The challenge of preaching this story is that it really is as simple as it sounds. Often in a text, I’ll discover some meaning that had been hidden before, or as I get older I see new ways to interpret a lesson. But this one is fairly flat. Now this year, we are reading this story on Columbus Day weekend, and I am having no success at separating the two…so maybe the merging of these two stories is just what the Great and Holy Spirit is whispering today.
So, Jesus is on “the way” (which we know to mean the road to Jerusalem rather than simply headed down the street to Grandma’s house), and a young man stops him and kneels before him. “Good teacher,” he says, “what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers the question without really answering the question, because, well, we know that there is nothing you can do to inherit something. An inheritance can be a kind of gift (it can also be a burden, right?). To receive one, someone else has to die. So it’s not so much about what you do as it is about your relationship to the one granting the fortune (or dining room table, or grandfather clock, or geriatric Bishon Frise…just a few of the things I’ve inherited from relatives over the years).
Maybe this young fellow means “how do I get saved?” Now, we know the rest of the story, Jesus continues on the way to the cross and that’s ultimately what brings us back into full relationship with God, but this young guy doesn’t know that. He just knows that Jesus has the answer. But the Jesus we meet in the gospel of Mark plays his divinity really close to his chest. He spends a large portion of this gospel account admonishing people to “tell no one” that he is the Messiah.
Now we know from reading the rest of the Gospel according to Mark that when a person kneels down to ask Jesus for something it’s always a request for healing. Could this be the case here? Is Mark trying to tell us that something needs to be healed in this man’s life? Maybe, because Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, doesn’t answer the question that the young man has asked. His answer to the young man isn’t about what you have to do to inherit eternal life because Jesus already knows how that will happen. His answer to the young man is about how to build relationship with his neighbors and fellow inheritors of the kingdom of God.
Maybe Jesus is saying that to bring forth healing and the kingdom, we have to consider our neighbors. If you look again at the passage, you’ll see that all of the commandments Jesus cites in this conversation are from the 2nd portion of the 10 Commandments. They are all related to human interactions rather that to the human/divine interaction. “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t cheat, honor your elders.” When the young man says he’s done all of that already, Jesus says, “ok then, there’s one thing left: Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor.”
Notice Jesus doesn’t say “burn it” nor does he tell the young man to just walk away from it all. Jesus says, “sell it and give it to the poor”. To the poor.
Now you see, in the time of Jesus, despite the words of the prophets, many people viewed the wealthy as specially blessed by God. I wonder if we in the 21st century United States still see it that way. If I work hard enough, I’ll get God’s favor. If I have all the things: money, good car, nice house, beautiful wife, land… Those things and wealth and ownership have come to be synonymous in this culture with “blessing”. But Jesus reminds us that that isn’t true. Over and over again, God in the person of Jesus aligns Godself with the marginalized, the oppressed, and the poor.
Jesus asks for the young man to change his relationship with the poor. He is asking the young man to help his neighbors and to really identify with them. To move from a place of charity and disengagement to one of relationship and accompaniment. And perhaps Jesus sees that for this young man (and for us!) to be engaged with his neighbor will bring healing to both of them.
What do you have that puts a barrier between you and your neighbor? What do you do or say that builds a wall between you and the poor? Where do you travel or live that says “I’m better than you”. What do you own that says implicitly or explicitly “I’m the inheritor, the chosen” or “you’re not welcome”?
(Confession: I’ve got a sign hanging in the entrance of my house. It preaches law and division. And I love it. It says, “Be Nice or Go Away.”)
In 1492, the indigenous people of the Americas discovered Christopher Columbus. And a little over 500 years later, many or even most indigenous peoples still wish that they hadn’t. While I was taught in school (in Georgia and in Tennessee) that Columbus arrived peaceably and discovered “savages” and set about “making their lives better, poor dears”, as an adult, I know this “truth” to be a terrible lie.
Columbus arrived in the Western Hemisphere and brought disease, and torture, and famine, and slavery. His arrival impacts us greatly even today, not because he “discovered” a world which had already been peacefully occupied for thousands and thousands of years, but because today in this country, especially in the South, we feel the repercussions every day of his arrival as we live in broken relationship with people of color because we continue to wrestle with that legacy of slavery, and I don’t know for sure, but I bet you’d be hard pressed to find a Native American person with whom to share a cup of coffee on any given Saturday morning around here. Because we forced them away.
“In 1838, four thousand Cherokee died in the forced removal that the Cherokee call “The Trail Where They Cried”. The removal of the Cherokee people resulted from the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which was violently implemented by Andrew Jackson. In 1831, the Choctaw were the first to be uprooted, followed by the Seminole in 1832, the Creek in 1834, the Chickasaw in 1837, and finally the Cherokee in 1838. By 1837, forty-six thousand Native Americans had been removed from their homes.” Removed from their ancestral land. Forced into a particularly hellish kind of exile where families were given impossible decisions…the kind where no matter the choice, a piece of the chooser’s soul was lost.
Imagine for a moment that you are a Native woman. You have married a white man and your tribe has adopted him into your culture. Your husband and your children have lived with and among your people working for the good of the tribe, for the good of the neighbor. Now imagine the federal government steps in and says, “you, Native woman, can choose. You can become “white” and remain in your ancestral lands with your children and husband, or you can leave your children, husband, and the land of your heart (the seat of your relationship with Creator) and march with your tribe to a new land. Choose either your people, your sisters and mothers and fathers and brothers and your traditions which are as much a part of you as your bones and your skin and your soul, or choose your children and your spouse and your home where the trees know your name but you can no longer have both.” Impossible.
Here in the South in particular, we are inheritors of this dastardly removal. People died and made impossible decisions so that we might work and play and worship on land that was stolen on our behalf.
James and I own a home here in Prattville. It’s a tiny property really with a small-for-six-humans-three-dogs-and-two-cats brick house built upon it. My kids and their friends and furry companions run around our lawn with barefeet (watch out for the fireants!) playing soccer and fetch and remembering their baptisms in the sprinkler.
But I am deeply aware that long before the feet of my children touched the grass in the back yard, before the foundation of our home was poured, before the farmer sold us the land to build on, before the farmer tilled that soil, this land belonged to the Creek. Other children have run barefoot over this grass. Other friendships have been forged here. Other meals prepared. Other hearts have sung. Other eyes have watched the storm crest the hills to the northwest and wondered if they should bring in the laundry.
My family and I live on and benefit from someone else’s deep and grievous loss.
“In the church, we celebrate martyrs and saints, not warriors and conquistadors. The church has a rich history of celebrating particular people. While the United States might celebrate Christopher Columbus, the church celebrates the lives of saints…. We need to be about discovering lost relatives and forgotten ancestors.” We need to rediscover our neighbors and what it means to be neighbor.
On this day before Columbus Day, when our nation celebrates a mass murderer and architect of grief, pain, and destruction…in the name of God and of the church…I am pausing to consider what this means for me here in Prattville, AL, especially in light of this week’s gospel account.
Does Jesus want me to take my land, my home, and give it back to the Creek? Yes, without a doubt. The United Nations says that I should too. And if my home is stolen Creek land, then this church building sits on stolen Creek land, also. We are the conquerors. We are the wealthy, we are the oppressors. This is hard to hear and, trust me, hard to say, because it means that daily we are bound into a life of harming other humans because we have inherited a system which makes us the oppressor. And there is no real way out.
So what do we do?
What if we remember that when Jesus calls for us to sell and redistribute our wealth he is also calling for a change in relationship? He is asking us to identify with the poor…but I think we can and we should extend this to all who are marginalized. What if we look at our possessions and our privileges, the things that keep us complacent and on top and offer those things up for the safety, the empowerment, the comfort of our neighbors.
What if we can’t give our homes away? (because to be honest, that would require the federal government to purchase our homes and churches and Chick-fil-a’s and then give it back to the Creek…the federal government is the agency which stole the land in the first place…but we benefit from the theft…and I cannot imagine the federal government making such restitution in my lifetime)
What if we are stuck, understanding how we benefit from a system that harms other folks? How do we function?
I think we start by telling history truthfully. I think we honestly evaluate the church’s involvement in a history that brutalized, dehumanized, murdered, and enslaved millions of people…both Native and Black.
Then, I think we look around and see just how we still benefit from that involvement.
Then, we open our eyes to see the very real truth that many of our neighbors still suffer today from the motion set in place by a man who sailed in the name of greed, brutality, and enslavement and called it God.
We listen. And we open our lives, our hearts, our homes, our sanctuaries for the very real pain and grief and suffering that our neighbors still endure. We feed them…food in Christ’s Kitchen for sure…but also the nourishment of friendship and accompaniment. We become voices that say “I am willing to make myself vulnerable so that you might be an equal part of this community…so that we may together bring forth the kingdom”.
“Good teacher, what can we do to inherit eternal life?” Nothing. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we’ve already inherited it. And that’s the very Good News.
And from that foundational promise, that wonderful inheritance, we are free to share of our time, our possessions, of our very selves in relationship to those whom God has also called “very, very good”. And today, especially, we pray for and with Black and indigenous peoples. And we condemn the legacy of Christopher Columbus in the name of Jesus Christ.