Ben was stopped by a man as he headed to his car after a long day in his office at church. The man told him that he was in the AA group that meets at church and that he left his jacket in the room and asked him if Ben could open the door so he could retrieve it. Ben let him in and asked if he knew where the room was and the man said yes. As Ben checked on something else at the church the man disappeared. Ben soon found out that the man stole some media equipment from a classroom. He was just lied to, to his face. He was just taken advantage of, used. Ben was mad at the situation and for letting himself be taken advantage of. After reporting the incident to the police he went home bummed and angry.
About four to six weeks later Ben was meeting a fellow clergy for lunch about 45 minutes away from his church. I mention this just to let you know that Ben was no longer in his neighborhood. They met at one of those chain restaurants, like Applebee’s or Chilies. As they were sitting there enjoying their lunch Ben looked over at a booth and sure enough there the man sat. The same man that stared Ben in the eyes and asked him to open the door so he could get his coat was in a booth 20 feet away. The same man that used Ben to steal from his church was right there, right there.
If there was anything left on Ben’s plate, it stayed there, because anger and frustration was building up inside of him. Ben excused himself from his booth, his heart pounding and adrenaline pumping, and he headed for the table where the thief was eating. Ben with a polite smile asked the gentleman, “So, are you enjoying the church’s DVD player?” The man’s face go pale, he recognizes Ben, and before Ben could think the man ran out of the restaurant, jumped into his car, and took off. Ben jotted down the license plate number and headed back to the booth to finish his lunch.
The fellow clergy that Ben was eating with was very puzzled and Ben went into the story about what had happened. Ben was wrapped up in retelling the story and never saw the man coming back into the restaurant. Before Ben knew it the man he just chased away slid into the booth he was sitting at. Not across from him but right next to Ben. So now Ben is pinned into the booth and the only way out is through this man who stole a DVD player from his church and who now has his hood over his head.
It is at this point in the story that I wanted to smack Ben in the back of the head. He has a wife to think about. He didn’t have kids then but I knew he wanted to live to the day to have them. Now because his anger got the best of him he is stuck in a booth with a criminal who has who know what in his pockets and will do who knows what to get away with it. Ben assured me that this was all running through his mind and that he was really trying not to soil his pants at this point, as his heart started to beat quite rapidly and any color on his or his luncheon buddy’s face both left.
The gentleman’s in the hood had the floor and they waited for him to make his next move, in this crowded restaurant. The man looked at Ben…and began to cry. Through the tears he told Ben of his struggle with drugs and the other struggles in this life. He apologized for stealing from the church and confessed he felt he didn’t have any other option. It was a moment of desperation and he is truly sorry. The two clergy sat there stunned and just took this all in.
This is an amazing true story. It is almost as powerful as the story we receive from Mark today. Many of you probably thought, as I read the scripture today, “We just heard about money last week Jim. We don’t need to hear about money again this week!” Well you are safe because the story of the “rich young ruler” as many call it, really isn’t about money. It is really about the Kingdom of God.
This story is in all of the synoptic gospels. The synoptic gospels are Matthew, Mark and Luke and they are called synoptic because they look like they have similar sources for their writings. John is completely different and stands alone as the fourth gospel. Matthew calls this person who walks up to Jesus “young.” Luke calls him a “ruler”. Mark refers to him as simply “a man” and only later do we learn that he had many possessions. Put them together and you get “rich young ruler” which is what we refer to this story as. In Mark this comes in a series of questions to Jesus. A Pharisee has just gotten done asking Jesus about divorce and trying to catch him in a false teaching. Then Jesus calls the children unto him after the disciples attempt to shoo them away. Then as Jesus is heading out a man runs up to him and asks him how he can get eternal life.
That is what we tend to focus on. We tend to say that we come to church and we believe in Jesus so that we can have eternal life. That is our long range goal in this thing called Christianity and that is where our focus tends to be. But Jesus changes the focus. He lists off some of the Ten Commandments and the man suggests that he has followed all of them. Like a check list needed to be done before you can enter heaven, the man had done everything. He just wanted to know if there is anything else on the list. Jesus finally tells him "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
Mark says, “At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” Interesting enough, many people think that left and did not sell all his possessions, but the scripture doesn’t say that. It only says he left said because he had great wealth. That might mean that he was upset because he had a TON of stuff he now has to put on Craig’s List. He goes away upset because Jesus just asked him to take a real hard first step.
As Ben heard the cry of the thief next to him, he realized this man needed help. Ben helped him get into a rehab group and at least pointed in the right direction. The hardest thing the man probably had to do was to get out of his car and walk back into the restaurant and confess he needed help. God, through Ben, offered compassion, caring, and love and the man was on his way.
We all have something that gets in our way of truly following Christ. If we walked up to Jesus and asked him this question, deep down we know what Jesus would ask us to leave in order to follow him. The problem we have is taking that first step and letting it go in order to follow Jesus.
We follow Jesus because we are a part of the in breaking of the Kingdom of God into this world. That is what Jesus refers to after being asked the question. Instead of talking about eternal life, Jesus starts to talk about the Kingdom of God. It is our duty to help the Kingdom of God come to life here in this life and on this earth. We say this all the time in the Lord’s Prayer, “thy Kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven.” But do we mean it.
After hearing that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, the disciples start to worry. Are they worried about the Kingdom of God, no, instead they ask the same question as the man, “who then can be saved?” Jesus goes on to tell them that there is nothing they can do but that God can do anything. Then he give us a peak at the Kingdom of God when he tells them “first will be last, and the last first.”
My three year old has hit the "why" stage. I do have to say on a scale of 1-10, ten being the most annoying thing ever; he is about 5 most of the time with the question "why.” I realize that this is part of the developmental stages of life. At three a child starts to attempt to grasp the world around him and is learning, in depth, cause and effect. It is a stage that he will grow out of. At least that is what I tell myself when my patience wears thin. But do we grow out of it?
The Kingdom of God looks very upside-down to us. It doesn’t seem to make much sense. In the Beatitudes Jesus explains “the meek will inherit the earth,” “the poor in spirit will get the kingdom of heaven,” and so will “the persecuted for righteousness.” No matter when Jesus explains the Kingdom of God to us it doesn’t make much sense. Jesus says it is like a farmer who sows seeds or it is like a mustard seed. We constantly look at Jesus and ask “why?” because it doesn’t make sense to us. “Why will the first be last and the last be first?”
Now that never satisfied me growing up and I know it does not satisfy Dean but let's face it sometimes it is the best answer. "Daddy, can you throw a ball and hit the moon?" "No." "Why?" "Well, you see the mass of the ball and the force I can exert on the ball does not equal a force greater than gravity. Plus with the rotation of the earth and the moon, I do not know the right place to launch said ball into space in order to hit the moon." Even if I did answer my son in that manner all his three year old mind heard was, blah, blah, blah, blah. The best answer I can give him, "because."
"God, I don't understand why the rich man cannot get into heaven. He seems to be following all the rules. So he doesn't want to sell everything he has, so what? Why can't the wealthy get in with their wealth? Why?" "God, this whole last first, first last thing doesn't make sense. I know you are all loving and powerful but why set up your kingdom this way. Aren't the last really in last place for a reason? I mean they don't have what it takes to be first, so why make them first? Why God, WHY? WHY? WHY?" God, in all the Fatherlyiness he can muster, shakes his head, and says...because.
As followers of Christ, as worshipers of the One True God, as the people seeking to enter the upside-down Kingdom of God, need to get comfortable with "because." Our minds cannot wrap around the answer. But our God does answer...how awesome is that. The answer is simply, because. God constantly asks us to do uncomfortable things when we become followers of Christ. We are asked to sell all we have; to head to a distant land to help feed children; to start a ministry to feed people here; to let go of a relationship that is holding us back and soaking up all our time and resources; to put the last first in our lives; and to transform to the world into the Kingdom of God.
Christ asks us to do the uncomfortable but all of the life altering things start with that awkward first step. Whether it is going back into a restaurant to fess up to what you have done or calling that marriage counselor, or coming to grips with your debt, or simply finally giving in to God who has been asking you to do something for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We don’t get another reason we just know we need to. We need to…well…because.
And all God’s people said…Amen.