Our Gospel lesson comes with an illustrative reminder of our Father’s, our Daddy’s, desired relationship with us. Though it is often hard to remember, given how the lectionary editors break up the readings, children figure prominently into these passages. Remember, Jesus takes the child into His lap and tells the disciples that they are called to serve the least. He reminds His disciples and us that it would be better for a millstone to be hung around our necks and us to be cast into the ocean than for us to mislead a child. Finally, when the disciples become indignant that parents are bringing their children to the Rabbi, Jesus tells His disciples that the kingdom of God belongs to those like the children. I focus especially on this image this morning so that you might understand better Jesus’ reproof of the rich young man in our Gospel lesson this morning. Remember, in the midst of this judgment, a godly judgment, Jesus loved the man. His judgment was not meant to be condemning. No, Jesus knows what separates the man from the love of His Father and wants the young man to become His disciple and to be reconciled to the Father. The man’s rejection has tragic implications, but that is a message for another day.
What I wanted to focus on this morning was more given to me during conversations this week. You might wonder how some of us can have the same attitude as the rich young man in Mark’s Gospel. After all, none of is judged by our community as “rich.” Heck, we are not even the wealthiest among our denomination in this community. Few of us are able not to work. Those retired among us must keep a close eye on their expenses. And all of us are just a serious medical bill away from the poorhouse. How then could this passage about a rich young man in Mark have anything to say to us?
Notice the man’s claim and Jesus’ answer to him. The rich young man is going fishing for a compliment when he addresses Jesus. Jesus recognizes this and challenges the compliment. Why do you call Me good? God alone is good. Jesus goes on to recite a few of the ten words, the most famous instructions / commandments of the torah. Not to be deterred from his public praise from the lips of the Rabbi, the man asserts that he has kept these all since his youth. Like Paul, whom we will meet in the book of Acts, the rich young man is righteous under the law. How do we know? Jesus does not call him a liar. He looked at him and loved him. Over time, we have lost our connectedness with another image from the Bible. In sanitized sanctuaries, we forget the visual image of the cost of our sins. Had you and I lived before Christ and been part of the Jewish culture, we would have been required to make appropriate sacrifices for our transgressions. Those transgressions, and the accompanying remedy, were spelled out in the torah. Minor sins might require the sacrifice of a dove, but “larger” sins required bigger animals and more blood. Think for a second the blood associated with each of those sacrifices. In a sense, my spiritual forefathers were as much butchers as priests. But think of the image. If every time you were forced to atone for your sin you sacrificed an animal, how bloody would be your mess? Now you have another reason to thank Jesus for being the perfect sacrifice--as do I!
But what sense does it make for the death and blood of another animal to atone for our sins? Not much, except that God credited the obedience as righteousness. Those who believed and kept the torah were judged under the law as righteous. Notice, however, that the judgment was not something internally earned. There is no merit deserved by those who kept the law. God simply credits their faithful obedience s righteousness.
The rich young man in the story today has forgotten that he does not deserve God’s grace. He comes to the Rabbi, full of puff and praise, expecting to receive just as he has given. Clearly, his wealth has helped to tempt him to believe this lie about himself. We talked last week about the purpose of Job. We reminded ourselves that our circumstances are not the indication of God’s love for us. Our suffering does not mean that we have lost favor with God. Our horrible circumstances do not mean that God has forgotten us. Similarly, though, our blessings are not always indicative of our standing with God. Just as there can be poor, marginalized outcasts among us whom God loves dearly, there can also be rich, beautiful, successful people among us who will be standing outside the door at the Marriage Feast. The rich young man has missed the warning of Job. His attitude is very much like that of Job’s friends, and he does not see it. Even when warned by the one whom he addresses as good, he still does not hear the warning. He thinks he deserves what he has been given; he thinks that he is the arbiter of righteousness before God. He has met all the demands of the torah. That is why, when Jesus reminds him that he must trust and follow God, he turns and goes away sad. His wealth is a sign of his value before God, at least in his own eyes, and to give it up would be more than he could stand. His wealth and his own ability to meet whatever needs arise have given him a false sense of security. In a real way, he has become the example of the rich man who built bigger barns.
In a way, we as a congregation have become much like the man. No, unfortunately a bunch of us have not hit the lottery. No, rather, our attitude has come to resemble that displayed by the man. How so? Tuesday night as we were discussing parish business, a cascade of “where is everybody” began. Once one person started the discussion, it was like floodgates had opened. Did somebody call for an extended summer? Why is our attendance worse than in summer vacation season? What is it we are doing wrong that our own members don’t feel called to come and worship? The Vestry was right to notice our disconnect--it is their responsibility to address such issues. Our financial situation, while not great, has been much, much worse. Certainly, our ministries are thriving, both corporately and individually. And, truth be told, we are getting older. Health concerns are becoming a growing issue for a segment of our congregation. Yet, where is everyone? (I say that noting that the ones who likely need most to answer the question did not drag themselves out of bed on a stormy Sunday morning for church.) Your senior warden had an interesting observation. Grant noticed that we serve in a national church with very low expectations in a diocese which mirrors those expectations and so we, as members, come to mirror it in our parish. Attendance just is not something we demand of ourselves, and we have echoed that culture in our parish. Grant was right. We as a national church will claim a couple million members to anyone who will listen to us, but there are fewer than 500,000 people gathered with us today domestically in worship. And yet all of us, all of us gathered in this denomination in this country at our baptism or confirmation pledge to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.
Typical of the way God works in our life, that meeting was not to be the only time our corporate attendance was discussed this week. As has been the case now for some years, I have ended up the pastor for a bunch of people not formally a part of this group. Twice I was asked to visit people in the hospital who are not members. One had come a couple times. The other had come once. In the case of the former, she apologized when I appeared in her room. She did not know where else to turn. She wanted, she needed prayers. I wasn’t her pastor in her mind, but I was the only pastor she knew. As I am wont to do when given the opportunity, we talked after the prayers for healing. I eventually asked her what it was that was keeping her from worshipping God more formally. She had not found the right fit. So I asked her why we were not appealing. The lady admitted she thought we might be. She loved all our ministries -- for a small church you guys are busy! She loved the liturgy. She said the couple sermons she had suffered through were different -- I’m still not sure if she meant different good or different bad. She had even thought about our healing service afterwards. While doing it, she thought it was hard to do and somewhat out of place. As she reflected, though, she decided it was biblical. She knew enough of her Bible from childhood Sunday School to remember the prayers and laying on of hands. In fact, truth be told, our healing service is what convinced her to ask the hospital chaplain to call. She knew we prayed and believed that God still healed. She needed to be bathed in that prayer and certainty that God acts last week. Admittedly, I was confused. Everything sounded fairly good. So I asked her what had kept her from worshipping with us. “I guess it’s because your church is no different than anyone else. For all their talk and for all their work, they’re still hypocrites in a way. I guess your ministries and worship did not match your people.” Knowing what was to follow, I asked her to continue. She said that there were never more than 40 people worshipping with her. “How thankful and joyful can they really be if only 40 are called to worship God each week?” Ouch.
The second is better in a way. This patient on Friday had a loved one who attends. We talked a bit about the family member who attends, but I was way more interested in her condition. Her condition, I think as does our parishioner, is more serious than she understands. But during I talk, she took the time to thank me for our work and our ministry. Her loved one has been changed entirely from her perspective--you and I would call it transformed in “church speak.” She then joked that the change has not come without some problems. When I asked for an example, she complained that family events on Sunday can never start before noon -- she has to go to church before she’ll do anything else. What was just as bad, she said ruefully, was that she is always inviting them to come. I asked if she thought the change was fake. She was adamant that the family believed it was very real. Naturally, I was curious as to why she begged off coming to church with her loved one. “Life gets in the way, you know? Sometimes I am sleepy. Sometimes I have errands to run. Sometimes I don’t have a good excuse but I still don’t agree to go with her. Know what I mean?” Unfortunately I do. By the various nods, so do you.
As I said a few moments ago, the group that I should be addressing is maybe not the group that dragged themselves out during a stormy Sunday to worship God. And yet, you and I are responsible for allowing that culture of low expectations to go on unaddressed. It is, admittedly, my job to remind people that they are called to worship God. It is my job to remind people of the joy and thankfulness they should feel when considering whether to come to church on Tuesdays or Thursdays or Sundays. But it is part of your responsibility as members of this body to wonder where the other parts of the body are. It is your responsibility to love your neighbor as yourself and to fight against such an attitude of low expectations. As I said, we don’t want the sick coming and sharing and we certainly understand when frailty plays a role later in life. And, we have several people whose work schedules interfere on Sundays. But should we be understanding about hangovers? About wanting to sleep in? About errands? About a whole host of excuses that are used around here? It is our job to remind one another, when other things get in the way of worship, to remind each other than nothing is more important in our lives than intentionally worshipping and thanking Him for what He has done in our lives and will do for us eternally. That, brothers and sisters, is our true calling. That is our work, our liturgy.
And our acceptance of such an attitude of casual attendance has consequences beyond this parish. Last week I was at a Roman Catholic conference presenting what we do and fielding questions. As is often the case, the congregation-you- became a collection of saints in their minds. I am always asked during those discussions who are the people who do these ministries. I am always asked if we do anything else. As people outside us hear these things, you become larger than life. Then somebody always asks “How many of you gather in worship every week?” When I answer that question there is often the follow-up “out of how many?” People think for a few moments we have caught the “it” of Acts, only to find out in a couple questions that we are really no different from anyone else. Like the first lady in the hospital, we are hypocritical when we claim that God is the priority in our lives. This goes on ecumenically and within our own parishes around the diocese and domestic part of the church. It even impacts those in the church around the world. From time to time I am asked by my international Facebook friends about our ministries and worship. Can you imagine how deflating my answers might sound, at times, to churches whose Vestries must check the grounds for IEDs before and at the end of every worship service? The low expectation we accept with respect to worship diminishes us in the eyes of those who are so impressed by our works. And we become in their eyes a church that seems interested in doing works and less interested in proclaiming God’s grace.
Do you truly understand what God has done for you in Christ? Do you truly understand the grace that He has given you in accepting you as a beloved son or beloved daughter in Christ? One of the ways that you might better answer that question is through your commitment to worship Him. Like those who look to their checkbooks to see if they are truly good stewards of their money, you and I would do well to look to our attendance to help discern whether we have hearts that are truly thankful and full of joy. If we are easily dissuaded from worship, from the vows we took at our baptism or confirmation, perhaps we are not the people we think we are or the people He calls us to be.
The great news, of course, is that He looks on us and loves us. Repeatedly, He asks us to follow Him. It sounds so simple, and yet there are so many temptations to do anything but. Our number one obligation, our number one command, is to love Him with all our heart, all our strength, and all our mind. Yes, we can do that in individual prayers. Yes, we can thank Him at all times and in all places. But as a community of faith, you and I are called to gather in His name, to sing His praises, to lift one another up, to cheer one another on, to mourn with one another, to celebrate to one another, and to encourage one another to repent when necessary. Brothers and sisters, I have homework for you this week. It has two parts. First, I want you to consider prayerfully if you are who you think you are, or are you like the rich young man? Are you willing to follow God, but only on your terms? If so, take this opportunity to remember that He is still looking lovingly on you and inviting you to follow Him. Because we have made poor choices in our past is no excuse for poor choices in our present or future. Second, as you visit with other members in the coming days and weeks, gently find out why they miss so much church. We are all diminished, far more than we would ever expect, when people absent themselves by choice just as we are diminished when people are forced to miss because of health or work. Lovingly remind them that you missed them. Lovingly remind them that we all did. And if your relationship is such that you can help disciple them, spend some time answering those questions that are posed by this week’s Gospel lesson. Who knows, maybe through our faithful obedience and His amazing grace, we can begin to change that culture of low expectation not just within our parish, but in the wider Church, and even in the world!