Who's on First: A Sermon

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?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. [Mark 10:17-22]

If I were to stand up here and ask you “Who’s on first?” and “What’s on second?” I’m sure that most of you could promptly tell me that I Don’t Know’s on third, and you might even be able to tell me that Why is the left fielder, and Because is the center fielder! Abbot and Costello have a tough time together in that classic sketch. They just can’t quite figure out how to understand each other. It makes for great comedy, that’s for sure.

But I’d venture to say that in today’s Gospel, Jesus and the rich young ruler are in a similar predicament. Indeed, the rich young ruler leaves the conversation troubled and confused, and the rest of the crowd is lost enough that Jesus has to explain the situation, using the infamous camel-through-the-eye-of-the-needle image.

There was a young man who was very rich. Maybe he inherited some of all of his wealth. Maybe he worked hard to achieve it. Either way, having secured a comfortable life on earth, his mind turned to the afterlife. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turned to the young man and said “you know the commandments,” and the young man boasted about his knowledge of them. And then Jesus continued by telling him that he still lacked one thing: he must go, sell all of his possessions, and give the money to the poor. And we find that this was too great a demand for the rich man, and that he went away completely dejected.

I think that Jesus was challenging this young man with the same questions that troubled our friendly comedians: “Who’s on first? And what’s on second?” Jesus wanted to know what this young man’s priorities were. For a man who claimed to be an expert at the law, he was forgetting that Jesus in his ministry had already condensed the law into two parts: 1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength; and 2. Love your neighbor as yourself. In the scope of life, God should be first, and others should be next.

This is a little backwards from how society would have us prioritize. We function in a culture driven by the market values of efficiency, self-gratification, and profit-maximization. We live in a time where individualism and personal preference are held sacrosanct. We value the power of the people to influence policies based on our preferences. And while these are all values that keep our economy and political system running, they are not the values that keep our priorities in check. Take, for example, a white-collar suburb in Ranch San Diego, California, as described by Larry Rasmussen in his book Moral Fragments and Moral Community:

“The plan of Presbyterians in this ‘sun-baked, white-collar suburb’ [was] to build a new church. The church would be the quintessential good neighbor, the exemplary community-minded suburban citizen. It would be available for community meetings from the very outset. Day care would be offered and, if called upon, elder care. Since this growing suburb had only four churches, another place and style of worship would also serve the community’s religious choices. In addition, the ‘dramatic, wedge-shaped building, with walls sweeping skyward and topped by a cross,’ would enhance the architecture of up-scale Ranch San Diego.

Yet ‘locals were aghast at the prospect of a church in their neighborhood.’ Sunday traffic would interrupt peaceful weekend barbecues. Exhaust fumes spelled pollution….The church’s distinctive architectural style would jar a neighborhood of tidy, beige stucco houses. The upward-sweeping walls would certainly obstruct desert views. As for day care, William Rose, a thirty-three year old engineer, found it a nightmare: ‘Screaming kids in the neighborhood…from 7 in the morning until 6 at night.’ The local planning board arranged hearings, and about six months later a carefully negotiated compromise was reached. The church could be built.

As a two-story boxy beige structure, it would look like the surrounding houses, thus preserving the architectural integrity of the neighborhood. There would be no dramatic steeple, just a cross placed discreetly over the door. A pledge was signed never to open a day care center or consider elder care. James Fletcher, the developer who represented the Presbyterians, said that in the entire process…it did not matter [to him] that his client was a church. It was simply that…the community did not ‘view us as an asset.’”

Rasmussen reacts to this story saying “There was no debate [among the community] about the common good and no serious discussion about providing for long-term moral, religious, and cultural well-being. There was only the question whether the current residents considered this prospective new resident an asset on the basis of [their] privately assessed interests”(52).

Rancho San Diego in this instance is one example of out-of-whack priorities, where faith can only exist if it isn't inconveniencing the more important things in life - traffic, noise, uniformity. We all might have cringed at the above story, but are we really all that different? What are our priorities? Are they based on our self-interest or on the good of the community? Are they based on efficiency and profit or on justice? Are they based on living well or on faith active in love? We have been given a Biblical model for prioritizing: first loving God, then loving neighbor, and only after that looking after ourselves. But things seem to get in the way. We work longer and longer hours to secure our success with the company and to earn more money to support ourselves. We spend our money on expensive technology and cheap entertainment. We skip church to do homework. We equate our bank account with our self-worth. This is what society has to offer us.

This is the sort of skewed society that Amos is speaking to in today’s Old Testament reading. See, Israel had come into a time of prosperity and pride under the reign of Jereboam II. This was due to an increase in military and political power that increased commerce and wealth. However, with that wealth came new inequality. The wealthy began to use their money for power and they oppressed the poor. This new wealthy class of merchants and rulers '[oppressed] the poor' and '[crushed] the needy'(4:1) even as they [enjoyed] their own luxuries.” Amos, a herdsman from Judah, came north to speak against these injustices.

He speaks pointedly to those “who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe and push aside the needy in the gate”(5:12b). Now the gate, in ancient times, was the site of local trade and business. It was also the place where the elders of the city sat to decide matters of justice. So when Amos makes reference to those who trample the poor and abhor the one speaking a word of truth at the gate, he is speaking to the corrupt actions of both authorities and citizens alike.

When we lose sight of who’s supposed to be on first, we experience the hurts of a broken world and inflict pain on others. Sin and death are realities in this world – realities that have yet been redeemed by God’s grace – and living in that grace, we are called to shuffle our lives around. We are empowered to let Christ-dwelling-in-us put things back in the right order – an order that is countercultural. “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first,” Jesus tells us, after the rich young man leaves the conversation, saddened and dejected by his inability to reorganize his priorities in order to live out the gospel.

Jesus asks us the hard questions: Who is on first? What is on second?

Does this mean that Jesus is asking us to give up all of our earthly possessions in order to follow him? Maybe, if that’s what it takes for us to put God and others ahead of our own interests. Or maybe Jesus is asking us to take a long hard look at those things in life that we hold too closely, to the exclusion of loving God and neighbor. Maybe it’s too much TV and not enough fellowship with family and friends. Maybe it’s too much food and not enough contribution toward eradicating world hunger. Maybe it’s too much waste and not enough recycling and care for the earth. Maybe it’s too much entertainment and not enough worship. Whatever it is that we hold too dear, whatever it is that sticks stubbornly at the top of the list, whatever it is that gets in the way of our living each day in the fullness of God’s grace, whatever keeps us from living out the gospel in the world: this is what Jesus asks us to let go of for his sake.

The good news, however, is that even in our letting go – our giving up or giving away – Christ is always sufficient. We can take the risk of moving God and neighbor to the one and two spots because we are part of a community of faith that proclaims Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. We can let ourselves be empty-handed, for we live in the fullness of God’s grace.

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, in her book Public Church: For the Life of the World, offers us a word of hope in the midst of the struggle. She says “Lutherans worldwide include [both] indigenous people and those who ancestors colonized them, [both] extraordinarily wealthy people and people actively challenging those power structures. Luther claims that in the Sacrament of the Table all self-seeking love is rooted out and gives place to that which seeks the common good of all. We come to the table to take upon ourselves each other’s burdens, and are, in fact, ‘changed into’ one another”(35).

We are about to gather together at this table. We come to the table to offer ourselves as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Christ who gave himself for us. We come to the table and are transformed by it. We come to the table in fellowship, gathered by the Holy Spirit and bonded by the things we share in common. We come to the table, leaving behind everything in order to gain everything. Christ in his death gave up everything for God and for creation. Christ in his life received back everything by the power of God and for the sake of creation. We are people of this resurrection who are freed from the bonds of this world in order that we might serve it.

Christ says “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger. Whoever believes in my will never thirst.” As we gather together around the table, we come as people who have accepted the call to reorganize our priorities. We come as people who have accepted the challenge to give up the things that keep us on first. And we come, knowing that we are about to receive in the bread and wine everything that we need. We come to the table knowing that Christ is sufficient.

“I am the bread of life. Come to me empty, and I will fill you with food. Come to me thirsty, and I will supply you with drink.”

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