As we begin our annual Stewardship season, a man approaches Jesus. Identified as “a certain ruler” in the Gospel of Luke;[i] as “young” in the Gospel of Matthew;[ii] and as “rich” in all three; this man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”[iii] Jesus replies, “You know the commandments: You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery…” the list continues, but the man interrupts Jesus’ catalogue, blurting, “[But] teacher I have kept all these since my youth.”[iv]
And then the Evangelist – the author of Mark’s Gospel – announces the most important message of the lesson: “Jesus, looking at [the man], loved him”… Jesus, looking at him, loved him.[v] If you take away from this sermon only one message, let it be this one: God knows you; God sees you; and seeing you for who you truly are, God loves you.
So Jesus loves this man enough to tell him the truth: Well, brother, if you keep all the commandments and still you have not inherited eternal life, then you lack only one thing … that is, everything: “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”[vi]
While in these last weeks of our journey through Mark’s Gospel Jesus has spoken hyperbolically (as when he suggested we pluck out an eye or cut off our hand), Jesus does not speak in exaggerations here. In this appointment, Jesus says exactly what he means and voices precisely what this man must do to inherit eternal life: go, sell all that you have, sell until you realize your dependence upon the God who made you and loves you. Then, come and follow me.
The man who approaches Jesus has attempts to achieve fidelity while working around the basic, sacrificial obligation to follow Christ. He was a good guy, living a good life, ordering his days by Old Covenant principles and Jesus’ emergent Christian values, but he had refused to make that fundamental shift of priorities that discipleship demands. Effectually, the man has attempted to give to God what of his life remained after he had done everything else he wanted to do. He wanted to be faithful, but he wanted to be faithful on his own terms, and Jesus starkly challenges those priorities: Give to God first, Jesus replies, and then become my follower.
If you and I were speaking with this fellow in our own day, the argument might sound something like this:
“Of course I believe in God, but I prefer to worship the Lord in creation, as the sun rises over Port A … or in my garden … or on the first hole of my favorite golf course.”
“Of course I believe in God, but I prefer to say my prayers over a cup of coffee on Sunday morning, resting with my family after another exhausting week.”
“Of course I believe in God, but I prefer to send smaller amounts of money to several agencies around town, rather than to give first or sacrificially to the Church.”
For many years, I have coddled a fantasy of finding an eligibility loophole that would allow me to walk-on to the LSU basketball team.[vii] In this daydream, I arrive to the basketball offices vested in gym shorts, my Chris Jackson jersey, my favorite Chuck Taylor hightops, and a pair of floppy tube socks, a la “Pistol” Pete Maravich, the former Tiger great. I would explain to Coach Will Wade (who – oh, by the way – is eight years younger than I am) that I’d been working out and shooting jumpshots in the mornings before work, and that I was now able to match-up favorably in games of H.O.R.S.E. against my fourteen-year-old son. I would reassure the coach that I’d been doing some light cardio, too, and that I could now run up-and-down the court three or four times in a row without suffering cardiac arrest.
As in this morning’s Gospel, Coach Wade, being generous hearted and not wanting to hurt my feelings, puts his hand on my shoulder and responds, “Well, Morgan, I think it’s swell you’ve been committing yourself this way,” and I interrupt him, blurting, “But Coach, you have to understand, I am spending almost all of my spare time getting ready for this! I am ready! This means so much to me!”
And poor Coach Wade, realizing that I’m serious, ceases the congenialities and explains, “Brother, how in the world do you expect to play on this team? You can’t even jump over your own shadow and if I gave you a half-court head start, I’m not sure you could outrun our team manager. If you really want to become a part of this program, you will have to give up everything and then come talk to me … maybe about a support-staff internship” … but Teacher, I’ve kept all these since my youth … Go, sell everything, and then follow me.
Jesus’ difficult reply announces clearly that a free-time faith of convenience is simply not enough, and the man then goes away grieving “for he had many possessions.”[viii] Importantly, the man does not go away grieving because he thought Jesus was unfair, and he does not go away grieving because he thought Jesus had asked too much. Rather, the man goes away grieving because he knows Jesus has told him the truth.
As the stranger walks away and Jesus watches him leave, the living Christ turns back to his friends and announces, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”[ix]
Jesus’ claim “greatly astounds” and confuses the disciples because they believe wealth witnesses God’s favor: that is, they understand wealth as a sign of God’s blessing, and, therefore, this new teaching that not even the wealthy can easily enter the Kingdom must spell an even worse fate for them who have nothing.[x] For us readers, however, Mark has already provided the key to understanding Jesus’ pronouncement regarding the rich: Jesus, looking at the man, loved him.
See, Jesus’ pronouncement is not a judgment, but an expression of grief. Jesus does not judge the wealthy, for the wealthy judge themselves: whereas the circumstances of the suffering demand dependence on God, the wealthy can fund a mythology of self-reliance. To press this point, Jesus reiterates his claim, explaining, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”[xi]
Friends, why is it hard for the rich to enter God’s kingdom? Because the wealthy can afford other options. We who have advantages can afford to choose tangible reassurances before God’s intangible promises … and so we do. We try to give this much, and yet we expect nothing less than the Kingdom of God … Morgan – brother – you can’t event jump over your own shadow …
During this time of fall, we at Good Shepherd host our annual “Stewardship season,” when we invite every household in our community to make an annual commitment for the upcoming year. We call this commitment a “pledge,” and we view that pledge as a promise between us and the God of all creation, that we will make a priority of our relationship with this risen One.
A “steward” is one who manages what is not one’s own, and as Christian Stewards, we understand that all we have is from God. We recognize that God has chosen the Church as the primary instrument of salvation, and, by our pledge, we become partners in God’s saving work.
As we now ready for 2019, we have chosen “Formed For Forever” as our Stewardship theme, seeking to recognize and celebrate the ways in which our commitments in this moment, connect us to a mission greater than ourselves alone and connect us to an eternal hope for the whole world, the whole cosmos. Over time, our faithful practice of generosity forms us into the image of God, a devotion that shapes us for joy; shapes us for love; and, indeed, forms us for forever.
Therefore, we do not pledge simply to keep the church lawn mowed. Instead, we give because God calls us to give, because God hopes for us to share in these “forever” promises. The tension, of course, is that we must keep the church’s lamps lit and fund the parish’s ministry, for we spend only what we can afford, and we can afford to spend only what has been pledged. Therefore, our invitation to Stewardship has two goals: individually, we pray that every member of this congregation will give faithfully; and, then, communally, we pray that – together! – we will provide for the ministry to which God calls us.
Good Shepherd is a special place. Thanks be to God, from 2016 to 2017, no congregation in The Episcopal Church grew more than Good Shepherd.[xii] As we now look forward to 2019, we look to sustain that growth by continuing to support an outstanding Sunday-morning with the most meaningful range of worship and musical experiences in Austin, all rooted in the moving traditions we inherit. During the week, we seek to keep our Sunday promises by providing a rich range of high-quality, small-group programming, and by renewing our commitment to care for one another, whatever our need.
As always, we believe the integrity of these inward-facing focuses depends upon our outward-facing ministries. As Episcopalians, we have an open, thoughtful approach to following Jesus, and we believe that we have an obligation to spread that generous ethos beyond only our Windsor campus – it’s not only for us, the Good News is for the whole world! For us at Good Shepherd, no outreaches in faith and in service are more important than those on our Woodland Campus.
Good Shepherd on the Hill, our second-campus congregation, realizes our desire to reach out in faith. That still-new community is building toward a scale that will provide for sustainable ministry, and as our diocesan support of its launch ends this December, we gratefully receive the opportunity to do our part and to support The Hill for its greatest impact, for all of us have a share and a responsibility in that courageous endeavor’s successes.
Likewise, Hillside Early Childhood Center realizes our desire to reach out in service – it’s not the only way that we do, but it’s an important one. Several years ago, we identified Kindergarten-readiness as a desperate need in Austin, and we sought to address the shortage of high-quality, early-childhood programs in that Central-Southeast area of our city. This May, we launched our program serving children from infancy through four-years-old, and, again, in order that all of us may celebrate our contribution to that ministry, its sustainability will depend upon our shared, annual Stewardship.
Keeping these promises is important, and if you have not you seen these ministries in action, I hope that you will make plans to attend next Sunday’s open house: immediately after worship on this campus, The Hill and Hillside will host tours of that campus and its classrooms, and offer introductions to its staff and faculty, all supported by games for children and a food truck serving every palate.
Even as we celebrate these accomplishments and gratefully receive this momentum, I recognize, too, that the priority for which God asks us individually and communally – go, sell all that you have, then come and follow me – I recognize that this priority can feel overwhelming. Moreover, our remarkable growth creates its own pressures … but would we want it any other way? Are these not just exactly the challenges that we – that any congregation – would choose?
Friends, remember that seeing us, God loves us, and hear Jesus’ sweet reassurance: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”[xiii] Believing in those possibilities, let us give generously, reaching out in faith, and in service, and for justice … all until we recognize our dependence upon God … for our hearts are worth that high price; the kingdom of God is the only worthwhile pursuit; and our common good – as always – depends upon such fidelity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,