“Two-edged sword” – October 14
Sermon: Robin Wardlaw
Pentecost 20, Year B
Readings: (Job 23:1–9, 16–17); Psalm 22:1–15; Hebrews 4:12–16; Mark 10:17–31
Hands up those who are burdened by too much money. OK, never mind. Is anyone having an out‑of‑money experience? They say money isn't everything, but it sure keeps the kids in touch. Oscar Wilde, the Irish playwright, said, “When I was young I used to think that money was the most important thing in life. Now that I am old, I know it is.” Adlai Stevenson, the American diplomat and politician, had a good line: “There was a time when a fool and his money were soon parted, but now it happens to everybody.”
The bible certainly gets in many digs at rich people. At one point, for instance, the prophet Amos refers to upper class women as “cows of Bashan” because those animals were famous for being sleek and well-fed: “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!’” (Amos 4.1) The gospels tell the fable of Dives, the rich man who would settle for a sip of water as he roasts in hell, never mind crossing the great gap to join Abraham and all those with him.
So, for balance, here’s a story is about who someone with less money, someone frugal, shall we say. He’s talking to his mates on Monday morning about his date on Saturday night. “Yes,” he says, “out we went, lovely night to walk, and passed a restaurant I’ve heard of. Quite famous, apparently. Looked expensive. My date catches a whiff of the smells coming from inside as we go by, and almost faints on me. ‘Wonderful,’ says she. Well, I was just in that kind of a generous mood. I turned us around, and we walked by it again.”
Today we’re making connections between wealth, living a faithful life and the consequences of one versus the other. That shouldn’t be too hard. And if you like what you hear, I’m in a generous mood, so just let me know with a show of hands at the end and I’ll preach it again.
I love the connection between the passage from Hebrews about the Word, and Mark’s account of Jesus’ teaching about money and true wealth. “Sharper than a two-edged sword,” says the writer of Hebrews. And as if to prove that point, Mark’s story about the challenges facing those who love their money more than anything. The word is sharp for the rich guy. He’s already following all the other commandments. Now what? Give away everything– everything?– and follow Jesus? Come on!
The Roman empire of Jesus’ day has been compared to present day organized crime. It used force or the threat of force to gather tribute, enriching those who were part of the collection system along the way, even as it left most people struggling to manage. It was a somewhat less oppressive system than the Hebrew people had experienced in Egypt as Pharaoh’s slaves. Still, the Jewish population of Palestine kept rising up against Rome, often with catastrophic death tolls when Roman soldiers waded into crowds of protesters with their short, two-edged swords, their gladii. Pax Romana was similar to peace under the Taliban–as long as a person toed the line completely, never raised his, or her, voice, no harm came.
Jesus raised his voice, of course. He went around the country eating with others, feeding others. Roman justice was retributive. Jesus’ justice was distributive. He got noticed. He gained enemies. He rocked the boat, the dreadful, fear-filled, rotten boat, and eventually got swatted aside like a gnat. The Roman empire is gone. Jesus is not.
There is usually someone lined up willing to be the new Rome, though. Up till now it has been nations. A new wrinkle is that corporations are not willing and able to take over the job. Mining companies ripping resources out of the ground without regard to the people or landscape around the mine, forestry companies cutting without regard to habitat or sustainability, giant agriculture companies holding hungry nations hostage in order to get their patented crops access to local farmers, or replacing subsistence farmers with a monoculture of fruit or sugar or something. Brutal stuff. Sometimes fatal for activists who raise their voice.
Is this just the way of the world? Is this how our species will bring about its own end? The bible view of this discouraging pattern in human affairs is a long one. It is a hopeful view. What we do here in worship is act as if change had come. For a time each week, we live into something we call God’s realm. We have called it the kingdom of God. A word that evokes that image while creatively altering it is the ‘kin-dom’ of God. It’s coming up later in our prayer. Keep track of how you feel about the change of wording, so that we can discuss it as a community.
A community. We’re seeking to be opposite of a crime gang here. We’re determined to reflect on power here, not just wield it like a sword. When we eat, we do it in the style of, in the spirit of Christ, with fair sharing, attentive to the needs of others. If we sense that part of the boat is sinking, that neighbours are at risk of drowning, we raise our voices. And we know that the word that inspires this willingness to be counter-cultural is two-edged. It would be easy to become smug about our humility, proud of our servant attitude, arrogant in our commitment to others who are vulnerable.
Here’s part of what the new king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchukto, said at his coronation:
“We in Bhutan view ourselves not as citizens of Bhutan but as Bhutanese citizens of the world and small as we may be, we feel that one day we might be the conscience of the modern world. Through my reign I will never rule you as a King. I will protect you as a parent, care for you as a brother and serve you as a son. I shall give you everything and keep nothing; I shall live such a life as a good human being that you may find it worthy to serve as an example for your children; I have no personal goals other than to fulfill your hopes and aspirations. I shall always serve you, day and night, in the spirit of kindness, justice and equality.” (From the Coronation address of HM Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchukto, the Nation, November 6, 2008.)*
Not your average king. One of the things they have going for them in Bhutan is that no oil has been discovered there yet. In fact, India, their giant neighbour helps prop up the economy. Heaven help them if someone discovers a source of great wealth there. Because Jesus is right, isn’t he? Money can get in the way of so many good things. What am I saying? How would we know? In quiet moments we sometimes think we would love to have the problems of the rich, right? Jesus was never rich. How does he know what he’s talking about? And everyone knew that money meant a person had been blessed by God. So if a rich person can’t get into eternal life, the realm of God, who can?
And that leads to the question of what we mean by eternal life, or the realm of God. If you’ve been around the church for any length of time, you’ve heard many, many sermons on this one. If you are someone who is fairly new to church, you may be thinking eternal life and the realm of God are what come after death. If you’ve been good. If you’re not rich. Not too rich, anyway.
That could be. But it doesn’t sound like the kind of talk that would get a person dead. And Jesus was killed for his teaching. He was too risky to let live. He wields that living, active, sharp-as-a-sword word of God fearlessly. Two-edged sword. His teaching doesn’t let anybody off the hook.
It takes a long time to raise the money for one school in Africa or Afghanistan or somewhere. But we happily buy and load and drop so-called smart bombs that cost as much as a school. The idea of a realm of God is an invitation to see others as our kin, to see our future as all tied up with them and the whole planet. How sharp is that? Should we be afraid of this living, active, sharp word of God? Think of it like a scalpel. It’s job is to separate us, to free us, from that which is getting in the way of our fearless work and prayer for change. It gets us closer to the Christ we love.
*Bhutan website, http://www.kingdomofbhutan.com/kingdom/kingdom_3_.html, accessed Oct 11, 2012.