May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
What do you need to do to inherit anything? That's the question that I, if I was Jesus, would have asked this man who ran up to him, called him a good teacher and asked him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. We all know that answer – to inherit something you have to be the heir of whatever it is you want to receive from whomever you want to receive it! If I want to inherit a million dollars, I have to have parents, grandparents, a long lost rich aunt, or someone else who has a million dollars to leave to me. And they must love me enough to want to leave it to me!
This man – who we are later told has many possessions – wants to inherit eternal life, and he wants to know the secret to doing it. He is a good person, he follows the commandments, but he just doesn't know if it is enough. Jesus proposes to him a scenario that is impossible – who among us could sell all that we have and give the money to the poor? To be sure, we admire people who hear Jesus' words and enter into a life of simple living in order to focus on their relationship with God and God's call to reach out in Jesus' name. Last week I mentioned St. Francis, who forsook a sizeable inheritance that he had coming to him from his wealthy cloth merchant father, and married, “lady poverty”. And we just had a visit from the Pope who took Francis' name as his own who has left behind so many of the things that many popes have enjoyed through the years – opulent clothing, a comfortable palatial residence, luxury transportation. We admire it, but we often fall short in our own attempts at lives with less, enabling us to share with others. It still doesn't mean we shouldn't try to live this way! But it also doesn't have anything to do with the reason we can inherit eternal life, in other words, it doesn't have anything to do with being loved by God for an eternity.
Yes, I said it is possible for us – even those of us in this country who do have wealth, especially in relation to the way that most of the world lives, to inherit eternal life. The reason is not because of what we do or don't do, but because we are children of God who loves us and wants us to experience joy forever. In our Sunday school class on the Lutheran confessions, we have been talking about two kinds of religion. One is called, “up religion” and one is called, “down religion”. Up religion is based on the premise that God is up high and that we have fallen out of favor with God, so that we must do what we can to work our way back up to be with God. This kind of religion is based on works righteousness, the same kind of mindset that the rich man had who approached Jesus in our Gospel reading.
We might view the stairs up to God as being made of levels, and at each rung or level the people there have certain batting averages. People like the two Francis' or Mother Theresa might bat a thousand, while we bat around .250, which if you know baseball stats isn't too bad, actually it's about average for the regular player – to get a hit about one-fourth of the time. If you get a hit one-third of the time you will probably make the hall of fame … unless you are someone like Pete Rose! Of course there are those batting 0.000, and they are the ones at the bottom of the stairs not even able to take that first step. Their actions never seem to be loving or giving or holy.
The problem with this kind of living is that it usually produces one of two things – either it causes the person to become boastful, because they see themselves as climbing these stairs up to God thanks to their stellar life; or it produces despair – never knowing if you've done enough to get back up to God's good graces. The man in the Gospel exhibits a little bit of both, I think. He makes some pretty bold claims, that he has kept all of the commandments from his youth, and it sounds to me like a lot of boasting! But he also wonders if it is enough, if there isn't anything more he needs to do to get into God's good graces besides the wonderful ways that he has followed the commandments - hence his asking Jesus the question in the first place.
On the other hand, down religion is a relationship with God that is based on the fact that God has already come “down” to us in Jesus Christ. In our Nicene Creed we confess that, “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven…” It is because of the free gift of God's grace that we are related to God, and as a result we have every right to the inheritances that God offers us – including that of eternal life. Up religion says that there is something about each one of us that makes us able to climb those steps, bat .250 or higher, attain or re-attain God's love and favor for an eternity. Down religion, which is the Christian faith at its core, says that there is something about God that leads God to come down to us, even as far as the cross; to enter into our lives, come down as word which becomes flesh and dwells among us so that we may experience God's presence full of grace and truth! And in the heart of that word made flesh is God's promise to make us righteous and whole, at peace with the one from whom we inherit all good things. And God's promises to us create so many things in our lives – hope and faith, chief among them! And those things lead us to respond to God's goodness and grace as ordinary saints in the world today – maybe not like Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis or Mother Theresa, but like people who use their gifts to share God's mercy with the needy and work for justice in our world today.
I imagine that the people to whom Amos was speaking didn't like his words for a couple of reasons – they were aimed at the most powerful in the community who controlled the justice system and wanted to keep it that way; they also couldn't see Amos' words ever coming true – it was just impossible. Could we see Amos' words come true for us today, in the justice system of our country where the wealthy get an obvious advantage with their ability to hire the best lawyers to defend them? Or is it impossible? Is it impossible that the situation we have in our country with an increased number of shootings in our news can be made better? Can racism be fixed? Can we get along with people of all faiths including Judaism and Islam? Can anyone convince extremists in Islam, Judaism and Christianity that God is not calling them to hateful words and violence? Is it possible? No. I am here to tell you that Jesus wants us to know that if we think that by following commandments all of the ills of our world will go away then we are fooling ourselves.
The good news is – For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible! Just like the camel going through the eye of the needle and me fitting through a hole cut in an ordinary 8 and a half by 11 inch piece of paper, so God is the only one who can intervene and heal us and our relationships with all people so that everyone can experience eternal life. The problem is that human sin and God's gift of free will often get in the way.
I hope that you see in this often troubling text a ray of hope and good news with me. In order to be right with God and each other, we are called to let God be God, and to prayerfully discern how we will be part of God's ultimate intervention to heal our world. God has promised to do just this – that's why he came down from heaven in the first place. May the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ come down into our lives so that the impossible may be done, and may we all inherit eternal life together through God's grace; Amen.