How far can you ride life on goodness alone? We often equate ‘good’ and ‘kind’. Lord knows the world could use all the kindness we can muster. Even so, when it comes to biblical justice, being good isn’t the sum goal of life. As the rich man approaches Jesus armed with his feeling that he’s been ‘good’ his whole life, Jesus asks him to give something more of himself. Jesus asks the man to give something up; to let something go. Maybe we all have something Jesus would ask us to give up as well. Something that would lead us to a place of being that’s even better than good.
Opening: “Relentless” (Hillsong) :: The Rising
Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
Anthem: “Deep River” (arr. Helvey) ) :: Chancel Choir; Kelly
Reader: Todd Maxwell
Preaching: Mark Briley
Offertory: “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” (arr. Hayes) :: Christina Maxwell, soloist; Susie Daugherty, pianist
Special Music: “So Will I (One Hundred Billion X)” (Hillsong) :: The Rising
Band; Andrea Gross, soloist
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.
My life is a musical. Maybe yours is too. At any given moment – as the plot shifts, thickens, or a new character is introduced – a song could burst forth. This is also one of the very best parts about officing next to the Right Reverend Kevin Howe. At any random time throughout the day, our lives collide and all of the sudden we’re like a traveling version of Hamilton. Is this normal? Is your life a musical too? Got it. Not normal. But… can’t help myself. Music just bubbles up. As I was reading through this passage from Mark’s Gospel, for whatever reason, I immediately recalled the 1991 pop hit, “Something Got Me Started” by Simply Red. Now… I’ll admit, I couldn’t remember the name of the band nor did the title really stick. What bubbled up from that song was the line that was sung over and over and over again. How does it go? “I’d give it all up for you. I’d give it all up for you. I’d give it all up for you. I’d give it all up for you. I’d give it all up for you (yes I); I’d give it all up for you (yes, I); I’d give it all up for you (yes, I); I’d give it all up for you (yes, I would).” Something got me started.
It was this story. Here is one of the most vivid stories in the gospels. We have most often called it The Rich Young Ruler. Mark simply calls him a man but Matthew and Luke both re-tweet the story and give us some additional details. Matt tells us the man was young. Luke says the man was a ruler – hence the composite phrase Rich Young Ruler. Whatever the case, this is a guy we understand. He’s sort of the prodigal’s older brother. Minds his own business. Doesn’t harm anybody else. Doesn’t tell inappropriate jokes. Probably shows up to work on time and faithfully takes the garbage can out to the curb on trash day. You like him because he’s responsible and doesn’t ruffle many feathers. You might not know him all that well or as someone who helps out a whole lot but he certainly doesn’t cause any trouble, nor is he a drain on your time or resources. He’s a good person. You know this guy, right? You may be this guy. I may be this guy. There’s nothing wrong with being a good person. The world could use all the goodness and kindness it can get right now. But the response of Jesus when this guy falls at his feet seems to suggest being good isn’t the sum goal of life. “I’d give it all up for you?” We shall see.
We imagine this possibility today as we find ourselves in week two of our new sermon series entitled, “Love (An)other.” It’s grounded in the command of Jesus that we must (not should, or try, but must) love one another as he loved us. A high calling that we may never fully live up to but a calling we strive toward nonetheless. Last week, I asked you to consider what it might mean to make ‘those people” (the outsider, the person not like you, the Other) “those people,” your people. I mentioned my belief that QuikTrip is Tulsa’s greatest equalizer – every race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, financial status, you name it – goes to QuikTrip best I can tell. It’s a great place to practice seeing other people as beloved Children of God and engaging them positively. I had my own kids looking for the QT employee’s names on their name tags and calling them by name as a way of seeing them and respecting them. Did you practice doing so this week? I laughed running into someone from the church who clearly had it on their mind when we saw each other… as if I had caught them not exercising this practice. We kind of had that [eyes on you] moment which was hilarious.
It may feel a bit awkward working on these things… getting us outside our comfort zones. But if we won’t do it, how will we expect others to see us… or to pay forward a little joy of seeing some Other as God’s valued child? If we’re interested in spiritual growth… we’ve got to stretch ourselves. Keep stretching, my friends. Today may really get to us in that regard. “Better than Good.” You may hear that and immediately roll your eyes. ‘It’s hard enough to be good. You want me to be better than good?’ When parting company with our beloved Dr. Bill Simcoe, it was customary for the family to say to him, “Be good and have fun!” He would respond, “Make up your mind!” The implication? You can’t be good and have fun. Better than Good. Huh. If I can’t be good, I sure can’t be better than good. Let me clear up something from the onset. We’re not talking about being good or even better than good as a way of earning anything. There’s not one thing we can do to make God love us more or to make God love us less. There is no earning our way to heaven or upping the square footage of our eternal mansion, okay? Jesus blew that stuff out of the water even though we struggle to let that works righteousness idea die. We like control. Behavior is something we think we can control… at least we can try. We live like salvation is something we can control. But this salvation we seek, this freedom from the ills of this world… is pure gift of God. None of this sermon is about being better as some way to obtaining any sort of spiritual reward. So, for you over-achievers out there just settle down for a minute. Let me explain.
First of all, let’s understand this scene a bit more. This rich young aristocrat falls at the feet a penniless prophet from Nazareth. This alone is shocking. Jesus didn’t have a membership at the Club. He didn’t have season tickets to anything. He wasn’t seen at the right parties. But this guy who does have the membership and the tickets and the right outfits and social commentary for the right parties dirts the knees of his suit pants to get an audience with Jesus who very well hasn’t showered for a couple of days. “Good teacher!” the man cries which, for whatever reason, puts Jesus off from the onset. “Who you callin’ good? Save that for God!” It’s almost as if Jesus was trying to pour cold water on this youthful exuberance – or maybe he needs to shock the man out of his own emotive state. How often do we come to God, in prayer, with our agenda clearly already laid out, planned and answer assumed? Jesus may pour cold water on this moment to snap him, and us, out of the fog of our own understanding so that we can be open to absorbing what he has for us. “Stop and think!” Jesus is saying. It was a way of saying, “You’re all worked up, you’ve come with an agenda, and you aren’t ready to count the cost of what it is your soul really needs.”
Almost breathless from the run and perhaps following countless restless nights wondering why he still has this void inside of him, the man asks the question that has been burning a hole in his spirit: “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus knows who he’s dealing with. He responds, “You know the commandments, my man.” Jesus doesn’t name all of them. Maybe this means nothing or maybe it’s worth noting which one’s he does name – all but one were negative commandments. Don’t do that. Don’t say this. Don’t steal. Don’t hurt. And the man must have had this slow grin growing on his face because he’s #nailedit! He stands to his feet, relieved and wondering why he had been so worried about this. He says, “I’ve not done any of those things. I’m good, then?” And the text says, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” We wondered at our staff meeting this week, when we studied this text together as a team, if this was a first century attempt at sarcasm. If Jesus were Texan (and the Texan’s in the house are thinking, “He’s not?”). If he were Texan he would say, “Bless his heart.” That inside chuckle of, “How cute is that? He’s not done any of those things since the third grade. Adorbs!” But the real question has nothing to do with what he hasn’t done. The question Jesus seems to be mulling over as he looks into the eyes of this respectable, good man: “What good have you done?” Theologian William Barclay says, “Respectability, on the whole, consists in not doing things; Christianity consists in doing things.” Jesus sees his heart and lays his response directly on top of it – “You lack one thing. Liquidize your possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.” If there was any follow up question or a stammering comeback or a plea of “Any other options on the table, Jesus?” we are not told. Mark simply says, “Shocked and grieved, the man turned away sad because he had so much great stuff.”
Have you ever been convicted of something… something that you just knew in your heart needed to change but you walked away sad because it was just going to cost you too much? I’m willing to do some things but come on, right, this “I surrender all stuff?” “I’d give it all up for you?” That’s not why I asked the question in the first place. When I asked, “What do I need to do, Jesus?” it was more in the spirit of “Holler at me if you need anything…” with full assumption that Jesus would never call on me needing anything. Or… if we do expect or wish for a response, we mostly want just another thing on the list of “Don’ts,” preferably a “don’t” that we already are not doing. “I don’t cheat on my wife,” we might say. But Jesus is saying, “But how does she know you cherish her?” “I’m not a racist,” we might think. “Remember the Titans is one of my favorite movies. I’m woke.” But Jesus asks, “But did you say anything when a group of your friends made those racist comments?” “I tolerate people of various beliefs and viewpoints,” we may note proudly. Jesus says, “But do you love them?” We’re great at pointing out the sins of others who are struggling with things that we have no struggle with whatsoever. We can get on board with the ‘don’ts’ but don’t ask us to give something next-level of ourselves. The rich, young ruler had his checklist in hand and was looking for one more gold star for being good. I read a word from a guy this week who, for the longest time, had a very rigid faith and was proud of it. Proud of his diligence, of not succumbing to any sins (at least that others could easily see) and he just finally had to own it. “I was an idolater,” he said. “I worshiped my Christianity more than Christ.”
I was with a group of forty ministers or so a couple of years ago listening to a presentation about the Enneagram – a personality-typing system – grounded in the roots of faith. It is, to date, among the greatest spiritual growth tools for me in my own walk of faith. About a dozen hours into the presentation in a single day and diving into the numbers and what they mean and how it affects faith, relationships; an understanding of God’s image in me, several were asking the presenter about spiritual practices for particular personality types. What does someone with a personality like mine need to work out that would particularly help me grow in faith? We were all eager to know and learn. One of my colleagues happened to be one to ask the presenter. He’s an eight on the Enneagram for those of you familiar with the types. The eight is called “The Boss” – not sure if Springsteen is an eight or not. If you were to think about an Enneagram 8 in terms of the animal world, eights are the lion. Strong, strong personality. Tons of energy. Loves conflict and debate and control. Bring it on! They have tendency to tackle large systems and work for change. If they’re on your side, you love ‘em. If not, they may be a huge thorn in your side. This particular friend has done some marvelous ministry and used his personality and giftedness to tackle systemic sin – particularly in matters of helping the poor. He could go straight to the top of government to battle out the needs of provisions for the least of these. Quite admirable. But the presenter looks at him, and ‘loved him’ like a Texan… he was so eager to grow and continue the good fight… and she says to him, “You know, for an eight who tackles the systemic issues of homelessness… I give you this spiritual discipline to practice: find and befriend one, single, individual homeless person.” You could just see the deflation in my friend’s spirit. He turned away sad because he had such aspirations of fixing the government. “Befriend a homeless person?” Shakes his head.
We’ve all got something, right? Something we don’t want to give up? Something we don’t want to take on that would ask us to be uncomfortable. But Jesus knows it’s in that place. That’s the thing that will always keep us from experiencing the fullness of love of God and neighbor. That’s the thing about love – love is beyond the don’ts. Yes – when you’re in a loving relationship, there are certain things you don’t do to honor that relationship as I noted earlier. You don’t engage in other relationships that will be detrimental to your marriage or your relationship with the one you love. You don’t abuse them in any shape or form. You don’t turn the thermostat lower than you’ve agreed upon with your loved one whose internal temperature is just unreasonably warm. But love doesn’t build or last on the don’ts alone. Love is about the extra mile. Love is about sacrificing your comfort for the Other. Love is more than not harming them. Love is lifting them up… demonstrating their beauty and value… rising above the expectation of what is minimally required to be a good, decent human being. Because of this, love will involve some pain and some courage.
Someone once said, “I can confidently say that stories of pain and courage almost always include two things: praying and cussing. Sometimes at the exact same time.” We don’t know what kind of life this rich, young ruler goes on to lead. Maybe he was forever sad because he wasn’t willing to give up his creature comforts in order to grow his own spirit and serve God by serving others. Or maybe he spent some time praying and cussing (because it was going to be hard) and found his way toward generous living that brought dignity and hope to the poor in his community as Jesus challenged him to do. We seldom get the rest of the story of many of these biblical personalities that weave in, out and around Jesus. The beauty is that we can more readily drop our own stories into their stories. Living the outcome is now upon us. Are we willing to shoot for a life better than good? Better than just keeping the rules. Better than just sliding by on enough religion to satisfy some cultural requirement that is still far from unlocking the freedom of our own spirit found in giving it all up for God?
What do you find in your heart today? What conviction is tugging at you to go deeper – to give a little more of yourself? If your life is a musical, what song do you feel bubbling up in your spirit? What if you let that song out? What if you sing that song with your life? Maybe it’s Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Give it away, give it away, give it a way now.” Maybe its Journey’s “Don’t stop believing in!” Or Simply Red’s “I’ll give it all up for you (yes, I), I’d give it all up for you (yes, I), I’d give it all up for you (yes, I), I’d give it all up for you (yes, I would).” And you know what I’ve discovered? Whenever I’ve quit fighting that song in my soul – the one I know to be of God’s courageous challenge to my need to grow spiritually – and just let that song out… then, and only then, have I tasted the satisfaction of life that is better than good.
 Exegetical commentary influencing this sermon found in William Barclay’s “The Gospel According to Mark”. Westminster Press. 1975. And “Mark for Everyone” by Tom Wright. The University Press. Cambridge. 2002.
 Anne Lammot offered this line in multiple places. I am uncertain of its original source.