The Profligacy of All Believers

And then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kin-dom of God. For truly I say to you, the kin-dom of God is like bacteria.

At this, the disciples were very perplexed.

Almost as much as your faces are indicating now.

As I thought about the Gospel reading this week, I came away believing Jesus could have added this line about the kin-dom of God being like bacteria, and it would have been what his sermons and stories often were: simultaneously insightful, true, and confusing.

This story itself is tough to hear. For many of us in this room, this church that has known the privileges of prosperity and proximity to power in our community for the past century, we know how important it is to have money. How it unlocks access to education and healthcare and careers and respect and retirement accounts. Many of us have come to understand that money isn’t evil, but crucial to succeeding in our increasingly competitive world.

Hearing our Lord and Savior declare that eternal life is found in giving it all away? Well, conveniently, that ends up being one of those lines we don’t actually take literally. Except most of the time, we don’t even want to take it seriously.

What was Jesus saying?

Here it is, a man, not identified as rich, young or a ruler in Mark’s Gospel, only later confirmed to have a lot of possessions, comes up to Jesus as he was leaving. He asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life.

It’s an interesting verb, isn’t it? To inherit.

I have no way of knowing this, but for a person Mark doesn’t qualify as a ruler or rich, but as someone with many possessions, I wonder if he didn’t inherit his wealth from his family.

Who knows.

It’s a very passive way of looking at eternity though, isn’t it? As if you put money into your IRA and you watch for it to grow, ready to inherit whatever work it did for you in the market over the years. What stock do I need to invest in to reap eternal profits?

What must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus lists a few of the ten commandments, you shall not lie, you shall not steal, you shall not cheat. And the man replies that he has kept all of these since his youth. And then the text includes this beautiful phrase that pastors and preachers and Christians across the ages have skipped over way too often: Jesus, looking at him, loved him…

No judgment. No bite like he often had for the religious establishment. Jesus loved him. He saw him.

And then he says, as if writing a prescription for the condition the man was in: how about this, you lack one thing, so go sell everything you own and give it to the poor. Then you’ll have treasure in heaven. Then, come follow me.”

It’s hard to say from this text whether Jesus felt pity for the man because he misunderstood what eternal life was about, like it was just one more thing he could inherit or line up like an insurance policy, or if Jesus felt compassion for the man because he was truly wanting to do the right thing with his life.

Maybe Jesus didn’t know what he was feeling either.

So, Jesus cuts to the heart of this man’s life as he’d lived it to that point, a life of achievements and accomplishments and accumulation. And he puts this question to the man; maybe it was simply a hypothetical. One that I put to you right now:

If you had to sell every last thing you own, cars, houses, clothes, businesses, and then you had to give away all the proceeds and empty out all your savings and all your investments and all your retirement — penalties and all — if you had to get rid of everything you have for the prospect of eternal life, would you do it?

That’s not the real question though.

The real question isn’t whether you’d do it for eternal life, that’s a pretty smart investment. Weigh the cost to you now, your 80 or 90 years against infinity, and pretty quickly you can say that eternity wins out. Sure, you’ll take that deal. Begrudgingly, maybe. But you’d be dumb not to take it.

But this isn’t a question about a works-based salvation, something you can earn.

And it’s not really even about the afterlife at all. For the man, sure it is, but for Jesus, the afterlife is just the contrast for the greater question.

Which isn’t how much you value the afterlife — is it worth it — but how you value this one. Jesus recognized this man was asking about the next life when he hadn’t even mastered this one. And that’s a symptom of accumulation, of privilege, of materialism, consumerism, inheritance, whatever.

This man who had accumulated so many possessions, who had accomplished and honored so many of the commandments, still lacked one thing, Jesus said.

The essence of life.

And if you want an eternity of life, eternal life, then you’ve got to figure out the value of this one.

Which brings me all the way back to that comment about bacteria.

Much of what we understand about how life has perpetuated over billions of years is through evolution, Darwinism, this notion of survival of the fittest. That self-preservation instinct. Life has passed along genes that are advantageous, through vertical heredity, one generation passes them on to the next. Inheriting life. Maybe like the man in our story inherited his wealth, or how he hoped to inherit the next life.

But in the past few decades, scientists have begun to recognize what is called horizontal gene transfer, or infective heredity, or for our purposes, horizontal heredity. It’s common in bacteria, when one bacterium passes on genes directly to another, without the birthing of a new generation. It is passed horizontally to one another. It’s how we explain the resistant strains of bacteria; they share this genetic advantage with one another. Not over long periods of time as with vertical heredity, but immediately, right away, horizontally sharing with one another.

Some scientists have posited that life actually began this way. That billions of years ago, before Darwinism had even taken hold, bacteria had porous membranes that made it easy to share genetic material that was advantageous for survival. And that would perpetuate on and on, bacteria flourishing, life flourishing. The theory goes that at some point, a bacterium came along with a strongly walled membrane that kept its genetic material to itself. Self-preservation became self-governed, and soon life began to take off through this survival of the fittest approach where genes were no longer passed horizontally but vertically, from one generation to the next.

What’s fascinated me about this idea all week, is that at its very conception, at its very essence, life was and is about sharing. As if written into our DNA — DNA of which at least 8% has been accumulated by horizontal heredity — the sequence of life and the secret to life is sharing.

We’ve had billions of years of vertical heredity — passing on our traits and our wealth to the next generation. But it’s almost as if Jesus was suggesting that real life isn’t about the vertical but the horizontal.

Sharing, mutuality and kinship are the markers of horizontal living, and they’re so much richer and so much more rewarding than the hierarchies of power and priority that come with the world’s expectations of vertical living.

So, quit worrying about a legacy after or beyond you; focus on the living, breathing, human inheritance all around you. And share in that. In the glory of God all around you in the lives and stories and faces of every person.

Share in this one life you get. Not minimally, but with all you are. Maybe that really is all your possessions because that’s where you find your value and significance. Maybe that really is your time, because time is your currency. Maybe that really is your giftedness, because that’s how you make your living. However it looks, whatever shape it takes, share all of who you are with all who are around you.

Extravagant, profligate sharing is the essence of life. From the beginning, and now, and in eternity.

Jesus, looking at the man, loved him and said, “You lack one thing. Go and sell all that you own, and give the money to the poor. And you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.

When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kin-dom of God! For the kin-dom of God is like bacteria.

At this the disciples were perplexed, and they asked him, ‘Then who can be saved?’

And Jesus replied, “All of us.”

Amen.

Prayers of the People

O Extravagant, profligate God,

In the beginning, you set life on its course by your generous love,

Even now, you exist in community within yourself, one God, three in one, sharing and giving and receiving,

And forever, you will be the God of abundant and eternally sustaining life,

Be gracious to each of us,

That by your example,

By your Spirit,

By your life encoded within us,

We might grow to be generous people,

Extravagant and profligate in our love,

In our interactions,

In our practices,

In what we value,

That we might not just survive by self-preservation, but that we might flourish through mutual sharing.

Teach us what it means to truly live,

That in doing so, we might embody the divine way,

The Way of Christ that models how much better it is to give than to receive,

How much richer it is to be in community with one another than to be walled off.

Amen.

Sermon preached at FBC Worcester, MA on October 14, 2018

Mark 10:17–31

I'm a writer, and I enjoy dabbling in photography. I'm also a progressive minister, enneagram 4w3, ramen enthusiast, and human to my best dog Zooey Deschanel