Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost/ 14th October 2012
No, this is not a stewardship sermon. This is not a sermon about money and pledges and budgets. But it does have to do with wealth and power and influence. It’s often called the parable of the rich (young) man. You know the story. While Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit life?” After deflecting his adulation, Jesus says, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; …’” The man replies, “I have kept all of these since my youth.” I’ve followed the rules, I’ve been a good person, I’ve done what is expected of me by my family, my faith, my community.
Then, 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.” Of course, we know what happened. The man was troubled by the answer and “he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
Jesus looked around and said to his students, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” And then they were shocked and perplexed.
As we hear this story, it’s quite natural to think Jesus is talking only about money and possessions. And he is at some level. Because of the judgment Jesus makes against wealth and possessions here, it’s easy to assume that wealth and possessions are inherently evil or bad. But Jesus isn’t saying this. There’s another level here. What he is saying is that if you have a lot of wealth and possessions it’s just more difficult to be his follower, you have more baggage, as it were, more weighing you down.
When we focus on the wealth verses, it’s easy to overlook these words, which, I think, really drives this text: Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said… Jesus looked at him, saw him, I believe, looked into the depths of his soul, and loved him, loved him through and through, to the depths of his soul, and in love – true love – said to him, You who claim to “have” so much, who “own” so much, “claim” to have done so much, are lacking one essential thing. What you’re lacking is the ability to let go. What you’re lacking is the willingness to release your grip, to relax your striving and your selfish ambition, your fearful grasp after things, your obsessive compulsion to get it right, your anxious worry about missing out on eternal life. Let it go. “Sell it.” Detach from it.
For this man, it was his many possessions and their death-grip on his life that needed healing. It’s in love that Jesus invites him “to sell,” not because wealth is bad, but because for him the wealth meant more to him than eternal life, his wealth distracted him from life in the kingdom, his identity was too wrapped up in what he owned, how much he had. And he looked for his security and assurance in how much he had. You can tell how much his wealth was connected to his fearful ego because the thought of changing his status caused him considerable grief.
How hard, indeed, it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus isn’t saying it’s impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom. It’s just more difficult. Not because wealth is bad, but because we value wealth more than the kingdom. To truly be a child of the kingdom requires a giving up, sacrifice, a dying and a rising into a new way of being in the world. When we give up attachment to wealth and power and possessions and, yes, even people, and focus on the kingdom, on God, something remarkable happens. We gain a different kind of wealth and power and things and even people. “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 gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold (one hundred times) now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and field, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.”
Like so many other places in Jesus’ preaching, the world is turned upside and inside out, and those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, let them hear and see. For this is the truth that the rich man could not bear to hear and what he needed to hear and what we need to bear and heed and hear, “…many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” If this isn’t contrary to the way most of us live in the West, I don’t know what is. This is the opposite of our Western values, our American values – where we say that we must be the first, the goal is to be first, the best, and God help, literally, the last, the least, the second-best. This might be the American gospel, but it’s not God’s gospel, and it’s not the message of the cross.
It’s striking that the Gospel lectionary for today, which includes these words, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first,” comes to us the same week that the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released its latest statistics on religion in America. For the first time in our nation’s history, Protestant Christians now make up 48% of the population. We are now a minority faith in the United States for the first time. We were at 60% of the population in the early 1990s. This is a dramatic shift. If this doesn’t tell Protestants that we’re “not in Kansas anymore,” that we’re not in the 1950s any more, that the church and the world around us have changed and is changing, I’m not sure what will.
The Pew Forum also cited that for the first time in our nation’s history the fastest growing segment of our population are those who describe themselves as “nones” – those with no religious affiliation. Their number has risen to almost 20% of the population, which reflects an increase of 15% in the last five years.
Now before we respond to these numbers with doom and gloom, before we find someone or something to blame for this change, we should probably take a step back and take an honest, sober assessment of ourselves, and ask a few questions. And we must resist attempts to rush in to “fix” the problem, because the problem can’t be easily “fixed,” if at all. There’s a question whether or not it should be fixed. There’s the deeper question, what is the problem?
The problem might be that we Protestants are like the rich man in the parable. Maybe we have been seduced by our “wealth.” By wealth, I don’t mean money alone – although, historically, we Protestants have been and are among the wealthiest in the nation. We have been rich in financial resources, but we have also been rich in our influence, rich in power and resources (such as education), rich with a cultural hegemony that said, believed, acted as if this nation was ours, that ours was the true church of Jesus Christ, that we knew how to do church, how to worship, how to preach and live the gospel. We cannot underestimate the enormity of Protestant power and dominance in our nation’s history. We know the history: the pilgrims in Plymouth were Protestants; most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Protestants; our form of democracy, although inspired by the ancient Greeks, was really channeled through the religious reforms of the Reformation. The oldest and best universities and colleges in America were founded by Protestants. When Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) of France traveled through America in the early nineteenth century and described the people in this democracy, he saw a people shaped by a Christian outlook. “There is no country in the world,” he wrote in Democracy in America (1835/1840), “where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.” He was describing Protestant America. Until the large influx of Roman Catholics in the late nineteenth-century Protestants were the unchallenged dominant class, the dominant church, the dominant political force. And among the Protestants, Presbyterians were among the most powerful, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The American Revolution was known in the Houses of Parliament in Westminster as the “Presbyterian rebellion.”
But maybe – just maybe – our wealth, broadly understood, is no longer a blessing but burden. Maybe it has become a distraction; maybe we have become so obsessed with our Protestant ideal and our Protestant work ethic, our ambition, our pride, our drive, our desire to be first, that we have lost the spirit and fire of the gospel. Perhaps we have become so obsessed with our “possessions” that we’ve lost the purpose of our calling. Have we become so entrenched in our way of doing church, in our way of having power, control, and influence, that we’ve neglected the core mission of the gospel? Have we attached our self-importance to dominance? Are we valuing the wrong things? Do we value the trappings of church and culture more than the gospel?
The Pew Forum found that among the 20% “nones” population that these people have not given up on God, they have not given up on prayer, they have not given up on spirituality, and they have not given up on caring for the least among us. These women and men are among the “spiritual but not religious” category. They’re on a spiritual journey, but they’re their path completely bypasses the institutional church. The decline among Protestants is also similar to the decline among Roman Catholics in this country. And among Protestants, it’s occurring in the evangelical and in the so-called liberal churches. It all points to the fact that something is essentially wrong with institutional Christianity in the West. There are many reasons for this shift; however, the largest influence increasing the “nones” population, as the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has shown, is young adults’ “reaction to the religious right.” “The best predictor of which people have moved into this category over the last twenty years,” Putnam says, “is how they felt about religion and politics” aligning, particularly conservative politics and opposition to gay civil rights.
Yes, it’s a little depressing to learn that we’ve lost our market-share of the religious economy in America. It’s a jolt to our Protestant egos. But maybe it’s a gift. Maybe it’s a wake-up call. Maybe it’s an opportunity for us to re-examine what it means to be a child of the Reformation, of being “reformed and always being reformed.” But more than that, maybe it’s an opportunity to discover again what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, what it means to live in and toward God’s kingdom. Philip Jenkins, president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, said something similar in an interview this week. “It may do us a lot of good as Protestants to lose dominance,” he said. “Instead of reaction, we need to listen to this carefully. It could help Protestants to reflect more critically on our purpose as people of faith.”
Maybe Jesus is looking at us and in love says to us, “You lack one thing. Go and ‘sell’ it.” Let it go. Let your Protestant “wealth” and cultural dominance go. Instead of grieving over the loss of our “wealth,” maybe we can detach from it, not over-identify with it, shake off its weight and discover a freedom that we’ve been missing, a freedom to really live the faith without all its cultural baggage. Let the first become last and as “last” we might get to see what being “first” really looks like in the kingdom of God. Then we’ll claim or reclaim our “treasure” and value what matters most. Not institutions and numbers and size and power and influence and endowments. “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.” Maybe trusting so much in our wealth, liking it so much, we’ve lost the ability to value the kingdom.
All is not lost, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
So here’s to discovering the blessing of minority status! Let us raise a glass to minority status! On the way to being last, may we discover or rediscover all the more profoundly what it really means to be “first” in God’s kingdom, rediscovering that this should be the ultimate concern for us as individuals and as a church: being attentive to the deep hunger in the human heart that can only be satisfied by the grace of God, the deep human hunger for mercy, for justice, for healing, for love. This should be our treasure that we are called to embody. This is eternal life. This is what God treasures. This is what calls us to life!
 Cited in the Louisville Courier-Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com/article/20121008/FEATURES10/310090020/Report-says-Protestants-no-longer-U-S-majority