Sermon – Upside Down
Filed under: Candidate Process, Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons
This sermon was preached as a part of my seminary internship at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church, North Plainfield, NJ on Sunday, October 14, 2012. This particular Sunday was Blessing of the Pets Sunday, and a number of dogs and a few cats attended the worship service – this will explain the bark and leash rattling and clicking nails that you hear in the background. This was also my first sermon preached in a church other than my home church.
Audio: Mark Smith Sermon 2012-10-14
Text: Mark 10:17-31
Jesus was getting ready to head out on a trip when something unusual happened. A man ran up to him, and knelt at Jesus’ feet. This man was different than most of the people who sought Jesus’ attention. His clothes were nicer than most … he probably spoke in a way that marked him as a wealthy man.
Certainly this man had many things on his mind. He “had many possessions” – likely this means that he owned a lot of land. And he had the usual thoughts that go with wealth – how do I use what I have to make more for myself, to give myself security and comfort? How much do I pay my workers? What is the market price today? He didn’t have to worry about paying the rent or the mortgage, or putting food on the table.
But none of these things were on his mind this day. He asked a question – “Good Teacher – what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This man wasn’t worried about making and keeping his fortune, or paying his workers – any short-term worries. No, he was concerned about his own personal spiritual life and living for eternity. He was thinking for the LOOOONG term, and only about himself.
And Jesus gave him the “Christian 101” answer – obey the Commandments. Jesus listed several of them: do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother – all of these are commandments that speak of how we are to interact with each other. All of them are ways to do right by each other, and therefore be pleasing to God.
The man had studied his Scripture. “Teacher, I have kept these commandments from my youth.” In this the man revealed that he was not the average petitioner – that he was educated in the Jewish Law and had kept that Law while growing up.
At this point, Jesus realizes that the man needs the “Advanced Christian” course – possibly even graduate level study. It’s time for the harder part of being one of his followers. He looked at the man, seeing him as only Jesus could. He loves the man – yes, it says that in the text – and gave him the hard words “You lack one thing. Go and sell everything that you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come, follow me.”
These words were hard indeed. This man had worked his whole life to accumulate this wealth. And he believed that he was doing what God wanted him to do. Several places in the Hebrew Scriptures it says that those who obey God’s commandments will be rewarded with prosperity and material wealth. The Hebrew Scriptures also remind us many times and command us to take care of those in need and to transform unjust economic systems. Before speaking to Jesus, he thought he was doing the right thing – that he had found things in Scripture that supported his choice to gather wealth. Jesus saw him and knew differently – that he wasn’t following all of the scriptures, and so Jesus offered a challenge, one that was about more than the man’s own personal question.
It is important to see what he was being offered. The language used here – “follow me” – is the same language that Jesus used earlier in calling his disciples. The man was being offered a chance to become a disciple! But first he must do what the other disciples have done – turn his world upside down. He must give up his personal ideas about what is right and what is wrong, and take up the new way that Jesus offers. He’s quite far along that path – he has already mastered the basic requirements of the Commandments. But to be one of the first Christians, he needs to go further, and take the hard steps of personal sacrifice and re-learning the way that his faith asks him to live. (*bark from pews* – That’s one.)
But he can’t. We don’t know exactly why, but the instruction and invitation cause this man to go away, with sorrow and a fallen face. The text says that he went away because “he had many possessions.” We can only assume that he was unable to accept the changes that are caused by following Christ – the turning of his world upside down that comes with the belief in Jesus.
Belief in Jesus brings a lot of upside-down to our lives, and to the lives of those who knew him. Jesus lived in a way that crossed the rules of Jewish society. He lived according to values that were not necessarily held by the culture that he was a part of. Jesus regularly associated with people who were not acceptable to most – tax collectors, lepers, even prostitutes. Jesus regularly broke the rules about what you can and cannot do on the Sabbath, and helped people to eat and to heal. Taking care of those in need and showing them respect were important parts of Jesus’ teaching.
Lately I’ve been reading the book “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom. This is the true story of a young man, established in his career, who goes back to Boston to visit his professor, a professor who is dying. They meet once a week for fourteen weeks, and just talk. One day they talked about the culture that we live in. Morrie, who is the professor, said “People are only mean when they are threatened. And that’s what our culture does. That’s what our economy does. Even people who have jobs in our economy are threatened, because they worry about losing them. And when you get threatened, you start looking out only for yourself. You start making money a god. It is all part of this culture.” This is just as true today as it was in 1995 when Morrie said it, and it was true in Jesus’ time as well. The rich man was a part of a culture like that – where most people valued wealth and power rather than doing right by each other.
Following Jesus calls us to believe and think and do things that cross the values of our own society. While parts of society tell us that building up wealth and personal security are the most important values, our faith calls us to help those in need – those who are not doing as well – financially, physically, or spiritually. Society tells us to imitate each other, particularly in consumption – getting the latest smart phone or television or car – while our faith calls us to love each other as we love ourselves. Society today pushes us to think first of ourselves, then of the community, while Jesus saw everything as a communal. What would it look like if those of us who have enough money … and maybe a little more … gave some of that to others? What would it look like if we increased our priorities in this congregation on mission giving and mission service in our community? What would it look like if those who have skills and free time found a way to help others with their needs? These actions show our upside down values – values that don’t match the world around us, but do match our faith, values that show that we are committed to the community. Consider what following those upside-down values might look like.
Millard Fuller was a self-made millionaire from Alabama, who at the age of 29 was facing physical, relational and spiritual challenges because of his success. He was experiencing a crisis about the kind of life that he was leading. And after doing some soul-searching, he – along with his wife – decided to recommit himself to his Christian background. He and his wife decided to sell everything that they own, gave the money to the poor, and looked for a way to live their faith. They went to live at Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia and searched for a way to apply themselves to the problems of the world in a Christian way. Ultimately, they focused on housing for the poor. They felt that what the poor needed was help getting started, rather than charity, in order to build a new life for themselves. They began working to build modest houses with no-profit, no-interest loans, and they asked the new homeowners to build “sweat equity” in their home and the homes of others in the program by working on the buildings. In doing so, they reduced the cost of each house to something that the homeowners could afford, and also allowed the homeowners to build pride in their work, as well as strong relationships. In 1976, this organization became Habitat for Humanity, which has now built over 500,000 homes. Fuller is quoted as saying, “I see life as both a gift and a responsibility. My responsibility is to use what God has given me to help people in need.” Fuller heard Jesus’ call to turn his life upside down and follow him.
This example is very much like the choice that the rich man in our passage faced, and in Mr. Fuller we have a man who chose to take that other option. While the changes that he made in his life, after a decision to align that life with the call of Jesus, helped to heal his broken soul they did so much more than that. These changes allowed for something new to begin and grow, helping to bring about the mission of God in our world.
So this leaves us with a few questions to ponder –
What is Christ calling you to do that is at odds with the messages of the world, in a big way or in a small way? Are you being called to leave something behind that doesn’t match your Christian values? Are you being called to use free time or resources that you have today to do something to help others? Can you pray for the needs of others?
How are you asked to act in a way that is upside down, and yet right?
How are you asked to act in a way that is upside down, and yet right?
May we all find a way to follow the call of Jesus in our lives, so that the community can reap the rewards that God has in store for all of us. Amen.
 Before the service, during Announcements, the pastor quoted something I’d said before the service in her office: “My rule is that if you bark three times, you come up and preach the sermon.”
 The original quote says “his people”.