My apologies for the extended silence. We’ve had great excuses. I’m currently 35 weeks pregnant and moving into the last two weeks of the semester here at PTS. Oh, and our baby did receive a thumbs up at her level II ultrasound. Of course, one of the realities of pregnancy is that you don’t ever know what you are getting. We continue to wait and hope.
I did finally come up with something to post. This is the last sermon I preached for class. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like preaching in a hot room with 50% lung capacity, weighing about 30 lbs more than you usually do. Talk about embodiment.
I wrote this sermon as a response to a challenge from a blogger who mentioned he’d never heard a sermon on adoption preached in church. I thought it was an interesting challenge because in a congregational setting there are a lot of people who aren’t even eligible to adopt (children, teenagers, the elderly) and others who simply are not in a place where this is a possibility (single, in debt, caring for a sick family member). Here’s what I came up with!
16 Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ 17And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ 18He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 20The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ 21Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22When the young man heard this word he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Happy National Adoption Month! And happy National Pomegranate Month, Epilepsy Awareness Month, International Drum Month, National Novel Writing Month, and, of course, the month we celebrate Albanian Independence. As you can see, in November there are a lot of causes and times of remembrance that could take up our time. So why should the church care about National Adoption Month in particular?
For one, there are currently are 116,000 American children in foster care legally available for adoption. This means that a judge has severed parental rights or that the parent has signed over these rights to the court. These children now wait for a family to call their own.
Another reason is that this is an issue we as the church can actually do something about. To put it in to perspective, there are currently 16 million Southern Baptists in the U.S. Only one in 138 would need to adopt in order for every child to have a parent. Think about it: if each of our churches had only one or two families who welcomed these children there would be no more orphans!
Another reason adoption should matter to Christian is at its at the very core of our religious identity. The constant refrain throughout the Old Testament is the prophets’ call to take care of the alien, the orphan and the widow. And in the New Testament Paul uses the metaphor of adoption over and over again. In Romans we read that we the church have been welcomed with open arms into a preexisting family of Israel. In Galatians we learn that through adoption as daughters and sons we have been made righteous. Even our baptism is a reminder that it is not through birth or circumcision that we are brought into God’s family, but through faith. Baptism is the ceremony marking our adoption day!
So what’s the big deal? Why wouldn’t this cause all of us to head straight to our nearest foster care agency and start filling out the paper work? The reason is that adoption is a good choice, but also a challenging one. When we really sit down to think about it, adoption requires a lot of us. There are the logistics of time, money and energy that come with welcoming any new child into the family. There is also the reality that many children, especially older children in the foster care system carry on them the scars of abuse and neglect.
Then there are our own limitations. Maybe you’re single, young or older and the idea of parenting a child is not in the picture. Maybe you’re already taking care of a family member. Maybe all your kids are in school and things are finally starting to seem manageable. For me, getting ready to both have a second biological child, and to take on the significant burden of sending my husband to medical school, the possibility of adoption any time soon feels very remote.
Adoption isn’t easy and welcoming a child from foster care can seem like a significant risk. It may even be impossible based on your life situation. So we’re all in a bit of a bind. We have this demand from God to take care of orphans. We recognize that we have been adopted by God. But we’re also aware that life makes moving on this challenge extremely difficult. We’re stuck somewhere in that place between the real desire to follow God and the difficult realities on everyday life.
Our Scripture today is about a man in the exact same position. Like us, he wants to be a disciple, to really and truly follow God. A rich young man approaches Jesus from the crowd and asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus response sort of blows him off. Sure, he names some commands for the man to follow. But Jesus doesn’t even name the difficult commands, the one that have to do with us before God, the kind of stuff that requires a remaking of our hearts. Jesus sets the base line pretty low. Don’t kill anyone. Check. Don’t lie. For the most part. Honor your father and mother. Done that. It’s not surprising that the man can answer, “all these commands I have kept.”
Yet this young man knows there must be something more, so he digs deeper. He wants a genuine answer. Like us, he doesn’t want to be a casual rule-keeper. He wants to know what it means to live in the rich abundance of a godly life. He wants to know how to become a disciple.
But the answer smacks him in the face. “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money away to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven: then, come follow me.” We read that the man goes away grieving because he has a lot of stuff.
Just in case we try to get away with making this Scripture less difficult that it actually is, we have the disciples to remind us that Jesus just said something completely out of control. They wonder, “if it’s true that a rich person can get into the kingdom like a camel getting through the eye of needle, who can be saved?” It’s pretty clear that Jesus isn’t talking about giving up a couple things, or sacrificing even half of what you own. He really, actually wants 100%. God help us.
Yet, reading this text at face value may let some of us off the hook. As a seminarian, there are days when I can honestly say with Peter that I have left everything to follow God’s call. Many of us struggle financially to make ends meet, as do many of our neighbors. As future pastors we may be content, even hopeful, to think that our financial sacrifices are all Jesus is talking about in this passage.
Now don’t get me wrong. Jesus wants your money. The consistent message of the New Testament is that wealth block access to full participation in God’s kingdom. And I don’t think it’s a mistake that first Jesus tells the rich young man to sell his things and then to follow Jesus. You can’t do the latter until you’ve done the former. But if we look closer at the text, Jesus is saying something so much more unsettling.
In the version of the Gospel we read today we hear the word “possessions” used twice, first when Jesus tells the man to sell them and second when we learn that he has many. In the second instance possessions is a pretty good summary of what the man has. He’s a rich guy. He’s got property, servants, and money. It’s a word that means wealth.
Now the first time the term “possessions” is used, when Jesus tells the man to give them up, it means something a bit different. This is a different word that comes from the root “belongs to or is devoted to.” While it includes one’s material possessions, it’s meaning extends to our circumstances and our advantages. It’s a word that has more to do with the stuff that makes up our very substance. Jesus is saying he wants the man to give up everything.
Here’s an idea of what I think Jesus meant. Some of you may remember the classic dorm room prank where you switch around two peoples’ rooms. In order for this prank to work you have to be meticulous. Posters have to be moved to the exact same spot in the other person’s room. Books have to be arranged on the shelves in the same order. Sheets and blankets are switched. Even dirty gym socks left on the floor are moved.
The urban legend of this room switch is that someone, somewhere was once able to turn the room upside down by nailing everything to the ceiling. I remember several late night conversations in my dorm room about how you could actually do this. It seemed fantastic, but can you imagine walking into your dorm room and seeing your exact room hanging there above you? That would be the magnum opus of dorm pranks.
And that’s what Jesus is talking about here. He doesn’t just want our stuff; he wants us to nail it to the ceiling. He wants to so radically shake up our sense of devotion about all the things that make up our lives are turned upside down. This substance includes our families, accomplishments, student debt, and relationships. It means our bills, responsibilities, the expectations placed on us by others, even the call we feel on our lives. All of that is totally reoriented in the call to follow Jesus. He wants to cause such colossal upheaval that, in order to keep living, we have let God teach us how to live on the ceiling. No wonder the disciples are so shocked!
It’s only then, Jesus tells the rich young man, that he can be perfect. This is another word in the text that may throw us off. But Jesus didn’t have in mind the kind of perfection that involves getting everything right. What he means is that in living an upside-down life we will find completion, wholeness. Were this story found in the Old Testament I think we could translate this word shalom. In opening our lives to this radical transformation we actually become the persons God created us to be.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that just before of the rich young man we hear about some little children who come to Jesus but are shooed away by the disciples. Jesus’ response is to rebuke his followers because the kingdom of God belongs to little ones. Jesus and the disciples knew that children are a risky, disruptive reorientation of the most basic aspects of life. The difference is that Jesus knew these were all characteristics of disciples.
Thinking about it this way, the failure of the rich young man may have had more to do with allowing the worry of wealth overwhelm him more than it did with refusing Jesus’ command. Reorienting the substance of your life is something that takes time, energy, and creativity. It always takes an act of God because, as most of us know, our substance can take on monstrous proportions. But the first thing we need is the desire to have our stuff reoriented. We need to be a people who seek after conversion rather than waiting for it to happen to us.
We know from this story that there are material ways to begin this conversion. This involves taking action steps towards putting our lives in order. When we think about this in terms of adoption this means that we each begin to make a life that is open to welcoming children. It may mean planning to buy a house with an extra bedroom or adding an adopted child into your plans for having biological children.
For others this will be less tangible. It may mean praying for openness to children, or addressing fears we have about parenting that come from our past. It may simply be asking God to give you a heart to love the children around you, for a patience you feel you don’t possess or for wisdom in making future choices.
Not every person in this room will one day adopt a child. But today’s Gospel reminds us that we need to work for conversion of our lives today. We have to ready so that when the call to have our lives radically altered comes we can answer “yes.” Otherwise, we might find ourselves like the rich young man, so deeply mired in the stuff of life that we have no choice but to walk away grieving.
The tough part of today’s Gospel is that we all have a lot of reorienting to do before we can begin to take seriously the cry of orphans. We have to figure out what may seem like the impossible logistics of nailing our very substance to the ceiling. But the amazing gift, the hope of the Christian life is that we never do this alone. It’s Jesus who will teach us, together, how to live on that ceiling. In doing so we will not only heed the call discipleship, we will become who God made us to be. Amen.