Sermon for Sunday, October 11, 2015
Text: Mark 10:17-31
Preached at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, Virginia
There is an argument to be made that this is the best time of the year for sports fans. I mean, outside of major events like the Olympics or the World Cup, on a year-in-year-out basis, October is a pretty good month. You have your football seasons in full swing, both college and professional, you have the beginning of the NBA season, you have hints of college basketball in the air. And of course you have the Major League Baseball playoffs and World Series. And of course baseball in particular undergoes this dramatic transformation once the playoffs begin. For so long so many of the games are not that consequential, and the atmosphere is so relaxed. It was not so long ago that we were just sitting out in the bleachers on some mild summer afternoon drinking a beer and eating a hot dog and watching the game go by and the stakes were so low. But now it’s October and October is different and the games are packed and the stakes are high and you win or you go home. It’s very exciting.
Except, of course, that my Atlanta Braves have been out of it more or less since opening day. It’s just not their year, and we all knew it was gonna go that way. Over the last few years, they had signed a few free agents to incredibly expensive contracts and most of those players had turned out to be pretty terrible, but the Braves don’t have a lot of room in their payroll. You know some teams in baseball can just spend their way to the playoffs almost year after year; the LA Dodgers are spending somewhere north of three hundred million dollars on payroll this year and most teams hover somewhere around one hundred million which is still a heck of a lot of money but then it’s no surprise the Dodgers are in the game. The Braves don’t have that kind of money and so they can’t afford to pay people who aren’t any good but once the contract is signed there’s nothing they can do about it. Last year the Braves cut a terribly underperforming second-baseman named Dan Uggla even though after cutting him they still owed him about twenty million dollars over the rest of his contract. This year he got paid by the Braves for the last year of that contract, but he played for the Nationals, got paid by them, too, and then back in April he managed to hit a game-winning home run against the Braves. For which we therefore paid him eighty thousand dollars. That’s the kind of year we’ve had.
Of course, now his contract is over, and the books are clean. We can start fresh and maybe in a year or two we’ll be competitive again. And that’s kind of how it goes for most of the teams in the league that aren’t the Dodgers and aren’t the Yankees and can’t afford to have those kind of bad contracts weighing them down. Because of course the reality is that the teams that have the money do better. Not always, not every year, of course. And every year some team gets to the playoffs on a pretty tight budget and some talking head argues that that means that you don’t need money to get ahead in baseball you just need smarts but obviously money helps since the Dodgers and the Yankees are there every year and everybody else just waits their turn. Clearly if you were going to start a Major League Baseball team from scratch and somebody gave you the choice of either having money to spend or not having money to spend you’d take the money. Even if you had smarts. Especially if you had smarts. In baseball, greatness is available for anyone with money to spend. No wonder it’s America’s Pastime.
Of course, greatness and money have a long and sordid history. People have been buying admiration and credibility and power for as long as they have had the means to do so. Even in scripture we read stories of kings in Jerusalem whose greatness is measured by all the gold they have or all the slaves they have or all the wives they have. And the assumption then of course were that your possessions were a sign of God’s special grace levied on you. God must love in particular those folks with the biggest houses because why else would they have them and how else could they have gotten them? In Biblical Jerusalem, not only is greatness available for anyone with money to spend — the two concepts are so connected as to be almost indistinguishable: if you want to measure a persons’s worth, you counted their possessions. Which may sound familiar, or it may sound insane. Either way: that’s the world that Jesus is talking to in these words from Mark’s Gospel. A rich man wants to know the secret to eternal life. He’s followed all the commandments. Jesus says there’s just one more thing: go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor… and then come and follow me.
The rich man runs off in a sulk, of course. Mark explains that he had many possessions, and he may just be done with Jesus for a while. But Jesus isn’t quite done with him. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!,” he says. And Mark tells us that the disciples were perplexed by these words and of course they were because, in a world where greatness is available for purchase, who would deliberately give up whatever they possess? But Jesus sticks to the point: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And let’s be clear. There are quite a few different places in the Gospels where Jesus speaks to questions of money and class. There are quite a few cases of Jesus ministering to those on the outskirts of society. But this one is a bit different. This isn’t about Jesus’s ministry per se. This is about how the world measures greatness, and how God measures greatness, and how the two could hardly be further apart. The disciples think that the big house and the big stash of gold and the big pile of stuff are proof of the grace of God — available to anyone with money to spend. But for Jesus, that’s totally backwards. For Jesus, all the stuff you possess just gets in the way — go, sell what you own, then come and follow me … for Jesus, you have to give it all up before you ever make the team.
As a Braves fan, it now pains me personally to offer you this anecdote from the recent history of the New York Mets. Back in the early part of the last decade, when Braves were still consistently competitive, the Mets were a persistent thorn in our side. Both teams had money to spend — the Braves, because the last owner spent money; and, the Mets, because it’s New York, and there’s always money to be spent. But towards the end of the last decade the Mets fell apart for a very specific reason. It turns out that by the time of the market crash in 2008 the Mets ownership had somewhere in the neighborhood of five hundred million dollars invested with infamous criminal Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff. They had also had separate loan from other institutions which used these Madoff investments as collateral; suffice to say, when Madoff’s house fell apart, the Mets fell apart, too. All of a sudden one of the freest-spending teams in baseball in one of the freest-spending cities in the world didn’t have any money to spend. In the space of five years, they went from sixth in the league in spending to twenty-fifth. And they got bad, quickly.
But something changed, too. When they had to give it all up, something changed. For years, the Mets had been throwing money at their roster problems, the kind of behavior that only the rich teams can get away with. In 2000 they signed what has become one of the most infamous contract buyouts in history, of a player named Bobby Bonilla who as a result of that buyout gets a cool 1.19 million dollars every year through 2035. But once the Mets stopped having money they couldn’t make those deals any more. They had to try something else. They had to build up their farm system. They had to sign young and cheap players and turn them into gold. And they’ve done it. Right now the Mets are locked into a playoff series against of all teams the LA free-spending LA Dodgers. The Mets three starting pitchers for this series will this year make a total of $1.6 million dollars. The Dodgers’ starting three will make $68 million. And the Mets are winning holding their own at one game a piece. All of which builds to the headline this week in an article at Bloomberg Business: “Mets Fans Can Thank Bernie Madoff for MLB Playoff Run.” Sometimes the only real path to greatness lies in giving up everything.
But it’s one thing to see that in a multi-million dollar sports franchise and quite another to see it in our own lives. Nobody here this morning is making LA Dodgers money — at least not to my knowledge. But just because we’re not multimillionaires doesn’t absolve us of the difficult words of this Gospel. Go, sell what you own, then come and follow me. There’s not a lot of subtlety there. Not a lot of gray area. Sure, there is a long history in the church of us trying to worm our way out of this one. There are whole reams of very inventive interpretations means to dull the edge. Luther said that the whole thing was of course meant just for this one rich man; Jesus obviously detected an imperfection with him that doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone else. Other readers have noticed here the prefix “you lack one thing” and presumed that to mean that this man was seeking perfection and therefore may have been clergy and therefore Jesus’s instructions about wealth only apply to people of the cloth. If you didn’t follow that one entirely you’re not the only one. Suffice to say we all like trying to wiggle out of this.
And it’s not just that one verse. Few images in scripture have been as tortured as this tortured camel going through the eye of this poor needle. Even the earliest Christians were trying to explain it away; one of our apocryphal gospels tells the story of a needle’s eye that miraculously grows large enough to allow even something as large as something just like this camel!. There’s a legend that won’t die about a gate in Jerusalem named the Needle’s Eye so that Jesus is really talking about an entranceway into the city and not a physical needle but the only problem is that’s just not true, it goes back at least to Aquinas but it’s all made up. And of course a good reader of scripture will notice that even Jesus’s ministry relies at times on the very idea of possessions. Even in Mark’s Gospel, the disciples are sent into the world without bread or money in their belts, they are to rely on the hospitality of the people they meet but how can those people offer hospitality without possessions of their own to share? It occurs to me, you know, this is a nice thought for a moment, giving away our stuff, but it’s hardly the foundation for a decent society.
We’re full of excuses. We’re full of explanations. We’re full of rationalizations. None of them dull the truth of this Gospel, and the truth is: the things we possess, the things we want, the things we consume, the things we covet, the things we own, every souvenir knick-knack, every knock-off stocking stuffer, every zero in our account balance and every penny in our pocket, every one of them get in the way of who God is calling us to be. Of course there are some considerations. We can always gin up some considerations. Of course there are some practicalities. We love practicalities. We are full of excuses. But mostly we just don’t like hearing the truth, which is that sometimes the only real path to greatness lies in giving up everything.
That being said, we still haven’t heard all of this story. After they hear the bit about the camel and the needle, the disciples of course panic: “Then who can be saved?,” they ask, having thought through all the same practicalities that we have, but Jesus is one step ahead: ““For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Of course, we could very easily turn this response into one more excuse: God’s the one in charge, God can save us no matter how much stuff we own. But I think Jesus’s claim is somewhat different. Jesus’s argument isn’t first and foremost with the moral worth of these disciples and what they own. His argument is first with a culture that equates greatness and ownership in the first place. His argument is to remind Jerusalem that greatness is something conferred by God and not by a long list of possessions. His point is to remind these disciples that no matter how much stuff they own, they won’t be able to buy real greatness for themselves. They won’t be able to save themselves. They won’t be able to fill that empty spot inside themselves by themselves. It is so often said that the things we own end up owning us. But not for Jesus. For Jesus, the things we own can never own us, because we are already owned by the God who created all things.
Which isn’t to dull the sharp edge of this text. It’s not to give ourselves just another excuse. But it is to offer a word of grace. We live in a world fundamentally obsessed with having enough, and even then with having more. We know the live balance in our accounts and we can check it in a heartbeat, we can watch the ticker scroll by and consider the small fluctuations in our worth in tiny gains and tiny losses. It’s not just that we value others in dollars and cents; it’s that we value ourselves the same way, we live so close to the numbers, a life lived in celebration with small green up-arrows and sorrow over tiny red down-arrows the familiar rituals of year-end projections and performance histories. We live so close to the numbers, and not without cost. But hear instead this word of grace. You are not measured by the things you own. You are not measured by the numbers in your account, by the zeroes in your balance or the pennies in your pocket. You are not measured in souvenir knick-knacks and knock-off stocking stuffers. Your worth is not predicated by a dollar sign. Rather, your worth is measured only by the God who has chosen you before the foundations of earth. Rather, your worth is measured only by the God who suffered and died that you might be redeemed. Rather, your worth is measured only by the God who overcame the grave itself that each of us might be free. “What is my only comfort in life and death?,” asks the famous first question of the Heidelberg Catechism. Answer: “That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Which is all to say, I was wrong at the beginning. October baseball is the worst. Win or go home is the worst. Sure, the stakes are high, but only because we’ve decided the season has to end. Sure, the drama is real, but only because we’ve decided that some team has to be the greatest. The problem isn’t just that some teams have all the money and some don’t. The problem is that we’ve decided that the value of the game is in determining who gets to win and who has to lose. Which means that October baseball misses the point of baseball entirely. The point is, you go to the game, because being at a baseball game is generally better than not being at a baseball game and the rest is gravy. The point is, you buy some peanuts and cracker jacks. The point is, you don’t care whether you ever come back. If there is baseball in the Kingdom — and, let me be very clear: how could there not be? — if there is baseball in the kingdom, it’s not game seven of the World Series. If there’s baseball in the kingdom, it won’t decide anything. If there’s baseball in the kingdom, the game will go on forever, on some cool summer evening, and I will meet you there. Doesn’t matter who’s playing. Doesn’t matter what the score is. We’ll sit out in the bleachers. You buy us a couple of ten dollar beers. I’ll pick up a couple of eight dollar hot dogs. All of it, money worth spending.
And then we can talk about grace. Amen.