Holy Inheritance: A Sermon on Mark 10:17-33
Sunday October 11, 2015 Bethlehem Covenant Church, Worcester MA
(Preacher’s note: This sermon was also an experiment in crowd-sourcing stories from friends and strangers on social media)
Every family has stories of inheritance: some are beautiful tales of priceless gifts, some are tormented by inheritances that we wish we didn’t receive, inheritances that came because someone died too soon, inheritances that burden us. And some of us had families that couldn’t love us like they should. Instead of inheriting a watch or a chair, we inherited a a legacy of pain.
William inherited his grandmother Faye’s 1917 typewriter and a folio of unseen manuscripts, betraying a secret vocation as a writer that never saw the light of day.
Pete inherited his grandmother Mary’s cufflinks that she received the day she graduated from nursing school, a sign of her greatest accomplishment. To the young 16 year old inheriting these cufflinks, she gave Pete an expectation that he would accomplish great things, too.
Hannah inherited her grandfather Hans’ name, a man who died just before she was born. What would she have learned of her namesake if she had met him?
Marty inherited his grandfather’s wallet. In that slim wallet were his driver’s license, his Hertz, TWA and a hotel charge card, tokens of an ordinary life spent on the road before he died of a heart attack at 52.
Liddy inherited both her parents’ pension accounts, with a fair amount of money but a heap of grief- accounts full since both parents died way too young, before the could spend down their retirement savings, before they could meet their grandchildren, before they could even rest from their labors.
The only thing Fred ever inherited was a TV/VHS player, but he only inherited it because his friend Willis died of AIDS.
Sarah and Diane both inherited jewelry, nothing particularly special, no resale value, really. But passed down, again and again, with layers of stories coating the ceramic beads and glass crystals where one might hope that diamonds would be.
Marian and her siblings where disinherited as a predator got a hold of her father’s finances in his ailing final two years.
We all have these stories- ask one another at coffee hour. Wendy inherited her father’s unflinching honesty. Kevin wraps himself in his grandfather’s red wool flannel shirt. James inherited his Grandma Lucy’s gravy recipe on a single folded piece of yellow paper. Bruce puts on his mother’s jade cross. Liza inherited singing show-tunes at full volume. Karl inherited his great-uncle’s love of baseball. Abbi inherited iris bulbs from a neighbor, as his body struggled and he could no longer tend his garden.
And as for me? I’m waiting to inherit my grandmother’s recipe file. She is adamant, adamant that she will not share her recipes until she is dead.
We’ve heard the stories, maybe even lived the stories of greedy cousins, manipulating siblings, warring relatives, unscrupulous caregivers who trick the dying in order to inherit wealth. We’ve heard the stories, maybe even lived the stories of uneven inheritances, leading to generations of anger and resentment.
A friend recounted that when the grandmother died, she arranged for her resources to be divided between five adult children- some receiving 40%, others receiving 0%. As my pastor friend presided at the funeral, anger and jealously leaked over the pews and puddled onto the floor. Five years later, the adult children still aren’t talking to one another.
A young man kneels before Jesus and says, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Inheritance is a tricky thing. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
What is behind that question? This young man, is he asking “How do I get eternal life without having to work for it? How do I get the good stuff for nothing? How do I get a free lunch?” Or is he asking as an outsider, as a stranger, how do I become part of this family, of this people, this?
In order to inherit, something must die.
In order to inherit, something must die.
And this is a man yet unwilling to let some things die.
Jesus presses him, pushes him- go and sell what you own, give the money to the poor, come and follow me.
This is a complicated passage of Scripture, a story that shows up in three of the Gospels. The church has argued about this for generations: Should we read this literally? Is Jesus actually saying that the wealthy cannot enter heaven? Or is it a metaphor?
However you read this passage, I am convinced our inheritance as children of God works like this: None of us are native born; all are adopted children into the family of Christ. None of us inherits more; all are equals as children of God. And there is enough for all.
And the first born of all Creation, Jesus, the Good Teacher, is doing some serious teaching here. Jesus sounds stern, harsh even. It’s tough love. Jesus is on the path, on the Way and inviting others to follow him. The rich young man wants to follow but is unwilling to leave behind what drags him down. He wants to be made well, but is unwilling to change. We want to be made well, just as long as we don’t have to change. We want a more just society in America, just as long as we personally have to give anything up. We want a more inclusive church, just as long as the new people act like us.
The key for me is in verse 21. Jesus looked on him, loved him, and invited him he had to change. Not pity, not anger, not resentment, but love. Jesus loved him. Jesus loved the rich young man so much that he invited him to change. Because it’s mighty hard to follow the way of Jesus when your feet are shackled with what holds you back.
Now maybe its not many possessions or overwhelming wealth that’s holding you back like the young man, holding you down. Maybe there’s something else in your life that needs to die. Is it concern about what other people think? Is it an inheritance of addiction? Is it a mythology of stories upon stories of how you’d never amount to anything that keeps you tied to the floor? Is it anxiety that you will fail? What is the thing you need to divest from that holds you back from life abundant, that thing you are so afraid to change?
This place, this church is an inherence. You have a great legacy of faithfulness in this place. But you didn’t build this church, the people before you did. You didn’t create this community, the saints before you did! You inherit this faith for a season. But even in this inheritance, there are some things that need to die in order to follow Christ. There are no more Swedish millworkers moving to Quinsigamond Village. How will you ensure that there is a faith, not a building, but a faith for the next generation to inherit? I don’t know what needs to be buried for you follow Jesus along the way, but maybe you do. Maybe you’ve inherited some things that no longer serve you.
As Americans, we inherit things that prevent us from the full freedom for all to live life abundant as equally dignified children of God. We inherit a history of systemic racism, discrimination against women, and just about every new immigrant group. We inherit a history and a legacy built on the taking of tribal lands and the uncompensated enslaved labor on which this new country grew up. This inheritance sticks to us, clings to us, not like an old chair you inherited from your great Aunt that you can just leave at Goodwill and be done with, but this inheritance has seeped into our soil. Our American inheritance sits in every living room, hangs in every closet, burrows into every heart, where some of us started this life having inherited 40%, and some of us began with nothing. This church sits here in Worcester on land owned and entrusted to the Nimpuc people nearly 350 years ago. And even as we looking into Columbus Day tomorrow, we remember that after the King Philip’s war of 1676 the same Nimpuc people, fellow humans, equally dignified children of God, were captured, rounded up, removed from their land right here in Worcester, and forced onto Deer Island in Boston Harbor, without sufficient provisions, food or clothes. All but 1,000 people died.
If we stand on this land, we inherit this legacy. We inherit this too. No ones hands are clean. And there are some things we must leave behind to follow Christ.
To follow Jesus, we are asked to give away the things that lead us to death in order to be healed- this is our holy inheritance.
The young rich man who comes before Jesus, drops to his knees along the side of the road before he asks his question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Each time someone falls to their knees before Jesus and asks to be made well in the Gospel of Mark, a healing occurs. What is if this is a story of healing?
This is the promise at the end of the passage beginning in verse 29: Jesus invites us to leave behind that which drags us towards fear and scarcity, and be liberated to join him on the Way. We are invited to be healed not just for some far off promise of eternal life, but right here, right now. This age AND the age to come.
Sometimes, the things we inherit heal us.
Jin Min inherited her mother’s strong will. Sarah’s hands now look like her mother’s and her grandmother’s. Bert took what little was left of his grandmother’s finances and bought Stanley Waterford cook stove made in Ireland, that each of his children remembers warming their home. Meredyth inherited her father’s bread-baking skills. Alan inherited his grandmother’s painting and the stories she told about each figure in the scene. Ellery inherited her grandmother’s silk scarves that didn’t seem to go with anything until she was much older. Michael inherited his mother’s Bible and the note on the inside said, “these are some things that money can’t buy…”
Some of us will never inherit any material thing. But there is an inheritance, a holy inheritance in Christ that money cannot buy, not amount of wealth or possessions can possess. We are offered, again and again by Jesus, the holy inheritance of being adopted as children of God. Amen.