The God of Small Spaces

August 13, 2018
Derek van Bever, MDiv '11
Derek van Bever, MDiv '11. Photo: Justin Knight

The following sermon was delivered by Derek van Bever, MBA '88, MDiv '11, at the First Congregational Church of Blue Hill.


Mark 10:17-31
17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18 Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.' " 20 He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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." 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" 27 Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." 28 Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." 29 Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."


I’m not sure how you think about this story, but the first thing that strikes me about it is that it’s easy to imagine that this episode actually took place in the life of Jesus. The characters are all so human, so plausible—even Jesus has his unguarded moments here. It’s also one of those stories that has the feel of being worn smooth in the retelling. We know that the stories in Mark were circulated orally for some 30 or 40 years before they were ever written down, and probably as a result this one contains no stray details, no accidental elements. It’s also a story that appears in three of the four Gospels with only minor differences, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The version we have before us this morning, in Mark, is generally regarded as the oldest, the original, and it is the one that I like best, by far.

The encounter we’re witnessing takes place relatively late in Jesus’s ministry—late in his life. He and his disciples are traveling through Judea, along the Jordan River, west of Jericho, and it has not been what you would call a carefree journey. In fact, several times over the hundred-mile stretch from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus has paused and taken his disciples aside and tried to share a hard truth with them—that their time together will end with his being betrayed and murdered—but the disciples just can’t seem to get it. In fact, the team depicted here are not what you would call quick studies. Mark tells us about two of Jesus’s attempts to share this hard news in Chapters 8 and 9—in the first, Jesus gets angry at Peter for talking back to him (Remember the phrase “Get behind me, Satan?” Yeah, that’s Peter he’s talking to. Not a good day for Peter.); and in the second the disciples still don’t understand but they saw what happened to Peter last time and they’re now afraid to ask Jesus to explain any further.

I think it’s helpful to imagine Jesus as still being a little peeved—feeling a bit misunderstood—when our story for today begins. We’re told that Jesus is busily heading out somewhere when a man runs up, kneels before him, and asks the question “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Almost reflexively, Jesus snaps at him, rebukes him for calling him Good Teacher.  If you’ve been keeping tabs on their journey, it’s easy to see why Jesus does this, because this sort of thing has been happening to him a lot recently—some wiseacre Pharisee or other comes up to try to stump him, to try to catch him out at being hypocritical or at putting on airs. So Jesus gives him the standard litany: “You know the commandments,” and he goes on to list all the shalt nots: You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness; defraud; you shall honor your father and mother. The basic formula for a faithful Jew.

In your mind’s eye you can picture Jesus turning on his heel at this point and preparing to walk away.

But then a very significant thing happens. The man remains on his knees and says to Jesus, in a quiet voice, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” And here’s where the story catches— where it shifts into a lower gear.

We’re told that Jesus looked at him—perhaps really looked at him for the first time—and loved him. You can see that he’s now appreciating the man’s earnestness and sincerity in coming to him. And he said: “You lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Now here’s where the story rings so true. Generally, in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus calls on someone to follow him they drop everything and come immediately, as if they were pulled by a string. It’s the basic pattern. In the very first chapter, we’re told that Jesus saw Simon and Andrew fishing and said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” and that they immediately left their nets. In the very next verse, Jesus calls to James and John, who were in the boat mending nets with their father Zebedee, and they dropped their nets, leaving their father high and dry, and followed Jesus immediately. A little farther on, Jesus calls to Levi the tax collector to follow him, and we’re told that Levi just got up from his desk and followed him. He made dinner at his home for Jesus that night, and invited a crowd of tax collectors and sinners to join them, which drove the Pharisees mad.

They all came immediately. Jesus had that kind of power—his love was that attractive.

But this rich man—he’s the only person in the entire Gospel who doesn’t immediately respond to Jesus’s call. Who was he?

We’re not told who he was—what his name was, where he came from, why he sought Jesus out. The more you think about this passage, though, the more he looks like many of us—or we look like him. In the first place, to be rich in first-century Palestine was not to be like Bill Gates, or even like Donald Trump; in an agrarian society, to be rich was to own a house and maybe some land, and to have some possessions worth handing down; that was rare then, more common now. So that describes many more people in our society than in theirs—maybe me, maybe you.

Second, this rich man regards himself as a pretty good person, again like a lot of us. Maybe better than a lot of us! He claims never to have lied or stolen or committed fraud—all by the way the common complaints against the rich and powerful. He’s honored his father and mother. He’s a faithful Jew; he’s doing OK by any conventional scorekeeping.

But Jesus doesn’t keep conventional score. He hears the man out and then tells him that he lacks one thing. Jesus sets before this man the ultimate sacrifice of what’s called radical discipleship—to give up all that he owns and to follow him—and the man realizes that he can’t do it or he won’t do it, which often feels like the same thing.

Here I guess is the stone in my shoe: I don’t think I could either. I think I cling much too tightly to the familiar, the comfortable, the joys of family and friends, to just walk away. I’m pretty sure I would fail this test.

But how does this sit with you? How would you respond to Jesus?

Imagine that you had gone to see this fellow you had heard about, pretty confident about getting a pat on the back, and instead you were at the receiving end of this hard message, how would you react?

You could be angry or resentful—you could feel like Jesus wasn’t giving you a fair hearing.

You could be dismissive—you could conclude that Jesus didn’t know what he was talking about, didn’t understand the rules.

You could even be blind to the truth—that’s actually the conventional interpretation of this story—that the man’s greed blinded him to Jesus’s call. The standard take on this story is that the desire for wealth stifles the seed sown by the Word. 

But I think that’s a terrible misreading of this encounter—and that it does a disservice to both Jesus and to the man. Because here’s the point: He had an entirely different reaction than the ones that we’ve been mulling over. When he heard this difficult message he wasn’t angry or resentful or dismissive. Mark tells us that “he was shocked and went away grieving.”

He went away grieving.

I understand that. 

He’s grieving because he’s conflicted. He’s heard Jesus’s call, and yet he’s not willing or able to drop everything immediately and follow Jesus’s direction. 

I understand his grief, and I identify with it. I feel it. But here’s the good news in this passage.   Jesus put a stone in this man’s shoe and watched him walk off down the road, but I don’t think that he was done with him yet. As the man walked away, grieving, there was a gap opening between his head and his heart. What he’d heard, and what he was able to do. It was this big, that gap—just about as big across as the eye of a needle—but it was big enough. Big enough for God to pass through.

I like to think of this man walking away down the road, turning Jesus’s message over and over in his mind. As he thinks of all of the things he has to lose, you can imagine him holding on more and more tightly to his possessions. And yet, at the same time, he knows that Jesus is right—that his possessions have him, that the path to his own redemption comes not from holding on more and more tightly but from easing up, from beginning to let go.

God’s love works on us by entering into us through these small places, these gaps in our defenses. The rich man in today’s story is mindful of this gap—he grieves in this gap. And it is through this grieving that God works God’s will. You can argue about whether Jesus thought that the man would follow his advice, and drop everything immediately. My sense is that Jesus’s real message was that the thing the man lacked was understanding, the understanding that we should never be satisfied that we have done all that we can, that we’ve somehow secured our place in heaven. It is the temptation to be self-satisfied that is the greatest danger from wealth. Jesus taught this man that lesson that day.

In fact, through his example and through his teaching, Jesus wants us to understand that we are never done. He wants us to learn to give freely—more freely than perhaps will be comfortable for us. He urges us in fact toward unsafe, intemperate giving.

I was reminded of this lesson in a remarkable way a few years ago, and the teacher in this case was my daughter, Grace. I’m glad she’s gone downstairs so I can tell this story on her!

So all five of us were in the car, packed for a trip—we were driving up here, actually—when Grace saw a man walking up and down the aisle of cars at a red light with a cardboard sign in his hand. This was before she could read, so she asked me what he was doing, and I explained to her that he was down on his luck and was asking people for money. It occurred to me to use the occasion to teach her a little lesson, so I went on and told her that I wasn’t going to give any money to him because we choose to give money to support the agencies that help people like him get back on their feet and get off the streets.

When I finished, I felt a little guilty about this sort of lame response, but the light turned green, and we started moving. We’d gotten maybe a hundred yards down the road when Grace piped up and said quietly, “Daddy, if I had a strip of money, I’d give it to him.” (That’s what she called dollar bills: “strips of money.”)

Jesus said, ”Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  That’s what he tells his disciples in Mark just before the rich man in our story shows up.

So, what are we to make of all of this?

First, this story is a wonderful reminder that to follow Jesus means walking around with a stone in our shoe. Just as Christianity is a religion of great expectation, of the promise of grace that is to come, it also sets before us a charge that we will work all of our lives to fulfill. No matter how good you think you are, you’re never done. Too much remains to be done here to sit back and relax.

Second, Jesus does not offer an easy path, for anyone. We are all asked different things, according to our capacities, but discipleship is hard. Jesus knew this truth directly, and he paid a more grievous price than he asks of us, but we are those of whom much is expected. Through its various ministries, Blue Hill Congregational knows that, and lives that. The Spirit moves through this church and this congregation in a powerful way.

Finally, we are going to come into contact with those who have been asked to give more, and when we do we are expected to support them. Jesus doesn’t ask everyone to leave everything to follow him, nor does he love those who do so more than he loves the rest of us, but he does ask that we be mindful of the sacrifices of discipleship—that we respect those sacrifices, and that we support those who have made them.

The rich man grieved. I understand that.
Jesus loved him. I am comforted by that.
We are changed by that love. I am confident of that.

To my mind, the cornerstone of Christianity is that it is a religion in which it is never too late to receive the gift of grace. Jesus taught that lesson to the rich man on the road to Jericho. He slipped a stone into the shoe of that man, the same stone that I think he’s placed in my shoe and perhaps also in yours. That stone is there to remind us that the things we carry also weigh us down, that however much we have done there is more to do, that as much as we have earned or accumulated or received is exactly how much more we have to give and to contribute and to share. Every day that comes makes our opportunity to serve all of those who walk with us along the Way more and more clear.

Thanks be to God for that, and Amen.