Pentecost 20, Year B, Oct. 10, 2021 – Justice! and the Difficult road of discipleship

 Pentecost 20, Oct. 10, 2021(full size gallery)

A big Sunday for the Choir! First gathering of the choir since early March, 2020, over a year and a half. We also lost several members over that time. However, this year we have two new members and luckily the male and female voices line up.

This Sunday they sang on two standards early in the service – “O God, our help in ages past” plus “Sing praise to God”. The choir anthem was “Before thy throne, O God we kneel”. It is a hymn noting our faults and then asking for forgiveness – “For sins of heedless word and deed, For pride ambitious to succeed; For crafty trade and subtle snare To catch the simple unaware; For lives bereft of purpose high, Forgive, forgive, O Lord, we cry.

The stewardship series from continued after an address by Andrea last week.

An unsettled Sunday, mild but affected by an earlier rain. Definitely more leaves on the lawn.

We only had 13 in the church with another 8 online. Monday is a holiday (Indigenous Day, Columbus Day)

Today’s readings encourage us to work for justice, to release our attachment to things and to trust Jesus to form us into a people of compassion. The bulletin is here.

Amos decries Israel’s unjust treatment of the poor and oppressed. The author of Hebrews points out that only through Jesus will any of this be fully accomplished—as our apostle and high priest, he builds us into “God’s house.” In today’s gospel, Jesus advises a wealthy man who seeks God to obey God’s commandments and to detach from his possessions and focus fully on God. With God all things are possible!

Amos ministered to the northern kingdom of Israel during the height of its prosperity (760–750 BCE). Its wealth and power rested, however, upon injustice. In scripture, justice is more than the carrying out of abstract legal standards.

Justice is completed by the fulfillment of mutual responsibilities that arise from the particular relationships within the community, all founded on the basic bond between the covenant community and God. Injustice involves the use of power by the rich and the strong in disregard for the community.

From Amos – “Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground! They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. herefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; ”

Amos simple advice -“Seek good and not evil, that you may live; Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; ”

Still God offers life to the people if they will seek the Lord. They are to seek God, however, not by relying on God’s presence at religious shrines. They are to seek God by ensuring justice for all.

From Psalm 90 – This psalm faces squarely the dark realities of the human condition within the context of faith. It laments the shortness of human life and seeks God’s presence so the people may rejoice in all their days.

The Hebrews reading unites two summary points based on the author’s discussion about Jesus’ superiority to Moses and the similarity of the Israelites’ situation in the wilderness to that of Christian believers (3:1–4:11). The early Church saw itself as the new people of Israel in the wilderness, living between the time of the exodus and the time of entry into the promised land—the second coming.

God’s word probes the inmost part of our being to reveal our true nature. Yet, in case this warning discourages us, the author reminds us of the graciousness of Jesus, our high priest. Verses 14-16 emphasize Jesus’ solidarity with humanity. Like the high priest who annually made atonement by entering the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 16:1-19), Jesus “has passed through the heavens” (v. 14) to intercede for us. Because Jesus has gone before us, we can approach God’s throne without fear, confident of finding a merciful reception.

Mark’s account of the rich man in the Gospel centers on the difficulties of responding to the call to discipleship. This event illustrates Mark’s parable of the sower, in particular those who hear God’s word “but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing” (Mark 4:18). The focus is on God first. Thus Jesus rejects the word “good” for himself and redirects the man’s attention to God, the source of absolute goodness.

The man’s question reveals that he knows of his need for something more than a basic obedience to the commandments. Jesus’ response focuses on the root issue for the man’s conversion–his attachment to things. Jesus does not condemn material possessions, but urges detachment, freedom from “things” that allows for a more radical attachment to God.

Like many in Jesus’ world, the disciples believed that religious duties were easier for the wealthy than for the poor, and that God sent prosperity to the righteous and poverty to the wicked. Jesus’ teaching transcends these human limitations. He declares that eternal life comes to every human, rich or poor, only as God’s gift.

Jesus looks at his bewildered audience, then offers them good news. Of course it is impossible for human beings to overturn the established order, he says. But for God, the impossible is possible. Grace can penetrate even our mixed-up social injustices, and human beings can do astoundingly selfless things. When our efforts are joined with God’s, we receive a surprising divine power, past our understanding. “For God all things are possible” thus translates “for us all things are possible.”

David Lose, Lutheran minister and former seminary president always bring a unique and valuate perspective to the Gospel readings. Here is his take on the “Rich Young Ruler.”

“1) On how these stories work: It’s easy to think that this is somehow about a guy who lived a long, long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away?) who loved his wealth too much. But, as you and I know – but is still easy to forget or ignore, particularly when it comes to stories about wealth – Mark records this for his readers, both then and now. Which means this story is not nearly so much about this guy as it is us. So the questions that come to my mind are… What is Jesus asking both of us and from us in this story? What is Jesus hoping for us as this story is preached?

“2) On the narrative context of the story: Jesus is once again “on the way” (verse 17). In Mark, this is not merely “a journey” in general (per the NRSV), but rather represents the road to Jerusalem and the cross, post Transfiguration. So while Jesus’ demand of the man may seem extreme to us, it is certainly no less than the demand he places on himself, giving not just his wealth but his very life for the world, including this rich man.

“3) On the theological context and irony: The man asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life.” There’s a certain absurdity in this question, as you can’t do anything to inherit anything. You inherit things when someone dies. This pushes us to consider the significance of the cross and, for instance, Paul’s affirmation that we are “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17) – an astonishing confession! It also perhaps invites us to wonder if Jesus’ command – “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” – is less about eternal life – which you can only inherit, not merit or earn – and more about the character and caliber of his/our life now.

“4) On the description of this rich man: Everywhere else in Mark, when a person kneels down to beseech Jesus (verse 17), it is in regard to a request for healing, for him or herself or for someone else. Might Mark therefore view this scene as a healing and invite us to do the same? Looked at this way, Jesus words are not an impossible demand or Herculean test of faith or extreme requirement. Rather, they are a radical prescription to a deep-seated illness and need. (Somewhat relatedly, how does this observation about kneeling provide a lens by which to think about the ongoing, if more muted, controversy about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem? Pastor Angela Denker wrote a really insightful and wonderfully challenging piece in the Washington Post last fall that came to mind as I read this week’s Gospel.)

“5) An easily overlooked detail, especially during stewardship season: Notice that Jesus doesn’t simply ask the man to give away his wealth, but to give it to the poor (not the church either, mind you, but the poor) (verse 21). Implied is the importance of sharing in the hardships and need of one’s fellow human beings that is a requirement of life in the kingdom.

“6) One more easily overlooked detail: The rich man is not the only one who is shocked by Jesus’ pronouncement (verses 22, 26). So also are all those within earshot. Given that wealth was considered a sign of blessing in the first century (as well as, I’d argue, in the twenty-first), Jesus words to this man and his later statement about the difficulty the rich will have in entering the kingdom are alarming. While this reflects the very strong first-century worldview that sees wealth as evidence of blessing and poverty as evidence of curse or punishment, are our views today all that different? Do we not admire the rich and famous and often assume the best of them? What do terms like “deserving” or “working poor” – assuming that the rest of the poor do not work or are not deserving – say about our attitudes toward wealth and poverty.

“7) The heart of the matter: The one detail I simply cannot get away from is that Jesus looks at this man with love (verse 21). He does not treat him as insincere or mock him as self-righteous, but rather loves him. Every interpretation we may offer must therefore take seriously Jesus’ absolute regard and unconditional love for this man. And perhaps we should also ask, what does Jesus ask us out of love, even and perhaps especially when we may not hear it initially as particularly loving or attractive?”