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First and Last

Message for August 9, 2020

Text: Mark 10:17-31

On scanning this passage, I did what I’ve at times encouraged you to do, and I took notice of the repetitions. I was so struck by one such instance that I double-checked my Greek New Testament just to be sure it was there in the original text. There is, indeed, a verb that is repeated three times in this passage; it is translated “look” (the Common English Bible twice translates it “look carefully”). It is what Jesus does in this story: he looks (carefully) — first at the rich young man, and on the second and third times at his disciples — he looks at them, before he says something really difficult. He “looks carefully” before saying:

  • Sell what you own, give it to the poor, and come, follow me
  • It will be very hard for the wealthy to inherit God’s kingdom
  • It’s impossible with human beings, but all things are possible with God

I am reminded of the admonition, which we’ve all heard at one time or another, to “think before you speak,” and I imagine that that is what Jesus is doing here, with Mark’s chosen turn of phrase. The Greek word is literally translated “to look into” or “to stare.” I imagine Jesus “looking carefully” — into this young man’s heart, and into the hearts of his disciples, pausing to consider if they are ready to hear what he has to say. It’s a searching sort of “looking” — and a loving one. 

(As I write this sermon, I realize, ironically, that I won’t have the benefit of “looking” into the eyes of you who will be listening to these words. I have been taking my cues from the conversations I’ve had with our Wednesday Zoom group, as we have watched together and then discussed presentations that have been coming from our denomination around its “dismantling racism” initiative. I also am taking direction from time spent in prayer. I hope that my “heart searching” is making a meaningful connection that is relevant for us today.)

As listeners to these challenging words from Jesus, spoken to this young inquirer and to his disciples, I think we would do well to imagine that Jesus is looking equally deeply and lovingly into our hearts as he says these things to us. It is with our very best interests at heart that Jesus calls us to responsibility for the poor and disenfranchised, that Jesus calls us to let go of our worldly preoccupations concerning the acquisition of money and power, that Jesus calls us to follow him.

Another thing I notice in this passage — and it’s a pattern I find frequently in the gospels — is that, in this “careful looking,” Jesus is answering questions, or addressing subjects, that those talking with him don’t think they are bringing up. The young man asks, “what can I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus responds with an “answer” about how to “have treasure in heaven.” It’s not exactly the same thing. Upon hearing Jesus’ shocking words about how difficult it will be for the wealthy “to enter God’s kingdom,” the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” and Jesus’ “answer” is about human impossibility and divine possibility. Then Peter points out that he and his pals (in contrast to the young man they’ve just witnessed) have left everything to follow Jesus — the unspoken question being “so what ‘treasure’ will we receive?”) and Jesus gives a cryptic answer about “harassment” (often translated “persecutions”) and the equally cryptic summation: “Many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.” Again, these are not, strictly, direct “answers” to the subjects raised by the conversation partners. They cause us to consider the motivations of the persons speaking to Jesus, and to notice how Jesus redirects them toward nobler ends. Instead of speaking to what they think they “want,” he addresses what they really need. For the rich young man, the question should not be “how do I assure a good life in the world to come?” but how does one experience the richness of life both then and in the here and now. For Peter and the disciples, Jesus shifts their focus from the “status” benefits of following him to the intrinsic value of humility, and reminds them that we are all living in a state of grace, that the power for healing, restoration, salvation, comes from God alone.

In these encounters, Jesus, with these interesting turns of phrase, cautions us about what it means to follow him. It’s not for “the goodies” we may get. Humility is key in this endeavor. We are not to get caught up in the “first and last” business, wondering which we are or will be. There’s going to be difficulty, leaning into discomfort, in all of this.

One thing we talked about in our small group this week, as we listened to and then discussed what Robin DiAngelo had to say about White Fragility, is acknowledging that we are going to mess up. In spite of our best efforts, because we have been steeped in the toxic culture of white superiority our entire lives, we are going to say the wrong things, step our foot into messes, over and over again. We need to develop some resilience, the ability to listen to “feedback” or “criticism,” to receive this without becoming overly defensive — to receive with grace. We’re going to have to be willing to be “last,” to be “less,” so that others may become equal, so that others may live, have enough, and thrive.

DiAngelo points out that in our “White Fragility,” we think what we need is for others to believe that we are good — and that becomes more important than actually dismantling racism, more important than the fact that the quality of other people’s lives has been undermined, diminished, impoverished by systemic inequality. What we really need is not a pat on the back, affirming how “good” we are or “how far our society has come.” What we really need — and what our neighbors really need — is an actual better society, actual just systems, and the richer, more authentic relationships that arise from true shalom, true peace with justice, true equality and not merely a sham version of it.

In the video we watched together last week, DiAngelo points out that most of us who are white and who were raised in segregated neighborhoods and schools, never had a teacher, mentor, or leader who ever conveyed to us that we have experienced a loss due to that segregation, because we have not been exposed to the relationships, rich contributions, and resilient inner resources we might have gained through equal sharing with people of color.

Maybe what we really need is to experience “being last” so that we really will understand that it’s all about the grace of God…

In his response to Peter, Jesus makes assurances to his self-sacrificing followers of “a hundredfold in this life” — of brothers, sisters and homes. This is what happens when Jesus helps us draw our circle wider. Instead of the tight hold we have on a sense of what is only “ours,” when we loosen our hold, leave those things, leave those preoccupations, and follow Jesus, we discover the richness of a much larger human family, a much larger home in this earth that we share — and the challenge of “persecutions,” i.e. the strong resistance by those structures and power-obsessed forces that want to exploit, divide and snuff out the life God intended for us all. But as we are reminded, with God all things are possible. So take heart. Take a risk. Open your hands, and open your mind. Let us follow where Jesus leads. Amen.