Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

Inheriting eternal life

Message preached October 11, 2015
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Mark 10:17-31

Order of Worship

Listen to this sermon (mp3)

             A small group was gathered in a suburban Chicago living room. This scripture lay before them, part of a Bible study I was leading. I was fresh out of college then, in the middle of a year of voluntary service. My needs were few, as were my obligations, so this scripture did not seem all that difficult. I do recall, however, one person in that small group many years ago really struggling with what Jesus had to say to the rich man. It wasn’t an intellectual battle he was fighting, trying to explain away the words and make them more palatable. No, dull as I may have been at that stage in my journey, pumped up with my own expertise as a “graduate,” I was aware that this man was truly grappling with whether or not he could follow Jesus.

            As we, today, turn to this story of our Lord, it would very easy to distance ourselves from the words, and allow the rich fellow in this episode to be a “straw man.” That is, we look at him as not being very real. He becomes to us an “object lesson” in what not to do, someone we can tear down by simply pulling out his “straw,” because that’s all that we see inside of him. He is, after all, a “rich” man, and everybody knows how shallow rich people can be. Not like the rest of us poor folks who have to scrape by paycheck to paycheck... See how easy it is to write this guy off? And if we can write him off, we can do the same with his question.

            “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” That’s what he asked Jesus. Now, maybe what he was seeking had some similarity to those Egyptians kings of old who were so concerned with life after death that they built elaborate pyramids with which to equip themselves for the next world when they died. However, I’m not sure that was really what this rich man was asking of Jesus.

            Life can change before we know it. There were moments the other week during my visit with my son Mitch, when I would look at this man beside me and remember the boy he once was not all that long ago. In the blink of an eye, or so it seems, he grew up. Same with the little girl I once put on the yellow school bus. Can you believe she is a college senior now? I recall realizing even then how quickly life was slipping by. I wanted to grab it, and hold it to my breast, and savor the moments before they flew off. Still do. But such things cannot be held, can they? They pass, and the older we get the quicker they go.

            “Eternal life,” and what to do in order to latch onto it, is not just a question which concerns us only as we approach death. A favorite author of mine once wrote, “we think of Eternal Life, if we think of it at all, as what happens when life ends. We would do better to think of it as what happens when life begins” (F. Buechner, Wishful Thinking, p. 22). While “eternal life” is not just about pie-in-the-sky-after-you-die, it’s also much more than merely a happy, well-adjusted, productive kind of existence. You young people - for instance - are standing on a threshold in your journey, waiting for your “life” to begin - meaning, I guess, your turn at bat.

            It’s interesting that when we tell this Bible story, we bring in the element of youth. We call this fellow a rich “young” man. However, nowhere does it say anything about his age, other than that he had observed the commandments “since his youth,” that is, since the day of his bar mitzva when he consciously accepted the yoke of the law of Moses. Yes, he might have been a young guy, or the age of that man I encountered outside Chicago many years ago. He could’ve been my age, or yours. Every person in this room is at some critical juncture in life. The forks in the road we each face along the way may involve different decisions, but all are somehow connected to this question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” What we do now does have an impact upon the future. Our decisions matter. Each of us.

            I tell the story of my twentieth birthday, spent hiking the Appalachian Trail with a bunch of children from Camp Swatara. On that day I was fully aware that my teen years were now over, and I wondered what I had done with them. Where had they gone? Where was I now headed? It was a critical juncture in my life. Within a month of that day I would make one of the biggest shifts in my life up to that point. On that day there was a song I just couldn’t get out of my brain. No, it wasn’t a hymn or a song sung in church, though it could’ve been. That’s one reason we sing in church, you know. Over and over again, the words from these “songs and hymns and spiritual songs” sink into our memory, often to return at moments when we need them. Sometimes they come to bug us when we need to be bugged by a God who won’t leave us alone.

            Anyway, the tune came from a folk-rock group popular back then, Seals and Crofts. The key phrase from that song which would not let me go as I hiked along the crest of South mountain, was “we may never pass this way again...”  I wonder what song was bugging that rich man as he came to Jesus long, long ago. God was doing something in him, that’s for sure. Obviously, God had been “bugging” him, if you will, otherwise this fellow wouldn’t have come to Jesus that day.

            This is one of those stories, you know, in which we are given only a glimpse of another tale. We know that this fellow left Jesus disappointed. However, what happened to him afterward is not told. Who knows where the path of this person led from there? Don’t you think the song Jesus sang in response to his question continued to nag at him? I know, Jesus didn’t really sing, but humor me anyway. I imagine that fellow chewed on those words for a long time, as God continued to work on him. Just like God continues to work on us.

            Hearing what Jesus said to the rich man as if it were a song may be helpful for us as we deal with what should be a troubling scripture for us. After all, in the larger story of this globe at present, we are not the “poor folks.” The rest of the world sees us as the rich rulers. We have inherited great wealth just by virtue of being born here and not somewhere else. I don’t say that to induce guilt. It’s just the truth. We may not feel rich, with bills coming out of our ears, but in the bigger picture, folks, we are. Let’s be honest. Part of our current struggle revolves around our possessions possessing us, keeping us from hearing the Lord’s song. But our hearing can get blocked in other ways, you know.

            Jesus sang to that man a song about letting go of that which stops us from hearing and following. It’s a tune that continues to nag at us - as it should. Of course, we each hear it differently. Some of us dread the thought of having to move to another home some day. “We’ve got so much stuff up in the attic,” we might think. “I’d just as soon have someone come in and take it all away, as sort through it and have a yard sale.” All that “stuff” may no doubt be connected to memories of moments we don’t want to let go. Life is so short.

            Now, some of us may have taken an initial step in that direction this week and lightened the load a bit through yesterday’s church yard sale. By the same token, others of us may have added to that load by picking up some more stuff at the same event. Of course, the things we hold onto are not just what we pile in an attic. I didn’t want to let go of my little girl getting on the school bus only yesterday, so it seems, or of my son-now-a-man ready to start a career – maybe nearby, possibly far away… What are you having a hard time letting go? What is preventing you from hearing the Lord’s song?

            The truth is, we can’t take any of this with us - none of us - no matter how hard we try. It’s not just a matter of “money, money, money.” If that’s all you hear in this story, you haven’t yet heard the Lord’s song. It’s not merely about our possessions which, yes, can come to possess us. We can, after all, have a big yard sale and still miss the kingdom of God.

            We pity those who this week lost so much in the Carolina floods, or through the various disasters that preceded it this year. As we hear their stories, and hopefully respond with caring hearts and hands, the losses we grieve the most for them are such things as photo albums and other such irreplaceables. How should someone like that hear this scripture? They had their treasure taken from them. They didn’t give it up. Of course, the process for them of getting on with their lives will by necessity involve a lot of letting go. Either they let go at some point, or they hold on to the only thing they can hold onto - bitterness.

            You know, we will all leave this present life the same way we arrived. When Mandy and Mitch Roberts welcome their newborn child … excuse me, when Celeste greets her baby brother next February, he will arrive just as she did, in only his birthday suit. The Pharaohs of old didn’t get that you can’t take anything with you. All you’ve got is your birthday suit ... and your God.

             “Come, follow me,” Jesus sang to that rich man. “Let go and follow.” It was a simple song about holding onto to something better, about living in the presence of God, before whom we are all naked as the day we were born. That’s what Eternal Life is, you know - living in the presence of God. Some day, we will see face to face - this One who will wipe away every tear. Jesus calls us to live in that promise now. To follow him is to live today with the Lord as if this very moment were overflowing with eternity - which it is.

             What, however, is preventing us from hearing this song of Eternal Life, and stepping into it? Are there things we each need to let go? These may not be possessions. It may have nothing to do with money, or the “stuff” which clutters our homes. What are you holding onto that is keeping you from really following Jesus this very moment, from living in God’s presence today, from receiving Eternal Life now? ... Let it go, and come.

            In the story immediately before this account of the rich man (something Beth Kagarise read to us last week), Jesus said, “Let the little 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(Mark 10:14‑15). Do you hear the Lord’s song? You are that child. I imagine my Lord wanting to do with that rich man - and with all who recognize themselves in him - what he had just done with those children who came to him. Do you remember what that was? He took them in his arms and blessed them.

            Can you hear the Lord’s song? I invite you to let go of whatever is holding you back; let go of it and receive what God so abundantly wants to provide. Then come, follow Jesus.

©2015 (revised and reused from 2003) Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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