Barriers to Serving III

Part 3 of the Barriers to Serving 3-part series with Rev. Doug Bouws.

Theme:  God takes (receives) nothing from a person without restoring it in a new and glorious form.

Subject:  What does it cost to follow Jesus?  How does a Jesus follower think about possessions\giving?

Complement: Whatever it costs in terms of self-denial (29) is far outweighed by gain of belonging to the family of God’s kingdom and all that it involves (30) with the experience of eternal life (for which rich man asked) now and forever.

FCF: Fearful holding back instead of following.  Or following and expecting certain places or rewards.

Grace: Remove obstacles and point toward child like dependency and trust. (even in and especially in wealth)

Life is full of surprises.  I’m sure you’ve noticed.  A Senator with only a few years experience in National politics bursts onto the scene and becomes the darling of the press floating towards an improbable election (talking about JFK of course).  Forrest Gump bursts onto the Oscar scene, and runs away with the awards. Two of the least likely people to date in your high school gang, start dating and get married!  Tom Cruise divorces Nicole Kidman—is he crazy?  Even more surprising, he’s a pretty short guy.

Some of you are amazed to find yourself in church this morning, or any morning.  You’re even more surprised (Last week) that you find yourself giving!  You argue with your sister all through your growing up years, and then, as an adult, you find yourself giving her one of your kidneys.

The Bible too is packed with surprises.  We hear of Abraham the great man of faith but then we read his story in Genesis and he’s often a cowardly husband and sometimes weak-kneed.  Jesus launches his kingdom (surprises in gospel of Mark).  One might have guessed children would not be part of his kingdom strategy and vision, but he tells us little children are at its core!  We might have guessed rich and pious folks were essential to his movement, but he lets them walk away.  We might have guessed that if a person chooses his stuff instead of Jesus that he would chase after him.  But Jesus lets such a person walk away.  Here’s today’s surprise.  Many who are first will be last and the last first.  (sports teams and …) or to put it another way:  God takes nothing from a person, without restoring it in a new and amazing way.  (God expects radical generosity from us, but promises to out give us). Yes, Jesus asks each of us to deny ourselves.  Yes, he asks for and expects us to be people who serve, even sacrifice.  At the core of following is taking up our cross, the theme of his ministry.  He said that he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.  Jesus asks a lot from us.  But here’s his promise: God requires nothing from us without a promise that he will give us far more.  To put it a different way:  you can’t out give God.

Two weeks ago we began looking at a most surprising story in the gospel.  It’s an amazing picture of Jesus.  Last week we added another dimension, a “hard saying of Jesus” where he surprised us by saying “rich people can’t get into the kingdom of God.”  Not on their own.  It’s more likely for a camel to go through an eye of a needle.  This week, we’ll add another dimension:  a set of three surprises.  TEXT.  We’re surprised (#1) by Jesus high expectations for his followers—such generous giving for ordinary followers.  He sets the “bar far higher than we would expect.”  So radical we might ask, is following Jesus only for the “nuts?”    

Our church has an orientation event we call Class 101.  Folks come to it with a variety of questions:  What denomination are we?  What is central vision of the church?  What do we think of baptism or communion?  Is the food after services really free?  What do you think about giving?  It would be interesting to answer with this story.  Basically, we think you should leave everything, give it all away, and come follow Jesus.

We are startled by this story.  We are startled to hear/read how central radical generosity is to following Jesus.  He talks about money 10 or 20 times for every time he talks about faith or prayer or adultery or relationships.  That’s because he knows the biggest competition he has in our life is money.  (We are blind to our own greed and stinginess.) 

Bruce Waltke is an amazing Old Testament scholar who has been studying the Bible for decades.  He’s deep into his 70’s.  He just finished a massive two volume commentary on the Old Testament book of Proverbs.  A central character in the book of Proverbs is the tsadiq, the righteous.  Righteous peoples help their community flourish.  Righteous people are full of wisdom and blessing.  A community or church wants righteous people in it—because these people promote and build shalom, a place of flourishing.  There are fools and mockers and we are called to be righteous.  He spent decades asking, “What does tsadiq mean?”   As he wrote his commentary, he came to the conclusion that tsadiq means “generous.”  A righteous person, a person who honors God is a generous person.  She doesn’t spend her wealth on herself, but she plows it back what she has been given by God into her community and churches and schools.  An unrighteous person, one who does damage to shalom, that harms or detracts from her community’s wholeness and flourishing.  Central to core of following God—of living right life is generosity.  (We are surprised by how blunt Jesus is about giving:  leave everything.)

Now, in a follow-up section (verses 28-31) Jesus expands his radical call to follow (as if selling everything is not radical enough).  Last week we heard Jesus call to be “all in.”  Here he ups the ante.  FF Bruce in his book The Hard Sayings of Jesus explains.  “Just as property can come between us and kingdom of God, So can family ties.”   Interests of kingdom of God must be supreme with his followers.  Everything else must take second place, even family ties.  We tend to think there might be something sordid about money making, but that it must be far nobler to focus first on our parents or children.  But we might be so bound up with family ties that we do not put Jesus first.  Possible that family ties really is a form of self love

In another place Jesus says that we need to “hate” our mother and father and sister and brother for his sake (in case you thought this call of Jesus was a typo by Mark).  Hating one’s relatives was meant to be shocking.  Hating means loving less (see Matthew 10:37).  Behind Jesus words—to sell everything, to put me ahead of your family, behind it all, is the cross.  He keeps coming back to that (Lent).  Followed by words of taking up the cross and following me Jesus followers had dependents and some had left them to follow Jesus—from Mark 10. 

What was that like for the original 12?  For all the rest?  Church history story?  Charles Wesley?  Abandon natural responsibilities?  Kingdom of God as nearer and dearer still.

What’s worse/more surprising is that Jesus makes no attempt to disguise the cost.  Verse 29 makes it even harder—and suffering.  You give Jesus credit for truth in advertising, but he surely flunked Dale Carnegie’s course on how to win friends and influence people.  Not seem to be interested in reaching sales goals or new convert totals for the month.  Jesus even reinforces with sobering reminder—persecution!  Suffering as a mark of the church—Luther and Bonheoffer.  “Everyone who wants to obey will face persecution.”  Another place Jesus said, “If I’m persecuted, how can you think you won’t be?”   (Death by Suburb, 89).  You don’t have to go looking for a cross, it will find you.  Woman with four children, sister had essentially abandoned them—decision to raise 8 kids should have come with warning label—drugs, teenage pregnancy, honor roll students—they had them all.  Luther and take in neighbor’s sins.  (57)  So, (summary) we are surprised by Jesus radical words, and the high standards of call to follow gospel.  Jesus response to Peter defines Christian living in terms of persecution and promise.  History is interplay of blessing and suffering.  

(#2)  We are surprised by our natural reluctance to follow (to be generous).  We are surprised by our tendency/instincts to withdrawal from Jesus and his words.   Every human being has a (natural, pronounced) reluctance to give things up/away.  We have a fear of living too open handed.  We know that we live in a world of limited stuff.  There’s only so much to go around.   Some of us learned this when we were a teenager around the dinner table.  Others learned it during the great depression.  Others learned this when the monthly food stamps ran low or in a refugee camp.  And, especially in a culture bent on accumulating, where we measure our status and worth by what we own and drive and where we live, this is a huge value. 

The gospel of Mark paints an amazing picture of Jesus.    When this wealthy, pious, (and we want to add handsome) person comes to Jesus asking for eternal life.  Jesus “loves him” and then asks him to leave his stuff and come be fully devoted to him.  Given this stark choice between Jesus and his stuff, the man picks his stuff.  And what scares us deep down, is that we’re afraid we might make the same choice.  This well heeled and successful man looks alarmingly like us (which is of course the point of the bible story/and why it’s included in the gospel.)

Given Jesus or stuff, this thoroughly pious man picks his stuff.  And it is not just him.  It’s every two year old we have ever met.  Given the choice between doing what’s right and getting all the toys (mine!) she picks her toys.  It’s every teenager we’ve ever met.  Given choice of new car and I-pod or selfless following of Jesus, pick Jesus.  It’s every person who gives God a tip, rather than generosity.  It’s Suburban.  Suburban in wiggly economy.

Death by Suburb.  Child stays over one night and son generous and egalitarian but dad afraid that this new kid will compete and win over his own kid.

I heard (Tim Keller) about an interview with Andrew Walls, a Princeton University Professor who is a historian of world Christianity.  He’s a great scholar.  No slouch.  He was asked why most world religions remain where they begin.  Islam is still in Mecca.    Buddhism still centered in Asia.  But not Christianity, its center is always on pilgrimage.  It began in Jerusalem but the “unwashed barbarians (gentiles)” embraced with such force that its center moved to Alexandria and North Africa, then eventually Rome.  Then another set of unwashed barbarians (white Northern Europeans) like the Franks and Germans and Celts—so took hold of Christianity it centered moved to Europe.  Now as the 20###sup/sup### century ended, Christianity is growing quickly in Latin America and Asian—growing at ten times the population.  In the last decade more than 50% of Christians in the world live in southern hemisphere.  As an example, in the United States there are now 2.5 million Episcopalians.  Nigeria alone has over 17 million, Uganda has over 8 million and there are 14 other African countries with Episcopal churches.  Professor Walls was asked how that happened.  In 1900 Africa was 1% Christian and now it is 50%.  In the next decades center of Christianity will migrate again.  Professor Walls said that it happens because the heart of the gospel is the cross and the cross is about giving out power, and pouring out resources, and serving.  When Christianity is in a place of power and wealth for a long period of time the radical message of sin and grace on the cross gets muted.  It gradually becomes a nice religion where people do good and then it dies.  So the center of Jesus following always moves to the margins, away from wealth and power, toward people willing to take up their cross.  Today missionaries are sent out from Africa to wealthy places to teach about Jesus.  Christianity is not a white European religion, no one owns it, because the heart of it is the cross. 

What does all that mean?  It means the story of following Jesus is full of surprises.  It means that money and power have an amazing ability to blind us to the gospel.  It means that unless there is gracious intervention from God we will be lost.  Jesus saying harder for camel than rich…that’s the fact!       

Another example?  How hard for Abraham to make move of faith?  How hard for Moses to make move of faith?  Most days the ideas of giving back 10% of our income to God’s causes sounds pretty radical.  But after Jesus deals with rich young ruler, seems a good thing to settle for.

Most of this isn’t news.  In a recent extensive survey 89% of Americans said they believed that the United States is too materialistic (Out of Box, 191).  By sheer coincidence almost the exact same percentage also said they wanted more for themselves.  We don’t want to be materialistic, we just want more. 

 In an old black and white movie, Key Largo, a gangster played by Edward Robinson, whose life is filled with violence and deceit holds a family hostage.  Someone asks him what drives him to lead this kind of life, what he wants.  He’s not a very reflective person and doesn’t know how to answer the question.  One of the hostages, played by Humphrey Bogart suggests an answer.  “I know what you want, you want more.”  Robinson’s face brightens.  “Yeah, that’s it.  That’s what I want.  I want more.”  So do we.  We want the next car, the next promotion, the next couch, the love of the next beautiful woman or IPod or tickle me Elmo.  The next thing will be IT.

 In another survey (box, 194) Americans estimated that 20% of the US was “rich.”  But only .05% considered themselves rich.  Reference groups.  Always hang out with people who make more than us, so we all feel middle class.  Keep us from giving things away.  I’m still way behind.  (Keller and imagine person from Central America helping you on your decision making and toward giving)

 In 2000 the Wall Street Journal published an article about the construction of bloated homes, houses that filled up their yards to the property lines, that have enough ostentatious touches to scream, “My house is bigger/better than your house.”  These are sometimes called McMansions.  No society ever had so many people living like this.  An official with one building company said, “We sell what nobody needs.”

 Why does Jesus talk like he does?  Because for most of us, stuff/materialism is God’s main rival.

Many of us have trapped ourselves on a train called “more” barreling to the station called “satisfaction.”  But here’s the third surprise/good news:  (#3) We don’t have to live like this the rest of our lives.  We can be surprised (and maybe a bit embarrassed?) by Jesus promise that 100fold reward by God’s abundance.  

We are still stunned that this event that has just happened, still shocked that such a pious, earnest, lifelong “rule follower” picked his stuff over Jesus, Peter acts as group spokesperson.  “We have left everything to follow you.”  Commentators/wise Christians over the years don’t know what to make of his statement.  Is he being self righteous?  Is he earnest?  It’s hard to get a feel. (We can wish we had it on video tape.)  We do know it led to a surprising (grace) challenge from Jesus, applied to disciples again in 28-31.  Everyone who has ever heard of Jesus, who has ever been to church, who has ever considered his statements find themselves asking, “Are the costs too great?”  Jesus even adds persecutions.  Or some talking of discipleship as triumphalism road?  Either way Peter’s words and Jesus response gives us his perspective for then and now.  Jesus makes no attempt to disguise the cost of following him.  In verse 29 he even reinforces the cost with a sobering reminder that persecution is part of the deal!  But whatever following Jesus (generosity/obedience/living as tsadiq) costs in terms of self-denial, it is far outweighed by the gain of belonging to the family of God kingdom and all that it involves (30) with the experience of eternal life (for which rich man asked) now and forever.

Discipleship/following Jesus involves sacrifice.  But it would be a gigantic mistake to think of it only in terms of giving up.  One commentator suggests a helpful image:  it as though on the verge of marrying a beautiful young bride a young man can only think of what he is giving up. 

Jesus words (28-31) reassure Peter and the other original disciples and us.  He speaks to our fears, to our toddler-like holding on, to our lack of faith.  I believe (after twenty years of ministry) that most folks wish they could give.  Most folks want to give.  Most folks feel a bit guilty about their level of giving.  It’s just that our fear swallows up our faith.  Our fear that if we give up things for Jesus, that if we are generous financially, that if we are generous with our relationships, we will suffer. Our children will be deprived beggars.  We will miss out on the good life.  So we let our fear control our wallet, and make us stingy. (sections—reinforce money and then add other stuff in these verses?). 

Jesus bolsters our faith.  He reassures us.  Your Sacrifices, no matter how great, is nothing compared to the response to what you receive.  When you give to God’s cause, he will take care of you.  Authentic acts of discipleship like are always rewarded beyond what we can know at the time:  a young boy gives loaves of two fish that Jesus multiplies to feed thousands.  Simple (cup of cold water) like acts or seeds that yield 100 times the fruit/harvest.  Image of 100 times.  Abundance God.  From perspective of bumper crop, see sowing in different light.  Amazing harvest verify rightness of costly act of sowing.  Likewise reward of God makes sacrifices of discipleship look insignificant.

Examples.  Dangerous because not health and wealth.  Theology of abundance/God’s providing.  (and persecution) but disciples/all Jesus followers are immensely rich in every area of life (29-30).  Truly the meek do inherit the earth.  (Following Jesus brings eternal and one hundred fold rewards) and suffering.  The disciples have literally left all behind (31) Paul “my God is able to supply ALL.  Behind encouragement to give.

Why does Jesus talk like he does?  Because for most of us, stuff/materialism is God’s main rival.  How do we get free of it?  Sometimes when we talk about this we do a little exercise, a little group therapy.  The real issue is “Who is in charge?  Are you holding your stuff, or is your stuff holding you?”  Little baby step of surrender, hand it to person.  Or a second exercise:  Enough Day (Box, 198).  Go into your house this afternoon:  it could be worse.  Go to car in parking lot and see your car and say, “It could be worse.”  Go home to your spouse and when they ask what you learned in church today, you tell them (thinking all they while “why aren’t you more beautiful and funny”) and say, “It could be worse.” 

Practical question—how much should I give?  Things:  the poor!  If sinner saved by grace you will care about the poor.  Recommend tithing as a launching point.  Involves sacrifice for most of us.  But beware anything that feels like a legalistic percentage.  Give away EVERYTHING!  In Luke calls Zaccheaus to give 50% to the poor.  Reading in Luke gets percentages away?  Not get hung up on %.  Not just tithe and that’s fine.  Should be straining and working to give away all that you can.  The best way to know how generous you should be is by looking to the cross.  All of us will want to give until we know we are sacrificing.  If what we are giving has no impact on where we live or the clothes we buy or where we shop or travel, we are not sacrificing.  Not give out of surplus but go to the bone.  The More money we have, the greater the discrepancy between the lifestyle we have and chose to have.  Give and live sacrificially.  Jesus moves toward people giving away money and power.  Salute many of you.  Talk about folks who give functionally nothing? 

Surprise.  Receive 100-fold.  Tempted to shy away.  Used to manipulate folks.  To steal.  Like paper and pretend to love older folks.  But promise of Jesus, here it is.  Even in this age his followers receive more than they give ample compensation over and above the persecutions that inevitably come and in age to come to receive eternal life.  Live in a time when this truth—God will provide exceedingly more than you need (I Corin 9).

But we do need to hear some warning too?  Point?  That those who have given up the most to follow Jesus must not suppose that the chief place in the kingdom of God is therefore guaranteed to them.  It is possible to take pride in our own level of self denial.  It’s easy for those who do give to suppose that by their giving they make a special claim on God.  No self exertion, not even denial or suffering can make one a disciple.  Discipleship is always a gift of God.  Even those who make great suffering for Jesus are not justified for that reason—even Peter and his companions—who gave up all to follow Jesus may get a surprise on the day of review and rewards receiving preference over them.

We give out of love for one who died on cross, not to achieve status (ways this used and abused by TV evangelists and con people?)

One more surprise.   Jesus closes with another hard saying/surprise: “the first will be last and the last first.” verse 31.

The Day of Judgment will be full of surprises.  God’s kingdom/Jesus topples our cherished priorities.  Those who take their stand on their riches will have nothing left to stand on.  People who give up field and homes to follow Jesus will be compensated but 100 fold.  Gentiles/outsiders get into the inner circle.  (Luke 13).  The scandalous “sinners” are much beloved.  Spiritual Late bloomers/starters receive blessings - Matthew 20.  Those far ahead in understanding and practicing God’s law might fall behind those new to following Jesus.  People, who look successful and pious on the outside, might love their stuff more than Jesus.  And little old ladies, who give their last two cents, might be the biggest givers of all.  Many who are last, will be first and the first, last.

Surprise:  the first will be last, and the last first.  The work of Jesus brings many reversals.