Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost 2021

Dates: October 3rd and 10th, 2021

Preacher: Pastor Ashley Rosa-Ruggieri

First Reading: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Psalm: Psalm 90:12-17

Second Reading: Hebrews 4:12-16

Gospel: Mark 10:17-31


When I was in second grade, my grandfather, who I called Papa, died. And soon after his death my Nana and I would go to different worship services at different churches, trying to find the one that fit us best. We visited quite a few, but one of them that I remember most vividly, was a church where I went to their Sunday School class. The teacher in the class had been notified by my Nana about my Papa's death, and so during a check-in time, she asked me some things I loved doing with him. I mentioned a few of things, like how we would eat peanut butter and bacon sandwiches or watch movies together, but my final favorite memory was that he would read me Harry Potter at night before I went to bed. The Sunday School teacher then looked right at me and said, “I am sorry to tell you that the Bible is against witchcraft and so since your grandfather read those books to you, he is now in hell.” I was eight years old. My Nana and I did not return to that church, and I went away feeling shocked and grieving...which are the same words used for the rich man in our story today. He went away feeling shocked and grieving.

The Gospel for today offers us a glimpse of one story in the life of the rich man, and so I want to focus on him today, but what do we know about him? First, and the most obvious, we know that he was rich. The story does not expand on what that means in societal context, or how rich he was, but we know that by the standards of those he was around, he was a rich man. Next, we know that he is a practicing Jewish man. When Jesus tells him that he should know the commandments: no murdering, no adultery, no stealing, no false witness, honor your parents, he responds that he has already done these since his youth. Realistically, that is impossible, no one could keep every commandment their whole life and never break even one. But, we can take from this statement that he was a faithful man, he followed the commandments as he was able.

The third thing we know about him is that Jesus had love for this man. Verse 21, where it says that Jesus “looked at him and loved him,” is the only time in the entire Gospel of Mark that the verb “to love” is used to describe how Jesus relates to a person. This is the only time in Mark that says anything even close to: “Jesus loved him.” This is not to say that Jesus did not love others, he did, but Mark made sure to include that verb in this story. Jesus had love for this rich man. Finally, we know that after Jesus tells the man to give up all his possessions and riches and come follow Jesus, the man walks away, shocked and grieving. And those are the four things we know about this man: he was rich, he was Jewish and faithful, he was loved by Jesus, and he walked away from today's story shocked and grieving. But, that is not the whole story of this man's life.

One thing that I love about Mark's Gospel is that it is usually very fast-paced, it keeps things moving, and that often means that when stories end in Mark's Gospel, that is not the actual end of the story. The best example of this is that the original ending of Mark shows the women at the tomb, hearing that Jesus is resurrected, and then running away, “full of terror and amazement,” and that they “said nothing to anyone” about what they had witnessed. The brilliant part about the Gospel ending this way is that we know, here and now, that the women running away in fear and amazement was not the end of the story. We know that because we are here, thousands of years later, worshiping God and proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus because the message did get out. Mark's Gospel likes to start and stop in the middle of the action. It leaves opportunities for those who read it to consider what happens after the story's abrupt end. Today, I want to consider what could have happened after this story in the life of the rich man.

One possibility is that this interaction with Jesus could have made the man hopeless. He could have said, well, since I can never make it into the kingdom of God as a rich man, there is no hope in trying to uphold these other laws either. Going this route, the man might abandon his faith, and go forward as a changed person, now unbelieving. Another path may have ended in bitterness after being told to give away his wealth. If this was where his life went next, he might hoard even more wealth, shrugging off the suggestions of Jesus and never sharing what he has with the community. One final possibility is that maybe the rich man walked away from this encounter, and changed his ways, as Jesus asked him to. Perhaps this change happened over time, it was a gradual shift in his mindset, and lifestyle. Going from his grieving and shock, into a place of newfound hope, and a vigor for sharing the Good News with others. This third possible path is the one that I think we are called to as Christians. There are teachings of Jesus that sometimes leave us shocked or grieving, but that does not mean that those teachings are meant to hold us back from loving our neighbors as we are called to do. Maybe this rich man found ways to share his wealth with the community, found ways to let go of his ties to only earthly things, found ways to share this same news with others who were in the same position of wealth that he was once in. Because of Jesus' other words in this passage, we know that any of these actions do not earn a spot in God's kingdom, only God can do that. And yet, this reminds me of a famous, and relevant Martin Luther quote that says, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.”

I started my sermon today with a personal story, of how I was told a horrible thing by a Sunday School teacher when I was young. If that was the end of the story someone knew about me, they may wonder whatever happened to me in relation to the church after that day. Did I leave it forever? Did I speak out against it? Did I find ways to understand the Bible better? Luckily for you all, you know where my story led. It led to me becoming a pastor, and finding a way that those fiction “books about witchcraft” taught me about love and relationship and storytelling. That incident at a random Sunday School happened to me nearly twenty years ago, and although I no longer respect the author of the series, I have since found ways that the story of and community around Harry Potter fits into my life, without the fear that I am damning myself to hell for enjoying a fiction series and the community around it. I like to think that the rich man from today's Gospel ended up in a similar place. Continuing the story past the context of this one event, and in the end going from shocked and grieving, to satisfied and giving. Thanks be to God.