed, he was only nominally Christian. That is, he got confirmed because, "My parents will kill me if I don't. " He had no real desire to be in the class and expressed his disinterest in things having to do with church or with Jesus Christ. To make a long story short, his troubles helped him wake up to spiritual things and to what he was going to do with his life.

 

When back at home, he told his parents he wanted to go into the ministry. His dad (who was a member of the church and on the Board of Trustees) called me and was furious. "I think this is your fault! We appreciate the fact that he got some help with the drug thing by talking to you, but this is going a little too far!"

The father was totally unaware just how much he was betraying his strange view of Christianity.

***

A number of year ago, I preached a sermon called, "Balconeers and Travelers." The idea came from a parable of sorts about how the church has two kinds of people in it. Some are like people who spend their days on the balcony of a grand hotel watching the travelers go by. Day after day, they watch. They never join the travelers and never go anywhere. They watch. The travelers on the other hand, are committed to the journey. They are on the road and actively involved in reaching a destination. They travel with other travelers and encourage each other along the way -- while the balconeers sit on the balcony and watch the travelers.

After worship that day a woman came through the line where I was greeting. She wore a significant scowl and barked, That was a very divisive sermon and I didn't appreciate it one bit!" If I recall correctly, she attended worship at least once a year in addition to Christmas and Easter.

// No doubt you've heard the one about the fellow who leaves church one morning and complains to the pastor, "I'm getting tired of singing the same old hymns. Every time I come, we're singing "Silent Night" or "Christ the Lord is Risen Todayl " //

***

Actually, the "just looking" phenomenon is not new at all. Our scripture lesson this morning is about a well to do, prominent young man on the fast track wants to make sure he has a place in heaven, so he comes to Jesus with his question. "What must I do to have eternal life?"

In the conversation that follows, it is clear that this is a young man who tries to live a good life and he wants to make sure , he is spiritually secure. He respects Jesus as a gifted teacher and waits for Jesus to say, 'You're doing great, just keep it up and you will have a place in heaven. "

Instead, the encounter with Jesus shocks everyone in the crowd. Jesus says in effect, "Your spiritual life can not simply be an outward thing -- a matter of doing good and observing your religion. It's got to come from deep inside, it has to be at the center of your life, it can't be window dressing. Here's the test -- give up your material approach to life, get rid of all your stuff and come and follow me!"

Christianity is not primarily a religion, it is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It is not an elective or an extra curricular part of life… it is the central issue!

***

Some time ago, a woman who was new to the community and to our church, came to my office to ask three questions. She had been attending worship and her two children were in Sunday School. Her husband was unchurched and although supportive of her involvement, wanted none for himself. Her questions were direct, to the point and very sincere. Her questions pointed to the fact that she had begun to realize that Christian faith is more that "just looking". There is a decision to be made... a commitment to engage. She was about to move from the balcony to the road. Her questions were:

1. How do you get on board?

2. How do you know if you are on board?

3. Can you get someone else on board?

Questions like these have come up in one form or another in every place I have ever served the church. It can be expressed as, "What is the basic, essential meaning of being a Christian?"

Her questions deserved an answer that was as simple and to the point as her questions and it was this: "The answer is as simple as A, B, C.   Awareness. Belief and Commitment.

I Awareness

Sooner or later, something in our life wakes us up or makes us aware of the fact that without the spiritual dimension of life, something is really missing. The stimulant for this awakening might be crisis or tragedy or boredom or emptiness ... but it hits us and we are set to questioning. "Where do I turn?" "What can help me when it's helpless?" "What is there that can bring meaning to all of this?"

It is at this point that our path, like the path of the young man in our gospel reading, crosses the path of Jesus Christ. We are brought to an awareness and ready to consider moving from the balcony to the road.

With everything Jesus came to say and do, the bottom line comes with his last three words to the successful, sincere, questioning young man in our reading from Mark.  "Come, follow me!"

II Belief  (Faith / Trust)

The word belief means literally to place your faith or trust in something.  It is an action word.  Jesus did not say to the young man, "I want you to accept the intellectual proposition that I am the incarnate Son of God - the second person of the trinity."  Following Jesus was not something the young man was supposed to think in his head, but a trust he should embrace in his heart.

To believe in Jesus for this man would have been to get rid of every possible barrier to his moving from the balcony to the highway.  For the rich young man, it meant letting go of his possessions and accepting a life of uncertainty and service to others.

III Commitment

The time came for the young man to commit.  It was time to follow or to return to his life as he knew it.  And pleased understand. This was not a, "move ahead or go back," proposition.  Once the young man encountered Jesus, his life would never be the same.  Even when he chooses his "old" life, it would not be the same.  He would always wonder what it might have been like to follow Christ -- to move off the balcony and on to the road -- to engage the journey which leads to spiritual fulfillment.

And notice this also -- when Jesus answered the young man, it was not with harsh judgment, but with compassion.

Jesus looking at him, loved him and said, ''You lack one thing, go sell what you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me."

Jesus' heart goes out to the man.  He is stuck in his life and is unable to break loose of that which holds him in bondage.  You could say that he does not possess his possessions - his possessions possess him!  He is shocked by Jesus' call to commitment and sadly goes away.  He would like to have his cake.  He would also like to eat his cake.

At least he is honest.  He can not make the commitment at this point in his life

***

It is important to understand that Jesus does not condemn the young man and he does not say that it is wrong to have possessions.  The critical key is that a commitment to follow Christ above all things is the center of our faith.  Whether it be our possessions, our values, our relationships, or our hopes and dreams, the essence of faith is the encounter with Christ, the placing our trust in him and a willingness to follow Christ above all else.

It's as simple -- and as difficult -- as A.  B.  C.


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

 

Connections in the Text

The texts take us through a kind of basic theology of sin and reconciliation.  The prophet points to everything we should be in light of God's righteousness and yet we fall amazingly short.  The epistle lifts up the word of God which is "living and active, sharper than any two edged sword," and which lays us naked before a righteous God. However, the source of our redemption is, "Jesus, the Son of God," who both understands our weakness and yet represents us as high priest before God.  The gospel reading portrays an outwardly righteous man who nevertheless misses the mark in terms of commitment to Christ.  Salvation, Jesus points out is impossible with mortals, but possible with God.  It is the throne of grace (Hebrews) that is the entry point for unrighteous mortals who depend on the grace of God for redemption and renewal.

Yet, there is a choice to be made.  The redemption is not some "auto-salvation" -- the wealthy young man must choose and commit to following Christ -- to discipleship.  The lessons provide an excellent opportunity to look at our "R.Q." or response quotient when it comes to arranging the priorities of our lives.

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Amos is one of the eighth century B.C. prophets and a part of the initial era of prophets in Israel.  Amos was a sheep herder and not a part of the prophetic band or the priestly class.  Yet, he shares with the eight century prophets a passionate call to proclaim the righteousness of God to a nation which was on the brink of fall from the economic good times.

Amos is particularly focused on how the wealthy oppress the poor and how justice is bought and sold. In the midst of this, Amos calls the people to choose.  "Seek the Lord and live!"  "Seek good and not evil!"  "Hate evil and love good!"  The call of Amos to righteousness is a drumbeat that thunders through his message.  The theme of Amos is personalized in a poignant way in Mark's story of the wealthy young man.

Mark 10:17-31

The call of Amos to the people of Israel becomes the call of Christ to the wealthy young man.  From all outward appearances, this young man is a "righteous" man.  He keeps the letter of the law and does his best to live a good life.  It is important to note that this is not a bad person!  Nevertheless, upon understanding that his spiritual life is dependent upon giving up his commitment to material things, he makes a choice.  His possessions will govern his principles!

Though this young man is a relatively "good" man.  His priorities carry within themselves the seeds of oppression.  Once his worldly goods govern his earthly actions, his spiritual life and values are in danger are in jeopardy. The "possessor" of this lesson can quickly become the "oppressor" of Amos' message.  It is not the possessions that are the "root of all evil" but the "love" of possessions.  (See 1 Timothy 6:10]

It would be good not too be too glib about the wealthy young man's dilemma.  Even Jesus disciples are stunned at Jesus response to the man. Riches were always a sign of God's blessing - now Jesus puts riches in the category of barrier to God!  "The who can be save."  In other words - "This man is not so different from us.  We have these inner struggles too!"  The disciples then point to their own giving up of house and home for the sake of Jesus' message.

They too will receive the heavenly treasure Jesus says.  Yet everything with God is upside down and inside out from earthly values.  With God, "Last is first and first is last."

Hebrews 4:12-16

The epistle contains some powerful concepts.

  • The word of God - living, active and sharp
  • Our high priest - Jesus the Son of God
  • Our high priest - sympathetic and tested as we are - yet without sin
  • An approachable throne of grace - where we receive mercy and grace in times of need

These serve as the ingredients of a lively life of faith.  The word of God is demonstrated as living, active and sharp in the prophets - especially Amos here.  Jesus the sympathetic high priest loves even the young man who will ultimately choose self over the savior.

There is a homiletical possibility in this passage for a message on, "Alienation to Reconciliation."  The word of God penetrates our resistance, the high priest brings about redemption and reconciliation and the result is access to the throne of grace where strength is found to make the critical choices.


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship

L: We rejoice and praise Your holy name today, O Lord,
P: Because you have kept us from a destructive path.
L: We give thanks because Your word gives us hope,
P: And we reflect on Your word at all times.
L: You are the Source of deep seated faith,
P: And our spirits are refreshed in your presence! Amen!

 

A Prayer of Confession

O Lord of compassion and mercy, we confess that one of Your greatest gifts to us has so often been the source of our greatest trials. You have given us the gift of choice. We can choose between right and wrong, between love and hate. We can take the high road or the low road. We can reach out in your name or we can retreat in the name of selfishness. O Great God of grace, help us to choose with clarity, compassion and commitment. Cleanse us from every wrong and give us the joy of making choices that bring honor to the name of Christ. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Dear friends, our Savior is more gracious than our hearts could ever believe.  Just at the time we were sinners, he died for us that we might have peace with God.  Believe the good news that in Jesus Christ we have forgiveness.  Amen.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

How wonderful it is O Lord, that you should call us your children.  You have given us the gift of life and of new life and have called us to hope and joy in your Son Jesus Christ.  We are blessed beyond our ability to conceive and gifted beyond our wildest imagination.

You have called us to be representatives of your love and grace and made us stewards of all you have to give to others.  It is sometimes hard for us to grasp just how much you have invested in us.  We have times when we simply can not believe that it is up to us

The hungry child.  The lonely teenager.  The homeless man.  The abused mother.  The broken heart...

All await the good news that can only come from your people.

O Lord God, we are humbled at your vision of our worth, challenged by the call of your Son and empowered by the gift of your Holy Spirit.

O help us not to miss our call, nor fall short of your kingdom's goal.

We give you thanks and praise today that you have called us to be more than onlookers in the business of your divine Kingdom!

Amen.

 

A Prayer of Dedication

As we bring these gifts to You, O God of light, we ask that Your Spirit open us up fully to all we can be through the love of Christ. Shine Your light within our hearts that we might see more clearly how You can change the world through the gifts we bring. Amen.