Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 Psalm 90:12-17 Hebrews 4:12-16 Mark 10:17-31
I went to Sewanee, TN this past week to attend the Board of Trustees meeting. It was a quick trip – Cathy and I left Wednesday after an early lunch and we were back for a late supper on Friday night. It takes about seven hours with stops, so after attending dinners and meetings for two days, I was ready for a more relaxing lunch on Friday as we were driving home. We decided to get off the interstate and made our way to the historic downtown of Franklin where we went into Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant. It’s an old grocery store turned restaurant and music venue.
At lunchtime there is a bit of a wait, we were told it would be 20 minutes, but after about 10 minutes the hostess asked if we would mind sharing a table with another couple. Larry, she said, told her they would share their table. We were hungry and still about six hours from home, so we quickly agreed. When the waitress took us to the table, Larry stood and welcomed us. He then told us his brother was coming. We made some small talk and asked for his recommendations from the menu.
Larry’s phone was constantly interrupting and he was embarrassed by it, but clearly had to take care of business. We, of course didn’t mind. His brother Rudy joined us and the conversation ranged from football to opportunities to listen to live music in downtown Nashville. Branson, too, was mentioned and names like Andy Williams with a suggestion that they had be involved in the Branson scene at one time. But the conversation jumped around until Larry paid their bill and they got up to leave as Cathy and I were finishing our lunches. Larry told us he had paid for our lunch and we were surprised and appreciative.
When the waitress came back by, I asked if she knew who they were they were and she said no and was as surprised as we were that Larry had bought our meals. Since some the conversations included mention of a local theater and their plans for the evening, Cathy decided to look and see who was performing that evening. Turns out, their pictures were on the website for the original theater of the Grand Ole Opry – Larry and Ruby were two of the Gatlin Brothers!
I confuse that when I read today’s scriptures, what happened on Friday did not immediately come to mind – but I wanted to tell it, none-the-less. As I thought about Mark’s gospel reading and Jesus telling the man who came to him that he needed to sell all that he had, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus, I realized just how quickly we who are privileged in this country, look over this reading. I’ve even heard it said that Jesus, in this specific instance, saw into the heart of this one man and knew that his wealth was hindering him. He did not possess wealth, his wealth possessed him. Jesus knew at once that he had to let go of it, all of it, if he were to experience the liberating, life-giving, love that Christ has to offer us.
This explanation may help us a little, but then Jesus says, “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.” So much for our attempt to explain away this passage by applying it to this one man and not ourselves. Of course, most of us don’t think of ourselves as rich – so this still doesn’t apply to us. We don’t live in a mansion like the one that Larry Gatlin lives in – when Cathy looked up the Gatlin Brothers, it showed a picture of his house in Franklin, TN.
I am sorry to say that not even that gives us a pass on what Jesus is teaching us here. We need only visit – in person or by internet, a third world country to see how wealthy most Americans are. I say most, for I have been in homes in our country, I have worked with homeless in our country enough to know that there are people near our homes who are living in conditions equivalent to that of third world countries. Some of the poor are poor because of the decisions they have made, others because of bad luck, trauma, illnesses or theft. Still others are poor because they lack the cognitive or emotional resources to work themselves into a better situation. Some are poor because of mental illness or addictions. The list goes on and on.
But we aren’t talking about the poor, are we. We are talking about our wealth – meager or excessive. Jesus saying, “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,” sounds like he is saying it is impossible. It is not. The eye of a needle refers to a gate into the Old City of Jerusalem. It is the not the main gate, so it is smaller, but a gate nonetheless. The bigger the camel, the greater the wealth, the more difficult.
The disciples, upon hearing Jesus ask, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus’ answer, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” This is where we can find comfort. But not too much comfort, for we must ask ourselves how God makes it possible for us to be saved- does he level the playing field. Or perhaps, we need to ask ourselves what is God saving us from?
The short answer is ourselves. God saves us from ourselves, from being more concerned about preserving our wealth than sharing it with others. Over and over again, we read the prophets warning the people to care for the poor. We see this in our reading today from Amos. Amos begins by saying, “Seek the Lord and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.” The reason Amos is warning the people of Israel is, he says, “because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain.”
The prophet’s warning to the people addresses the sin of obtaining one’s wealth by trampling on the poor, taking what little they have and making it our own. It also addresses the sin of NOT sharing what we have with others. Camels were used to carry a man’s possession, and a wealthy man has many possessions. For a large camel to enter through a small gate, it must shed some of what it is carrying. And, if the gate is really small and the camel really large, it may need to shed ALL that it is carrying.
It is not really difficult to share what we have with others, when we count what we have as blessings. For when we view ourselves as blessed, we are less inclined live in fear of doing without this or that and more inclined to share our gifts with others. This is now we shed that which prevents us from entering through the narrow gate. It is how we enter into the kingdom of God where everyone is valued and loved and receives what they need to survive and be happy.
Larry Gatlin shared his table with strangers, he and his brother were respective and generous to a clueless couple. I felt blessed to meet them – even before I learned their last name and who they were. Treating others with respect, as equals, and being generous with what we are blessed to have – this is the lesson in today’s gospel. With God’s help, we can see our blessings are gifts to be shared rather than what is necessary for us, alone, to live comfortably.
Let us pray,
Loving God, you are the source of all the blessings we have received in this life. Help us to use what we have for the good of others and the spread of your kingdom. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.