The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s140g15  Sunday 28  11/10/2015  St Mary’s Halswell

‘he had many possessions’  Mark 10:22

In my youth after I was confirmed I stopped going to church and singing in the choir because I became involved in scouts and cadets.   It didn’t do me any harm, for the scouting movement and school cadets teach many life skills.   But those who have been scouts know that earning proficiency badges is part and parcel of their activity.   I see there is now an official iPhone Proficiency Badge app!  (1)

Actually I returned to going to church when some years later two scantily clad females on Brighton beach invited me to the Young Anglican Fellowship in the parish where I had been a choirboy.   And I have been going ever since.  Thanks Jo and Robyn :-)

The young man in our gospel snippet had lots of proficiency badges: the ones which said he’d earned avoiding murdering anyone, committing adultery, theft, perjury, and especially the one he’d earned taking care of his parents.   Actually, considering the earnestness of this young man, there are some other assumed ones, like regular attendance at synagogue, tithing, reading holy scripture, and daily prayer.   There were two other requisite proficiency badges: circumcision - equivalent to baptism - and being male - to which circumcision (rather than baptism) applies.   I suppose in those days there wasn’t a proficiency badge for being manifestly straight :-)   This man was the model scout, the model parishioner, the one you’d want on a parish or diocesan committee.   And yet he was dissatisfied, despite all his proficiency badges.

I have sometimes reflected that page after page, the bible testifies to the failure of devotion and religion to guarantee anyone a life free from illness, poverty and tragedy; from ennui.

And what was Jesus’ reply?   It was to sell all his proficiency badges to those who hadn’t earned them, to those who had no prospect of ever earning them, to those who certainly couldn’t pay for them.   Instead of trickle-down righteousness as others were supposed to strive and emulate this earnest young man, he was told to give it all away!

Often I think that the church wants others to become religious by osmosis.   We build temples, erect crosses or crucifixes, put christian slogans or symbols on the rear windscreens or bumper bars of our cars - all reasonably safe, easy, non-confrontational ways of spreading the word.  We hold rallies and conduct worship, as I said, last week, to say to others: hear what God has done, and now of course God expects you to show your gratitude - the ultimate narcissist.   

But I point out that Jesus has no truck with such trickle-down righteousness; he calls this young man, and us, to sell all we have.   He calls this young man to forgo his claims to some special privileged religious status (which the young man has indeed earned) and he calls the church corporate to forgo our claim to some special privileged religious status.   There is no other way, if we claim to follow Jesus.

We are called to follow Jesus, and this is by being incarnated into the world, not separate from it, defined by earning a requisite number of proficiency badges which we can show off to others.

St Paul expresses the same sentiment when he writes: ‘If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.   Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.  More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.   For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ’.  (2)

And again: ‘For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.   To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.   To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law.   To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law.   To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.   I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.   I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.’  (3)  The blessings come from giving up status and winning friends; friends not possessions.   I can almost hear Paul say: ‘to the gay I became gay’ and ‘to the Muslim I became Muslim’ - for surely these are both included in ‘all people’.

Peter, in our gospel reading, protests the words of Jesus, saying that they as his disciples had left everything and followed Jesus.   I have observed that it is not unknown to use religion as an excuse to escape the dynamics of dysfunctional families.   Jesus’ reply is that the reward for following him is that they will receive a hundredfold of dysfunctional relations!

I guess that there would be few of us who have at one time or other suffered under the leadership of someone who micro-manages a workplace or a marriage - stifling creativity, initiative, imagination.  People for whom others are possessions whose value is determined by their compliance.

And viewed from a corporate rather than a personal level, does the church seek to micromanage our existence, stifling corporate creativity, initiative and imagination?   How is this life-giving to the corporate community?   Is our value to the church merely amounting to another 52 acts of communion per annum and our weekly contribution?

Wikipedia states that the Anglican Communion has 80 million members worldwide. (4)  The Roman Catholic Church has more than 1.25 billion members worldwide.  (5)   The Orthodox number an estimated 225–300 million adherents. (6)   ‘Protestant’ churches .. collectively encompass more than 950 million adherents.  (7)  So the real question is why do we persist in valuing an organisation which stifles creativity, initiative and imagination, who looks at the value of people by whether they can be seen but not heard?   Able to be counted but not actually count?

Whoever really said it, we would all agree that: ‘The purpose of life is to discover your gift.  The work of life is to develop it.  The meaning of life is to give your gift away.’  (8)   This is clearly something that many, many people other than ‘christians’ do, and many, many christians do when they are not going to church.   This is something that modern secular society has discovered and has something to teach the church, and which has remarkable resonances in our gospel for today!

Jesus lets the rich young man go away, the call to incarnation cannot be compromised, even for someone who is clearly so enthusiastic and able.   Jesus’ mission is not to utilise people and their talents, but to welcome, include and accept all, without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation.  This call to incarnation is in the words of Paul ‘Christ’s law’ yet the one the church most consistently avoids.

2.  Philippians 3:4-8
3.  1 Corinthians 9:19-23