From Fear to Faith
A message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church
Based on the theme: God Transforms Reality
Mark 10:17-22 NRSV
17 As he 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?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 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; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
21 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.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Imagine having “everything” but living in fear that you don’t have everything! What a terrible feeling that must be. You are financially secure, religiously certain, at the top of the social ladder. Yet you have this fear eating at you… and I don’t just mean a nagging, occasional thought. I mean it is eating at you and you aren’t even sure what it is you don’t have. Then you realize what it is you don’t have and your fear just blooms like heartburn inside your soul. It is eternal life.
You wonder – what is eternal life, really? Is it paradise after death? Is it having everything when you die? You have everything now, how can that be better? If you want something you can buy it, or you have the power to claim it, or you qualify by your religion for it. But for some reason, you aren’t sure. So you decide to ask the latest, greatest expert. You have heard of this teacher, Jesus, so you go to ask him. He tells you the Ten Commandments are key. Boom! You got those! But, wait. He says something about “do not defraud.” That’s not in the Ten Commandments you learned in Sunday School. What?
To defraud someone is to take something unjustly, to take advantage of others, to win whatever it takes, but you always play within the rules of the system, right? But that’s the problem Jesus is raising. The “system” is set up to take advantage of others, to be “winner-take-all,” to find the loophole that allows you to take whatever you want to take, even if taking it is a bit outside the rules –if you were to be totally honest. But, then, who’s totally honest? That’s just the way the system works, and the wise guy works the system.
But our friend who comes to Jesus knows the systems are unjust. Wealth was generally based on owning land. Most of the time those with land were also the ones to give loans to others working the land and then when they couldn’t repay the loan, because of drought or flood or other events, you took their land in payment. That’s the way the system worked. Too bad if it left the loser unable to feed his family, unable to afford housing, unable to pay bills, until those fines, fees, and loan interest added up and he would be taken to court and thrown in jail until he could pay. An impossible system that still functions in much the same way today. So what?
Here’s what. Jesus is telling our friend he must turn from this way, this system by which he has everything he wants, almost. Jesus invites him to do the impossible: sell everything he has acquired by working the system, give it to the poor, and come follow Jesus’ way and he will find the treasure he wants most – Jesus calls it treasure in heaven – isn’t that what eternal life is?
What is eternal life? Is it what most of us imagine it to be, and what way too many preachers propose? Is it the “perfect place?” Is it simply a private, personal, paradise of privilege, freedom, riches and ease? Or is it something more, something different? Because despite the bad preaching from way too many centuries of preachers I never heard Jesus describe it that way. He was always talking about a different kind of perfect place. Is it possible what Mark is telling us is that this “eternal life” is a way of living, a different system of living rather than just a different time?
What if Mark is telling us heaven and eternal life and earthly life are one and the same ultimately? I can’t imagine that “heaven” is a perfect place if we are so privately and individually wrapped in luxury that we never have to relate to others. And I can’t imagine that “heaven” or “eternal life,” is not a place were every relationship is based in love, justice, and peace. In other words, quite different from the way we tend to live down here.
“Down here” we can sum up the way life is lived in one of two ways. The most common is “transactionally.” We live our lives as if everything were a transaction. Everything is about getting, having, owning, and doing whatever it takes to live this way. In the Transactional life taking advantage of others is just called “winning.” You know what I mean, I don’t have to spend a long time describing this set of values.
The other way of living, the way Jesus invited our friend to choose can be called relational. Living relationally is gauged by verbs like “giving,” “serving,” and “blessing.” It is the opposite of a transaction because it isn’t about a “I win/you lose” measure of every interaction. It can be summed up in Jesus’ words, “you know how the Gentiles - [ that is those who don’t believe in a God revealed in the Scriptures we read ] – they lord it over one another and take advantage of each other. It shall not be so among you. The greatest among you shall be the one who is servant of all.”
If that is the way God intends heaven, why would God not want it to be that way on earth? And if it isn’t that way on earth why would God not want that to change? Why would Jesus pray, “on earth, as it is in heaven?” Of course, we use the excuse of sin. But rather than turn from it, what the old preachers called “repent,” we simply shrug and say, that’s the way things are. What we mean is, that is the system and we profit from it so, why would we really want to change it? Our friend in the Scripture, who has it made now, cannot accept Jesus’ advice to “sell it all, give the money to the poor,” and come follow him. That, by the way, is a clear invitation to change from a life based on the value of transactional victory to one of relational blessing.
Our friend has done everything by the book, the economic system, the religious system, and the political system all work in his favor. Why would he abandon that to follow Jesus? What possible “treasure in heaven” could be worth that? That is the question you and I must answer for ourselves.
Maybe 15 years ago we had a member here who was a great guy. He had it all. Beautiful wife, 2/5 kids, the dog, the pool, the cars, and the golf club membership. One day we were having a conversation and he said, “I’m at the top of my game. Top producer in my business year after year, great family, great life and I look ahead and all I see is doing the same thing year after year.” I could hear the dread in his voice, the unspoken question, the fear that “is this all there is?” I could hear our friend in today’s Scripture asking, “what must I do to get a real life?” Because I think that is exactly what our friend in the Scripture is asking, what I think that member was asking. Incidentally, despite being actively involved in the church, a leader in the congregation – much like the man in the Scripture – the man and his family just “poof” disappeared from church after the last kid was confirmed and never came back. Never responded to a phone call, the request for a pastoral visit, never said why – I can’t help but think he was so deeply involved in the Transactional Life that he just couldn’t let go of it for something different.
But let’s be honest, most of us, whether the systems in our society are working to our advantage or not, don’t really want to change anything. We may hate what we have but we fear losing it so much we don’t want to change anything. We want everything to go back to the way it was pre-March 2020, we don’t want to envision, or work for something better. We are like the alcoholic so sick and tired of being sick and tired of the way things are we can’t find the energy to do anything about it. We are actually afraid of losing what is and can’t imagine that something better might come if we give up what is.
I was watching the movie, “Lincoln,” a couple of nights ago and he said something that, historically accurate or not, was true. He was meeting with the Vice President of the Confederacy and some other delegates who were wanting to “sue for peace” in the War but on their own terms. Lincoln looked at them and asked, rhetorically, “If we give up some freedom, say the freedom to oppress, might we not discover some new freedoms that are even greater?” This is the question of transforming the future into the vision God has. It is a vision of “on earth, as it is in heaven.” It is the vision of eternal life – now. It is what faith asks of us. It is what Jesus asks of us when he says, give up everything you have to balance the scales of life and come live my way.”
Living by fear or by faith can be summed up in the words of Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker in her book, Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now. She writes that we tragically mishandle “fear, helped along by structures of domination and submission.” This “breeds alienation from ourselves, from one another, and from the earth.” We experience the “brokenness of our lives [in] loneliness, helplessness, and worthlessness. Our relationships with one another are characterized by power struggles and violence. This condition does not result from our personal depravity and lust; it is transpersonal. Even before we are born, cultures and histories are in place that will shape us to be afraid and will teach us how to handle fear. If we learn to channel fear into destructive patterns, injury and tragedy will be amplified in the world. 'Perfect love casts out fear,' the Bible says in the first letter of John. If we understand that sin springs from fear, we can recognize that salvation must cast out fear and heal the wounds caused by fear-centered cultures. On a personal level, salvation from fear would mean experiencing a restored communion with all of life, a sense of creative power, and a deeply felt, joyful knowledge of one's intrinsic worth. Collectively, salvation would be embodied in cultures of trust, cooperation, and respect for the power inherent in every creature.”
Can you imagine such a world? When we are finally beyond this pandemic we cannot simply go back to “the way things were.” We MUST envision a different day, a different reality, a different world and most of all different relationships.
When we have a real commitment to building relationships with one another then we will no longer live in fear of each other. We can begin to build the world that God envisions. We can begin by changing the way we relate to each other individually, but we must also change the systems of our society that keep us in fear, and out of fear, creating laws, policies, and practices that in Lincoln’s words “oppress” people, treat others unjustly and unfairly, that defraud others of their dignity, worth, and lives because of race, religion, nationality or economic worth.
Imagine real life. Imagine no longer living in fear of “others” who are different from you. Imagine finding ways to build relationships with them that create a kind of holy community. That’s what Jesus came to offer. He came as an agent of transformation – to offer the way of God over the ways of this world. Faith can overcome fear.
So have faith in this – God will transform this world; and those who join God’s agent of transformation, the one we call Jesus Christ, in this transforming work, will find real life, and that is eternal. AMEN.