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Since My Youth

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A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on October 14, 2012.

Psalm 90:12-17; Mark 10:17-31

We, you and I, may have more in common with the man in our story from Mark’s gospel than anyone else in all of scripture. You may never have thought of that, but bear with me for a moment, if you will, as I try to convince you that this just may very well be true.

If you’ve never sown wild oats, you may not understand the urgings of the prodigal son, the push and the pull that caused him to abandon his father and brother and his home to go out and try to forge a life on his own. It’s quite possible that you have not had a situation that called for your roadside emergency help, as was true of the Good Samaritan. You’re just as compassionate as the next person, but it hasn’t been put to the test; not like it was for this man in Jesus’ parable.

If your child has never been gravely ill, or you are not a parent, it may be difficult for you to comprehend the desperation of the Syro-Phoenician woman who pleaded with Jesus on behalf of her daughter, or Jairus, the synagogue leader, who came and fetched Jesus to come to his home and tend to his little girl. If you’ve not had a chronic illness, you may wonder about the actions of the desperate woman who reached out to touch Jesus’ garments, thinking that doing so might bring healing. If you’ve never lost a child, you can’t imagine the grief of the widow from Nain who encounters Jesus as she processes from the village to bury her son.

My guess is there are number of people depicted in scripture who leave you wondering about why they chose to do what they did, or you feel out of touch with the circumstances they encountered in life. It is not possible for all of us to relate personally to all the people depicted in scripture, whether those people were real or were the result of Jesus’ imagination and teaching. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a lesson from their stories and their experiences of life. Yet, to understand their feelings and motivations for why they did what they did? Well, that might just be beyond some of us.

I would think that many of us, if not most, hold something very much in common with the man we read about earlier in Mark’s gospel. Wait a minute… wasn’t he wealthy? You’re not suggesting that we identify with him because of that, are you? No, no, no. There may be some folk here this morning who have substantial means, and whose bank accounts are… well, let’s say quite healthy… but that is not what we hold in common with this man who came to Jesus inquiring about eternal life.

Here, for us, is where the water hits the wheel… “Teacher,” he says to Jesus, after Jesus has run off several of the well-known commandments by which all good Jews were to live, “I have kept all these since my youth.” “I have kept all these since my youth.” The man who came to Jesus and knelt before him inquiring about the means to eternal life is alive and well in most of us who are here in church this morning, if for no other reason than we’ve participated in church as long as we can remember.

Maybe that’s not true of all of us here today, but my guess is that it is true of most of us.

What is your earliest recollection of church? Think about that as I relate mine to you. It was a Sunday night and my mother had deposited me in the church’s nursery. Yes, I really do remember this. Interestingly, it was at Eastside Baptist in Paragould. Talk about going around full circle! That is the church where Chad Broadway was married last night, and it was the first time I’ve had the occasion to do anything “professionally” in that church where I was baptized in 1956.

Evidently, the night my mother took me to the nursery was when I had reached an age that enabled me to realize I had the ability to do something about it. Recognizing the power that is found in such things, I screamed and cried until someone from the nursery went to retrieve my mom. For some reason, I still recall the moment when she returned to the sanctuary with me in tow. I’m sure I had a triumphant look on my face; after all, I had won! And to my knowledge, I never again darkened the doors of the church nursery. My mom didn’t want to go through that again!

That’s how long I’ve been in church. How about you? “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” The man who came to Jesus had no doubt been in church all his life.

And even though it’s been a l-o-n-g time, I still remember some things from my youth. Do you? Our pastor’s son was one of my best friends, so we rarely went a Sunday without spending the day together. Guy would come to our house, or I would spend the afternoon at his.

I remember the Sunday afternoon we were playing catch between the church and the next-door parsonage. As we threw the ball back and forth, I noticed a rarity for my small hometown… the mom-and-pop grocery store across the street was open for business. On a Sunday afternoon! I didn’t know such things happened! That was pretty unusual, to say the least, and it piqued my interest. I had some change burning a hole in my pocket. I wondered if they had baseball cards. I couldn’t imagine anything I’d rather spend my money on than baseball cards, so I encouraged my friend to cross the street with me.

I still remember how the store smelled, like all small establishments of that nature in that day… like the Five-and-Dime, a combination of popcorn, chewing gum, and plastic. The store’s entry was an old-fashioned screen door that banged behind you when you went in. As we did so, my sense told me this was forbidden territory; not because of the store itself but because it was Sunday! Sure enough, they had some baseball cards, so we commenced to picking out those packs that would surely contain our favorite star players. Maybe there would even be a Stan Musial in there.

What I discovered was that in that neighborhood nothing got by the pastor. He knew what happened, saw the whole thing. He never said anything to me, but his son, my friend Guy, caught all kinds of grief over it because he went into the store with me. You didn’t do things like that back then; at least, not on the sabbath. It was somewhere in the church code, if not in the Ten Commandments. You didn’t go into stores on Sunday. You kept the sabbath holy… I guess by playing catch on church property, but not going into a store!

I still don’t make it a habit to go shopping on Sunday, but if necessary, well… Interestingly enough, I thought of that youthful encounter last year when, on my way home from church on a Sunday afternoon, Janet called to tell me our friend Ken Ellis had died in Tallahassee, Florida. You know where I was when she told me this sad news? I was at the self-checkout counter at Kroger, picking up the milk she asked me to retrieve on my way home. I guess there are some things I haven’t kept so well since my youth.

Somewhere, along the way, this man has come to suspect that keeping the rules since his youth, while important, is not enough. He is smart enough and shrewd enough to figure out that there has to be more to the life of faith than just towing the line and doing what is required. He lacks something, and he isn’t sure what it is. But, he thinks he has found the One who can help him discover what he is looking for.

Watch this man as he lurks around the edges of the crowd that follows Jesus and listens to him. Observe how he takes in every word, measures them to see where they might intersect with where he finds himself in life. See how he searches in his mind and heart for the answer to the question he is seeking.

The way Mark frames this story, it appears that Jesus is transitioning from one point to another when this man seems to appear out of nowhere. But I wonder. I wonder if he hadn’t been hanging around for awhile, taking it all in, taking a measure of the man to whom he has been listening.

Just prior to this encounter, Jesus has been giving attention to the children. “Let the little children come to me,” he says, probably to his disciples who are trying to keep the little ones at bay. “Do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Amen I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And, we are told, Jesus took them in his arms, laid his hands on them and blessed them. Surely, this man has witnessed all this, and while doing so somehow has come to believe that Jesus can bless him too, can give him what he lacks. The question is, what does he lack?

He knows there’s something missing in his life. If there is anyone who can help him figure out what it is, it is the Man from Nazareth. So he finally gets up the courage to approach Jesus and ask him the question that is burning a hole in his heart. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

So Jesus tells him immediately. “Believe on me, the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved. Follow that commitment with baptism, and don’t go into a retail store on Sunday, even for baseball cards.” No, that’s not what Jesus says to him, is it? He rattles off several of the commandments that are found in the Hebrew scripture code, and the man responds by saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know those. I’ve kept them since I was knee high to a grasshopper.” And then Jesus hits him where he is most vulnerable. In order to make that final step from simple church attendance, as well as keeping the rules, to entrance into the kingdom of heaven, the man must sell all he has and give it to the poor.

Wait a minute… does that mean, if we’re not wealthy like this man, we’re off the hook? Why would Jesus require him to do something like that? Why does Jesus make such a difficult, not to mention unreasonable, demand on this guy? What in the world is going on here? After all, he’s a seeker. Not many of those around anymore. We need all the help we can get. Baptize this fellow, get him on the church roll, and get on with it! Don’t make it impossible for him to join us. We need him to fill an empty spot in the pew, not to mention his tithe!

Do you remember the children, the ones Jesus was blessing just before the rich man showed up? Jesus says that in order to inherit the kingdom, one must become like a child. I don’t know many children who have money jangling in their pockets, do you? Oh, there are plenty of children who are born into privilege, but they don’t carry it around in their pocketbooks; they just hold out their hands and mommy or daddy gives it to them.

Besides that, we gave up child-like ways a long time ago. Those things we learned “since our youth” are behind us now. We’re wiser in the ways of the world, think we know just about all that is needed to know. We don’t exactly have our world by the tail, perhaps, but there’s little left for us to learn. And, since our youth, we have the experience of baptism to remember and the rules to keep. What more can we do to inherit eternal life?

Maybe, like this man, we need to give up our possessions. But could it be that, in our case, our possessions are not monetary? They are our experiences… with church, with faith, as we believe it to be. Could it be that what we need to divest ourselves of are the assumptions we have made along the way, the subtle idea that we have come to know all the answers and don’t have to grow and stretch and live on the edge of faith b/c we’ve now made our way to the center of God’s will? Maybe, what we need to give away – or perhaps even throw away – is the idea that when it comes to faith and Jesus and church and how we ought to respond to all this, we’ve got it made already. We can coast the rest of the way in.

If you and I had not observed “all these things” since our youth, and were hearing this story from Mark’s gospel for the very first time, our response to what Jesus tells him would no doubt be, “Huh? You’ve got to be kidding!” There’s nothing in the commandments about that! Oh, but I would encourage you to think again. Remember this…?  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might, and with all your strength.”

It’s hard to do that when something else stands in the way, even that which we’ve observed since our youth.

Lord, give us the insight, and the courage that accompanies it, to rid ourselves of that which stands in the way of fully committing ourselves to you. Whatever that may be, help us to walk beside you with empty pockets. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.