Creflo Dollar, Last Rites and the Rich Young Ruler

Mark 10:17-31

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” …

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” … But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

Thanksgiving has become an odd holiday for us. And it isn’t just that Thanksgiving isn’t really a Christian holiday… since it isn’t about Christ specifically, because we do practice thankfulness as Christians each time we gather for the Eucharist or Lord’s supper. Eucharist means Thanksgiving in greek.

No, thanksgiving is odd because for most of us it is out of context. Thanksgiving’s origins are becoming distant from our lives. Thanksgiving is a North American holiday meant to celebrate the end of the harvest, time of abundance before the scarcity of winter. A time of rest following the hard work of keeping and tilling the land and animals through spring and summer.

Most of us don’t orient our lives according to nature’s seasons. We are far removed from the subsistence lifestyle… we don’t depend on our own hands to grow our own food.

And it is of course, still important for us to remember where our Canadian society came from and to give thanks that there are those who still do provide our basic needs… yet, how we do that by hosting a fancy meal for ourselves is a good question.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that survives mostly on tradition, but as we take the time to give thanks and to reflect on our own blessings… we might discover an uneasiness with our wealth and possessions much like the rich young ruler in the story we hear today.

Sometimes we can forget where the famous sayings of our language come from, and today we are reminded. As Jesus speaks with this wealthy young man and challenges him to give up his possessions, we hear familiar sayings. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven” and “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”.

Jesus seems to be coming down hard on the rich today. And this might make us uncomfortable. We know that we are the world’s wealthy. Anyone with an income over 34,000 is in the top 5% of income earners on the planet. And Jesus says that if you are rich, it will not be easy for you to enter the Kingdom of God. That means most of us. Ouch.

But for those who have been here week after week listening to a difficult year of Mark’s gospel, where Jesus has been uncharacteristically harsh, calling people dogs, or Satan, or telling them they would be better off dead or that they have hard hearts…

Jesus might just be letting us off the hook for our particular wealth today.

This story about the encounter between the rich young ruler and Jesus is all about absurdities. So let’s put it into modern terms so the point can be made.

If you watch TV preachers and televangelists you might have heard of Creflo Dollar… quite the last name for tv pastor. Anyways, Creflo Dollar recently shared the following gem of wisdom to his hundreds of thousands of twitter followers: “Jesus bled and died for us so that we can lay claim to the promise of financial prosperity.”

Jesus didn’t die for our sins. Or to show us God’s love. Or to conquer death.

But so that we can be rich.

Creflo Dollar also asked each one his church’s 200,000 members for $300 each so that he could buy a 70 million dollar luxury jet in order to bring the gospel to people around the world.

What does Creflo Dollar have to do with today’s story? Well, when we hear about this young man coming to Jesus, we aren’t meant to think of a nice young middle manager at the bank. We are meant to imagine someone like Creflo Dollar pulling up to Jesus in an expensive sports car with loud base booming in the air long before you can see the car and that neon glow coming from underneath. And then Creflo steps out to ask this wandering, near homeless street preacher named Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It is easy to get bogged down in Jesus’ criticism of the rich… which may be warranted. But the point is not to hear Jesus criticizing us for trying to be faithful citizens, spouses, employees, and parents by providing for our families.

We are meant to see the absurdity of someone as rich a Creflo Dollar thinking he has fulfilled all the rules of righteousness and done enough to get himself into heaven.

The point isn’t the problem of heaving a certain amount of money or having possessions. The problem is thinking that being rich is a blessing from God.

When the rich young man walks away from Jesus unable to give up his possessions in order follow Jesus, the disciples want to know what is up too.

And that is because like our world, they live in a world that thinks being rich is a blessing from God. They have been taught that being rich and wealthy and healthy is a sign of God’s favour. Just like so many of us have heard on TV or from pulpits or from well meaning friends and relatives. Our world thinks that God is in heaven dolling out the cash to the good people and suffering to the bad. That’s until we see a person who is rich but not a good person. Or we see a good person struck by illness or tragedy. And then we wonder what is going on with God.

An odd thing happened to me this week as I was leading a service at a personal care home. Right in the middle of my sermon, a staff member gave me urgent message that I was needed at the hospital for an emergency. Even though I was certain I was not the pastor who the message was intended for, I quickly concluded the service and left for the hospital.

There I found a family sitting by the death bed of a loved one. I also found out that I wasn’t the intended recipient of the urgent message. Never the less, I offered to pray with the family anyways… as this is part of the calling of a pastor and something I have done many times.

And so there was I was with a dying stranger and his family praying the commendation for the dying, or what used to be known as last rites.

In the commendation, a section of the litany goes like this:

By your holy incarnation,

deliver your servant. 

By your cross and passion, 

deliver your servant. 

By your precious death and burial,

deliver your servant. 

By your glorious resurrection and ascension,

deliver your servant. 

By the coming of the Holy Spirit,

deliver your servant. 

You will notice that we don’t pray:

By all the money he made in this life,

deliver your servant.

By all the good things he did,

deliver your servant. 

By all the rules he followed and commandments he kept,

deliver your servant. 

When all there is is a hospital bed, and a ventilator and tearful loved ones –

money, rules and good deeds don’t mean a thing.

And this is what Jesus is trying to make the rich young man understand. A camel could never pass through the eye of a needle. And even a rich man cannot enter heaven by his own effort.

Rich or poor.

Healthy or ill.

Sinner or saint.

The only way we get into heaven is by God’s mercy.

The only way the Kingdom of God is opened to us, is because Jesus died on the cross for us.

The only person who earns our salvation is God.

God is the one who does the work.

We do not inherit or earn or achieve eternal life.

God gives it to us.

Jesus accomplishes it for us.

And maybe, just maybe that is what Jesus means when he says the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Those who are relying on their own righteousness, their own goodness, their own faithfulness, their own achievements, their own 70 million dollar jets, their own riches and health and wealth, those who are relying on those things to get themselves into heaven will be incredibly surprised when they find out none of that stuff mattered. They might go from feeling first to feeling last.

But those who feel like sinners, like wretches, like unworthy and unloveable people. Those who know that they don’t measure up, that they aren’t good enough, or powerful enough, or important enough, or rich enough, or pious enough for God to show them mercy… won’t they be shocked when they find out that none of that stuff mattered. That God gives grace and mercy even to them. They might feel like they have gone from last to first.

We might feel like we have gone from last to first… because we have.

Because, thanks be to God regardless of our blessings, possessions, wealth or lack thereof, God has decided to give us mercy, to show us grace, to grant us eternal life through Jesus.

Amen. 

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