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Here I Stand (But What is that
Camel Doing Here With Me?)
Romans 1:17; Mark 10:17-27
I've got a tangled web of thoughts running through this service which I am going to ask you to help me unravel. Martin Luther is on my mind, because it's Reformation Sunday. I have diversity on my mind, because our theme is "To Welcome Those of Differing Understanding and Theological Opinion." It's the day of our Fall Congregational Meeting, which means that we have money on our mind. And then there's that dang camel from today's scripture that Jesus plops right into the middle of the church.
Let's start with Martin Luther. I grew up in the Congregational Church. I went to Gettysburg College, the oldest Lutheran college in America. That place was full of good Lutherans. There were good Lutheran scholars in the religion department, a great Lutheran chaplain, John Vannorsdall, and the most wonderful Lutheran of all who turned my heart and life around, which would be Sandy. Gettysburg College, was not, however, a Lutheran church camp, much to the dismay of Sandy's parents. That's another whole story.
Luther, we all know, is the firestarter of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, he posted his ninety-five theses on the Cathedral door at Wittenberg. He rejected the authority of the Pope and Church Councils to determine the actions and beliefs by which a person could be saved. Luther believed that we were justified by faith, not the seven sacraments declared necessary by the Church. He believed that none of us needed a priest or pope to pray to God for us, but that each of us had direct access to God. Luther translated the bible into the language of the people so that for the first time the people could read it themselves. Luther's words, "Here I stand, I can do no other," echo through the centuries as a call of conscience to each of us.
The bad news is that just as the Roman Church predicted, Christianity split into an endless array of warring sects and arguing denominations. The good news is that the Christian faith now houses a boundless diversity of gifts. Further good news is that the Catholic Church itself immediately began its own ongoing reformation. Today Catholics sing "A Mighty Fortress" in English at Mass, Free Church UCC wing Protestants like us chant "Adoremus Te Domine," and Lutherans have bishops.
Let that stand for a moment, and let's shift gears.
There is an arena of conscience that we do not talk about openly, and in mixed company. It is money. We talk a lot about sex and not about money, even here at UCG. For Jesus it was just the opposite. He talked very little, if at all, about sex. He talked a lot about money.
I want you to think about the messages you received from your faith, your family, and your religious tradition about money, both negatively and positively as a "Here I stand" issue in your life.
I grew up in a family that was financially comfortable. By the time I was an adult, however, I thought that if I heard the word "frugal" one more time, I might lose my mind. My mother attributed any financial comfort to the fact that she saved and reused tuna fish cans or that she packed my lunch every day for school rather than have me squander $.35 cents on a school cafeteria meal. "The Frugal Gourmet" was the fifth apostle for her.
Nevertheless, my family was also generous. My father always seemed to be treasurer of something at church. I remember being taught to put my coins in my Sunday School envelopes as a child. I also remember that when I started mowing lawns I could for the first time put dollars rather than quarters in those envelopes.
My dad taught me to imagine generosity. He was generous with his church. He also had a generous way with us as young adults. After visits home, he would quietly hand Sandy or me a twenty-dollar bill, no strings attached. My mother, whom I gave such a bad rap earlier, continued his generosity with us after my dad died.
People in this church have taught me about generosity. Pat Landis said, "Money is God in action." Linda Stevens said that money let's us have an impact in places where we can't go personally.
I want each of you to stop now and think of the messages you received from your childhood about giving. What are the good messages that let giving flow? What are the negative, guilt ridden, or greedy messages that cause you to pull in your resources? (Share them with somebody next to you for about 4 minutes.)
Now let me get back to this camel and close with Luther.
Four things happen with this rich man who approaches Jesus asking what to do to inherit eternal life.
First Jesus gives a rather odd rendition of the Ten Commandments. He mentions just six of them. They're out of order. He even adds one that isn't in there - "Do not defraud," perhaps trying to trick the rich guy. The rich guy says, "I've kept all of them, even in my youth."
Second, I think Jesus knew this guy was lying like a rug. The rich guy didn't keep all these commandments. Nobody does really. But the gospel says, "Jesus looking at him, loved him." It's a tender scene. Jesus is trying to get through to this guy, so he says, "Well you just need to do one more thing. Sell everything, give it to the poor." The man went away sad, because he was very rich.
Third, Jesus tells his stunned disciples, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." I've got bad news here. That passage is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, a pretty good indication that Jesus really said it. I've got even more bad news. Bible scholars have tried to soften it up in many ways. They have said that in biblical times the eye of a needle was another name for a narrow gate, which would be difficult but not impossible for a camel to get through. Maybe the camel just had to kneel down or take off its pack. Oh no. That's too slick and easy.
Fourth, The disciples ask, "Who then can be saved?" And Jesus answers, "With God everything is possible."
There are two directions this passage takes me. One is that camel.
Barbara Lundblad, whom we just heard on our trip to Yale Divinity School, said that we live in a country of excessive wealth and extreme poverty. Just one example, African American babies have a higher infant mortality rate in the U.S. than to the babies of Cuba, Jamaica, and Sri Lanka, just to name a few. We have a surplus of excess and a deficit of justice. Greed has a trickle down effect. We measure our lives by the excesses of those above us. And who speaks to this? The political candidates? Not hardly. Who speaks to this? The camel does. Remember the camel.
The second point is that this riddle of how do you get a camel through an eye of a needle is one that cannot be solved. It's like a Zen koan. It is a reminder that we are imperfect human beings.
Jesus was trying to get that rich man to realize he needed help. Jesus who loved him anyway, basically says, "Join the human race; we're all in trouble one way or another."
This is where I go back to Luther. Luther's gift to us was to point out that we all fall short. We're all part of the human condition. Admitting we're part of the human family is like admitting we have an addiction. There are things we can't control. When Luther was a monk, he thought about sex all the time. He was afraid that meant that he was unfit to be a Christian. Finally Luther understood that this simply meant that he was no better than anyone else and needed God's help to get through life.
What was true for Luther about sex is true about all of us, not only for sex, but also for money. We can never be free of our addiction to money. None of us can ever completely give up all our money for the poor. But just because we can't do this does not make this passage irrelevant. What we have here is something called the relevance of the impossible ideal. The camel reminds us that wealth is not a sign of spiritual blessing or health. Instead the camel is a reminder to us that we who have are called to be those who give.
The camel comes to the front of this church again this time of year to prance back and forth. We get all squirrely when we talk about money. We get thrown back to old churches that made us feel guilty. We repeat family scripts that perhaps never made any sense. We get self-righteous. We feel useless, like the widow of scripture who had only a penny to give.
The camel reminds us we can't do this alone. God steps in and helps us along, if we let him or her.
This Reformation Sunday is a good day for each of us to think of the fundamental belief which grounds our lives, where we would stand publicly and say, "Here I stand, I can do no other." One such place to stand is with Jesus and that camel. Remember the story. Talk about with each other and with our children, and stand back. God's imagination saves us.
O God who both comforts and disturbs us, there are those times when we can't even seem to balance our checkbooks let alone balance our lives, and then you come to us, silently, without accusation, yet trailing this camel, reminding us somehow that in giving we receive.
I don't think you want us to be more frantic. I think you just want us to trust you a little more. To let go and flow with a life that cares more, worries less, and trusts.
Bless our bodies. Bless our minds. Bless our souls, all both broken and holy. Give us vision to see and imagine our dreams, for our lives and for this church.
Help us unclench our fists in lives of giving love, so that when you appear with that camel we know that even though we can't do it alone, you are with us.
We pray now for the concerns of our hearts, those we love, those we miss. We offer our own wounds for healing, and trust that with you, O God, all things are possible.
May God's goodness be yours, and well, seven times well, may you spend your lives:
May you be an isle in the sea.
May you be a hill on the shore,
May you be a star in the darkness,
And may the love of God fill your hearts always.
Amen. (Celtic Benediction.)