How’s That Workin’ Out for You? – a sermon

Sunday, October 11th, 2015 – the 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31
Hymns: “Take My Life and Let It Be”, “Open the Eyes of My Heart”, “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian”, “Nearer, My God, to Thee”, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee”, “Sunshine in My Soul”

How’s That Workin’ Out for You?
The story of my college experience is not one that I share a lot. It’s one that the CYF kids have heard, almost as a cautionary tale, but it’s not one that I’ve shared in detail with this congregation before.
I’ve talked before about how I attended college at Northern Arizona University, in the beautiful town of Flagstaff, and how I was actively involved with Lutheran Campus Ministry, which itself began my path toward pastoral ministry. What I haven’t really talked about is the disaster that was my academic path at NAU.
The first thing you should know is this: it took me nine and a half years to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Studies. My first day of class at NAU was Monday, August 28th, 2000; I walked across the stage in the Walkup Skydome to receive my degree on Saturday, December 12th, 2009. My sister, Colleen, who had always struggled to keep up with me academically in high school and had been consistently frustrated by that struggle, had little left to be frustrated by when she started college three years after I did and finished two and a half years before I did.
The issue was this: my first semester at NAU, I had everything I could possibly hope for. I had a full ride scholarship, thanks to being a National Merit Scholar. Tuition, housing, books, and meals were all paid for. I wanted for nothing, and as long as I kept up my studies, I would be good to go through to my anticipated graduation in May of 2004.
Keeping up my studies, however, was where I fell short. You might say that I committed serious self-sabotage. I chose to skip class frequently, neglect my homework, not study for tests, and so it was that come December 15th, 2000, when the semester ended, I found myself wallowing in the wreckage of a disastrous semester that had resulted in a whopping 1.38 grade point average and a trip straight to the academic probation list.
I thought I could fix it myself. Boy, was I wrong. I ignored my friends’ offers of help. I ignored my parents’ advice. I blew off the university’s academic assistance program. When the university told me I had lost my scholarship at the end of the school year, I thought I could provide for myself financially. All of it was based on my overly proud insistence that I could do it all myself, and it just led to frustration upon frustration, which would eventually lead to me, at the end of the spring 2004 semester, having only gotten halfway to my degree and subsequently deciding to put my education on hold and move to California.
I relied on what I had materially, and I thought I could take care of everything myself.
As goes today’s Gospel reading from Mark, I was the rich young ruler who came to Jesus asking what he could do to receive eternal life.
The lessons Jesus teaches in today’s Gospel reading are two-fold: lesson number one, reliance on the things of this world will always be a stumbling block to our faith; lesson number two, there is nothing that you, nor I, nor anybody else in this world can DO to achieve eternal life.
And because I like doing things backward, we’re going to start with lesson number two: there is nothing that we can DO to gain eternal life.
The funny thing about this particular lesson is the context: this wealthy individual came to Jesus asking what he could do to inherit eternal life, and so Jesus asked him what kind of life he had led. This man had led a good and blameless life, obeying the laws of Moses and especially the Ten Commandments, being honest in his dealings with others, and providing for those around him. However, none of that was going to gain him eternal life.
“Who can be saved?” the disciples asked Jesus, after the wealthy man had gone away. “No mortal can do these things on his own,” Jesus replied, “but nothing is impossible with God.”
There is nothing we can DO to inherit eternal life, and sometimes, that seems a little counter-intuitive. Seven weeks ago, Zack Craft preached on one of my favorite passages of Scripture, from James 2, wherein the author says that faith without works is dead. Unless we are doing for others that which Christ has first done for us, we may as well not have faith, we are told. And that is very true. We have been commanded to love our neighbors, care for the poor, embrace the widow, the orphan, and the alien, and love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. All of those are part of living a faithful life. But those things, in and of themselves, are not enough to guarantee our salvation.
One of the things that was permanently written into my theology during the seven years I spent hanging out with Lutherans was the idea of salvation by faith through grace, and this not of ourselves, it is the gift of God. The words of Paul in the second chapter of the letter to the Ephesians echo this idea that Jesus puts forth here, that nothing is possible for mortals, but – as our street sign currently states – “Nothing is impossible for God.”
You see, God has the power to look past our sins and our foibles, to reach through the messes we’ve made of ourselves, and retrieve us, to pick us up from the much in which we rest and bring us to new life. However, we must be open to receiving that gift of God’s grace.
There’s a modern parable that goes something like this: a man who considered himself to be a great Christian lived in a town along a mighty river. A storm had caused the river to swell upstream, and the town was being evacuated in anticipation of a coming flood. At about 2:00 PM, a police officer came and knocked on the door of the house. “The floodwaters are coming,” he told the man. “I can give you a ride out of town if you’d like.”
“That’s alright,” the man said. “I’m a man of faith. I live a good life, I’m active in my church, and I give to the poor. God will surely save me.”
So the police officer left, and sure enough, the floodwaters arrived. By 4:00 PM, the man had to go upstairs to the second floor of his house. After a little while, a boat came along, bearing one of his neighbors. “Hey!” his neighbor shouted. “The floodwaters are still rising. I can give you a ride out of here if you’d like.”
“That’s alright,” the man said. “I’m a man of faith. I live a good life, I’m active in my church, and I give to the poor. God will surely save me.”
So the neighbor left, and sure enough, the floodwaters continued to rise. By 6:00 PM, the man had to go up to the roof of his house. After a little while, a Coast Guard helicopter appeared overhead. “You down there!” he heard through the loudspeaker. “The floodwaters are still rising. We can give you a ride out of here if you’d like.”
“That’s alright,” the man shouted back. “I’m a man of faith. I live a good life, I’m active in my church, and I give to the poor. God will surely save me.”
So the helicopter left, and sure enough, the floodwaters continued to rise. By 8:00 PM, the man was at the Pearly Gates.
St. Peter looked at him and frowned. “What are you doing here?” he asked, a confused look on his face. “You’re not supposed to be here yet!”
“I know!” the man replied, indignant. “I’m a man of faith. I live a good life, I’m active in my church, and I give to the poor. I thought that God would surely save me.”
St. Peter looked back at him in disbelief. “God sent you a cop, a boat, and a US Coast Guard helicopter. What the heck else were you expecting?”
Openness to the grace of God is key to our receiving that which, to us as mortals, is impossible. And for that reason, Jesus told the wealthy man that he needed to give away all his possessions to the poor.
This verse is often used to justify the idea that Christians shouldn’t be rich, or by less-than-ethical pastors to bludgeon their parishioners into giving money to the church. “God didn’t intend for YOU to have that,” people are told. “God intended for you to give that to ME, so that I can buy a private jet, or build a $90 million sanctuary!”
That’s not what Jesus meant here at all. While it shouldn’t be our life’s goal to accumulate as much wealth as possible, there’s nothing wrong with living comfortably, or even being wealthy. There is nothing inherently evil about being successful in life and being wealthy as a result. What causes it to go wrong is when we choose to rely on that wealth INSTEAD of relying on the grace of God.
Insomuch as works are often used as a crutch by Christians who believe it justifies their faith, so too is wealth often used as a security blanket. As long as we are secure in our wealth, we tell ourselves, THEN it’s okay to do the works of God.
The problem is, that’s completely backward. In that statement, we’re relying on our wealth to take care of us and empower us to serve God, instead of relying on God to take care of us and empowering us to be wealthy in more ways than we can imagine.
And just as much as people of faith are guilty of using that security blanket, so too are churches. There’s probably not a pastor out there that who at some point in the life of her church or his church hasn’t looked at its balance sheet and begun to worry about the money they have versus how much is coming in versus how much is being spent. I’m terrible about it. That comes in large part from my time as a hotel accountant – I spent years with the bottom line as my primary concern, and so now, when I look at the church’s budget, and the church’s financial reports, I can’t help but think about the bottom line.
Indeed, we’ve had a few pretty lean months in 2015, and on more than one occasion, I thought about putting out an appeal, either from the pulpit or in the newsletter or in a letter to the church. But every time I thought about it, I came back to this idea that Jesus put forth of relying on God for our security rather than relying on wealth for our security. So I refrained, and you know what? The last couple of months have been alright. Things aren’t perfect yet, but they came back, and I didn’t have anything to do with it.
We must be open to the leading of God in our lives to receive the grace that we are offered. Relying on ourselves isn’t going to get us anywhere, and relying on the things we have in this world will be equally counter-productive.
I began to realize these things in early 2008. I had moved home, to Phoenix, and had been living there for a few months, when I decided to apply to complete my degree at Northern Arizona University, via their online education program. I was fortunate in that all of my credit hours from my earlier studies there were still valid, meaning that I only had to complete half the requirements for my degree.
In the fall of that year, I re-started my studies at Northern Arizona University. This time, rather than relying on myself, I took advantage of academic assistance programs that the college offered, I made sure to effectively utilize my studying time, and I accepted the financial assistance that I was offered. And lo and behold, the second half of my college studies resulted in a 3.6 GPA across 61 credit hours taken over sixteen months’ time.
We cannot rely on ourselves or the things of this world to save us. We must be willing to let go of that which we have on this earth. We must be willing to give up all that we have and rely on the grace and mercy of God. For while achieving salvation may be impossible for us on our own, nothing is impossible with God.
Amen.

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