Jesus tells the rich young man that he still lacks one thing, despite or because of all he has. Jesus offers a remedy: “go, sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me.” The rich young man goes away grieving. Christians, especially us rich ones, have been doing the same thing ever since. Mark 10:17-31 is a tough text, maybe the toughest.

Sunday morning, our pastor preached the best sermon I’ve ever heard on this text. For one thing, it was not the usual “letting the congregation off the hook” sermon. She still acknowledged that she didn’t expect anyone in the sanctuary to go out and follow Jesus’s instructions to the rich young man literally. (Maybe because most of us really aren’t sure what the next step, the “follow Jesus” step, would look like, concretely, if we did that.) But she didn’t leave out the challenge to trust and to transform embedded in Jesus’s instruction, either. Or the point that, while we might not all be called to the same challenges, each of us is being called to do something that demands actual change, away from self-centered self-absorption, and towards serving others, and trusting God.

the sermon begins about 16:00

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It is easy to fall for the idea that “church” is nothing but another check-box on the menu for some materialistic version of the American dream. As in: “Do you want that house in the suburbs and two cars and two kids with or without ‘religious affiliation’?” People think that “church” is mostly about finding something besides drugs for the kids to do after school, when it doesn’t conflict with soccer or swimming; or about making contacts that will help you narrow down where to get the car repaired and who to buy insurance from; or about “fitting in” and “being respectable.”

Admittedly, it’s us church-goers and self-described Christians who make that view of “church” easy to accept. Think of all the ways we are conventionally and respectably sinful: slothful and envious and proud and hateful of enemies and resentful of “betters” and contemptuous of “lessers” and hard on others and easy on ourselves. And I’m just speaking for myself here. Not even naming any famously terrible Christians, or going into corporate sins that rise to the level of criminality, or getting “the Crusades and the Inquisition” out of the cliché cupboard. Just pointing out that lots of us Christians contribute a lot to making that easy equation of “church” and “culture” as easy as it is.

But even in the face of all that, it’s hard to spend much time at church without feeling challenged to face up to those contradictions and inconsistencies, and to do something about them. It’s hard to hear people talk the talk and see people working on walking the walk, in real life, week after week after week without feeling SOME need to walk the walk oneself. And walking the walk, and feeling the need to walk the walk, is the kind of thing that grows on a person.

I know it’s unwise to underestimate the human power of denial. But still I can’t imagine that anyone can get involved in church without EVER coming face to face with Christ’s persistent challenge, and without realizing that the life we really want, the eternal kind of life we keep longing for, lies in the direction of rising to it. Unimaginable as that rising seems, at first.

With mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible.

Mark 10:27

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Image: “Solenostemon Henna (Coleus)” by Peaceloveandlilies, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons