16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
18 “Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony,
19 honor your father and mother,’[a] and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.
24 Again I tell you, 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.”
25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife[c] or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.
30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
The pastoral staff, led by our senior pastor, often decides the theme or series for preaching sermons together. For this season between post-Christmas and Lent, Steve suggested Seven Big Words, because I think he had some words in his mind that have really shaped him, like he shared last week.
And as I tried to think of a word, it was hard to think of just one word. Because living in a binary world, and being a Libra (which I’m basically joking about because I’m not that into astrological signs, but I will scroll to Libra if I see a horoscope post on Instagram), but Libra is the one that is holding the scale.
It craves balance, and if it tips one way, my desire is often to also go, ‘well on the other hand.’ So when I think of one word, immediately, I think of the opposite, the other side of that word, that in my mind, is equally important. But the first word that kept coming to me was, not a big word, but a simple word, follow. And it comes from a place of privilege. I’ll explain.
Lately my life has been taken over by a new and exciting campaign from the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, GBIO. I mention this organization a lot, often in my sermons, because it’s honestly been one of the most impactful and interesting parts of my work, since I’ve started working at Reservoir Church as a pastor five years ago. January 2023 marks my five years here, can you believe it?
GBIO is a community organizing institution. It’s made up of 60+ institutions and if every single of those members came together, it would probably be 3,000 people + strong. And the fact that Reservoir is involved in this work is really interesting.
Because traditionally churches have done ‘mission’ or ‘outreach’ as a means of service-providing or charity-giving. Doing things for others. To help. And so the community organizing model for doing justice is a unique one that many churches might not be used to, that might feel different from… say providing meals for the homeless, a traditional picture of “serving.” There’s a time and place, of course, for service and charity. Churches through generations have played an important role in providing for the widows and the orphans, aid. I mean many hospitals are named after those that started out as ministries. But it also is often from a place of power, and yes, wealth, to be able to give aid or help or charity or service.
Community organizing is not new to all churches. Black churches in America were doing it during the Civil Rights Movement. And it does have roots commonly engaged with the political spaces. But the way I see it is that it’s a method of moving away from the individualized way of looking at this, but working as a community, as a unit of multiple people, working together as a system. And what’s different about community organizing from traditional charity and service from the church is that–one of the central mantras of community organizing is,
“Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.”
“Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.”
And so right now, GBIO is kicking off a big campaign called the Housing Justice Campaign. It’s tackling the issue of housing from many angles, from MBTA zoning, to public housing funds, to real estate tax, etc. I’m specifically involved with the public housing fund and we’re working on this tenant (tenants of public housing) and ally organizing and since I don’t live in public housing, I am an ally.
For this work to be done well, effectively and genuinely, the only way this campaign’s going to be a success, is not if a bunch of “allies” come together to rally and speak on behalf of the people that are not in the room, to say that they’re speaking on behalf, in front of the Governor or State Legislatures. That just would not work.
It HAS to come from the power and the leadership of tenants and the people that are directly impacted by this. That’s why the word FOLLOW has been coming up for me. FOLLOW. I need to follow the leadership of others in this work. Even though I’m a pastor and chair of a committee on GBIO, and I have time and energy, and honestly privilege, and that’s exactly why I need to follow.
And then I realized, the word for many of us is follow in a lot of areas, but the word for some of us is actually the opposite. DON’T follow. Rise up. RISE is the other word that came up for me on the other side. It’s actually time for you to stop following blindly and rise up and lead, like we’ve never seen the way you lead before.
Okay, I spent the last 10 minutes talking about GBIO, housing, politics (oh there she goes again) talking about politics and privilege and race from the pulpit instead of talking about Jesus, the cross, or grace. Let’s go to the Bible.
Jesus says to this man,
“go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
You see, this is the thing. We are, yes, curious about spiritual things. And that’s fair. Religion, spirit, our faith. We’re thinking about prayer and Bible and theology. And what does Jesus do? The guy asks about eternal life and Jesus talks about loving your neighbor. Jesus talks about possessions. Jesus talks about the poor. The rich guy asked about eternal matters and Jesus answered him with very earthly matters.
And really I think that’s when our faith gets hard for many of us. When our faith or theology actually starts affecting our bank accounts. Our time. Our family. Our children. Our lifestyle. Our town.
Can I be honest with you? Can we be honest together? There’s a lot of privilege in this space. I’ve never met so many people that went to Harvard until I got here. It’s like everybody and their mamas went to Harvard here! Now it’s a diverse room. And don’t judge a book by its cover, people have been through stuff you don’t know about. But on the real, in many ways, there is lots of privilege in this room. So what is the word that Jesus is saying to those of us who are privileged? Because the reality is Jesus did have different words for different people, and so context and the audience matters.
To Zaccheus , a chief tax collector, this is the whole of their interaction:
“When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.
10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus’s commitment to give half of his possession to the poor and paying back four times back was,
“Today salvation has come to this house.”
You know, that’s really uncomfortable for me. That’s all the dialogue we have between them in Luke. That’s it, they didn’t talk about anything else. Or they did, but this was what was important and recorded and kept for thousands of years. Really? Yeah, Jesus talked about money quite a bit.
But it wasn’t about just money of course. It was about the systems of injustice. About loving and caring for the poor. About inequity. About honesty. About leveling
“Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”
About the last being first and the first being last.
To Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, Jesus tells him
“to be born again.”
To be completely naked, stepping into a whole new world where you know nothing.
I recently joined an online learning community called the Faith and Justice Network, you know, new year, new me, new learning platform (it’s my equivalent of signing up for a gym). Let’s see if you hear about my readings from this teaching platform a few months from now.
But in week one, I had two reading assignments, John three the story of Nicodemus, and a short nine page copied PDF excerpt (it’s so fun to read things like this, a professor’s handpicked pages of a book) titled, Philippine Woman in America by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, written around 1983. And the reading prompt question that was posed was
“How might the experiences of immigrants help us understand what it means to be “born again?”
With such prompt and lens, one could imagine Jesus inviting Nicodemus, someone who knows the land, knows the people, has the power, has influence, to be born again to someone who is new to the place, who knows not the culture, who has no influence or even knows the local language. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like that, either through an immigration experience, or being an outsider, maybe in a new city, or the newbie in the workplace or a new team. But being born again is not an easy or an uncomfortable thing.
The invitation of Jesus is for us yes, ultimately that you’d experience joy and flourishing, that you may find rest, but to get there from where we are, actually it’s not necessarily a very comfortable thing. I mean, Jesus did say,
“29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:29-30,
but you know what a yoke is right? It’s
“a frame or bar that can be placed on one or two people or animals pulling or carrying a heavy load.”
The yoke’s lighter because Jesus is carrying it with us, but the load we’re pulling is still, you know, life. Life is hard!
And the message of Jesus is often called the Good News. But why is it that for this rich man in our text today, that when he heard it, it made him deeply sad. You know why? Because the message of Jesus is good news to the poor! At a pinnacle point in Jesus ministry quote this verse from
“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,”
It’s good news to the brokenhearted, to the captives, to the prisoner.
How are you hearing the message of Jesus?
Does it conflict you?
Does it challenge you, bring up stuff for you?
If it does, that’s okay. Many of us are probably not far from the demographics of Zaccheus, Nicodemus, and this rich man in our text today. And to you, Jesus says follow me. Follow a baby of a God, that came from nowhere-Nazareth, son of a carpenter, adopted child, conceived out of wedlock. A not Rabbinic school educated. Do you dare follow this Jesus?
And also, if you at all feel uncomfortable or sad, like this rich guy, not to worry. The guy walked away sad, probably into contemplation, which is perfectly alright and good. Discern. But this is not the final word for him. For when Jesus said that,
“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.”
And the disciples asked
“Who then can be saved?”
“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
It reminds me of a beautiful picture I saw once, where there’s a fantastical almost sci-fi looking image of HUGE needle, and right at the eye of that needle is Jesus, pulling rows and rows of camels as far as you can see. Yes, with God all things are possible.
That’s what I’m going in with, to this Housing Justice Campaign. We started with a $50 million dollar ask to the Mayor Wu’s office for Mildred C Hailey public housing in Boston for maintenance and we got it last year. A GBIO team in Brookline built relationships with tenants in their local state-funded housing and the Brookline Housing Authority, and amidst all their conflict, have found a common goal. Which is the opportunity to ask and demand at a state-wide level, funding for all the public housing who are in a state of living conditions that are sometimes truly unbelievable, based on research 8.5 billion dollars. Yes, that is GBIO’s targeted ask to the state government.
Could a broken system, disparate people, folks with opposing political views, across socio-economical lines, across different religions and faiths, possibly come together to pull $8.5 billion dollars through an eye of needle to a place where we imagine, a heavenly place where its describe in
John 14 “In My Father’s house are many mansions”
“They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; (this makes me think of the homeless) for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters (clean water!). And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”
Pearl Gates. Streets of Gold. (How about at least gates that are maintained and streets that you can walk on safely without falling and hurting yourself?)
It too is a vision I have, like Apostle John who wrote the book of Revelation. On earth as it is in heaven. On earth as it is in heaven is my prayer.
My faith is not apart from works and this is the work we have before us.
And if you’re not rich or privileged, don’t be like Peter either. Peter answered him,
“We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
I’m kidding actually. I think it’s fine to expect things from Jesus. In the theology world they call this Protest Theology. I call it Tuesday afternoon prayer. The Bible called a Psalmist’s prayer.
“God what are you doing? Are you actually even awake, listening to the cries of your people?” Psalm 44:23 says “Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.”
God what you gonna do for us? When’s it gonna be our time?
I say to you, Rise up. Lead. Lead like Peter did, and boy did he, when we read the rest of Acts and the early Christian church. To him Jesus said,
““Truly I tell you, renewal of all things”
Renewal of all things. May that be so, not just after we die in heaven, but now, in real ways, in people’s homes. Renewal of all things.
But I gotta say, some people really do hope that the whole
“last shall be first and first shall be last”
only happens after we die. What do you think about that? Where are you right now? Does this paradigm work for you? Is it good news to you?
Maybe some of you might be saying, I don’t know how to take this “good news” because I’m not poor. Yes you are. Maybe you have lots of money, stocks, savings, properties. But you’re poor in ways that might not be apparent to others around you or even to your own convincing. Whether it’s addiction, spirit, depression, anxiety, numbness, or whatever. There is good news for you too. Don’t be sad. To you too, God says
I will pull you through the eye of the camel. Follow. Follow the humble one through it.
And to those of us who are poor. Maybe you’ve been struggling financially. Maybe you don’t come from money and money is such a struggle. To you I say,
you are rich and you have power. You can lead. Rise up. You can be the ROCK, just like Peter, that church can be built on. You too though, follow Jesus and he will lift you from the depth, lift you up to new life.
Last shall be first. First shall be last. Jesus turned everything upside down. What’s Jesus turning upside down in you now?
Let me pray for us.
Jesus, you’re always turning things around for us. Help us to know and follow you, to the depths of despair, to the heights of new life. Help us to find you no matter where we find ourselves this morning, we pray, and know that you are with us, that you love us, and that you’ll fight for us that we may find life. Help us we pray, in your name. Amen.