Why Are You Here?

Hebrew 9:24-28Mark 10:17-31

Why are you here?

Is it because you had to be here? Maybe Mom or Dad told you to, or maybe Jim and Sharon tod you to? Perhaps you were responsible to fill some role this morning – ushering, greeting, running the sound system? Perhaps you had nothing better to do on a Sunday morning? Or maybe, just maybe, you wanted to be here, to see friends, to meet new folks, to worship and study and serve?

Why are you here?

Think back to the first time you came into this church. Or into any church, for that matter. What was it about the place that drew you in? Was it the closest one to your house? Did you have neighbors who attended? Did you drive by every day for months, always saying, “I’ll go there next Sunday,” but not get around to it for a while? Or is it that you’ve always gone to church, from childhood? Is there simply that there is conceivably nothing else that you could be doing with your Sunday morning? And if that’s the case, what is it about this place?

For me, I have no Sunday memories from childhood that don’t include church and worship. It was simply part of our weekly schedule. On Monday through Friday we went to school. And on Sunday we went to church. Since Mom was in the choir and Dad was a regular attendee at Bedside Presbyterian, my sister and I would nestle ourselves between our grandparents in that little corner pew, just barely wide enough for the four of us. I can only remember two sermons from all those years in church as a child; maybe three. But I knew the hymns, I knew the prayers and the creeds. And on a simple level, I knew in an infused way that this is what Sunday was for.

College, of course, was a different story. The choice was mine! I was in charge of my schedule, which meant that Sunday was for sleeping! It wasn’t just a lazy choice, though, it was also an intellectual enterprise. I saw all of the rotten things the church had done through the years, the hypocrisy of Christians, the “holier than thou” attitude. This was not an institution I was going to support with my newly-enlightened presence! I never stopped believing, never doubted God, never questioned that life has meaning and purpose. But I was convinced that church was irrelevant to this shaping of life. A few extra hours of sleep were clearly the better option.

But after four years of this, I knew deep down that something was missing. My life was incomplete. Somehow, in the absence of church, I had retreated spiritually. I hadn’t found the purpose and meaning that I knew was there. And I thought back to my childhood in church, and of all those hypocrites who prayed to God and sized up one another’s clothes at the same time. But I also thought of all those wonderful people, who taught me Sunday School and gave me cookies and attention, and who also served the homeless and the poor and people with AIDS and all those whom the rest of the world had cast aside. And so, I went back to what I knew. I thumbed through the yellow pages, found the closest Presbyterian congregation to campus, and came back. I found the hypocrisy still alive and well, but I also found alongside it a deep desire to serve, to heal, the change the world.

There is, of course, much more to my story than that. Many years and many changes in my understanding of church and God and Christ have passed since then. However, I offer this to you this morning by way of encouraging your own reflection on your own journey. What’s your story? Why are you here?

What I simply want to suggest this morning is that the reason you or I are here is much larger than us. I’m not questioning human agency or choice or free will, the making of decisions or the weighing of options. However, I do think that there is something at work in each of us that brings us to this place, into the community of faith, to church, to life in Christ.

We can see this at work in our gospel lesson this morning. Jesus is making his way with the disciples toward Jerusalem when a young man suddenly runs up to him. The young man is rich, as we learn later. Christ and his disciples, as we already know, were the wandering poor. And yet, something amazing happens! The young man throws himself at Christ’s feet; the rich bowing down to the poor. He kneels before him, because he knows that he’s looking for something that he is missing. He is a faithful steward of God’s law, following at least six of the Ten Commandments since he was a child, the ones that Jesus lists for him. And yet, there is this emptiness within him. He’s looking for more than that, perhaps an eleventh commandment or some magic key that can unlock the mysteries of the world and the life beyond to him.

It is then that Christ looks at him and, as Mark tells us, Christ loved him. It’s not pity or charity, but love. We get this sense that Christ somehow looked into the very essence of this young man, seeing his soul and its burdens. It is then that he tells him that the one thing he must do is to sell everything he owns, give the money to the poor, and follow him. The young man leaves shocked and grieving.

What is it about this burden of possessions that Christ seems to single out in this lesson? Was it about money? Well, to an extent, yes. As soon as the man leaves, Jesus turns to the disciples and speaks to them about wealth. We hear this familiar passage about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. I once heard an explanation for this passage that made it easier to swallow: that there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle” whose entrance was so low that a camel needed to kneel to get through. And so, the explanation went, this was a passage about humility, not poverty.

It’s a nice thought, certainly a lot more palatable than any other option. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to back up this interpretation. If it were as simple as kneeling like a camel to show that humility, the young man has already done that. And if it were as easy as a stubborn camel dropping to the ground, the disciples would not have responded with such shock: “Then who can be saved?”

So on one level, the lesson is really is one of possessions. And when put into a context of other sayings of Christ, such as those about storing up treasures on earth, or the blessings that are meant for the poor and the meek and the persecuted, the point is driven home. It is, indeed, easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter heaven. I don’t know about you, but as an American whose salary as a pastor puts him above the median national income, and whose nation has the third highest per capita income in the world, this certainly gives me pause.

So the question comes to me today, as it does to each one of us: would I be willing not only to kneel down, but to leave it all behind for the sake of faith, to follow Christ and be his disciple?

It reminds me of a scene from the movie Thank You for Smoking which came out this past year. Nick Naylor is the hero of this satire, a man who proudly earns a living as a spokesperson for Big Tobacco. In one scene, he takes his son out to California with him on a business trip to teach him about the power of persuasion and argument. Nick is there to confront the decline in cigarette smoking nationwide, setting up a meeting with a top Hollywood agent. The plan is to reintroduce cigarettes to American kids through product placement and star power. The meeting goes well; it seems that Nick is unstoppable.

It is then that he is sent on an impossible mission: to visit the Marlboro Man, who is dying of lung cancer, and has become very public about it. Nick goes out to his ranch with a briefcase full of hush money. In an amazing scene that shows Nick’s true gift for spin, he convinces the cowboy that it would be far better to take the money and supply his family’s needs than to call the press and denounce cigarettes and remain a poor man who is slowly dying.

As they drive away, Nick’s son asks him, “Dad, how did you know he would take that money?”

“Because you’d have to be crazy to turn down that kind of money. When I saw he wasn’t crazy, I knew he’d take it.”

Are we crazy? Apparently we’re crazy enough to be here on a Sunday morning when the world outside beckons to us with other options. But would we be willing to reject a suitcase full of bills for the sake of a larger truth? Could we resist temptation and turn to the power of a gospel that speaks truth to power and hope to the powerless? Could we leave it all behind to follow this Christ?

There is, no doubt, a question of wealth and possessions that surrounds this story of the rich young man in our gospel lesson. It should make us uncomfortable, responding in unison with the disciples, “Then who can be saved?” At the same time, there is a larger lesson at work. For the rich young man, it was the issue of possessions that prevented him from inheriting eternal life. For the Pharisees, it was power and prestige that kept them from recognizing the truth that Christ represented. For others, it was something else. So here’s the soul-searching question at stake for us: what is it that blocks you from that total commitment, from dropping everything and following Christ? What is it that prevents your complete surrender to the ways of God? What is it that keeps you from relinquishing control to the Holy Spirit, following where it might lead?

In the end, when we read this story, we should be able to see ourselves in that rich young man whom Christ loved. We know what it is in ourselves that holds us back. We know why we are ashamed or embarrassed. We know the wrong that we do and the good that we fail to do. We know that we fall short, that we hesitate, that we keep part of ourselves hidden from the light of day and from the healing possibilities offered through new life in Christ.

Let me be clear: becoming a Christian doesn’t make it go away, doesn’t promise us perfection of self, doesn’t keep us from making mistakes and going astray. What it does do, however, is to bring us face to face with the question of why we are here.

Whatever brought us here this morning, whether it be choice or obligation, habit or joy, pain or celebration, we have, each of us, made a choice to be here today. But there is that something, perhaps intangible, that has drawn us here and will continue to draw us back. Like the rich young man, we have knelt before the wandering teacher, the one who sacrificed everything for our sake. We seek to learn what it is that we lack. And if we listen, we can hear his invitation, calling us to put cast aside those things that prevent our total commitment, to come along for the journey, to follow him. Are we ready?

sermonsMarthame Sanders