We can’t do it

Pentecost 21B           October 14, 2018

Hope Lutheran Church         Riverside, CA

Mark 10:17-31

Mark is getting hard.  The lessons the past few weeks are leading us to the cross and in all honesty, they are uncomfortable.  I could try to make these feel less painful, but I would be failing in my job. My job is to preach truth and in an age old saying, “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  If you are comfortable in your faith this morning, I hope you are ready to not like my sermon. If you are struggling, if you are full of pain and doubt or you just think you probably are not the best Christian and want to do better this week, then this sermon may just be a balm and buoy.  Either way. It isn’t me, or how I preach it, it is the word of Mark and how he points to Jesus in this story.

It begins with the timeless and  classic question: Teacher, what must I do to have eternal life?  

And the story ends with the man walking away in grief over the answer.  

We will never have an answer that we can achieve.  The young man had great wealth and it was beyond his person to sell it all- he just didn’t have the capacity. Some don’t have the capacity to serve the poor.  Some don’t have the capacity to honor the sabbath. It doesn’t matter whether we struggle on Sunday mornings or get judgmental over how a beggar will use the money we give them.  We all face an obstacle of not being able to follow the rules enough to earn eternal life. Not one of us. We can’t do it. We can’t earn it, work for it, believe it, pray for it, or buy it.  And lest you are the person in the pew saying to yourself that you are the exception, “I have faith, I claim Jesus, I keep the commandments AND I serve the poor.” I am going to call you out. If it were possible for you to keep the laws enough to gain eternal life, then we don’t need Jesus.  If you are the one who is good to go because of the good life you have lived, then Jesus wasted his time and his followers are fools.

You can’t do it and neither can I.  It just isn’t possible- any more than it is possible to have a camel pass through the eye of a needle.  It cannot be done.

Maybe you are one who has heard we can but it is really hard. Maybe you heard the eye of the needle was a gate through which camels could barely pass unless they were unloaded and crawled through on their knees; that we too must unburden ourselves and drop to our knees in prayer.  I hate to break it to you but that is false. It was made up in the middle ages as a way to make sense of this passage, to offer a way to earn your way to heaven. It was an effort to make it possible to buy your way into eternal life- yet another painful lie from the church to control.  It was a story which became a tool of abuse against the poor, the hungry, and even the hurting. The problem is, it still depends on us to earn it. And we can’t.

We can’t earn salvation.  We can’t give enough away, we can’t pray enough hours or for the right things.  We are stuck in sin. That is the law and no human is exempt or above it. As Martin Luther discovered in his monastic studies, we are saved Sola Gratia (grace alone); sola fide (faith alone); solo Christo (Christ alone) – In grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone.

No wonder the young man walked away in despair.  He understood what Jesus was saying, “there is nothing YOU can do to have eternal salvation.”  

If the young man had stayed, if he had owned his in-ability and leaned into the discomfort of knowing he can’t be good enough he might have asked the next question:

“Is there no way to have eternal life?”  

And Jesus would have answered as he does in other places:  “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Christ is the grace, the faith and the answer.

God knew we couldn’t do enough.  The children of Israel tried for 40 years in the desert and still kept messing up.  The most ideal of our abrahamic mothers and fathers kept messing up. The most beloved kings set on the throne by God, messed up.  No one could do it. They couldn’t keep the law and God had made it pretty simple. 10 Simple Rules and no one could keep them.

This is the beauty of our God.  A God who changes God’s own mind (because God can do that!), sets a new standard, and gives us life when we least deserve it.  Enter Jesus. The master(’s) plan. The plan who frees us from our own inability and relies solely on the absolute sovereign divinity of God alone.  The one who shifts the question away from what we can do and instead answers who can save us.

The only thing required of us is to receive.  God is offering us gift of presence, gift of accompaniment, gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.  God is gift, not a contract or equation. We can’t keep up our end of the bargain, but God can. We can’t reason or work our way out of sin, but God can. We can’t find our own way, but God did. We won’t succeed, but God will. With God, through Jesus, we have our way through the eye of the needle because with God all things are possible.  

Life may present us with difficult circumstances and it may feel like God is far away. Evil may seem to have a hold on our fate or daily lives as in Job, but God doesn’t let go.  God doesn’t go away. God remains and is steadfast in faithfulness to us. God restores us and renews us, wallowing with us in our sorrow and pain and lifting us back up once more, promising us hope for eternity.  

We just have to stop fighting God in action.  We need to receive what is offered. And for the days that recieving is hard, we can always pray, Holy Spirit, make me willing to be made willing.

“Only when we stop avoiding discomfort and allow ourselves to be completely vulnerable and exposed do we experience true freedom.”

When we stop thinking it is something we do, believe, or offer, when we recognize our own pitiable circumstance of soul, when we lean into our inability to save ourselves and own the discomfort of acknowledging our circumstance, we become able to see the answer, the gift, the light.  Christ is the freedom who lifts us up from the pit and mire, who loves us still, saves us still, redeems us still. If we let him.

The young man was offered a chance to follow Christ, to see what it means to let Christ be in his daily life, teaching, leading, and saving him.   Christ offered him the chance to see what radical love, generosity, and hospitality can do to change the world. He walked away because he couldn’t let the control go.  Christ is before you now and offering. What will you say?

I for one hope you will say, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solo Christo.


Author: mistressofdivinity

Pastor of St James Lutheran (E.L.C.A) and Episcopal Church of the Saviour, two congregation in the San Joaquin Valley of Central California. Even though the diploma reads "Master of Divinity," the learning continues and I have the wrong body parts to earn a "masters" so I claim Mistress. I lean into this pastoral role more each day, learning to balance vocation and family, life and passion, living and loving.

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